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Summer school for researchers
Over the past 12 years, Boston College has devoted more than $2.6 million to support some 2,000 undergraduate research fellowships, in fields ranging from English to economics to physics. Founded as a $100,000 pilot project in 1994, the Undergraduate Faculty Research Fellows Program (UFRF) was designed “to emphasize BC’s identity as a teaching and research university,” says Robert Lay, dean of enrollment management. Faculty members may apply for undergraduate research assistants each semester, and students, selected on the basis of grades and recommendations, may work up to 20 hours a week during the academic year and 40 hours a week in the summer, earning $8–10 per hour.
Students who “might otherwise have spent their summers bussing tables or bagging groceries can instead devote their time to academics,” says William Petri, associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Undergraduate research fellows gain exposure to the full range of work that goes into successful research, from the minutia of record keeping to hands-on investigation to heady moments of discovery. “I have taught at three other colleges with undergraduate research programs,” says Professor of Sociology Juliet Schor, “but BC’s is the only one designed to make sure undergraduates get involved in real collaborative work. This is not about Xeroxing—the guidelines are very specific. This work holds weight.” During the past summer, 105 students assisted 65 faculty members in 20 departments, divided among the four undergraduate schools—amounting to the largest number of undergraduate research fellows ever. A sampler of their experiences follows.
Chemistry major Richard Hughes ’07 has been working this summer on a 14-step chemical synthesis that, if accomplished, will construct a hemisphere-shaped molecule called an end-cap out of 60 carbon and 12 hydrogen atoms. The parallel sides of this “armchair” end-cap (named for its uniform jagged edge, which resembles a plush chair) might then be grown into an elongated tube capable of conducting electricity, a nanoscale replacement for the metals, such as copper and aluminum, used in today’s circuitry. Hughes is part of a research team that includes nine graduate students and four undergraduates, in the chemistry lab of Professor Lawrence Scott.
“There are three different [types of] nanotubes,” Hughes explains, “armchair, zigzag, and chiral [asymmetric].” But only armchair has been shown to conduct electricity. “The problem is, we can make all three”—out of graphite, which results in a jumble of the three nanotube types—”but we can’t separate them.” The goal of the research group, according to Scott, is to build armchair nanotubes from the ground up and in uniform size, shape, and directionality—properties necessary for applied use.
Hughes has been attempting to produce cheaply one of the project’s two starting materials, “a simple dichlorobenzaldehyde,” whose present cost, at $12 per gram, would likely deter practical applications down the road. He began with a molecule that costs only 1 cent per gram, and experimented with “different temperatures, different time lengths, different catalysts,” arriving eventually at a two-step process: First, he treated the molecule with bromine (a fuming, blood-red element), and then with a lithium-based compound and DMF, a solvent. But the mixture was left flush with bromine. Scott suggested combining the steps; it worked, and Hughes has been able to produce the dicholorobenzaldehyde at a cost of $2 per gram.
A New York native, Hughes began working in the lab almost two years ago, after taking a course with Scott and hearing him describe his research into the construction of three-dimensional carbon molecules. Previously, Hughes says, he had “switched over to the business school, because I didn’t think chemistry . . . was a good fit for me.” But the lab work “completely changed my perspective. I’m back full-time as a chemistry major taking graduate classes,” he says, and “I plan on going on to get my Ph.D.”
Sociology and English double major Maggie Ford ’07, of Illinois, spent her summer researching what Americans buy, what they discard, and how marketers persuade consumers to do both. As a research assistant to Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology and chair of the department, Ford gathered statistics on U.S. imports, seeking out sources ranging from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics to the World Institute for Strategic Economic Research at Holyoke Community College in western Massachusetts. She organized raw information on apparel, toys, furnishing, footwear, and consumer electronics into tables, charts, and lists—data that became the basis of Schor’s latest paper, “The Social Death of Stuff,” currently under review at the interdisciplinary Journal of Consumer Culture.
“There has been an enormous increase in acquisition of products in the last decade,” says Schor. “At the same time, there’s been a drop in prices,” which has further accelerated the cycle of purchase and discard in this country. “Our research explores the questions, ‘Does this reliance on cheap labor affect how the U.S. thinks about the rest of the world?’ and ‘What does it mean when the rest of the world is wearing U.S. discards?'”
Schor is now embarked on a new study dissecting the content of food advertisements aimed at children, an extension of her 2004 book Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Scribner). To collect data, Ford has been recording hours of television programs aired on children’s channels such as Nickelodeon, then cataloguing the ads in descriptive lists, charts, and graphs. According to Ford, a three-hour interval of children’s TV can yield more than 60 food advertisements. “They might tout the product’s ‘cool factor,’ edgy style, or ‘kid power,'” Ford says. “It’s less about taste than about how the food can supposedly change your status.”
Will Markis ’07, a biology major from New York, was one of three UFRF undergraduates working this summer in Professor Thomas Seyfried’s biology lab. Seyfried is exploring dietary therapies for epilepsy, neurodegenerative lipid storage diseases (for example, Tay-Sachs), and brain cancer. Markis, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biology or neuroscience, joined the lab two years ago as a dishwasher—Seyfried’s traditional ground-level job for research assistants—and has focused his efforts on brain cancer research as he has risen through the ranks.
During the past year, Markis worked with graduate student Weihua Zhou, Ph.D.’06, testing Seyfried’s hypothesis that brain cancer in mice can be managed through a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet. The research, which Zhou presented as an abstract at the American Association for Cancer Research’s 2006 annual meeting, shows that a diet therapy that lowers glucose and elevates blood levels of ketones (substances produced when the body breaks down stored fat for energy) can impede brain tumors in mice without damaging healthy cells. “Most brain cells can burn ketones for energy, but tumor cells cannot,” Seyfried says. “If we reduce sugar intake, we basically starve tumor cells to death without harming the rest of the healthy ones.”
Markis has learned to implant tumors in mice and has been maintaining two different tumor lines for the lab, in order to perpetuate the supply for experiments; for Zhou’s study, he was responsible for measuring the body weight of the mice and for feeding them daily—including weekends—and, on occasion, measuring the size of their tumors. This summer, under Seyfried’s supervision, he undertook a project examining the effects of a ketogenic diet on tumor bearing mice placed in a low-oxygen environment. Past research has shown that a low-oxygen (hypoxic) environment reduces the size of tumors in rats, Markis explains, and that elevated ketones can protect normal cells from hypoxic damage. “Our goal,” he says of the study, which is still at an early stage, “is to combine the two therapies—and possibly other methods—and target the tumor’s metabolic deficiencies while protecting the normal cells.”
From June to August, Whitney Herge ’07, a psychology and English double major from western New York, was an undergraduate research fellow in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s emotion research lab, part of a three-person team of undergraduates carrying out a study of the relationship between language and emotional perception, with third-year graduate student Kristen Lindquist ’04. The aim of their investigation, according to Barrett, was a clearer understanding of “what part of emotion is given to us by evolution and genetics, and what is learned or constructed on top of that.”
Herge, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology, worked 35 hours a week out of a small office in McGuinn Hall, scheduling and setting up experiments, collecting and organizing data, and administering hour-long tests to subjects seated before a computer screen that flashed emotion words like “disgust,” or “anger.” The words would appear either three or 30 times in a row; after each battery, participants were shown two photographs of human faces and asked whether the emotions displayed were the same or different.
“Basically, we create an effect called ‘semantic satiation,'” Herge says, explaining that repeating a word many times temporarily renders its meaning less accessible.
As a consequence, says Lindquist, who has been pursuing this line of research since she herself was an undergraduate research fellow in Barrett’s lab, participants who saw an emotion word 30 times were slower to interpret facial expressions and were less accurate in doing so. The new data, Lindquist says, provides more evidence for Barrett’s assertion that emotions are to some extent culturally relative, dependent on language, and not hardwired.
“Running these experiments and getting a feel for all the steps, rules, and protocols of how to interact with participants has given me a confidence I never would have had to set up an experiment on my own,” says Herge, who is planning to investigate the eating behaviors of college students for her senior thesis this fall. Though she entered BC as a pre-med student, “My work [in the psychology lab] showed me career possibilities I hadn’t thought of,” she says. “I’ve found something I really enjoy.”
Associate theater professor Scott Cummings often finds his undergraduate research fellows in his introductory theater course, “Dramatic Structure and Theatrical Process,” in which most of the students are freshmen. “I tend to snap up the people who can mix the intellectual and the academic with the creative and the practical,” Cummings says.
Theater and English double major Sarah Lunnie ’08, of Connecticut, a student in the Arts & Sciences Honors Program, joined Cummings in June for her second summer as his UFRF assistant. She began working with Cummings after her freshman year, helping with his forthcoming book, Remaking American Theater: Charles Mee, Anne Bogart, and the SITI Company (Cambridge). In addition to proofreading, she researched citations and notes, created the bulk of the manuscript’s index, and assisted with publicity efforts.
The work “has given me windows into the worlds of scholarly research and the publishing industry,” says Lunnie, whose career interests include creative writing, teaching, and theatrical directing. “It’s been helpful to me even in terms of thinking about a senior thesis. . . . I’ve seen ideas turn into concrete projects,” she says. “I know the process has rewards you can’t see at the start.”