The arts and science of summer research 2015

Publication Date

When she was a student at St. Joseph’s High School, a private, all-girls school in Brooklyn, Ashley Rosa ’17 took a liking to science. It quickly became her favorite subject.

So it’s no surprise that on this sticky summer afternoon, when the humidity clings to you like ivy, that Rosa eschews the comfort of a job in an air-conditioned office.

Sitting on the back bumper of Biology Professor Steven Rice’s car, Rosa carefully slides into a one-piece white coverall that blankets her street clothes. Pulling on a pair of black rubber boots, she wraps several layers of duct tape around the point where the suit meets her ankles, creating a snug seam impenetrable to blood-thirsty ticks. A Union baseball cap protects her head. Rice’s outfit mirrors Rosa’s.

Together, the two are ready for the quarter-mile hike into the Woodlawn Preserve, a patch of the Pine Bush that extends between Albany and Schenectady. A short drive from campus, the preserve is a 135-acrea oasis of swamp, wetlands, water bodies and dune vegetation tucked into a corner of Schenectady.

It’s also an ideal spot to conduct summer research.

Over the course of six weeks, Rosa and Rice will visit the site several times a week. The student and professor are studying peat mosses, one of the world’s most important plant groups. Dominating peatlands, which cover large parts of Canada, Northern Europe and Russia, the mosses play a critical role in global carbon cycling. Rosa and Rice hope to develop a method to help understand how short-term variation in rainfall affects long-term carbon uptake and storage.

“It’s been engaging,” Rosa said of her experience so far. “It’s not like sitting in a lab all the time. I get to go out in the field, which has been fun. It’s made me see that I really want to study biology.”

A biology major, Rosa is among more than 125 students representing 40 different majors who are engaged in research this summer. They are working closely with 65 faculty stretched across 20 departments and programs. Most projects are funded through the undergraduate research program, run by Rebecca Cortez, associate professor of mechanical engineering. The rest are supported by government or scientific society grants to faculty members, academic departments, and or with foundation funding.

From labs and study spaces on campus to points around the globe, the students are immersed in a diverse mix of projects that support Union’s commitment to undergraduate research.

For example, Emily Pastore ‘16 and Aurora Butera ‘16 are spending four weeks on an excavation in Populonia, Italy, as part of the Archeodig Project. Working with Tommaso Gazzarri, assistant professor of classics, the two are learning about the history of ancient settlements of coastal Etruria, from the prehistoric age to the beginning of the medieval age. When they return to campus, they will work with Hans-Friedrich Mueller, the Thomas B. Lamont Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature and chair of the Department of Classics.

This year also marks the start of the Upstate-Global Collective Summer Research Program. Administered by the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium, the idea is for students and faculty from participating schools to work together to research topics that have rich historical roots in upstate New York but that are also of current consequence worldwide.

Union is a member of the consortium, along with Colgate University, Hamilton College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, St. Lawrence University and Skidmore College.

Geguel Landestoy ’16 is working with Victoria Martinez, associate professor of Spanish, on “Latino Immigrants and Migrant Workers in Upstate New York.”

Peter Bedford, the John and Jane Wold Professor of Religious Studies and director of the Religious Studies program, is mentoring Colgate student MacKenzie Neeson on “Constructing Women's Loss in Post-Conflict Religious Communities.”

And Jeff Corbin, associate professor of biology, is working with Skidmore student Kathryn Peterson on testing the legacies of invasive trees on soil chemistry in the Albany Pine Bush. Collaborators include Sonia Sandoval ’16, Matt Wolford ’16 and Briana Fitzgerald, a rising junior at nearby Scotia-Glenville High School.

At the Woodlawn Preserve, meanwhile, Rosa and Rice plant themselves in muddy, ankle-deep water that sometimes creeps up their legs. Using makeshift chambers made from pipe insulation, the pair collects samples of several varieties of peat moss. As part of their research, they will analyze their samples on the isotope ratio mass spectrometer managed by Dave Gillikin, associate professor of geology.

The opportunity to participate in summer research is part of what appealed to Rosa when choosing Union.

“It’s a great way to get experience in the field of study that interests you,” she said.

Rice has been impressed with Rosa’s work. She was involved in each stage--from developing the idea to experimental design and analysis. It’s this type of hands-on, faculty mentored research that is a staple of Union’s mission.

“The deep engagement with the process of science is very enlightening to students as it differs from many of their classroom and laboratory experiences,” Rice said. “Much of the difference relates to problem-solving. In every aspect of the process, we confront problems that need solving--from considering the tradeoffs associated with the number of samples to use to deciding how to fabricate our rainfall excluders using inexpensive materials from the hardware store. Summer research allows students to experience the dynamic nature of science in a depth not possible in the teaching lab.”

The summer research program includes a twice weekly seminar series on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12:15 p.m. in Olin 115 through Aug. 6. Lunch is served outside Science and Engineering N007 beginning at noon.

A poster session highlighting many of the projects will held Wednesday, Aug. 5 at 12:15 p.m. in Wold Atrium.