Event spotlights undergraduate research
By Grace Afsari Mamagani, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, May 21, 2010
Primates’ facial expressions, the potential of exercise to raise academic achievement and the biochemistry of cancer cells have been among the topics tackled by undergraduate researchers at the College over the past year. Students presented their findings in a poster symposium at the 19th Annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research in the Sciences at the Karen E. Wetterhahn Science Symposium Thursday afternoon.
University of Colorado astrophysical and planetary sciences professor Fran Bagenal delivered the keynote speech, which focused on how astrophysics research will explore planetary mysteries such as polar auroras on Jupiter and the possibility of life on the moon Europa.
In her keynote, “Erupting Volcanos and Dazzling Auroras: Exploring the Planets,” Bagenal told students and other members of the Dartmouth community that the many unknowns of planetary studies demonstrate the continued need for exploration and experimentation by a new generation of scientists. She added that once students identify questions they are passionate about, they should pursue them wholeheartedly.
“Don’t be intimidated by other people’s qualifications,” Bagenal said. “What’s important is that you think carefully about things, that you find a problem that you’re really interested in and ask good questions.”
When the Voyager spacecraft was launched in 1977, Bagenal was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I got caught up in understanding how magnetic fields work, and that’s what really led me on this path of exploring different objects in the solar system,” she said.
To generate a magnetic field, a planetary body must have a liquid and conductive spinning region with adequate energy, Bagenal said. On Jupiter, which has no solid surface, the inner pressure is so great that molecular hydrogen splits into protons and electrons that conduct electricity.
“Take a thousand elephants standing on one foot on a stiletto heel,” Bagenal said. “That’s the pressure of the interior of Jupiter. And that’s were hydrogen becomes metallic.” When disruptions from the sun hit the magnetosphere — particularly during stormy conditions — auroras, or regions of luminous ionized gas in the atmosphere, result, according to Bagenal.
“There are about two megatons of material trapped in the magnetic field of Jupiter,” Bagenal said. “As the particles move out, the angular momentum is transferred from the spinning planet to the material, eventually creating an aurora.”
Jupiter’s auroras fall into three categories — the moon aurora, the steady main aurora that results from spinning plasma and the variable polar aurora, according to Bagenal.
Bagenal said that fellow researchers are currently exploring ways to gain a better understanding of Jupiter’s composition. NASA’s New Frontiers Program, for instance, is constructing the spacecraft Juno, scheduled to launch in summer 2011. Juno will explore the planet’s poles to examine the causes of Jupiter’s polar aurora.
Following Bagenal’s address, over 100 undergraduate researchers ranging from freshmen involved in the Women in Science Project to senior thesis students presented their findings in a poster showcase in Fairchild Tower. Students’ research spanned a wide variety of science and social science disciplines.
Jennifer Bares ’12, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellow, presented her research on brain activity in response to exposure to familiar and unfamiliar numbers. Working with education professor Lisa Temple, Bares exposed subjects to random numbers, as well as numbers associated with important historical events, in order to monitor reactions in the brain’s intraparietal sulcus, a portion of the brain related to perceptual-motor coordination.
“All the presenters here work with faculty members, and sometimes with graduate students, allowing for a great deal of collaboration,” Bares said.
Presidential Scholar Sondra Downey ’11 displayed her findings on the effects of shutting down various catalytic sites of proteasomes, protein complexes involved in cancer.
“I think the symposium is a great experience,” Downey said. “I’m really here because I want to do a senior thesis next year, and it’s good to actually have to put something like this together. Having to present and explain your research helps you to remember all your experiments.”
Women in Science intern Elise Smith ’13 studied the correlation between exercise and academic performance in her work as an intern with the College’s education department. Smith found that low-income students, who traditionally perform worse than high-income students academically, surpassed wealthy students after intense exercise sesions.
“I had an amazing time,” Smith said. “My partners and I were able to go through every step together — we went to the schools, we performed the tests on the students and we’re analyzing the results. That’s not something you get to do at every school.”
Thesis candidate Rachael Kandath ’10, who studied the relationship between facial muscles and expressions in primates, said that the symposium allowed student researchers to escape the lab and share their findings.
“Everyone spends all this time researching in labs, and generally no one gets to see it,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for everyone to come out and show off.”