Scoping Out Careers in Science
Expanded summer research program has more than 30 students working with faculty members this summer
A lot more goes into scientific research than meets the eye.
That’s what sophomore Amy Miller is learning this summer working in the lab of Romi Burks, an associate professor of biology whose research focuses on apple snails.
So far this summer, Miller has learned how to do everything from writing protocols for animal research to building housing for the snails.
“This is a great opportunity to learn what research really involves,” said Miller, who is an animal behavior major. “This is a good way to see if I want to do this as a career.”
Working alongside Miller in a lab on the first floor of the Fondren-Jones Science Building is Alex Hill, a recent graduate who also is trying to decide if she wants to pursue a career in research or attend pharmacy school. The two are growing apple snail hatchlings to see if predators such as fish consume hatchlings the same way they consume snail eggs and are contributing to other ongoing projects in the apple snail lab. DNA samples obtained from larger snails they dissected will be studied to determine whether the snails are carrying parasites.
Miller and Hill are among the 31 students or recent graduates who are on campus this summer participating in a new student-faculty collaborative research program called SCOPE.
While students have always conducted research with faculty members over the summer, the new program has faculty and students from many new disciplines participating, including math, animal behavior and kinesiology.
“We have very diverse participation from a variety of research areas this year,” said Emily Niemeyer, a chemistry professor who helped organize the program.
The SCOPE program is part of the new HHMI-Southwestern Inquiry Initiative, which is funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Students participating in the eight-week program are paid for their work and also receive free on-campus housing. A new feature of the SCOPE program, Niemeyer said, is that all students participating in the program are living together in the same residential area. This fosters the same kind of interaction that first-year students experience in Living-Learning Communities.
“The students all help one another − even if they are doing different projects,” Niemeyer said. “The idea is to make them feel like part of a scientific community.”
That sense of community is being fostered by additional events, such as a barbecue dinner at the beginning of the summer and lunches together every Friday in the Bishops Lounge. Later in the summer, several alumni will be coming back to campus to talk about careers in science-related fields.
Animal behavior majors Nicoletta Memos and Bekah Vela said they both applied for the program after taking Research Methods with Fay Guarraci, an associate professor of psychology who also co-chairs Southwestern’s Animal Behavior Program.
“I was very excited to get the opportunity to stay here for the summer doing research,” said Memos, who is from New York. “I really like to be in the lab.”
Memos and Vela are finishing a project they started in their Research Methods class that is looking at how birth control affects sexual behavior in female rats. They also will be looking at how cocaine and other drugs affect sexual behavior in rats. All their research projects have potential applications to humans.
“It is always fun to work with Dr. Guarraci,” Vela said. “Who isn’t interested in sex and drugs?”
Memos said her summer research experience will come in handy when she serves as a teaching assistant for Guarraci’s Research Methods class next year.
Physics majors Steven Resnik and Ross Warkentin are working on a project with instructor Rebecca Edwards that involves studying how storm surges affect wind inland when hurricanes make landfall. The team is working with wind data collected from three hurricanes in 2008 – Dolly, Ike and Sandy.
“Flooded areas are smoother, aerodynamically, so as land is covered by water the wind experiences less friction and can therefore maintain higher speeds further inland, which causes more damage to the built environment,” Edwards explained.
Neither Resnik or Warkentin had any background in meteorology, but they said they are enjoying their project.
“I am interested in anything physics-related,” Resnick said. “It is interesting to pick up something new or different.”
Resnik and Warkentin have had to learn three new computer programs to conduct their research.
Biology major Bianca Perez and Matthew Nickell, a biochemistry major who is minoring in computer science, are spending the summer working with Alison Marr, assistant professor of mathematics. The three are working on a collection of related unsolved mathematics problems and Nickell is putting his computer science skills to use writing code to help solve the problems.
Marr said she hopes she will be able to write a paper based on the research from the summer, as well as some research she has done on her own and research that was conducted with former Southwestern student Sara Stern Ochel.
Across campus in the Robertson Center, kinesiology majors Kyle Allen and Emily Ammon are working with professors Scott McLean and Jimmy Smith on a study of the biomechanical response and the metabolic response in runners who wear shoes with minimal heel support. Ammon said she plans to continue the research in the fall for her capstone project.
“This is giving me a huge head start on my capstone project,” she said.
Smith said very few schools offer undergraduates the opportunity to do kinesiology research in the summer.
“If they do offer research opportunities, the students mostly serve as technicians,” Smith said. “Our students are actually coming up with the ideas, writing the proposals, collecting the data and writing the papers.”