The exhilarating experience of doing hands-on research in junior high school made John Glendinning realize he wanted to be a scientist. Now the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Biology at the College, Glendinning wants to make similar epiphanies possible for his students. In 2013, he joined forces with a colleague, chemistry professor Christian Rojas, to do just that. The genesis of the Summer Research Institute (SRI) was a three- year grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation that will fund 15 students, known as Sherman Fairchild Scholars.
Rojas and Glendinning used the grant as the starting point, and worked with the five departments or programs that became part of the institute: biology, chemistry, environmental science, neuroscience and behavior, and physics and astronomy.With additional support from the provost’s office and the dean of studies, the professors launched SRI in 2014. The program placed 134 Barnard students in labs on campus and around the New York City area, offering them a cross-disciplinary program of research, collaboration, and hands-on learning.
Summer research has long been a part of the Barnard experience for many science students, but the SRI marks a leap forward in how the school approaches these projects. In past years, each department handled its research program separately. “We didn’t have a mechanism for students to come together across departmental lines,” Glendinning says.
This seemed like a missed opportunity. “More and more these days, science is being done in a collaborative mode,” Rojas says. “It’s not the stereotypical scientist working alone in a lab, but people working in teams. We wanted to make sure students were getting a chance to have those collaborative experiences.”
THE SOCIAL SIDE OF SCIENCE
To create a cohesive summer research experience, the SRI team developed a plan that ensured that students were engaged on both a scientific and a social level. The social spirit was set in motion through an introductory barbecue, and continued throughout the summer. Students were invited to lunchtime lectures where Barnard professors introduced their research, which involved everything from the neurogenetics of pigeons to the effects of arsenic in groundwater.
The students also had the opportunity to participate in workshops that taught them useful skills, such as how to organize and chart data on Excel spreadsheets and how to create a research poster for a presentation.The summer culminated with a poster session, where students presented the results of their research to their peers and professors.
Funding sources supported the students, allowing them to pursue full- time work on their projects, without having to take on other jobs to pay the bills. “To do research, you need a bright intellect, of course, but you also have to have a good pair of hands,” Glendinning says. “Summer research allows these students to get that hands-on practice they need to develop their skills. There’s no substitute for it.”
SUMMER RESEARCH LEADS TO A POST-BARNARD PLAN
The Barnard students who participated in the SRI made good use of the opportunity. Mora Grehl ’15, a psychology major, studied spatial learning and memory in infants and young children through the Barnard Cognitive Development Center. Her research included a project with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.The experience helped her develop a sense of what she wants to do after graduation.
“Before this summer, I had experience with the clinical side of developmental psychology, but not so much research,” Grehl says. “I’m thinking about pursuing a PhD, so I wanted to get a taste of both. The research was fascinating, but I also learned that I’m more suited for the clinical side of things—and I wouldn’t have known that unless I had this opportunity.”
BUILDING A SCIENCE COMMUNITY
For Claudia Mack ’15, a senior majoring in environmental science, the social aspect of the SRI played an important role. “Not only were the lectures really enriching, but it was exciting to feel that there was a real community of scientists on campus,” she says. Mack’s research, which examined carbon sequestration, was part of a much larger project that began in 2007 and involves collaboration with universities in Iceland and France.
Doing this kind of research was very different from working on traditional lab projects, Mack says, in that lab work tends to be self-contained. “This project was exciting because it put all the science I’d been studying into a real-world context that matters on a global scale,” Mack says. “I loved feeling like I was adding to this much bigger project.”
A PROJECT TO OWN
Anjali Agarwalla ’16, a biology major, worked with Glendinning to develop a model for researching the pharmaceutically induced taste distortion experienced by chemotherapy patients, which they tested on rats. “Following chemotherapy, some patients report severely altered taste perception, sometimes to the point where water is unpalatable,” Agarwalla explains. “We don’t know exactly what causes these altered perceptions, so my research
was the first step in understanding the mechanism.” Working full time over several weeks gave Agarwalla a strong sense of project ownership. “There’s considerably more responsibility, and the research is specifically yours,” she says.
THE FREEDOM TO TAKE CHANCES
Junior Camilla Buzard ’16 conducted her research on brown dwarf stars at the American Museum of Natural History. She compared the near-infrared spectra of a sample of brown dwarfs with those of a planet from a different solar system than ours. Buzard is a chemistry major, so this astronomy research was a fresh challenge. She appreciated the chance to try something new. “In lab classes, experiments have usually been worked through previously to ensure positive results,” Buzard says. “While there’s certainly value in that, it’s also great both to make your own decisions about what to do and to realize that not all experiments work out the way you want them to. That’s what research is all about.”
IMMERSED IN LEARNING
For her thesis, chemistry major Ashley Brown ’15 will continue her research on producing compounds that might affect the medicinal properties of pharmaceuticals. “Doing the summer research allowed me to immerse myself and fully understand the project and why it’s relevant,” Brown says. Collaborating with fellow students on their poster presentation was also a useful learning experience. “We had to figure out how to make our research appealing and informative to someone not necessarily in our field,” she says.
After witnessing the fruits of a summer’s worth of effort, Glendinning knew that the SRI’s first year was a rousing success. “The quality of the research really blew my socks off,” he says. “The students clearly understood their research so thoroughly, they answered questions so well—it was quite impressive.”
While one grant expires in two years, there are other sources of funding; Barnard faculty and administrators are exploring options for keeping the SRI going. “It was clearly important to find a way to get all the summer science research students at Barnard to come together and have a common experience and to share their research results,” Rojas says. “It exceeded everyone’s expectations, a•nd we want to see it continue to do so.”
—by R.A. Monroe
To learn more about the SRI, click here.