Senior Symposium Highlights Student Research

Posted: April 14, 2006

Hundreds of students, faculty, and parents gathered in Mount Holyoke's Science Center on Friday April 7, for the inaugural Senior Symposium, a showcase for student research projects. The symposium, which featured 85 student presentations, was coordinated by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts.

"The senior symposium was a truly splendid effort--one that benefited from collaboration and support from the administration, faculty, staff, and students," said Weissman Center director Lois Brown. "It testified deliberately and boldly to the power of a liberal arts education and to the creative and purposeful ways in which our students are preparing themselves to enrich and impact the worlds beyond our College gates. It was powerful to see the delight that we all took in the seniors who presented, the pride of faculty advisers, and the inspiration that other students, especially our first-year students, felt as they watched the seniors and imagined themselves sharing their research with an MHC audience in the years to come. The Weissman Center was delighted to contribute to this historic all-senior event, and as the center's director I look forward to seeing us all sustain in future senior symposia the flair, joy, and intellectual rigor that were at the heart of this event."

According to dean of faculty Donal O'Shea, the Senior Symposium has its roots in the chemistry department, which has for decades required all senior majors to present their work publicly. In 1976, students from the other science departments joined the presentations. Arts students began participating in 2004, and this year all the departments were encouraged to participate. "I am so proud of our seniors and the work that they do, and so glad for the opportunity to extend the success of the Science Symposium to a showcase for all of our seniors' independent work," said Lee Bowie, dean of the College. Tilly Weyl '06, an enthusiastic spectator, said, "everybody gets really excited about their peers' work. This is a good chance to find out what people have been doing since they disappeared into their carrels."

Kendade Hall buzzed with activity as people rushed between lecture halls and enjoyed a buffet lunch in the Marion Craig Potter '49 Atrium. Dance professor James Coleman, who attended several presentations during the day, expressed the spirit of the occasion: "At this event I'm struck by the many different worlds, languages, and jargons present at this liberal arts college. It's interesting trying to enter into each of them."

Even for the final presentations of the day, from 5:15 to 6:00 pm, there was standing room only as three biochemistry students, Elisabeth Cole, Katie Kraschel, and Natercia Rodrigues, discussed their research. Sean Decatur, Marilyn Dawson Sarles, M.D. Professor of Life Sciences and Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Science Complex, who advised these three students, said, "This event is what I look forward to the most in the year. You get to see Mount Holyoke students at their best, being able to skillfully and professionally present their work."

The students presented their research in 15-minute segments in lecture halls throughout the Science Center. Here are a few samples from the symposium:

Annie Brinkmann
According to Annie Brinkmann, who spent countless hours in the College's archives researching the life of Mary Emma Woolley, Mount Holyoke's president from 1901 to 1937, Woolley's career offers a lens to early American feminism, the conservatism of the 1920s, and the women's peace movement of the 1930s. In "Miss Woolley, Mount Holyoke, and Early American Feminism," Brinkmann explained that Woolley embraced a mission of developing strong, influential women leaders who would change the world because they were women. This approach, based on a sex-specific rather than equal rights rationale for women's rights, linked her to an earlier feminist tradition. Brinkmann observed that when the rapidly changing postwar world of the 1920s and 1930s cast Woolley's feminism in doubt, she turned her attention outside the College to peace activism. In 1932 she was the only woman on the American delegation to the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments in Geneva. Although the conference was a failure, she continued to speak of it optimistically and to argue that women could bring about world peace. Brinkmann concluded that Woolley's unchanging attitudes made her appear behind the times in her last years at Mount Holyoke. She was bitterly disappointed when the College named as her successor Roswell Ham, its first male president. She ended her presidency in 1937 and never returned to the College. History professor Joe Ellis, Professor of History on the Ford Foundation, is Brinkmann's adviser on this project.

Lily Davidoff and Brittany Bannish
Containing the spread of infectious diseases such as avian influenza and SARS was the theme of a presentation by Lily Davidoff and Brittany Bannish titled "Modeling Infectious Disease with a Spatial, Multi-Patch SEIR Model." Davidoff and Bannish have constructed a spatial, multi-patch SEIR (susceptible, exposed, infected, recovered) differential equations model for disease dynamics that incorporates the movement of individuals between distinct geographical locations. Numerical simulations demonstrated the impact of travel rates on the size and spread of an outbreak. Their work showed that quarantine via travel restriction is actually counterproductive under certain conditions, leading to an increase in the number of infections. Richard Jordan, visiting assistant professor of mathematics and statistics, is directing the students' project.

Lisa Frazier
According to Lisa Frazier, who has designed her own major in political ecology, the way humans study primates is very strongly influenced by the way humans see themselves. As a result, Western cultural norms color the way animals are studied and understood. Her presentation was entitled "The Chimpanzee in the Mirror: Anthropomorphication and the Politics of Primatology." "Drawing mainly from studies of the primatologists William McGrew, Jane Goodall, and Frans de Waal, I reconstruct the "original human" against which chimps and bonobos are compared," Frazier noted in her Senior Symposium abstract. "By examining primate bodies and social behavior, primatologists paint a picture of chimpanzees and bonobos as specifically sexed, gendered, raced, and classed. In so doing, they produce an understanding of these primates as intimately, genetically, linguistically, and cognitively similar to humans--yet never similar enough to be considered human." Thus, Frazier noted, the way scientists see animals is a way of "reifying cultural norms," of putting human beings at the top of the hierarchy of living things. Acknowledgement of these biases may lead to more responsible science, the senior asserted. Visiting assistant professor of anthropology Chaia Heller is Frazier's adviser on the project.

Katie Kraschel
Katie Kraschel's research is aimed at increasing the efficacy of testing drugs on laboratory animals, a necessary step before testing drug candidates on humans. In her presentation, "Of Mice and Men: Identifying Potent Inhibitors for CYPs in Rodent Microsomes for Use in Future In Vivo Studies," she explained that many differences exist between animals and humans that can weaken the animal model. "For example, differences in the way drug candidates are absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and eliminated create challenges in studying the ability of a drug to 'hit it's target' in animal models," she wrote in her abstract. Kraschel looked at the hemoproteins responsible for the metabolism of most drugs in humans and rats and identified potent in vitro inhibitors that may subsequently be coadministered with a drug candidate to strengthen the rodent pharmacology model. Sean Decatur and Shefali Kakar '96, now a senior scientist in drug metabolism at Pfizer, Inc., are Kraschel's advisers on the project. Kakar was Decatur's first senior advisee at the College.

Loren Robertson
Dance major Loren Robertson has found that combining the art of choreography and video-making allows the artist to create a new language that captures the energy of the dance while taking advantage of shifting perspective, speed, sound, and other variables that are fixed in a live dance performance. In her presentation, "Dance Kinesthetics and Cinematic Presence: An Exploration in Dance and Video Composition," Robertson experimented with videoing dance performances and manipulating sound scores and editing processes to re-contextualize dance in the medium of film. Robertson showed the audience several pieces based on a single sound score, demonstrating how sound can have different effects on the viewer's perception of the movement. James Coleman, professor of dance, is advising on this project.

Christina Villarruel
Virtual Reality (VR) is the use of the computer to simulate an environment that can be entered and interacted with as if it were real. In her presentation, "Human Depth Perception With Gaze-Contingent Depth of Field," Christina Villarruel noted that VR is finding important applications, especially in architectural design and in medicine. These applications for VR require a highly accurate perception of depth to be presented to the user. Unfortunately, most VR systems are plagued by a compression effect--where the virtual world is perceived to be significantly smaller than what it is intended to be. Villaruel believes that the compression effect is caused by the visual image of the VR system. Seeing a consistently in-focus and detailed image on a computer screen sends cues to the brain that the image is flat. In the real world, objects behind and in front of an object of attention are seen as blurred or out of focus, an effect known as depth of field, which creates three-dimensional perception. She has created an experiment to test her hypothesis that by adding the correct depth of field blur to the VR image, she can improve the accuracy of depth perception on 3-D computer displays and help eliminate the compression factor. Claude Fennema, professor of computer science, is Villarruel's adviser for this project.

Related Links:

Senior Symposium Photo Gallery

MHC Student Lindsay Chura '06 Named Fulbright Fellow

Senior Symposium 2006 - The Weissman Center Leadership and the Liberal Arts