Summer research projects span campus and the globe
July 11, 2013 By Mariel Smith
Stephenson ’15 traveled to the French and English coasts to
collect sea squirts as part of Dr. Marie Nydam's speciation studies.
Hillary Hannabass ’14 (left) working on excavations in Ventanillas, Peru.
Daniel Wicker ’16 and Dr. Leonard Demoranville at work in the lab.
While one might assume sea squirts, Andean ruins and illicit drugs have absolutely nothing in common, at Centre College they share a common thread: they are all subjects of research projects that Centre faculty and students are exploring this summer.
Assistant Professor of Biology Marie Nydam and her research team are studying sea squirts, tiny marine invertebrates that live on the coasts of northern France and southern England. This particular location is important because more than one species of sea squirt coexists in the same geographic area.
"We are interested in these locations because we can study what happens when related species are in the same place," says Nydam. "Do they breed with each other to form hybrid species or not? Studying these processes can provide invaluable information about how species form."
Nydam and her three researchers, Grant Nation ’16, Sarak Bialik ’15 and Emily Stephenson ’15, traveled to Europe in May to collect sea squirts for their projects.
"My long term goal is to monitor this hybrid zone every two years for the foreseeable future," she says. "Such long-term monitoring of hybrid zones is valuable for the study of speciation."
"My favorite aspect of this research is asking a question and then discovering the answer," Nydam says. "I am really excited because my students are just starting to generate their first bits of data."
Bialik is one of Nydam's research students. She has been extracting genomic DNA using enzymes and other chemicals in order to prepare it for analysis.
"I am really enjoying the lab work I am doing," she says. "There's a sense of accomplishment that fills me every day after work because I get to input data afterwards. I can look at all the data I've logged and see my own progress, which is very satisfying."
Bialik's involvement with this research is a valuable step toward her career goals.
"This research will give me the lab experience I'll need for future research opportunities," she says. "The techniques I've learned can apply to other organisms and projects in a multitude of ways. I'm so happy that I've had this opportunity and look forward to continuing with it for the rest of the summer."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Robyn Cutright is working in Peru with Hillary Hannabass ’14 and Mary Friel ’14.
The team is excavating an archaeological site called Ventanillas that dates from approximately 1000 A.D. The focus this summer is on an upper-class neighborhood inhabited by elite families.
"We're trying to understand how the private ceremonies and other activities within these elite households related to more public rituals that took place in the large plazas and on the three pyramids at the site," Cutright says. "Because Ventanillas is located at a juncture between coastal and highland cultures, it's interesting to see the mixture of coastal and highland traditions."
For Cutright, the highlight of her research is getting up close and personal with ancient cultures.
"The most interesting thing about my research is finding the small details of people's lives," she says, "whether it's bones of the guinea pigs and llamas they ate, pits of avocados and other leftovers from daily meals or needles and spindle whorls they used to spin and sew cloth."
Hannabass and Friel are uncovering artifacts from two-meter by two-meter grids. After digging up artifacts, they screen, label and draw what they have found.
"Our job is to turn the three-dimensional objects we find into two-dimensional data [drawings, measurements and photos] that we can legally take out of the country and study later," says Hannabass.
For Hannabass, this research is the culmination of a long-term interest in archaeology.
"I've been interested in doing this excavation ever since I heard about the last trip Dr. Cutright took students on," she says. "I took her archaeology methods class and traveled with her to Peru for CentreTerm 2012. On that trip I first took an interest in ancient and modern Peru."
Hannabass recognizes that this research is a unique opportunity.
"As an individual seeking archaeology as a career, this research is giving me invaluable hands-on experience," she says. "It's also helping me direct my vision of my future career and decide what direction I want to take. It's a learning experience that few have the opportunity to engage in."
Mary Friel shares Hannabass' love for fieldwork.
"My favorite part of the research is the actual excavating," says Friel. "It's really exciting to find something, no matter how small, after digging in the dirt for so long, since you're one of the first people to see that artifact in a very long time."
Here in Danville, Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Leonard Demoranville is hard at work with Daniel Wicker ’16 and Alex Combs ’16 on the world of illicit drugs and their detection.
Explosives are commonly detected using ion mobility spectrometry (IMS), and much research has been conducted to develop standard methods and test materials for the IMS procedure. However, similar development for illicit drugs is just beginning. This is where Demoranville's research comes in.
His team is studying how well illicit drugs transfer from one surface to another, or the "transfer efficiency" of various drugs. They want to explore how reproducible the transfer is, the best methods to achieve the transfer and any major problems that come about during transfer.
Specifically, the team is testing methamphetamine and pseudoephedrine (a precursor to making methamphetamine).
"My hope is that this research will help in clandestine meth lab remediation," says Demoranville. "A group out of West Virginia University recently published a paper on using IMS for this purpose, and our research could help make sure that the IMS technique is correctly used in the field."
Demoranville explains that this kind of research is invaluable to his students.
"Exposing our students to the research process is an important part of what I hope to achieve this summer," he explains. "Although we are only a couple weeks in, Alex and Daniel have already experienced the frustration of experiments not working as planned and instruments that aren't cooperative. They have also experienced the joy of producing useful data and figuring out how to work through the problems. They both seem to have caught the research bug."
Combs says that this research has forced her to step out of her comfort zone in the best possible way.
"My favorite part of the research is being able to work in a professional laboratory setting," she says. "I learn new things every day, but I also get to apply things I've learned in the classroom. It's a different type of challenge than simply answering questions on a test."
Wicker values the chance to work closely with other students and faculty.
"My favorite parts are the relationships I've built with Dr. Demoranville and my lab partner Alex," he says. "I also like thinking about the implications our research may have on a larger scale.
"I still don't know if I realize how lucky I am to have the opportunity to conduct research as a first-year student," he adds. "It's been a great experience. Dr. Demoranville is a great role model for conducting research efficiently and successfully; it's been great to learn as much from him as I possibly can."
Centre College, founded in 1819, is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Danville, Ky. Centre hosted its second Vice Presidential Debate on 10.11.12, and remains the smallest college in the smallest town ever to host a general election debate. For more, click here.