Explorations

30 undergraduates trade their summers for the research life

Beneath the window of William Moomaw's office on the sixth floor of the Cabot Intercultural Center, the rooftops of the campus spread like a crazy quilt.

These rooftops are more than mere architectural details. They're the focus of a summer research project being conducted by an undergraduate from the School of Engineering under the guidance of Moomaw, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The student, Asami Tanimoto, E04, is analyzing the feasibility of installing solar energy panels atop buildings on the Medford/Somerville campus.

William Moomaw of the Fletcher School and Asami Tanimoto, E04, are studying the feasibility of installing solar energy panels atop buildings on the Medford/Somerville campus. © Mark Morelli

This type of interdisciplinary project is a product of the university's new Summer Scholars Program, an innovative approach to providing expanded opportunities for undergraduates to conduct substantive research.

In its first year, the program teams undergraduates with faculty mentors from Tufts' schools and affiliated hospitals, capitalizing on what Provost and Senior Vice President Jamshed Bharucha calls "Tufts' unique combination as a nurturing liberal arts college within a high-powered research university."

"We have the best of both worlds," said Bharucha. "Most undergraduate programs in the United States are classic four-year liberal arts colleges, where the students get a lot of attention; or they resemble a research university, where students don't get a lot of attention, and faculty are primarily interested in research and use graduate students and others to create a buffer.

"The Summer Scholars crystallizes this vision of an integration of teaching and research."

The 30 Summer Scholars are spending at least eight weeks working with a faculty mentor. They are not the only undergraduates involved in summer projects—individual departments and faculty members sponsor dozens of research opportunities—but the program is noteworthy in that it encompasses all disciplines and joins people from three campuses who may never have crossed paths any other way.

"This is a great way for undergraduate students to get involved in research that the various faculty are doing throughout the different campuses," said Dr. Lisa Freeman, associate professor of clinical sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine, who is mentoring Sara Crabb, A05, a psychology student. Crabb is analyzing data about cats that have received a form of intravenous nutrition, known as "total parenteral nutrition," over the past 10 years at the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals. Her goal is to write a paper to submit to a veterinary journal.

"It's a great way to highlight this research and let students get involved at an early stage," Freeman said.

The students in the Summer Scholars Program receive a $3,500 stipend, $1,000 for materials and are offered the chance to live in university housing. Faculty mentors also receive $1,000 in research funding.

Enthusiastic response
If the program sounds familiar, it may be because it was among the recommendations of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience, a panel commissioned by President Lawrence S. Bacow in 2001 to assess undergraduate education and campus life at Tufts.

In its first interim report in fall 2002, the task force floated the idea of a program similar to Summer Scholars, with the idea of bolstering undergraduate research opportunities—also a priority of Bacow's. By spring 2003, even before the task force's final report was issued, Summer Scholars was on its way to becoming a reality.

"This came together very quickly," said Bharucha. When he and Bacow saw the task force recommendation, "we thought, 'why wait? Let's let the students have opportunities this summer,' " Bharucha said. "After the draft report was released, we responded immediately and found some seed money to support 30 students. "The response was enthusiastic from both students and faculty," he said.

Indeed, about 90 applications were received for the 30 Summer Scholars slots, according to Molly Stutzman, executive assistant to the provost. More than 100 faculty members offered to be mentors.

"It was a blessing to see that program," said Juliet Fuhrman, associate professor of biology. "We in biology have always had students working over the summer in research" through various programs and grants, she said. "Many disciplines can't attract that kind of funding to pay students over the summer for research. It's excellent that the university is doing this in such a broad fashion."

Crossing boundaries
In the most literal sense, the university-wide nature of the program helps students and their mentors transcend boundaries—both physical and intellectual.

Dr. Lisa Freeman, right, an associate professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine, and Sara Crabb, A05, examine a feline patient. © Mark Morelli

"For undergraduates, they take courses with faculty in Arts, Sciences and Engineering, but they don't have much contact with faculty in the other schools or the clinical faculty at the Tufts-affiliated hospitals," Bharucha said. "So we made this open to all faculty."

One example is the partnership between Dr. Wendy Qiu of Tufts-New England Medical Center and Gabriela Soriano, A04, a biology major who hopes to go to medical school.

Qiu, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine, has devoted much of her career to studying the mystery of what causes Alzheimer's disease. This summer, she began work on a five-year study investigating the relationship between late-onset Alzheimer's and blood insulin levels in a group of several hundred elderly subjects in Boston. Soriano is assisting during all phases of the study.

"I like [Qiu's] project in particular because it has both a clinical and research side to it, which goes very well with my career goals," said Soriano. "Although I am pre-med, I believe that research is almost an essential complement to medicine, and in my opinion, it's what keeps medicine moving forward."

From Qiu's perspective, the program offers a chance to duplicate the student/mentor relationship that she said has been so important in her career. My mentors "were always helpful," she said. "And now that I'm faculty, I'd like to help the younger generation of scientists."

Soriano saw Qiu's listing on the Summer Scholars web site, the vehicle that introduced much of the university to the program (http://summerscholars.programs.tufts.edu).

The web site includes a database of available research assistant positions posted by faculty. Such a "research clearinghouse" was also among the recommendations of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience. The site itself was a project of Mitchell Lunn, A04, an Omidyar Scholar who devised a similar database in 2002 for the biology department and who has worked with Charles Inouye, dean of the colleges, on the development of the Summer Scholars Program.

"I thought [the web site] was a very important strategic move," said Inouye, an associate professor of Japanese who is also mentoring a Summer Scholar. "It not only opened up the students to the work of the faculty, but it's allowed us to knit the schools of Tufts University together. [It's important] that the affiliated hospitals are represented now, and our students can have access to research opportunities there."

'Win-win-win' for students
Students took to the idea of Summer Scholars because it allows them to "stay in Boston [for the summer], establish a better relationship with a faculty member and have it be financially feasible," Lunn said. "It ends up being a win-win-win experience in all those areas."

David Kerstein, A04, is working with biologist Juliet Fuhrman on developing a drug or vaccine to combat river blindness. © Mark Morelli

The program can also serve as a good transition back to campus for students who have spent their junior year abroad, Bharucha said. "Having a summer intensive experience sets up the senior year in a meaningful way, with in-depth immersion in their field, perhaps leading to a thesis in their senior year." Increasing the number of students who elect to write a senior thesis or complete a comparable project was also among the recommendations of the task force report.

That's the goal of both Lenora Shaman, A05, and David Kerstein, A04. Shaman, a double major in international relations and Japanese, is conducting her research with William Burton, lecturer in Japanese, in Japan, where the two are investigating the differences in video games and animation produced for the Japanese and American markets.

"In contrast to the presumed globalization of entertainment, this study will analyze what types of Japanese entertainment products are, or are not, readily distributed in the United States and why," Shaman said. "With the information that Professor Burton and I accumulate, I would like to extend this project into my senior honors thesis."

Closer to home, Kerstein is working in Fuhrman's lab, where the professor and her assistants are working on research they hope will one day lead to a vaccine or drug to combat river blindness, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that afflicts millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The project has kept Kerstein in the lab most weekdays—and some weekends—during the summer. "I intend to continue for my senior thesis," said Kerstein, who has previously worked in labs at the School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.

"No question, I was interested in biology from the get-go," said Kerstein, who hopes to attend medical school. "I knew research was an important part of being a bio major, the importance of getting involved in research, rather than just learning in the classroom."

'Engaged learning'
As a teaching tool, research "engages your attention like nothing else does," Bharucha said.

The provost talked about two categories of students: the so-called "type 1," who are "very good students and do well in course work, who have the attention span and the study skills" to succeed.

"A lot of others are not as easily engaged by the traditional pedagogy," he said. "These 'type 2' students don't do as well in a classroom situation."

Gabriela Soriano, A04, who hopes to go to medical school, examines brain scans with Dr. Wendy Qiu, a physician at Tufts-New England Medical Center. Qiu's work focuses on deciphering the causes of Alzheimer's disease. © Mark Morelli

But, "both can thrive in an engaged learning environment, such as research," Bharucha said. Fuhrman, the biologist, agrees: "You find some students excel in the classroom; some don't have such a great GPA, but just excel at bench work. It works all ways."

For faculty, "teaching and research are not either/or things," said Moomaw of Fletcher. A program like Summer Scholars "engages the faculty and students, and engages faculty with students outside of a regular classroom situation."

That, says Inouye, is the "profile of the Tufts faculty, as both scholars and teachers. That's one of the salient characteristics of Tufts, and one we wish to highlight and support." Research, Inouye said, helps undergraduates adopt that "dual profile" as well, "so they become not necessarily scholar/teachers, but learner/communicators.

"If they can learn how to learn and communicate what they know…they will be very well along the way to becoming the leaders of the world that we want them to be," Inouye said.

"Obviously, students have different career paths," said Fuhrman. "Our feeling is for all of those paths, if you understand where 'scientific truth' comes from, it makes you a better professional. Learning about data generation, interpretation…it's all really key to research experience."

And, Fuhrman notes, "It's critical to a future-thinking public."