Undergraduates gather to share results of their funded summer research projects
By Kerri Farrell
Despite what we may assume, Drosophila melanogaster – or fruit fly, in laymen’s terms – has a lot in common with humans. As Jasenia Hartman ’14 explains to a cluster of faculty, staff and students, this tiny insect is a model organism for certain biological processes. “Even though Drosophila doesn’t develop full-blown type 2 diabetes, it has insulin-like genes that are found in humans, too,” she says. “So if we understand how the genes work in fruit flies, we can use that knowledge for humans.”
In what is fast becoming a proud Brandeis tradition, Jasenia and 78 other student presenters recently gathered in Shapiro Science Center’s Soffer Atrium to share the results of their summer research at the third annual Summer Scifest undergraduate poster session. Funded by both federal and private sources, the students’ cutting-edge studies span a range of fields: biology, physics, biochemistry, neuroscience, chemistry, computer science, mathematics and psychology.
Eve Marder ’69, head of the Division of Science and the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience, points to the increasing sophistication of undergraduate work. “This is very high-quality, professional-caliber research,” she says. “If you look around this room, the posters cover an incredible range of scientific topics.” Susan Birren, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, agrees. “All of this research is original; the students did not piggy-back on earlier studies when designing their projects,” she says.
Unlike their peers at other institutions, Brandeis students have the opportunity to utilize world-class research facilities on campus and partner with senior faculty on important work. “You get to do things here that other labs don’t get to do,” says Tove Freeman ’16, who collaborated with Jillian Hoenig ’15 to measure the relationship between body mass index and stress. “A lot of my friends at other universities don’t get to do research; my friends thought it was so cool that I made a poster and I got to present it today. That’s a really awesome aspect of Brandeis.”
Ian Graf ’14, a psych major and an EMT with the Brandeis Emergency Medical Corps, says the world of research is “all new” for him. His experience testing the correlation between sleep and stress with partner Margaret Much-Hichos ’15 has reaffirmed his interest in becoming a doctor. “I am a relatively objective person, and I think it’s very cool to be able to use data to draw conclusions,” he says. “This study will help people draw better correlations between diseases that are caused by stress and the lifestyles that lead to those diseases.”
Few universities of Brandeis’ size offer this type of experience in advanced research to its undergraduates. Indeed, astrophysics professor John F.C. Wardle points out that in his field Brandeis plays with the “big boys” – Cambridge neighbors Harvard and MIT. Wardle has worked closely with several graduate students and his current undergraduate researcher, Jose Vargas ’15, on phenomena that take place on a truly grand scale: black holes and quasars, millions of times the size of the sun, in our galaxy and others 10-12 billion light years away.
Vargas’ poster featured colorful images of the quasars: nebulous orange clouds with spikes of radiowaves shooting out of their empty black centers. Wardle explained that Vargas has mastered complex software and equipment to “reaffirm” these images, which were captured with earlier technology. When Vargas completes his task, scientists will be able to compare very old and very young quasars, revealing more about how they evolve.
Ariana Boltax ’14, a biology and chemistry major who hopes to become a veterinarian, channeled her interest in undergraduate education into a plan for an interdisciplinary lab series. With biology professor Melissa Kosinski-Collins and chemistry professor Jason Pontrello, she sought to improve the way students learn by involving them in experiments from beginning to end.
In devising a way for undergrads to observe the progress of their labs over a longer period, she created a learning experience that reinforces course content as well as the connections between scientific fields. “Students are saying, ‘I’m not studying as close to the exams,’ or ‘I can study more in advance because I’m making these connections,’ ” she says. One student told her that the presentation skills she learned in the series proved helpful in her medical internship.
Many of the Brandeis undergraduate researchers will go on to complete senior theses and publish in peer-reviewed journals. Based upon the diversity and sophistication of the posters dotting the Shapiro Center atrium, it is clear that the future of scientific research at Brandeis is very bright indeed.