FEATURE — Summer 2008


Left: Erin Beck, engineering physics major (Engineering); Mentor: Michael Swartwout, assistant professor of mechanical engineering

Right: Rashied Amini, physics major, aerospace engineering minor (Engineering); Mentors: James Buckley, professor of physics; Henric Krawczynski, associate professor of physics; Michael Swartwout

Impacting the World–Before graduation

Undergraduates conduct research with leading faculty and create new knowledge that has a lasting impact not only on their own lives but on society as well.

By Judy H. Watts

“Undergraduate research is all about getting a terrific education,” says Jim McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean, College of Arts & Sciences. “Our students are coming of age in a learning community, and out of their experience here we want them to be curious, committed to learning, excited, and motivated—and also to gain the skills to discover and create new knowledge.”

Curious, committed, excited, and motivated definitely describe undergraduate researchers at the University. Consider the following few examples: One student explores a method for improving hearing among people with inner-ear implants, another assesses the effects of video games on learning, while a third characterizes cerebral signaling mechanisms that help protect the brain’s network of micro-vessels following stroke. Others choose international topics, such as investigating agricultural sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa or traveling to Azerbaijan and the Republic of Georgia to develop a new way to understand meaningfully unfamiliar cultures.

Undergraduate projects like these, published in WUURD or Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest (ur.wustl.edu/digest), illustrate the scope and substance of our young students’ contributions to new knowledge and suggest a collective vigor.

“I don’t think it’s important that all of our students continue in a research career—but I want all of them to become self-directed learners,” McLeod says. “That way they will always be confident that they can learn anything. They’ll know where to start. Research is a way of thinking, of working, and of encountering challenge.”

The following seven undergraduates, like at least 500 of their classmates, are doing hands-on work that matters greatly to them and to their faculty mentors—and that serves their fellow human beings.

I try to do all the things I want to do most.” • RASHIED AMINI, ’08

First, bear in mind that Rashied Amini plays “a lot of soccer,” is a serious photographer, and gives sermons for the Muslim Students Association. He also helped found Washington University Model United Nations. Then consider his academic calendar. Amini has several demanding research projects under way, one dating from his sophomore year. He is co-author of a paper based on gamma-ray burst (GRB) afterglow data analysis, following time spent at the Cherenkov telescope system in Arizona (part of the international collaboration VERITAS—Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System). He is lead author on an article in review based on his idea for evaluating potential configurations of VERITAS’ four telescopes. He worked on structures and communications for the Washington University Nanosatellite Project, which won second place in a NASA–Air Force-sponsored competition. Drawing on his research knowledge about gamma-rays, small satellites, and team findings, he is working on his idea for a GRB mission that he hopes will “improve what NASA is currently doing.” Of his undergraduate research, Amini says with palpable satisfaction: “Boy, it’s taken up a lot of my life!”

Next fall, Amini plans to attend the University of Texas at Austin to do graduate work in aerospace engineering. “I have to say that none of this could have been possible at all without my advisors,” he says. “I care for them deeply, and I’m thankful they’ve been so supportive.”

I follow the great opportunity.” • ERIN BECK, ’08

“I’ve always liked space,” says Erin Beck, who focused on theater in high school. “And I thought I would be cheating myself in college if I didn’t explore the heavily intellectual, all-enabling fields of science and engineering in some way.”

She soon found the University’s student-led and -designed Nanosat Program. “I thought: ‘These people are doing great things. I want to work here.’” (So-called University Nanosatellites are spacecraft that weigh 30 to 50 kilograms, or 60 to 100 pounds. A growing small-satellite industry produces them in quantities. Because nanosats are comparatively inexpensive to build, launches can be frequent, which boosts the technology and science.)

Beck became mission planner—which even necessitates checking the entire project design to preclude equipment problems. A year later, she became project manager for the engineering team of 60 students who produced a scalable, mission-capable craft that flies, photographs, returns, and re-docks—and has received industry offers to launch.

Thanks to her research projects, Beck says, she has worked with universities, corporations, and the European Space Agency; made trips to Paris and Greece; has entrée to graduate school; and has standing job offers from industry. “It’s a very empowering feeling.”

Rachel Gartner, psychology and women & gender studies majors (Arts & Sciences); Mentor: Barbara Baumgartner, associate director, Women & Gender Studies Program

Kenya is never going to go away for me.” • RACHEL GARTNER, ’08

Rachel Gartner’s research aims to help people understand and respect themselves and one another, so that they develop their fullest, best potential for themselves and their society. To this effect, in the course of three stays in Kenya, Gartner has worked hard to help establish the first secondary boarding school for girls in Muhuru Bay, a rural fishing village on the shore of Lake Victoria. Her use of a comprehensive sexual education, health, and empowerment program—developed by students at Duke University with input from Gartner and an advisor—for the school was recognized with the 2007 Andrea Biggs Undergraduate Research Award. (Andrea Biggs, 1960–1981, was an independent spirit who advocated tirelessly for women’s rights. The prize is for the promotion of undergraduate research that focuses on issues relating to gender in the hopes of further nurturing that same spirit in others.) When completed, the Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research (WISER) will nurture the education and leadership essential to eventually closing Kenya’s gender gap. This development will be a boon to the struggling country’s future.

Last summer, Gartner concentrated on Camp WISER, an educational program focusing on health, leadership, and gender, and for which she also developed pre- and post-test curriculum analysis, taught computer classes, and much more. Camp WISER eventually will serve students during intercession.

Gartner’s honors thesis uses young adult literature to help parents better communicate with their teenage daughters. In the fall, she plans to attend the George Warren Brown School of Social Work to work on a Master of Social Work degree. And, determined to earn a Ph.D. one day and work with women’s issues, Gartner adds: “I have every intention of getting back to Kenya. It has affected me in a way that I didn’t know could happen.”

My grant let me work in the way I do as an artist—to go out on my own and truly experience what I was doing.” • SYLVIA HARDY, ’07

Anthropology has always subtly influenced Sylvia Hardy’s art, which explores how people relate to nature and objects. But a Hoopes Undergraduate Research Award in summer 2007 allowed her to focus on anthropology and use photography in a supporting role. Her subject: Bison bison (incorrectly called buffalo), of which more than 320,000 exist. Her laboratory: five bison farms in Missouri, Massachusetts, and Maine, and a “beefalo” farm in Rhode Island. By summer’s end, she completed a study of the bison’s biological and historical evolution into confined environments and the extent of its domestication.

The ranchers are “very proud of raising bison and absolutely love showing them off as wild animals,” Hardy explains. They symbolize the frontier spirit: wildness, strength, and freedom. Yet one rancher calls his nearest herd “extended family,” while another drives a four-wheeler out every day to pat the animals—which, Hardy says, “are only on a trajectory toward domestication, and still very dangerous.” Her accompanying photographs capture the bison both as mythical, spiritual concept and as ranch animal. (See Sylviahardy.com.)

Now in New York City, Hardy is working on photographs depicting other dreams of what America is. She will eventually earn an M.F.A., will stay in touch with anthropologists, and may collaborate on projects in the humanities.

Lucy Liu, biochemistry and philosophy-neuroscience-psychology majors (Arts & Sciences); Mentors: Jason Woods, senior research scientist in physics; Richard A. Pierce, research associate professor of medicine

I no longer accept anything as being ‘just the way it is.’” • LUCY LIU, ’10

All my life I’ve been told, ‘We know this for sure.’ But in the experimental environment, we learn to question, generate, and test ideas,” says pre-med student Lucy Liu. She discovered the mind-opening world of research in a pre-freshman basic research program. Then in her freshman year, she found a clinical position through the Undergraduate Research Office. She works with Jason Woods in his physics lab and with Richard Pierce at the School of Medicine under a multi-department grant from the National Institutes of Health to study chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. One of Liu’s projects involves a technique called helium-3 magnetic resonance imaging, in which magnetized gas is pumped into diseased human lungs removed before transplant surgery. The procedure allows precise imaging that other techniques do not. “We can detect the helium-3 molecules’ apparent diffusion rate; a high rate indicates a severely damaged lung with a lot of large alveolar spaces and gaps,” says Liu. Ultimately, the technique, which would be noninvasive and highly accurate, may lead to early disease diagnosis and treatment.

Liu also studies elastic fibers and quantifies RNA in tissue samples for comparisons with the researchers’ other findings. “I definitely intend to stay throughout my undergraduate years. I want to put more work into it. There’s a lot of potential!”

Edgar Walker, biomedical engineering and computer science majors (Engineering); Mentors: Ralph Quatrano, Spencer T. Olin Professor; Stuart F. McDaniel (right), postdoctoral research scholar

Since I have two majors and do so much research, I always make sure to get plenty of sleep.” • EDGAR WALKER, ’10

Pre-med student Edgar Walker’s interest in the convergence of disciplines started at the age of 8. He explains that he was ‘into’ concepts like mechanics and electricity before his third-grade teacher showed the class an issue of Scientific American, when he became “very interested in the similarities between the human body structure and the engineering principles I was learning.”

Walker’s interdisciplinary learning has accelerated to the point where today the sophomore—whose goal is to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. program and become a neurosurgeon—is responsible for all bioinformatics in plant geneticist Ralph Quatrano’s lab. And Walker is the first undergraduate hired there. His work involves high-order computer analysis and writing computer programs that address far-ranging research challenges. His main project is helping identify the controversial phenomenon of lateral gene transfer among unrelated species.

“I try to work out all the genetic analysis myself. I’ve read at least 10 books and many papers about it,” says the indefatigable student. “It’s very fun!”

Walker is equally enthusiastic about his lab experiences. “The people around me are experts, really like their work, and answer anything I ask. At the same time, they ask me questions that make me think more about the topic. It’s a good feeling!”

Reynolds Whalen, drama and African and African American studies majors (Arts & Sciences); Mentor: Henry I. Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature

This program offers an alternative to destructive behavior—it has been transformative.” • REYNOLDS WHALEN, ’08

Although no lab model exists for student research in the humanities, enterprising mentors and students continually devise outstanding projects. Consider Reynolds Whalen, who with the steady encouragement of Henry Schvey, past Performing Arts Department chair, has integrated his strong interest in drama and in African and African American studies—and in the process moved toward his life’s work.

After spending a semester studying in Kenya followed by independent study, Whalen wanted to return and research drama, music, and dance as a form of education, community development, and social change. So with a 2007 Hoopes summer-long grant, he returned to document a growing grass-roots performing arts organization, Haba na Haba, in Mathare, Kenya’s second-largest slum. “Participants go into communities and play drums, and then dancers perform,” Whalen says. “Within 20 minutes, 800 to 1,000 people gather.” Then the group presents a play about community issues: HIV, drug abuse, rape, child abuse, and child labor. The audience learns, remembers, and identifies with the struggle.

The program now embraces 7,000 young participants from the slums and reaches 100,000 people a year in rough urban areas where people are perpetually jobless and idle. “Using theater performance to address important social issues in East Africa, which is where my interests lie, is imperative to educating the people and developing alternatives.”

Judy H. Watts is a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.

Undergraduate Research Office Helps Make it Happen

“They just go miles and miles,” says Henry Biggs, director of the Undergraduate Research Office and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “Students bring all their inquisitiveness and youthful exuberance to projects—and there’s almost no limit to what they can do!”

Biggs; Joy Kiefer, assistant dean; and Kristin Sobotka, special programs coordinator, are the go-to people for faculty seeking research assistants and students pursuing positions to match their interests. Students’ first priority, however, is to do well academically, Biggs says, and the caveat applies especially to freshmen, who are still building capacity at new intellectual and social levels. Nonetheless, he strongly encourages first-year students to get involved, provided they balance research with their course work.

“If students start early, they typically become acclimated and accomplish significant research their sophomore year and beyond,” Biggs says. “Many publish professional articles that commend them for graduate school or a job they wish to pursue after graduation.”

The Undergraduate Research Office is a clearinghouse for opportunities throughout the University. Undergraduates typically receive academic credit for research rendered during the school year. In the summer, grants pay for their time and expenses. The generous Kathryn Hoopes Undergraduate Research Awards, for example, provide between $3,000 and $5,000 to each of approximately 50 students in the summer. (The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation, among other sponsors, also support undergraduate research experiences.) Summer research grants allow students to focus fully and progress quickly. And in 2007, some 90 students filled a summer undergraduate research dorm on the Danforth Campus. Biggs says faculty members confirm his assessment: “Students have a sense of ownership in what they’re doing and are thoroughly engaged. They really do first-rate research!”

The research experience is invaluable. According to Biggs, because students receive a tremendous amount of individual attention, they develop self-confidence.

“I remember that Mike Frachetti (assistant professor of anthropology) had a student who, frankly, was performing indifferently,” Biggs says. “Mike showed him a few things in his lab, and the student became very interested and began to do some research. Finally, Mike told me, ‘I think he has really found himself through this research.’ And sure enough, all of a sudden, the young man’s grades skyrocketed. He put together sensational research, presented it at the Undergraduate Research Symposium, and has gone on to graduate school.”

For more information: ur.wustl.edu/index.php.