No day at the beach: Summer a time for student research at Union

Publication Date

Shortly after dawn on a recent weekday morning, Sonia Sandoval ’16 trudged toward a patch of wetland tucked into the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

Accompanied by Jeff Corbin, associate professor of biology, Madeline Frieze ’15, Matthew Wolford ‘15 and several local scientists, the group lugged its equipment to a site in the Pine Bush, a sprawling pine barrens of 3,200 acres and a globally rare ecosystem. There are coolers for samples, handheld nets to trap insects and large mist nets to capture birds.

For the next few hours, Sandoval, dressed in an Ozone House T-shirt, military-style pants and hiking boots, worked with the group examining the impact of mercury pollution on birds and other parts of the food web, including spiders, beetles and ants.

Building on an earlier study by Natasha Jhala ’14, Sandoval helped ornithologists from the Pine Bush Preserve to collect data from blood and feather samples, which will be sent to the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine as part of a larger regional study of songbirds’ mercury exposure in the Northeast.

“This is a really good learning experience,” said Sandoval, who hopes to be a conservation biologist. “Having an opportunity to do this kind of research is one of the reasons I wanted to come to Union.”

An environmental science major with a double minor in studio arts and geology, Sandoval is among nearly 135 students across a multitude of disciplines working on summer research projects. About half of the student group is funded internally with a faculty member through the Union College Summer Research Fellowships and the Summer Scholars Program. The other half is supported by individual grants to faculty members or departments, or foundation support.

For nearly 30 summers, Union has fostered close working relationships between thousands of students and faculty as part of its longstanding commitment to undergraduate research.

“Research experiences provide students with an opportunity to work closely with faculty mentors and learn how to effectively conduct research,” said Rebecca Cortez, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of Undergraduate Research. “By participating in research activities, students learn how to formulate questions that can be answered as well as learn how to approach solving those questions.”

For students like Sandoval, summer research may involve going out in the field. For others, like neuroscience major Matthew Olson ‘15, work is completed in the familiar surroundings of a campus lab.

Under the supervision of Scott Kirkton, associate professor of biology, Olson spends his summer days in the “HOPPER” lab (Homeostatic Orthopteran Performance Physiology and Energetics Research) on the first floor of Butterfield Hall.

Similar to exercising humans, grasshoppers produce lactic acid during jumping. Using a fluorometric lactate assay he helped develop, Olson is exploring how development and jumping intensity affect grasshopper lactate production.

Olson places grasshoppers in a plastic glove box and prods them to jump. He then processes hemolymph and muscle, and measures lactate after exercise or during recovery.

By understanding the physiology and biochemistry of grasshopper muscle, Olson’s research will lead to a better understanding of human muscle performance.

Summer research also can take students to far-flung places of the globe. Drew Ivarson ’15 is wrapping up a two-week visit to the Amalfi Coast Festival in Italy, where he is performing in master classes and taking lessons with internationally known pianists.

A double major in computer science and arts, Ivarson’s summer has also included private piano lessons with Timothy Dunne in the Music Department and the study of 18th century treatises about piano performance with Dianne McMullen, chair of the Music Department.

Research being done this summer has allowed students to learn more about a topic that interests them as well as prepare them for independent studies in those areas.

“It’s all about how far you want to take your project,” said Sandoval, who was born in Colombia and moved to New York City when she was a young girl. “And how much work you want to put into it.”

For a list of summer research students and their projects, click here.