From fruit flies to Trump: Students tackle diverse projects for summer research

Publication Date

On a humid mid-July morning, as noise rises from the construction site for the new Integrated Science and Engineering Complex, Union’s summer research students are quietly hard at work.

Bioengineering major Thái LaGraff ’20 and biology major David Love ’19 are investigating the factors that led three species of fruit flies to diverge from a common ancestor 15,000 years ago. They are working with Roman Yukilevich, assistant professor of biology, an evolutionary ecologist whose work is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Samantha Collins '18 is involved in bibliographic research for the archaeological site at Vani in the Republican of Georgia. Ethan Watson '18 is determining the response to Chaucer's The House of Fame through manuscript analysis. And working with Zoe Oxley, professor of political science, Michael Stalteri’s '19 project is researching schoolchildren in the age of Trump.

The students are among more than 122 in all disciplines who are engaged in research this summer. They are working closely with 64 faculty stretched across 23 departments and programs. Most projects are funded through the undergraduate research program run by Chad Orzel, associate professor of physics. The rest are supported by government or scientific society grants to faculty members, academic departments, and/or with foundation funding.

The projects support Union’s commitment to undergraduate research, one that rivals the experience found at larger universities.

“The opportunity to do research as an undergraduate is one of the biggest selling points for small liberal arts colleges like Union,” said Orzel, who is in his first year as director of research. “You get to be involved in every stage of a project, from the general concept, to the design of an experiment, to the final data-taking and analysis. Our students get their hands dirty in ways that wouldn't be possible at a larger place, and that's an invaluable experience.”

In a lab run by Professor Laura MacManus-Spencer, chemistry majors Alexandra Pagano ‘18 and Kaya Cooley ’18 are stirring clay-like mixtures with the goal of developing a material that will cleanse water of PFOAs, a widely-used chemical in plastics production.

They are working to help residents of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., where a plastics plant has contaminated drinking water. The project is also supported by an NSF grant.

Summer research is both immersive and intense.

“I’m here 9 to 5, and it’s nice to focus solely on the research,” said Anna Mahoney ’20, another chemistry major in MacManus-Spencer’s lab. “Without classes or labs, I can get a lot more done.”

Students gather on Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon in Olin 115 to share their work with their peers.

Samantha Gavin '19 works in Chemistry Professor Laurie Tyler's lab on her project, "Synthesis and Characterization of Isotopically Labelled Cobalt and Zinc Trans-Dicyano Complexes."

Samantha Gavin '19 works in Chemistry Professor Laurie Tyler's lab on her project,
"Synthesis and Characterization of Isotopically Labelled Cobalt and Zinc Trans-Dicyano Complexes."

“The weekly seminars are a great opportunity to connect ideas and learn and share,” said Pagano.

A poster session highlighting many of the projects will held Wednesday, Aug. 4, at noon in Wold Atrium.

Emma Will ’18 spends her days in the mechanical engineering lab. After receiving a proposal from Albany Medical Center involving research on different types of strain on the clavicle, the bioengineering major got to work poring over past studies and papers to familiarize herself with the topic. Although time-consuming and repetitive, the work is rewarding.

“You’re learning a lot even though you may not realize it,” said Will.

Across the hall, Sean Glennon ’18 has partnered with RPI to conduct research on reversing the effects of disk degeneration. This includes attending seminars and contacting companies to inquire about potential materials he could use to build a machine to perform stress applications on disks.

Glennon’s research will be used to complete his senior thesis. Once the fall semester begins, he plans to focus on executing the designs he spent his summer planning.

“Four years ago, in high school, doing something like this would have been crazy,” Glennon said.

Both Will and Glennon value the mentoring they receive from Ron Bucinell, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“The research mentoring relationship is the closest and strongest relationship we build with students,” said Orzel. “I've had students who started with me the summer after their first year at Union who continued to work with me until their senior thesis, and by the end they functioned more like a senior graduate student than an undergraduate.”

Orzel recently attended a research conference where one of his former students was presenting a poster about work he's doing as a graduate student at Michigan.

“It's great to see him succeeding at the next level,” said Orzel. “These kinds of lasting relationships are among the most rewarding experiences you can have as a faculty member.”

List of summer research students and their projects

Learn more about undergraduate research at Union