Summer of Research
The University of Rochester—with its compact campus, flexible curriculum, and interdisciplinary focus—fosters unique opportunities for undergraduate research, especially during the summer. Our latest Newscenter series showcases a cross-section of summer research conducted by undergraduates at Rochester and beyond.
What’s true for many faculty members is also true for college students. There’s no better time than summer—away from coursework and distractions of the school year—to take a deep dive into research. The University is home to a robust summer research community that includes Rochester students as well as others from universities across the country.
I know where you’ve been this summer
Students from all over the country come to Rochester each summer for the unique research opportunities they find here. At the same time, Rochester students travel the world, conducting field research and working with partner universities. Here is a sampling of places our students went to this summer.
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Chemistry major Austin Bailey ’18 (T5) has been able to carry out specialized research to a rare degree for an undergraduate student. As a participant in the National Science Foundation–funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in summer 2015, he was introduced to the world of carbon nanotubes. He’s been studying them ever since.
Carbon nanotubes are extremely tiny sheets of carbon rolled into cylinders with diameters 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. Their unique chemical and physical properties—including their strength, flexibility, and ability to conduct heat and electricity—fascinate researchers.
This summer, under a grant from the US Department of Energy, Bailey is working with chemistry professor Todd Krauss to develop a polymer to attach other molecules to nanotubes. Their work could have significant applications for creating renewable energy sources.
Eunice Noel spends her days at Goergen Hall researching corneal cross-linking. She spends her evenings in Gilbert Hall, cooking dishes like teriyaki chicken and Cajun alfredo pasta—and making friends.
“I end up talking to anyone who walks into the kitchen,” the Miami native and University of Florida rising senior says. “It’s a great way to meet people.”
Noel is one of 61 undergraduate students from 14 universities conducting research as part of four summer programs run by the David T. Kearns Center. In their labs, Noel and other Kearns Center summer researchers work among one another as well as Rochester faculty and graduate students. In their dorm, they live among one another, forming tight friendships that will be vital as they move on to graduate school and professional careers.
Growing up as a young black man in the Bronx, Winston Scott ’19 says he didn’t think a lot about racism. But there was one instance he recalls that mystified him at the time it occurred and stayed with him long after. He was riding on a bus when a woman boarded, approached the empty seat next to him, hesitated, and chose another seat.
Now the anthropology and African and African-American studies double major wants to take a closer look at what happens when African-American children start to perceive racism directed toward them. How do the children react? And more specifically, why does racism play a part in motivating some students to go on to college, while it seems to deter others?While many scholars have explored the relationship between racial identities and education outcomes, Scott is contributing his own qualitative research to the overall body of work. Scott, who is eyeing an academic career in African American studies, says he’ll be able to apply what he’s learned this summer in his anthropology classes as well. “I feel like this will be very beneficial to my academic career.”
As an Eisenberg summer intern, chemical engineering major Tianhao Yu ’19 has spent the summer in the lab of chemistry professor Lewis Rothberg studying and testing materials for OLED—organic light-emitting diode—displays. OLED screen displays provide a crisper picture than most LCD (liquid crystal display) screens, and Yu’s research may help improve the screen displays of devices such as cell phones and televisions.
The proprietary OLED materials Yu is testing are developed by the Rochester–based company Molecular Glasses.
“Physical chemistry has a lot of industry applications,” says Yu. “It’s exciting to be able to work in a lab, especially as an undergrad, and know what ‘real’ chemists do, and also be on the cutting edge of these new technologies.”
Jake Altabef and Graham Palmer have been spending a lot of time at the University of Rochester this summer studying a recording that was first released nearly four decades before they were born.
They’ve been studying “So What,” the first track on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, which many critics consider the greatest jazz album of all time. First released on vinyl in 1959, it has subsequently been re-mastered in multiple formats, including on cassette in 1987 and on compact disc that same year and in 1997, 2009, and 2013.
How has the sound quality of “So What” changed over the course of all those re-masters? Is the song “brighter” in some formats than others? Is there less background “noise” on disc than on vinyl?
Each year, the Department of Physics and Astronomy offers a range of research opportunities for undergraduate students—from federally funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) to University-supported research projects. As a result, undergraduates come from Rochester and from all over the country to conduct research alongside University faculty and graduate students, contribute to our understanding of the world, and build their academic portfolios.
For the past 15 years, the University has offered students the Malawi Immersion Seminar—a three-week research experience in the remote village of Gowa, in which students carry out individual projects, living and working among the community members.
The program is the brainchild of Joe Lanning ’00, ’07 (MA). When Lanning was an undergraduate majoring in anthropology, his professors encouraged him to go abroad. He heeded that advice and, in his junior year, went to Kenya for a four-month experiential learning program that involved home-stays in urban and rural areas. That experience inspired him to join the Peace Corps following graduation, where he served two years in Malawi.
Madison Carter ’18 in front of the “Greetings from Rochester” mural at 197 Park Avenue in the city of Rochester. (University photo / J. Adam Fenster)
As part of the Take Five Scholars Program, Madison Carter ’18 is researching how public art—such as murals, sculptures, even performance art—influences social interactions in the city of Rochester. This summer, the English literature and environmental studies major is interning with Richard Margolis, a well-known area photographer who documents art, architecture, and landmarks, and then compiles them into searchable databases. Carter is contributing to the descriptions of each piece of public art, researching the stories associated with their creation, and contacting the artists themselves for their input. She is also identifying additional works of public art to include in the database.
Meghan Patrick’s goal is to help in the development of sustainable energy. That’s why the rising senior in mechanical engineering is excited to be in the lab of Douglas Kelley this summer, working on a project that “is right up my alley.”
Patrick, a Xerox Engineering Research Fellow, is helping the lab figure out where to place ultrasound probes in liquid metal batteries in the lab. The goal is to understand how these batteries could perform on a scale large enough to power entire cities or regions in conjunction with solar and wind power.
“You have to use all the resources available,” she says. “You talk to all the members of the team about their perspective on things. You do a lot of reading of scholarly articles. You might have to dig through a 20-page article to find one little paragraph that addresses the specific thing you’re thinking about. You have to look at different software packages, at different ways to solve a problem.”
Joy Nicholas ’19 got her first look at the research process this summer—and likes what she saw.
Nicholas, a McNair scholar, studied whether race and ethnicity is associated with suboptimal infant feeding practices. For example, are low-income, minority women more likely to disregard recommendations that they exclusively breastfeed their infants for the first six months, and instead start introducing solid foods or other liquids such as water or juices?
Thanks to her mentors—Ann Dozier, a professor and chair of public health sciences at the Medical Center, and Holly Widanka, a senior health project coordinator in the department—Nicholas got a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts look at what the research endeavor involves. She even practiced giving a poster presentation of research findings.
“Hearing about research and actually doing it is completely different. You learn so much by being involved in different aspects of it,” Nicholas says. “I really liked it. I can see myself doing this.”
Magdalena Granados ’19 hopes one day to do research that could help her grandmother—and 10 million other people worldwide—who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain.
This summer, her introduction to research as a McNair Scholar could help a different set of patients: Those with brain tumors that need to be removed with the utmost precision to prevent damage to surrounding tissue.
The rising junior is working in the lab of Brad Mahon, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and of neurosurgery. Mahon collaborates with Medical Center surgeons on “awake language mapping,” a remarkable procedure helps surgeons pinpoint in advance how aggressively they can remove a tumor without causing damage to regions of the brain that support language.
A mechanical engineering student visiting from the University of Maryland, Ricardo Cardoza stretched himself—and the shape-memory polymers he worked with—in Mitchell Anthamatten’s chemical engineering lab this summer.
Shape memory materials offer unique characteristics. When heated above a given transition temperature, for example, they can be molded into a different shape. Cardoza’s project involved adding a “chain extender” to the polymers—in effect, lengthening of the cross links between molecules—then determining the affect on the polymers’ shape-memory capabilities.
Imagine listening to a live jazz improvisation. Moved by what you hear, you decide to try to reproduce the solo on your piano at home. To do so, you would have had to record the piece. Then you would have to listen to it over and over again, and transcribe the notes yourself. It’s a painstaking process.
This summer, two undergraduate students—Arlen Fan ’18, an electrical and computer engineering major, and rising senior Andrew Smith, a computer science major and music minor at the University of Central Florida—have joined electrical and computer engineering professor Zhiyao Duan in developing a computer interface that could receive audio, extract data from it, and produce an accurate printed musical score.
Before enrolling in this summer’s Upward Bound program at the University, Ty-Asia Edwards’ knowledge of cell division was limited. But on Tuesday morning, six weeks after her first research lab and following extensive tests on fruit flies, she could explain in detail how a protein called Khc73 might be involved in determining the direction in which cells divide.
Edwards was one of 70 high school students from the Rochester City School District who took part in the annual Upward Bound academic summer showcase in Hutchison Hall.
Beth Olivares, dean for diversity initiatives and director of the Kearns Center, says she never stops being amazed at the transformation these students undergo over the summer. “The fact that a student in ninth grade can deliver a presentation in front of a large group of people or work in a college lab is just awesome,” she says.
Making robots smarter, more user friendly
Programming language can look foreign to someone who has never written code, but for a computer scientist, it's second nature. For robots, it has been the only way to communicate with their human counterparts, until recent advances in the field of human computer interaction.
For Steven Broida, a rising senior at the University of Rochester who is majoring in computer science, helping to further bridge that gap between people and robots is a goal of his summer research. Specifically, building a program that can not only understand human speech and act on simple commands, but learn its environment and become smarter as it works with people and learns their needs.