While some students spent their summers hitting the sandy beaches on America’s coasts, over 100 students at the College hit Battell Beach in their hours off from scientific research with professors.
These students took advantage of one of the greatest benefits to studying at a small, liberal arts college – opportunities to do one-on-one research that would be reserved for graduate students at larger institutions – applying skills learned in the classroom to projects in the labs and out of doors, learning about the complexities of the natural world in a tranquil, rural Vermont setting.
“Doing research during the summer allows you to devote large chunks of time and energy to a project in a way that would be impossible during the school year,” said Amanda Reis ’13, who worked for Assistant Professor of Biology Mark Spritzer.
“Aside from working on my project, I got to help out with other projects going on in the lab, so I got to do things like surgeries and behavioral testing that I haven’t had a chance to do during the school year.”
Reis participated in Spritzer’s behavioral neuroendrocrinology lab.
“The project looked into the effects of social interactions on neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) in the hippocampus of adult male rats,” Reis said.
The lab focused specifically on social memory as a gateway into the workings of neurogenesis. Rats were divided into four groups after a successful pilot project in which it was determined that rats could distinguish between previous cagemates and new ones.
One of the benefits of this type of research is the possibility to continue the study into the fall as an independent project, which Reis has chosen to do now that she has returned for the fall semester.
“This fall, I will be staining very thin slices of the brains of the subjects for new brain cells and counting the number of new brain cells in the hippocampus,” said Reis. “We hypothesized that there will be an effect of social interaction on the number of new brain cells in the hippocampus.”
The consequences of this project reach far and wide, and have implications beyond the rat models that it studied. Reis noted that this research can extend to benefit human health and novel developments in Alzheimer’s treatments and medicine.
“Hopefully, the results of this project will give us more information about the processes involved in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers, which have been shown to be correlated with decreased levels of neurogenesis,” Reis said.
Over the summer, students studied subjects ranging in physical size from the very small, like the lab rats, to the very large, like Middlebury’s natural landscape.
Ford Van Fossan ’13 worked with Associate in Science Instruction in Environmental Studies Marc Lapin.
The study afforded Van Fossan hands-on participation in an ecological inventory of college lands.
“Essentially we would walk through the various properties of the College’s 3,000 acres of mountain lands in Ripton and Hancock and describe what we saw, noting both ecological communities and invasive species and cultural features such as eroded roads, old stone walls and homestead sites,” he said. “Then using our observations, aerial photographs and GIS programs we would map out the extent of these different forest communities.”
Van Fossan and Professor Lapin’s study is a piece in the puzzle to analyzing the ways we use our land.
Their research will help inform the College on future decisions regarding its beautiful natural surroundings.
“This was part of a larger report being compiled about the ecological characteristics of College lands. This report is to help inform land use decisions such as logging and trail building on Middlebury’s properties,” Van Fossan said.
Not only did Reis and Van Fossan bring their scientific interests and passions from the classroom to the lab for the summer, but find that their research experience has fortified their academic skills just in time for the start of a new semester.
“Working with Professor Spritzer was great,” said Reis.
“He is extremely knowledgeable and organized, and was very patient with us while having high expectations.
I definitely learned a lot about the research process from him as well as information about the specific subject area.”
“I learned a ton working with Professor Lapin, everything from identification of forest plants to ways in which to read the history of land use in a forest,” Van Fossan said.
“I also firmed up and expanded my knowledge of ArcGIS. I am excited to continue working on the project this semester and to eventually see the final report.”
Among the community of summer student researchers, excitement and enthusiasm for science abounds for the prospects of continuing the work and making new discoveries everyday.
“I’m curious to see more research done in the field of neuroscience. We’ve learned a lot about the way the brain works in the last few years, but there is still a lot that we don’t understand,” Reis said.
“I’m also excited about the medical possibilities of further stem cell research, and I hope that some research is done on non-drug medical interventions.”
While sometimes it may seem to students that the campus is a small world, the summer researchers prove that the world at large is accessible to us right in our own Vermont backyard, with some of its biggest, most complex questions waiting to be asked – and starting to be answered.