At the 13th Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium, April 25-27, students representing 29 departments or programs presented 127 posters and delivered 153 oral presentations. Students offered a broad range of topics from scientific research to analysis of contemporary film. Including associated presentations, performances, and exhibitions, more than 600 students participated in the symposium and related events.

Here’s a sampling of student research from English, geology, and environmental studies. A full schedule, with abstracts, is online.

Dress for Success

The population explosion in 19th-century London, Kristen Starkowski ’14 points out, threw the traditional social structure into a state of flux. Perhaps nobody knew this better than Charles Dickens, whose novels followed the lives of characters on the way up or down or treading water trying to stay in place.

Starkowski, an English major with a keen interest in Victorian literature, saw this in Great Expectations, and she used the novel to explore the ways Dickens used clothing as a flag of social mobility.

Working on an independent study project with Professor David Suchoff (English), Starkowski applied the theories of Georg Simmel and Homi Bhabha to the Dickens novel. Simmel, a sociological theorist, says one way to pass as a person of higher social standing is to mimic dominant clothing styles. Bhabha, a postcolonial theorist, says the mimic actually exposes his or her lower class identity because “there’s always some gap between the imitation and what the customary style is,” Starkowski explains.

Nouveau riche look out.

Starkowski charted every reference to clothing in the novel, and in a time of hatters and haberdashers, there are many. Her conclusion: Clothing that imitates middle-class style both exposes and masks class struggle in Victorian England. Because the “mimetic attire” appears unnatural on lower-class wearers (the social climber Pip “felt tangled up in his clothes,” Starkowski notes), it actually highlights their social immobility.

Clothes don’t always make the man—or woman.

And Dickens himself? He was clearly aware of clothing as a device to explore the social movement of the time. But, as Starkowski points out, he may have had another reason to describe characters’ garb at length. This, after all, was a serial novelist, paid by the word. Said Starkowski, “I’m not sure how much description he put in there just because he wanted to make money.”

BPA: From Cancer to ADHD

Much has been written about the industrial chemical Bisphenol A (known as BPA), which is used to make hard plastics and line aluminum cans, among other things. But most of the attention is paid to the apparent links between BPA, which mimics estrogen, and certain types of cancers. This semester, psychology majors Katherine Houser ’13 and Melissa Krause ’13 teamed up to explore another area of potential concern: behavior.

In a poster presentation, Krause and Houser will discuss their analysis of multiple studies linking BPA to behavioral changes, including aggression and anxiety. Most notable, the two said, was their realization that, among the studies they analyzed, the behavioral effects were different in male and female animals. In one study of prenatal exposure, females became more hyperactive while males became more anxious. Another showed feminized profiles, but only in males.

The team’s research did not end with this analysis, though. As part of the environmental studies course Environmental and Human Health, the pair also looked at state, national, and international policies with an eye toward solutions. “Here we’re seeing links to ADHD and maybe things that could lower the increasing prevalence we see of ADHD,” said Houser. “So it’s really interesting to think that there are ways that we could potentially be reversing behavioral changes that we’re seeing.”

This work is different from other research these students have conducted or analyzed, they said. “A lot times when you’re talking about really specific hormonal changes in the brain, everyone’s like ‘Who cares, that’s so—oh, yeah, that sounds interesting.’”

But this research? “This is really relevant to daily life and to everybody,” said Houser.

What’s Happening at Tectonic Plate Boundaries?

Nathan Katsiaficas ’12 tried field geology research in South Africa with Professor Robert Gastaldo and decided he wanted to try indoors geology, where insects are rarely a distraction. “I’m a computer geek,” he said.

So he jumped at the opportunity to spend last summer in a basement at Boston University developing computer models of how plumes from the Earth’s mantle interact with changes in the thickness of the crust at boundaries between two tectonic plates of different ages and how, in certain situations, the plume material
may generate melting at that boundary. That work turned into his senior geology honors project: “Geodynamic constraints on the flow of Samoan-plume mantle into the Northern Lau basin.”

His presentation begins with this line: “Just to review plate tectonics really fast… .”

Katsiaficas studied two underwater seamounts and presented evidence that they are likely being generated by the flow of the Samoan-plume mantle into the Lau basin. He tests variables in his computer model—things like temperature of the plume, the age of the younger of the two plates, and the distance between the plume
and the boundary separating the plates. Then he shows animated projections of how the plumes and plates might behave.

As a result of his work with Boston University Assistant Professor Paul Hall, a National Science Foundation research vessel investigating the area next year will spend two days mapping and dredging the seamounts he studied and bringing back samples. That’s a successful outcome and a validation of the value of the research.

“The data obtained from this cruise, and particularly from the investigation of the two seamounts Nate identified, will further our understanding of mantle plumes,” Hall wrote in an e-mail from BU. Mantle plumes are thought to account for about 10 percent of volcanism on the Earth’s surface, he said.

Katsiaficas, from Portland, Maine, presented research at annual meetings of the Geophysical Society of America (twice) and  American Geophysical Union as an undergraduate. He thanked the College for various funds that supported his research and travel, including the Colby Geology Alumni Endowment. Another measure of his success as an undergraduate scientist—he was trying to decide between two sweet offers from graduate geology programs at Syracuse and Vanderbilt.