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CARA (Colby Academic Research Assistants)

Program Spotlights

What makes Waterville great?

While working with Adrian Blevins of the English Department and Creative Writing
program as a CARA student, Amanda Schmidt ’20 learned that it’s people and their untold
stories that make communities great.  Alan Caron’s grandfather, for example, came to Waterville from Quebec in a horse-drawn carriage. And after learning about grief at a young age from the deaths of her great-grandmother and grandmother, Susan Roy found her calling at the Hospice Volunteers of the Waterville Area (HVWA). And Uri Lessing has the energy to inspire generations of fifth graders, work as the president of the board of the Maine Film Center, and be in almost every play the Waterville Opera house puts on.

Amanda interviewed nine people in just one short year and created a website and a short documentary film to celebrate our fine downtown community. She says that her favorite part of the process was just how much she learned. She came into it with little knowledge of interviewing, writing profiles, storytelling on film, and Waterville itself, but left with developed film-making skills and a deeper appreciation and understanding of Waterville.

Find the website and watch the film:


Important Medical Research: The Maine Concussion Management Initiative

A team of students and faculty led by College Medical Director Paul Berkner is conducting research projects on the diagnosis and epidemiology of sports-related concussions. The Maine Concussion Management Initiative is ongoing and offers direct involvement in clinical research and the possibility of submitting work for publication.

Students work with Colby departments and local high schools to collect data and learn innovative approaches to testing balance for both concussed athletes and healthy individuals. Presidential Scholars Erin Kempkes ‘20 and Mike Zheng ‘20 are part of the team, and they have enjoyed learning about concussions.  One of their tasks is to go through medical records to be sure the data base is accurate regarding student-athlete’s concussion status.  In addition, they tested a new device designed to give a quick assessment of whether a player has sustained a concussion or not.   This year Robert Shue ’22 joined the team, and he focused on reasons for sex differences in concussions:  Females show more severe symptoms and take longer to recover than males. His work explored the level of sex hormones, at the time of concussion, to see if this factor might explain the difference. Over the years, student researchers have appreciated the fact that they are full members of the team.  According to alum Carl Vitzthum, ’16, “Freshmen are given important roles in the project rather than just being told to listen.”

For more information about the Maine Concussion Management Institute see:


A Global Perspective on Elite Schools

When he elected to work with Professor Adam Howard in the Education Department on a project on elite schools, little did Hoa Nguyen ‘20 realize that he would be a published author by the end of his first year in college.  Hoa and Adam, as the students refer to Professor Howard, wrote a chapter on belongingness for an edited book that was published in summer 2017. This chapter focused on fieldwork conducted at a boarding school in Jordan (yes, the country located in the Middle East), and it is part of a larger project comparing elite high schools in Australia, Chile, Denmark, Ghana, Jordan, and Taiwan.

Hoa has contributed to this project in several ways:  He has transcribed and coded interviews, written summaries of the interviews, analyzed data, conducted literature searches, and helped write up the results.  Other Presidential Scholars have worked on this project:  this year Abby Recko ’22 transcribed interviews from students and alumni of a school in Australia, and Addy Seeman ‘21 and Kayla Freeman ‘19 used their Opportunity Grant to travel with Adam to China in January 2019 to conduct fieldwork at several schools.

From the chemistry lab to Italy

Professor Dasan Thamattoor from the Chemistry Department and his research assistants are exploring the properties of carbenes, which are highly reactive and useful intermediates in organic chemistry. Students in the Thamattoor laboratory employ a wide range of techniques and cutting-edge instruments to generate novel carbenes and develop new applications for known carbene-mediated reactions. In June 2017, their work was featured at the International Symposium on Reactive Intermediates and Unusual Molecules (ISRIUM) in Sorrento, Italy.  The symposium attendees included some of the most prominent researchers around the world, who gave nearly fifty talks on topics ranging from material science to biochemistry, with a focus on the role of organic chemistry in those fields. All four students in the Thamattoor lab attended the symposium and presented posters on their research, including Tarini Hardikar ’17 and Thu Le ’19. The students from Colby were the only undergraduates at the symposium. This experience was funded by the Presidential Scholars Opportunity Grant, Colby Special Projects Fund, and the National Science Foundation.

“Attending ISRIUM 2017 in Sorrento, Italy was an amazing experience”, Tarini said. “I got to attend talks from some of the most renowned chemists in the world, interact with scientists working on remarkable and exciting projects, and also present a poster before this audience.” Likewise, Thu was amazed by the international exchange of ideas and collaboration that this symposium made possible. “During the poster session”, she said, “I talked to a researcher from Germany who was highly experienced in carbene research and expressed an interest in collaborating with our laboratory.”

Valuing and Understanding Graffiti

Annie Muller ’22 joined Véronique Plesch’s quest to understand graffiti.  Plesch, a professor of art history has been studying the fascinating but ignored practice of writing on frescoes. She invited Annie to help with a book-length project featuring a small northern Italian chapel that contains more than 150 graffiti scratched on its 15th-century frescoes that record four centuries of important events in the life of the village.

Annie also had the opportunity to apply her understanding of graffiti to her own project.  She focused on why graffiti is made on the Appalachian Trail. She asserts that thru-hiking the Appalachian trail is a modern pilgrimage, and thus the graffiti on the trail must be understood from the perspective of those who make it; the subculture of thru-hikers with the common goal of rediscovery, reconnection, and reaching Katahdin, the northern terminal of the trail. By comparing contemporary, early modern, and medieval graffiti to the inscriptions found on the Appalachian trail, four key motivations for graffiti on the A.T. can be found; the desire for an alter-ego, boredom, commemorating pilgrimage, and joining community. 

Annie presented her work at the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium (CLAS) in May 2019.  

Traveling to Nepal to Study Buddhism and LBGTI Intersections

During the last month of an abroad program in India studying Buddhism in fall 2016, Christopher Scrammell ’18 conducted an independent research project on the intersection between Buddhism and LGBTI matters in Nepal.  This project took him to Kathmandu, Nepal where he met with NGO workers, Tibetan Rinpoches (reincarnated highly-realized Buddhist practitioners), Fulbright researchers from all over the globe, and LGBTI-identifying Tibetan and Nepalese individuals.   Early on in the project, Christopher found disconnects between the lived experience of LGBTI people and the tenants of Buddhism, particularly in the way that the religion is portrayed in popular culture as being supportive of LGBTI matters.

Once in Nepal, Christopher faced a number of challenges.  Despite the fact that he had a whole month to devote to the project, it was difficult to get significant and meaningful interviews and data due to the language barrier, new location, lack of contacts and general inexperience.  At the same time, Christopher said, “this experience gave me confidence in my capacity, as it required me to step up and be professional, sensitive, organized, adventurous, courageous, and my own boss.”  As a result, he is now able to think about the world as much smaller place than before.   Moreover, when reflecting on this experience in conversation with his former life—videogames in New England for 20 years and then a jump into the deep end studying an esoteric but poignant topic across the globe—he realized that it “intensely developed my commitments to making the world a better place while not letting concerns of feasibility hold me back from trying.”  Support for this experience came from a $3,000 Opportunity Grant.


CLAS is the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium that takes place at the end of the spring semester.  In 2019, 13 Presidential Scholars presented some aspect of their CARA experience with the campus community in a ‘project blitz’ – a 5 minute presentation with one slide and no text. The following students participated:

Dora Wang ’22 and Louisa Baum ‘21 – From Sea to Asphalt – Uncovering Milan’s Buried Waters (Italian)

Dan Hiller ’22 – Municipal Governance and Spending on Local Public Services in the Early Twentieth Century U.S. (Economics)

Beck French ’22 and James McCarthy ’21 – Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus): Assessing  body size, diet, and abundance in Maine (Biology)

Robert Shue ’22 – Concussions and Correlations to Hormonal State (Sports Medicine)

Emma Donigan ’22 and Ju-young Park ’22 – Diggin’ Rats (Psychology)

Grace Lee ’22 – Analyzing the works of Edwidge Danticat (German)

Abby Recko ’22 – Reflections of Alumni on their Elite High School Experiences (Education)

Yuling Wang ’22 and Erica Chung ’22 – Science Center Trip and Teatime with “Omma”:  Children’s Cognitive Development (Psychology)

Ian Ellmer ’22 – Laser Cooling:  A “Hot” Topic in Physics (Physics)

Kevin Park ’22 – Friend or Foe? How Immigration Affects Welfare Generosity (Sociology)

Ben Abramson ’22 and Emma Henderson ’22 – GIS and the Appalachian Trail