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CARA (Colby Academic Research Assistants)

2017-18 CARA Projects

Art: Graffiti on Renaissance Paintings

Sponsor: Véronique Plesch, Professor of Art (

Why would an art historian study graffiti that deface Renaissance paintings? My current research deals with a fascinating and ignored practice: that of writing on frescoes. During my sabbatical in 2017-18, I will be focusing on this research and write a book that features a small northern Italian chapel that contains more than 150 graffiti scratched on its 15th-century frescoes and that record four centuries of important events in the life of the village. The CARA research assistant will track and organize materials (both visual and scholarly) and help with historical contextual research and with editorial matters.

Astronomy: Galaxy Formation and Evolution

Sponsor: Elizabeth McGrath, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy (

Using images from the Hubble Space Telescope, I look for clues as to how the most massive galaxies in the Universe form and evolve.  Because galaxies take billions of years to change their structure, we cannot study galaxy evolution in real time, but rather, we take snapshots of different galaxies that exist at different times in the Universe.  The farther away the galaxy, the further back in time we are looking, so a large statistical sample of galaxies covering a range of distances is crucial to this work.  Students will learn key UNIX/ Linux-based software and basic programming skills to analyze the structure of these galaxies in order to inform our understanding of the processes of galaxy formation and evolution. This project is available only to aspiring astrophysics concentrators within the physics major.

Astronomy: Studying Black Holes with the Hubble Space Telescope

Sponsor: Dale Kocevski, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy (

My research focuses on studying how supermassive black holes regulate the growth and evolution of galaxies across cosmic time.  Supermassive black holes live at the center of all massive galaxies and it is thought that the immense energy they output can adversely affect a galaxy’s ability to form new stars.  To test this theory, my students and I make use of NASA imaging from the Hubble Space Telescope to 1) identify galaxies with growing black holes at their centers, and 2) study the structure and star formation activity of these galaxies to determine what impact these active black holes have on their surrounding environment.  Students researchers are involved in all stages of this work and will have the opportunity to publish their findings.  This project is available only to aspiring physics and astronomy majors.

Biology: Environmental and Genetic Control of Wing Development in an Insect

Sponsor: David Angelini, Assistant Professor of Biology (

Our lab examines how the environment and genetic systems interact during development to produce anatomical forms. Our main project focuses on the development of wings in soapberry bugs. These insects that can grow to adulthood with long functional wings or with short wings, incapable of flight. All juveniles of one species are capable of growing to either adult morph, a choice determined by their access to food and dependent on insulin signaling. Different populations of this species, associated with different host plants, differ in their response to food. A closely related species only produces long-wing bugs in the wild, but can be short-winged in the lab. To better understand the development and evolution of these environmental effects, we use a range of methods, from insect breeding experiments, to molecular developmental biology and functional genomics. The ideal student joining this project should have a broad interest in biology, a willingness to work with insects, as well as a desire to learn more about molecular biology. A successful CARA scholar will have the opportunity to continue the project as a research assistant or in an independent study in subsequent years.

Biology: The Neurobiology of Prey Tracking in the Praying Mantis

Sponsor: Joshua Martin, Assistant Professor of Biology (

A predator tracking moving prey must solve the same problems as an outfielder catching a fly ball: your head is turned to track the object, but your body has to run to where you will intersect the target. An animal’s nervous system has to solve this complex problem to eat and survive or to get the out and win.   In this project, we will investigate how an insect predator, the praying mantis, solves this problem. We’ll take high-speed, 3-D video of mantises hunting their prey, and use motion-capture software to understand how they coordinate their body parts to capture their target. We’ll test hypotheses about the strategies the animals use to catch prey (Can they predict where the prey can be intercepted?), and how the brain directs the body (Does the brain have to know where the body is now, to tell it where to go?) by combining this data with brain recordings and neural network modeling.

Biology: Neurodegenerative Disease: Inducing Dementia in Fruit Flies

Sponsor: Tariq Ahmad, Assistant Professor of Biology (

Neurodegenerative diseases are one of the biggest challenges facing the biomedical community. Neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia (FTD) are associated with progressive decline in the cognitive functions due to age-dependent loss of central nervous system neurons. Early diagnosis and intervention are particularly challenging. The development of early interventions has been inhibited by the lack of genetic markers.  One genetic marker associated with hereditary form of FTD is a mutation in a gene involved in the endosomal-lysosomal pathway that delivers cell surface proteins for degradation. However, it remains unclear how these mutant proteins lead to neurodegeneration.  My lab utilizes fruit fly Drosophila, a well-established model system for studying human neurodegenerative diseases to understand such problems. In Drosophila we have the ability to ask what happens when we ectopically express human mutant protein associated with the disease. Our goal is to determine the effects of expressing human mutant protein associated with FTD in the Drosophila brain on circadian rhythm – the ability of an organism to maintain a daily rhythm of physiological processes.  We use a combination of histological, biochemical, and behavioral techniques in our projects.  Student researchers are involved in all stages of the project, including experiment design, data acquisition and analysis, and manuscript preparation. Students are encouraged to suggest and design their own projects.

Chemistry: Design of Molecular Architecture

Sponsor: Jeff Katz, Professor of Chemistry (

My students and I conduct research in synthetic organic chemistry—we like to build molecules that no one has ever made before. Our targets are usually large ring compounds with unusual three-dimensional structures, and we try to construct them by “clever” use of known chemical processes. Once we have created our target molecules, we study their properties and investigate applications for their use such as molecular detection (sensing) and ion conduction for fuel cells. More information about my research, our group members, our publications, and funding is available here.  This project is available only to aspiring chemistry majors.

Chemistry: Anticancer Drugs and Their Effects on Interesting Enzymes

Sponsor: Kevin Rice, Associate Professor of Chemistry (

In my laboratory in the Chemistry Department, we are interested in how certain anticancer drugs result in tumor cell death.  In particular, we are asking whether these molecules affect particular enzymes that facilitate the biochemistry necessary for cells to persist and grow.  The lead compound in our study is a clinical candidate that is indicated for patients with leukemia or brain cancer.  Our work is in the realm of the “pre-clinical”, which means that we deal with cultured cancer cells and purified cellular components.  Potential projects range from cell biology to synthetic chemistry, with plenty of biochemistry in between.  It is our hope that this work will contribute to the clinical profile of these, and similar, chemotherapeutic drugs.

Cinema Studies: Once Upon a Time Outside the West…

Sponsor: Chelsea Wessels, Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies

While there is no shortage of scholarship dealing with the western genre in film, it has been limited by a reliance on America as the foundation for analysis. In fact, the western is perhaps most interesting when this foundational focus is removed, and the genre is examined in terms of its vitality in the context of global cinema. Westerns have found popularity in contexts as diverse as Germany, Australia, Algeria, Japan, and Britain, to name just a few examples. For this book project, I am seeking a student researcher with a keen interest in film, willing to locate, research, and view contemporary examples of the western genre in global film.

East Asian Studies: Anime Reference Book

Sponsor: Tamae Prindle, Oak Professor of East Asian Language and Literature (

Are you an anime enthusiast?  This project involves creating a mini-reference on the colors, sounds, and images of anime.  Specifically, the student assistant will read reference materials and compile a guide that can be used when analyzing anime pieces.  Knowledge of Japanese is not required.

Economics: Building a Dataset of Land Values and Rental Prices for 19th Century San Francisco

Sponsor: James Siodla, Assistant Professor of Economics (

This project aims to build a dataset of land values and housing rental prices for San Francisco in the late nineteenth century. As did most cities in the U.S. at this time, San Francisco faced immense growing pains as people migrated there in search of greater economic opportunity. As barometers of economic activity within a city, land values and rental prices can tell much about the growth and development of urban areas, and can be analyzed with variables such as crime patterns, infrastructure investments, and socio-demographic characteristics. Historical newspapers in San Francisco reported land sales and rental information and will serve as the primary data source for the project. The researcher will be responsible for locating land sale and rental information in digitized newspapers and building and organizing a dataset that will serve as the foundation for future research. Minor descriptive and graphical analysis may be conducted as well, although I do not assume any prior experience in these areas. There is also potential to expand the project to other Western cities, such as Seattle and Los Angeles.

Economics: Art Auctions and the Prices of Paintings by Female Artists

Sponsors: Samara Gunter and Timothy Hubbard, Assistant Professors of Economics (;

We seek a student interested in art or economics (ideally both!) to help with data collection and cleaning for a research project about artist gender and prices in art auctions. Qualified candidates should have strong quantitative and analytic skills, some programming experience, and attention to detail. The student’s duties will primarily involve collecting Sotheby’s and Christie’s art auction data by extracting price and information about other characteristics of sold paintings. Data will be obtained from auction house websites and resources on campus so the student will have the opportunity to connect with other faculty and staff in the Colby community. We will serve as joint sponsors of a CARA student interested in this project. The selected student can expect to gain an appreciation for how auctions are modeled by economists and how these theories are translated into empirical models that can be married to real-world data. Our research seeks to understand whether the works of female painters are consistently sold for less than comparable works by male painters. Auctions are a very attractive opportunity to conduct such an investigation because there is no negotiation (a defense often given for why the gender pay gap exists) on behalf of the artist. The rules of the auction are easy to understand, transparent, and do not favor a particular artist or group of artists.

Education: Global Citizenship with Elite Educational Contexts

Sponsor: Adam Howard, Professor of Education (

This research project is a multinational, multi-sited global ethnography exploring adolescents’ understandings of self, others, and the world around them with a particular focus on their understandings of what it means to be a global citizen. In this project, we are particularly interested in exploring how these adolescents’ educational experiences influence their self-understandings. The participants attend elite secondary schools in six different countries: Jordan, Denmark, Ghana, Brazil, Taiwan, and Australia. In this project, students and I are constructing case studies of the schools, and interviewing students, teachers, alumni, and administrators. We are also conducting site visits to learn more about the contexts in which the schools are located.

Education: Transforming Rural Educational Experience (TREE)

Sponsors: Lyn Mikel Brown and Mark Tappan, Professors of Education (;

The goal of TREE is to work with schools and communities in Washington County, Maine to develop a strengths –based, poverty-, trauma-, and equity-informed model that will fortify rural school environments and redress inequity and injustice vis-à-vis access to resources and opportunities for some of the country’s poorest schools and most vulnerable students. Washington County is located along the Canadian border in Downeast Maine, home to two of Maine’s five Native American communities, and recently identified as one of the poorest counties east of the Mississippi. TREE is a project of the Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott, Maine. It is inspired and informed by best practices in theory, research, and practice from around the country, and also deeply place-based, rooted in the history, culture, landscape, and natural and social ecologies of Washington County. A five-year pilot phase is currently underway, and we are seeking two research assistants to work with us on various aspects of the project, including designing evaluation protocols, conducting focus groups with students, parents, and teachers, analyzing interview data, conducting literature reviews, and presenting the results of our research. Some travel to Washington County over the course of the academic year is possible.

English: History and Literature of the Microscope

Sponsor: Aaron Hanlon, Assistant Professor of English (

Microscopes have been around in some form since the 1500’s, though they began to revolutionize both science and science writing during the 17th and 18th century European Enlightenment. As a literature scholar I’m fascinated by microscopes because of their impact not only on questions of what we can know about the natural world (and how), but also on how people wrote during the Enlightenment. If you’re interested in the connection between the microscope and Enlightenment literature, science writing, and epistemology (the study of knowledge and how we know what we know), my project on the microscope might interest you. I’m working on two books, one, on the history of the microscope, is pitched for a general audience and will be proposed for the Object Lessons Series through The Atlantic and Bloomsbury Press. The other, titled “Epistemological Rhetoric in England, 1600-1800,” is a scholarly book project on how science writing and novels, poems, and plays all contributed mutually to Enlightenment concepts of knowledge and data that we still use today. The CARA fellow working on this project will be involved in research (including archival research and exploration of original materials from 1600-1800), publicity, and some writing related to these book projects. My hope, as well, is to co-author a popular-press article with the CARA fellow on the importance of the history of the microscope and the literature of the Enlightenment for so many of the scientific and political challenges we face today.

English: War, Plague, and Famine

Sponsor: Megan Cook, Assistant Professor of English (

War, plague, and famine: death was on the minds of many people in fifteenth-century Europe. How did poets make sense of what must have, at times, seemed both overwhelming and unknowable? By writing, of course. Death is a prominent theme in late medieval literature, especially as a personified figure who often speaks to the living and, in the popular Dance of Death or danse macabre motif, compels individuals from all ranks of society to dance with him.  I am seeking a CARA student to work with me on a new edition of approximately ten Middle English poems on themes related to death, to be published in the TEAMS Middle English Text Series. This edition is designed specifically for classroom use, and the student working with me will primarily be responsible for researching and helping to write footnotes and explanatory glosses aimed at an undergraduate audience. She or he would also assist in preparing the medieval texts for publication by proofreading and collating transcriptions from fifteenth-century manuscripts. This would be a great opportunity for a student interested in the Middle Ages or in scholarly editing and publishing; no previous experience with Middle English is expected or required but reading knowledge in Latin, French, or another European language would be helpful.

English: Science Fiction, Literary and Political Culture in Colonial India

Sponsor: Mary Ellis Gibson, Arthur Jeremiah Roberts Professor of Literature (

My current work focuses on English language literary culture in colonial India, from the late eighteenth century to the beginnings of the modern nationalist movement.  I’m interested in globalization, in the ways literary texts and genres migrate from country to country and are reinvented as the go, and in the ways people imagine the world through processes of cross-cultural exchange. In 2016-17, I will be completing an edited collection of futurist fictions written both by Indians and British subjects in colonial India. These are amazing stories—ranging from a futurist construction of the Panama Canal, complete with a tsunami, to air-conditioned trains and steam balloons, to a feminist utopia where men keep house and women are scientists. We will work together on collating texts, and we will annotate, introduce, and find illustrations to complement these stories. In the process, you will become familiar with all stages of book production and editing.

Environmental Studies: Conservation in Maine

Sponsor: Philip Nyhus, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies (

My students have been involved in a variety of research projects related to land and water conservation in Maine. In recent years we have worked with the Maine Lakes Society on their innovative LakeSmart program and I am collaborating with a variety of state and regional organizations related to large landscape conservation. This year I am looking for additional students interested in helping with this research.  Current students are developing a database to support regional lake conservation.  I am exploring new research projects in Maine and New England focused on land conservation that would benefit from student research assistants.

Environmental Studies: Human-Wildlife Conflict and Wildlife Conservation

Sponsor: Philip Nyhus, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies (

My students have been involved in a variety of research projects related to wildlife conservation. In recent years we have mapped habitat and developed conservation plans for potential reintroduction of the critically endangered South China tiger (published with student co-authors in the journal Biological Conservation) and documented the extent of human deaths and injuries by large cats in captivity, among other projects. This year I am looking for additional students interested in continuing research related to human-wildlife conflict and conservation.  My research students have been collaborating on research examining patterns of human-wildlife conflict, a global review of compensation as a tool for human-wildlife conflict, and issues related to conflict with captive animals.  I am also beginning new research projects related to large mammal conservation in Asia and developing a new book series on biodiversity conservation that would benefit from student research assistance.

French and Cinema Studies: The Khmer Rouge Genocide in Film

Sponsor: Audrey Brunetaux, Associate Professor of French (

This new project explores the multifaceted filmic representations of the Khmer Rouge genocide that occurred in Cambodia in the 1970s to understand how international filmmakers and Cambodian survivors re-negotiate the memory of this human catastrophe. Through the reimag(in)ing of past traumatic events, these filmmakers attempt to restore Cambodia’s lost memory through unique film narratives and cinematography. Their innovative and artistic creations constitute a new visual archive that uncovers the depths of the genocide. In these films, Cambodian memorial sites and killing fields, victims’ and perpetrators’ voices, enigmatic soundscapes and natural/urban landscapes all converge to show the complexities of remembering past traumatic events. The cinematic image encourages us to reflect on the enormity of the genocide and its political, cultural and memorial ramifications in today’s Cambodia. Our point of departure will be the analysis of films by French-Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh. This project is in its early stages. I am seeking a CARA student who has a vivid interest in Global Cinema, Genocide Studies, and Human Rights. The student would conduct research on the Khmer Rouge genocide and on French-Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh (among others). The student would also help with film editing as this project might lead to the production of a short film.  Knowledge of French is desirable. Knowledge of the Khmer language and culture would be a plus but not required. Experience or familiarity with film editing software would be helpful. Non-English films will include English subtitles.

French Studies: Women Shaping French Poetic History, 1801-1900

Sponsor: Adrianna M. Paliyenko, Charles A. Dana Professor of French (

At the heart of the poetic production by nineteenth-century French women lies a rich, transdisciplinary nexus joining the discourses of aesthetics, class, gender, genius, the history of France and its colonies, philosophy, and science, among others. Much of this production, however, has not been republished since the nineteenth century. The online archive I have been developing thus seeks to make accessible to a broad readership the complete works of the poets at the core of my archival research and subject of my most recent book, Genius Envy: Women Shaping French Poetic History, 1801-1900 (Penn State UP, 2016). I seek a research assistant to work with me on completing the transfer of the original website to a new platform as well as developing the pages of the online archive devoted to mapping out each poet’s way of thinking across disciplines. Though reading knowledge of French and some experience with web design are highly desirable, I welcome applications from students interested in digital humanities and the impact of cross-cultural and interdisciplinary approaches to rediscovering the literary past in all its complexity and diversity.

Government: State Capacity and Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Sponsor: Laura Seay, Assistant Professor of Government (

As the Congolese state recovers from two decades of conflict, donors have poured billions of dollars into rebuilding state capacity, especially in the security sector. This project aims to determine whether donor-funded efforts to strengthen policing, intelligence, and military services have affected human rights in a positive or negative way in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The research assistant involved in this project will continue to build an in-progress dataset of attacks on Congolese journalists, civil society actors, and human rights activists that will be used to test whether stronger state capacity in the security arena leads to more or less repression of civilians. This project will be of particular interest to students interested in international affairs, human rights, and/or African studies. French language skills are helpful, but not a requirement for this position.

Psychology: Perceptual and Cognitive Development

Sponsor: Martha Arterberry, Professor of Psychology (

I am a developmental psychologist, and I study perception and cognition in children from infancy to five years of age. My current project looks at the intersection between perception, cognition and action. In other words, how well can children guide their actions using the knowledge they have of objects? Very young infants have quite a bit of knowledge about the world, but older children make mistakes in tasks that rely on this knowledge. The project involves testing two- to five-year-olds on various tasks involving some type of action (such as finding a hidden toy) or memory recall (e.g., after they hear a story, can they remember it?). Student researchers are involved in all stages of the project, including family recruitment, testing children, coding behavior, data entry, and analyses.

Psychology: Memory and Language Lab

Sponsor: Jennifer Coane, Associate Professor of Psychology (

How do we learn and remember the vast amount of information we need to function in the world? Every day, we are exposed to massive amounts of new and repeated information – in classes, on social media, in conversations with friends and family. Sometimes, we know we have learned something, but cannot retrieve it, and other times, we can accurately assess that we simply never learned something. In the Memory and Language Lab, we are conducting research on how we acquire, maintain, and remember this information, as well as how remembering and knowing something we experienced in the past differ. The student working on this project will have the opportunity to be involved in all stages of the research process, from the literature review to stimulus development and programming, through data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Dissemination of this knowledge at conferences and in papers is also a possible outcome. Prior knowledge of psychology and research experience are not required but would be advantageous.

Psychology: Reducing Mimicry of Alcohol Use

Sponsor: Allecia Reid, Assistant Professor of Psychology (

As a social psychologist, my research examines the influence of the social environment on health behaviors. My students and I are currently investigating the processes that drive the tendency to mimic others’ behaviors, which can lead to detrimental outcomes in the context of behaviors like alcohol or food consumption. We will be conducting experimental research in which we provide participants with the opportunity to mimic heavy alcohol use and testing psychological interventions that might reduce this natural tendency. Student researchers will assist with designing, executing, and analyzing the results of the study.

Sociology: Sexual Orientation Discrimination in the Labor Market

Sponsor: Nicole Denier, Postdoctoral Fellow in Sociology (

Over the past few decades the visibility of the gay and lesbian population has increased considerably. At the same time, attitudes towards sexual minorities have become more favorable, accompanied by an expansion of civil rights for non-heterosexuals. In this context of heightened visibility, how do gay men and lesbian women fare in the labor market?  This project will engage the above question to better understand how sexual orientation shapes work life, including the type of jobs people do and how much they are paid. The CARA fellow may aid in conducting literature searches, analyzing survey data, and help with further data collection. Students interested in gender and sexuality, and/or labor market policy would be well suited to the project.

Sports Medicine: The Diagnosis and Epidemiology of Sports-Related Concussions

Sponsor: Paul Berkner, College Medical Director (

I am looking for a student interested in the diagnosis and epidemiology of sports-related concussions. We have two ongoing projects related to concussions that students can get involved in: The first involves reviewing and editing baseline and post-concussion demographics on high school students in Maine. This project will involve working with the Computer Science Department at Colby as well as interfacing with local high schools regarding data management and collection. The second project involves novel approaches to balance testing, both for healthy individuals and for concussed athletes. Both of these projects offer direct involvement in clinical research and possibly the opportunity to submit work for publication.