A Summer of Science

Alumnae/i talk about research program and its role in their education and careers.

The robotics world is abuzz at the release of the latest version of AIBO, Sony’s robotic dog with artificial intelligence (AI) that has evolved to a point where the pup reacts to human interaction, recognizes up to 100 faces, sits and stands on command, and even barks. 

Back in 2006, Julia Ferraioli ’07 and her lab mates had the opportunity to work with AIBO in Professor Doug Blank’s robotics lab as part of Bryn Mawr’s Summer Science Research (SSR) Program. 

“Our work built upon the idea that a robot can learn to accomplish tasks over time by associating the effect of its actions on its environment, much like a child learns,” she says. “It was a phenomenal opportunity to do research with far-ranging applications, from the cognitive science of how we learn to the self-repairing possibilities of space technology. And it was the first time I worked with open-source software, which is the area I work in today at Google.”

At Bryn Mawr, research opportunities like this are not rare. Each summer since 1989, more than 35 students have received funding to conduct a 10-week science or math research initiative under the guidance of a faculty member. Students also attend professional development workshops and the Ann Lutes Johnson Speaker Series and present the results of their research at a poster symposium in the fall. 

“The SSR Program is an immersive research experience that provides students with the opportunity to fully focus on developing their skills as a scientist,” says co-director Jennifer Skirkanich, a lecturer in the biology department. “Doing undergraduate research prepares students for a wide range of opportunities including graduate and professional schools.” 

Learn more.

Alliya Akhtar ’13

Geology, Graduate Student, Geosciences, Princeton University, Professor Katherine Marenco’s Geochemistry Lab, 2011, and Professor Pedro Marenco’s Geochemistry Lab, 2012

“My SSR experience taught me to be an independent thinker and researcher. It empowered me to formulate and ask questions beyond the first principles of what I was told or taught. If not for it, I probably would not have pursued a graduate degree.”

Emily Altiere ’10

Physics, Ph.D. Candidate, The University of British Columbia, Professor David Nice’s Astrophysics Lab, 2008

“The main thing I learned from that summer was that I am more of a hands-on experimentalist. Deborah Farrington ’09 and I traveled to Puerto Rico with David Nice to collect data at the Arecibo telescope. It was amazing, using that huge telescope in the middle of the night to collect hours of pulsar data. After that, I knew that in my future physics career, I wanted to look for projects that would marry the astrophysical questions with the hands-on research.”

Deborah Farrington ’09

Physics and Astronomy, Aerospace Systems Analyst, BAE Systems FAST Labs, Professor David Nice’s Astrophysics Lab, 2008

“My SSR experience was my first real exposure to coding as part of hands on research, and it made me appreciate the power that computing brings to all science, not just computer science. I’ve used the coding basics Emily and I learned that summer every day in my career as an aerospace systems analyst (first at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and now at BAE Systems). My coding has gotten a lot better though!”

Julia Ferraioli ’07

Robot Puppies

Computer Science, Software Engineer, Google, Professor Douglas Blank’s Robotics Lab, 2006

“We used the AIBO to run our experiments using a custom operating system. The software ran on a computer and streamed instructions to the AIBO over wifi, allowing us to make changes to our neural networks without the delay of re-uploading instructions. But that also meant that we had to deal with lag, which sometimes made the robot work in slightly unexpected ways. One time, I accidentally broke the jaw of one of the robots. I still feel guilty.”

Ananya Misra ’03

Computer Science and Mathematics, Software Engineer, Google, Professor Douglas Blank’s Robotics Lab, 2002

“SSR was my first exposure to robotics, machine learning, and neural networks, which are big in my field of speech recognition research. Thanks to that experience, I entered the field knowing something about each of those areas. I appreciated the camaraderie of the program and being able to compare notes with other SSR students. I started the summer knowing very little about the underlying concepts and tools, so it was a big learning curve, which later helped build confidence to venture into other new areas.”

Marissa Mocenigo ’11

Computer Science, Head of Digital, Mitte, Professor Dianna Xu’s Computer Science Graphics Lab, 2010

“My SSR research focused on data visualization. I had a very positive mentorship experience with Professor Xu and another student on the project who was much more experienced than me. I spoke about it often when I was first applying to jobs.”