Experiencing Research Firsthand
By Barbara Spector
College science courses give students the foundation of knowledge on which to build a successful career in research. But the only way to get a feeling for what life in the lab is actually like is to conduct an investigation oneself. The Bryn Mawr College students who participated in this year’s Undergraduate Summer Science Research Program experienced both the highs and lows of scientific experimentation.
“It’s when something doesn’t work that you really learn the most,” says Laura R. Snyder ’04, a chemistry major who spent the summer in the lab of Professor of Chemistry Sharon Burgmayer.
Snyder and Angelina B. Lucento ’05 investigated the magnetic properties of molybdenum compounds. In plants, molybdenum is essential in nitrogen assimilation. In humans, molybdenum enzymes are involved in gout and radical damage after heart failure.
Snyder focused on molybdenum tris-dithiolenes, a category of compounds generally characterized as diamagnetic, or having electrons arranged in pairs. “However, the tris-dithiolenes that were discovered in Dr. Burgmayer’s lab are paramagnetic, meaning that they possess unpaired electrons,” Snyder says. “We were attempting to characterize these compounds as extensively as possible to explain this unusual property.”
Snyder and Lucento synthesized the compounds. “Angelina’s role was to synthesize the ligand precursors, which I in turn used to create the tris-dithiolene complex,” Snyder says.
“This kind of teamwork has taught me that I must be very careful in every step that I take chemically, because if something goes wrong on my end, it could cause Laura’s results to be misleading,” notes Lucento, a chemistry major and Russian minor.
“By participating in research, students learn that I don’t have all the answers to their research problems,” says Burgmayer. “Sometimes they encounter research problems that I cannot solve immediately.” In such cases, “We go to the chalkboard together, think through what we know and then plan for the next step,” Burgmayer says. “That eliminates some of the hierarchy of the classroom and emphasizes their participation as collaborators in the project.”
The fact that the paramagnetic compounds defy traditional categorization provides an important lesson for the students, Burgmayer notes. “There are other levels of problems associated with studying them — subtleties that need to be thought about and dealt with.”
Lucento plans to attend medical school and possibly pursue a combined M.D./Ph.D. degree. “This summer has allowed me to see how many research opportunities are open to someone with a background in inorganic chemistry research,” she says.
Snyder, a Dorothy Nepper Marshall Fellow, has spent three summers in Burgmayer’s lab. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry. “After my first summer doing research, there was no doubt in my mind that I would go to graduate school,” she says. This fall, Snyder will present a poster at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in New York.
Darby Thompson ’05, a computer science and mathematics major, conducted artificial intelligence research with the goal of teaching a robot to respond to a command to move from one point to another. In traditional A.I. research, the robot is programmed to take the shortest route. But Thompson tried to teach it to determine its own path, using previous knowledge and predictions.
Thompson was mentored by Assistant Professor of Computer Science Doug Blank and Associate Professor of Computer Science Deepak Kumar. The team also included Ioana Butoi ’05 along with one high school student and four Swarthmore College students mentored by Lisa Meeden, an associate professor of computer science at Swarthmore.
“We are working on an approach to artificial intelligence that is very different from anything that anyone has worked on before,” Blank explains. “We want the robot to study the problem and figure out how to solve it. Our idea is to raise the robot as one might raise a child. So we start with some basic abilities and, only through interaction, we teach the robot how to become an increasingly sophisticated thinker. Our methodology lies between learning and evolution: what we call developmental robotics. Darby and Ioana did a wonderful job exploring this unknown territory.”
“We wanted to make the artificial intelligence process as human-like as possible,” Thompson says, “but a robot is going to think differently in how it connects the dots.” The robots were best able to avoid obstacles when their behavior was purely reactive — when they had no memory at all, Thompson notes.
The team’s experiments demonstrated that “memory just gets in the way if you don’t need it,” Blank says. “This shows the tricky nature of the problem: What do we give the robots to start out with? They surely will need memory some day, but if you just give it to them at the beginning, it can be a problem because they don’t know what to do with it. What the robots need is an architecture that they can ‘grow into.’ And that’s what we have been working on.”
The students from the two colleges met weekly to discuss their progress. “I would think about robots at home,” Thompson says. “I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Thompson and Butoi first used computer simulation. When they began working with robots, they decided to keep them in a pen. “The two professors, Ioana and I piled into a car and went to Home Depot and bought a lot of wood,” Thompson says. “We removed all the furniture from the lab and built a wooden pen for the robots.”
“We discovered all kinds of aptitudes that the students had,” including their woodworking skills, Kumar says. “We got to see this whole other side of them.”
At first, the students were skeptical that the programming techniques would work, Kumar recalls. “By the end of July, they were designing experiments themselves to illustrate how those techniques work.”
The students were able to replicate research that is only a few years old, Kumar notes. “Doing robotics at a women’s college is not something that traditionally has been thought about. I’d like to see them put together a paper that could be published in a research journal.”
This summer, Butoi, Thompson and Catherine Chiu ’04 received a one-year, $3,000 research award from the Computing Research Association’s Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduate Women in Computer Science & Computer Engineering. The grant will fund their proposal to design a “tour-giving robot” that will offer interactive tours of the science building.
For her summer research project, Rebecca Pouy ’06 focused on astrophotography, using a charge-coupled-device (CCD) camera and a telescope in conjunction with a computer. She was mentored by Elizabeth McCormack, an associate professor of physics.
Pouy, who plans to major in physics and wants to become an astronaut, observed and photographed planets and stars and began compiling a catalog of objects that can be seen from the Bryn Mawr region. She investigated the atmospheric patterns of Jupiter, monitoring the location of its four brightest moons and using those measurements to calculate its mass. She also took images of dust storms and polar ice caps on Mars, which this summer made its closest approach to earth in recorded history.
Jupiter was the first object that Pouy photographed. Before she set the focus, “it would look like a giant floating donut in the sky. Once it got into focus, you could see three of Jupiter’s moons. I couldn’t wait to go in the next day and play with the photos.”
Pouy had read about Mars’ dust storms before going out to observe the planet. “It was so exciting to be able to look at Mars and realize that there was an ice cap that you could clearly see. I had never before seen it with my own eyes through a telescope.”
Pouy pored through manuals to learn how to use it the instrumentation. Despite Pouy’s youth, “She is exceptionally prepared to do independent work,” McCormack says. “I was impressed with her patience and perseverance. We’ll be able to tap into the expertise she’s developing for the next three years.”
Pouy and McCormack went out to observe a half-dozen times over the summer. Most of the observations took place at dusk, though there were some late-night sessions — one from 3 to 5 a.m. and an all-nighter from 9 p.m. until after 4 a.m. that yielded some 800 CCD images.
Summer research projects involve more than merely investigating the principles of astronomy or physics, McCormack notes. “These projects are a process of developing, of learning how to use the instrumentation and learning the difference between answerable and unanswerable questions.”
Summer program participants also learn how to prepare presentations. In the fall 2003 semester, they will present their research to fellow students and science faculty.
Throughout the summer, the undergraduate students also attended brown-bag lunch seminars presented by graduate students, faculty and other researchers. The informal talks enable undergraduates to get to know the College’s graduate students and promote cross-disciplinary conversations, McCormack says. “It integrates and reinforces the community. That’s something a small college can offer — and it’s the way science is going.”
Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.