Rafts of Research

 

A chance for students to leave the lab and strut their stuff

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by Fred Field
 

Student researchers careen over rapids on the Kennebec River, taking a break during the Colby Undergraduate Research Retreat in The Forks, Maine.
Student researchers careen over rapids on the Kennebec River, taking a break during the Colby Undergraduate Research Retreat in The Forks, Maine.

Lining the walls of the downstairs meeting room at Crab Apple Whitewater one recent morning hung, as expected, action posters of life-jacketed paddlers vaulting through Kennebec River rapids.

And upstairs? “Determination of the Mechanism of Cytotoxicity of Epichlorohydrin.” “Synthesis of Organic-Soluble Oxacalix[4]arenas and their Applications as Molecular Tweezers.” And dozens of other displays of Colby students’ summer research.

Of course.

The occasion was the first Colby Undergraduate Summer Research Retreat, an interdisciplinary event that gave some 60 Colby students and faculty—with keynote speaker David Bodine ’76, a noted research scientist at the National Institutes of Health—a chance to get out of the lab to present and discuss their work.

“It’s a way to celebrate research across all disciplines,” said Kevin Rice ’96, assistant professor of chemistry and organizer of the event.

The celebration included a day running the Kennebec with rafting guides from Crab Apple (co-owned by Rob Peabody ’96). But Rice said the research was first and foremost in students’ minds. “It wasn’t just, ‘Hey, we get to go play,’” he said. “It was, ‘Our posters—how should we do this?’”

With students and faculty on hand from eight departments, from biology to economics, presenters had to be ready for questions from different perspectives. And some who had presented to faculty had a new experience presenting to other students for the first time. “I thought it was nerve-racking in front of your peers,” said Megan Watts ’08, a biology major/chemistry minor  who was just weeks away from beginning medical school at the University of Vermont.

Like all of the researchers, Watts seemed to carry off her presentation, “Cell Cycle Effects on the Cytotoxicity of DNA Cross-linking Agents,” with aplomb. The idea, said Rice and other faculty members on hand, is to give students experience that will carry over into their professional lives. “The more you present your research, the more polished it becomes,” Rice said.

Bodine, who regularly taps Colby as a source for both interns and scientists to work in his genetics and molecular biology lab at NIH, said he was impressed by the body of the students’ research, their oral skills—and their enthusiasm.

“If they can sustain that through graduate school and into their postdoc teaching, that’s a real asset,” he said. “It can’t help but energize you to see how enthusiastic they are.”

Bodine was moved to write a note to the group after the sessions.

Jennifer Corriveau ’10, with a lab pet on her shoulder, studies data collected in her study of the effect of choline on rats’ cognitive ability
Jennifer Corriveau ’10, with a lab pet on her shoulder, studies data collected in her study of the effect of choline on rats’ cognitive ability

“After having 15 Colby alums in the lab and watching them outperform students trained at other schools like Stanford, MIT, Duke and Yale, I am no longer surprised that Colby students are getting the opportunity to do important research,” he wrote. “However, I continue to be impressed with the selection of important projects to work on, the focus on a specific question and the application of state-of-the-art instrumentation and techniques to solve them.”
And the research is important—and real. Topics at the symposium ranged from examination of the molecular action of cancer-causing agents to human-robot interaction, from a study of the effectiveness of an actual violence prevention program for preschoolers to the economic effect of Waterville-area hospitals.

Julie Millard, Dorros Professor of Chemistry and mentor to several researchers working in her lab, said long-term projects are passed on from graduating students to underclassmen so the work can continue. “It’s really a team,” Millard said. “I may be the captain of the team, but everybody has a big role and their own strengths.”

Those strengths—from perseverance in the lab to presentation skills later—carry over after Colby, students and faculty said. Watts, who is eyeing pediatric oncology as she heads off to medical school, said her research taught her critical thinking skills—and exposed her to the rewards of hard work.

Add communication skills, and the ingredients are there for success in science or other fields.

“I can rattle off twenty-five students who have gone on for their Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D., who have gone on to do wonderful things,” said Professor Frank Fekete, then chair of the Biology Department. “This [symposium] will only enhance that.”

 
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