Rats, Reefs and Religion: Faculty and Students Enjoy Summer Research

Attending a Brown Bag Lunch at Washington and Lee’s Howe Hall in the summer is akin to earning a mini college degree. During these sessions, held weekly in June and July, Washington and Lee undergraduates share highlights from their summer research projects. The quick-moving presentations zip between disciplines, offering an up-to-the-minute glimpse into experiments and studies taking place across campus.

About 100 undergraduates participated in summer research projects at W&L, which does not hold classes in the summer. According to the provost’s office, 61 of these students received funding through the Robert E. Lee Summer Scholars Program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010. Students were also funded by the the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, the Levy Endowment for Neuroscience, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant and several other sources. Professors and students across the disciplines have found this summer work to be educationally and professionally rewarding.
Sarah Blythe, an HHMI post-doctoral fellow and biology professor, interviewed students for three summer positions. “I told them about the research, and that we’d be picking wet rats out of a pool. They all seemed to agree that was a perfectly fine thing to do,” said Blythe, who is examining how a high-fat diet affects learning and memory, with a focus on gender differences. Student assistance was essential, said Blythe, because the experiments were both time and labor intensive.

For the project, Rick Sykes ’13, David Phillips ’13 and Nicole Gunawansa ’14 monitored how rats performed in a water maze and in a novel-object memory test. They then harvested the animal’s brains.

“It was actually really great because it was very hands-on,” said Gunawansa. “That’s what I was looking for, because I’m intending pre-med, and so I really wanted the opportunity to see if I was willing to handle this stuff. It was a little difficult at first, because I never really had any experience cutting into a live thing before, but it was a very interesting and exciting process.”

Anthropology instructor Sean Devlin hired students for two summer projects. Erika Vaughn ’12 traced the origins of Native American artifacts that were donated to the University many years ago. Victoria Cervantes ’14, Erin Schwartz ’12 and Nicole Rose ’11 cataloged tenant-farmer artifacts uncovered in Charlottesville. They loaded this data into the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS), a database holding information about slave-related artifacts discovered at sites across the South and the Caribbean.

The DAACS cataloging wasn’t as thrilling as digging up artifacts during Spring Term, Cervantes admitted, but she was glad to have had the experience. “It’s a good way to introduce you to the field and find out if it’s really what you want to do afterwards, because you can’t always find that out in the classroom, or even on a spring dig, because that shows you the fun, Indiana Jones-y side of it. Then you get [to the lab] and it’s the other part of it,” she said.

For Devlin, a member of W&L’s Class of 2004, a rewarding aspect of summer research has been watching students learn. “Nicole is looking through a book right now about sewing implements and thimbles and needles,” he said. “It’s about those objects, but it’s also about what do these objects mean for the people using them. You can really see the students move from the small, specific stuff back to the larger, broader issues of interpreting the past.”

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