All the World's a Lab
By John Grennan
Science students and faculty mentors spend summers in unconventional classrooms
The one prerequisite for SMC’s summer science researchers is readiness for adventure. Once they master it, they find that learning — and teaching — happen everywhere.
This summer, chemistry major Adele Panasci ’09 and professor Joel Burley turned Yosemite and other California national parks and forests into environmental chemistry classrooms. Physics major Jon Plotner ’09 and professor Ron Olowin trained the College’s high-powered observatory telescope on the heavens in search of asteroids. Over the years, other students and mentoring professors have dissected the physics behind a baseball swing, researched the effect of breast cancer on genes and unlocked mathematical puzzles.
Saint Mary’s says goodbye to nearly all its undergraduate students during summer, but since at least the 1970s science students have stayed on campus to do research. The College formally established a summer research fund in 1986, with financial support from SMC’s Science Advisory Board members and from alumni who are grateful for their Saint Mary’s science education.
“It’s really an excellent program that allows students to work in-depth on a project,” says Louis Geissberger ’53, a major donor who owns his own dental practice. “Saint Mary’s science departments prepared me well for my career, and this program has allowed me to give back.”
Through the College’s Summer Science Research Program, upper-division students receive a $2,500 stipend and work closely with professors on research projects. Some students collaborate on a professor’s larger experiment while others design their own.
“It’s created a true science community at the College,” School of Science Dean Brian Jersky says. “It’s one of the crown jewels of Saint Mary’s.”
SMC summer science students have received many awards from science honors society Sigma Xi in recent years. Last year at the organization’s annual conference in Detroit, three Saint Mary’s students’ presentations were recognized as “superior,” placing them in the top 10 percent of all projects. No other school at the conference — including major research universities UC Berkeley, UCLA and Michigan — had more students receive these awards, which mean the work is of publishable quality.
These achievements reflect the benefits of the College’s philosophy when it comes to teaching science — professors establish close mentoring relationships with students and encourage learning-by-doing. Many professors say they do their best teaching in the summer program.
“I love doing this one-on-one work,” says psychology professor Mary McCall, who mentored Ashton Smith ’08 in her research on outreach strategies in low-income senior citizen housing. “It’s exciting to help students really get into the field, develop specific research skills and work on questions that interest them.”
Adele Panasci ’09 and Kate Albaugh ’07 were ready at 7 a.m. the week after spring finals to load ozone pollution monitoring equipment into a minivan before departing with Burley for an eight-hour round-trip ride to Yosemite. Later in the summer, they headed to Devil’s Postpile and Manzanar in the eastern Sierra.
Ozone pollution is a particularly sensitive issue at national parks, which are designed to promote public access to nature while also protecting it. Burley’s research with students in summer 2006 showed that ozone pollution from Los Angeles is frequently transported into Joshua Tree National Park.
This summer, Burley’s team looked at whether pollution from sources inside national parks — such as forest fires — can exacerbate problems for nearby urban areas. The National Park Service and San Joaquin Valley cities are often at odds over prescribed burns to lessen the risk of large-scale wildfires.
“The Central Valley is sensitive because they worry that (these controlled burns) could place certain cities in violation of EPA pollution standards,” Burley explains. “But as things presently stand, we don’t have very much hard scientific data about whether or not these fears are justified.”
Panasci prepared for her first expedition with Burley by poring over lab manuals and asking him questions. She quickly learned that Burley requires his students to show initiative — whether it’s reading journal articles or pitching in to assemble the ozone monitoring equipment.
“He really helps us grow,” she says. “The students have to do a lot of work, but we also get a chance to have individual input in the process.”
Albaugh, a veteran from Burley’s previous ozone experiments at Joshua Tree, wanted to log one more trip before graduating and starting her new research job at Chevron.
“This work on ozone measurement has been a lot of fun,” Albaugh says. “When I decided to study science, I knew that I didn’t want to just be sitting in a lab all the time.”
In late May, the team set up its equipment at Yosemite’s Turtleback Dome. The stunning view of El Capitan and Half Dome did not distract them from focusing on the ozone molecules registering on their monitors.
After feeding their results into the computer, Burley’s team knew much more about the original sources of the ozone. They calculated the “backward trajectory” of the air masses and determined how much pollution blew in from nearby locales and how much traveled in from more distant locations.
Emily King ’08 knows crunching these numbers is an arduous process. Her 2006 summer work with Burley at Joshua Tree National Park received awards from Sigma Xi and the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences. She credits Burley for his help.
“I have so much respect and admiration for him,” she says. “He’s given me and other students so much guidance on fieldwork and is such a good-hearted person.”
Eyes on the Skies
Jon Plotner ’09 got off to a difficult start on his research project with Olowin at the College’s Geissberger Observatory above campus. He learned that the most high-tech telescope doesn’t work properly when a mirror gets dislodged. “A crisis, but not a huge crisis,” Olowin called it.
Plotner proved to be a quick study in Olowin’s impromptu telescope repair course, and he drew on his experience assembling model rockets as a kid, using SuperGlue and a steady hand to fix the mirror and put it back in place.
“Tinkering with things used to be one of my favorite things to do when I was growing up,” Plotner said.
As the summer progressed, Plotner searched for near-Earth asteroids, which can be close enough to the planet to pose a threat. In March 1989, a 1,000-foot-diameter asteroid came within six hours of the Earth, which would have caused an explosion far greater than an atomic bomb.
Plotner was new to astrophysics when the summer began, but Olowin showed him the ropes. He also had an informal advisor in Tom Scarry ’07, an alumnus of the 2005 summer research program who spent summer 2006 at the Department of Defense’s Los Alamos research lab in New Mexico. Scarry graduated in May, but was on campus working toward his teaching credential and applying to graduate school. He taught Plotner a thing or two about the hide-and-seek games asteroids can play.
“(Professor Olowin) and I were close to documenting one (in 2006),” Scarry says. “But then fog rolled in, so we didn’t have enough observations to confirm it.”
Physics at Bat
High school baseball bleachers are full of parents offering unsolicited advice to the player taking practice cuts in the on-deck circle. By the time the kid actually steps into the batter’s box, it’s hard for him to make heads or tails of all the input.
He may want to tune out these well-intentioned fans and listen instead to Annie Chase ’07, who combined her passions for physics and America’s pastime in a 2006 summer project on the optimization of the baseball swing.
A softball player, Chase was intrigued by UC Davis professor Mont Hubbard’s research on the major-league baseball swing, and she wanted to find out if similar principles applied at other levels of play.
“I considered doing work on softball, but ended up working on baseball at the college, high school and Little League levels,” Chase says. “I made adjustments based on the different factors involved — smaller bats, slower pitches and pitches from different angles.”
With a goal of determining why some swings produced routine groundouts while others yielded fence-clearing blasts, Chase set up pitching machines, weighed bats, calibrated hitting machines and recorded ball trajectories. She then plugged the data into a statistics program.
“I was looking for the best bat angle in different scenarios,” Chase says.
Professor Chris Ray, whose mentoring duties included everything from research design advice to loading baseballs into pitching machines, says Chase learned that science research is a lot like hitting — it requires lots of practice and perseverance through slumps.
“Annie is very active and strong-minded. But she learned to deal with the fact that research does not always turn out as expected,” Ray says. “The summer science students learn that some days, just getting a little bit done is a big accomplishment.”
By summer’s end, Chase demonstrated that college and high school players should swing with slightly more of an uppercut than major leaguers. Little Leaguers, wielding smaller bats against slower pitches, should add even more of a slight upward hitch to their swing.
“When I say more of an uppercut, it’s the difference between a few fractions of an inch,” Chase explains, taking Branch Rickey’s “Baseball is a game of inches” observation to a new level.
Chase’s work was judged by Sigma Xi to be publishable, and she has submitted it to the American Journal of Physics.
This fall, she enters UC Davis’s mechanical engineering doctoral program, where she plans to continue her research on baseball physics.
Science beyond Saint Mary’s
Chase joins a number of summer science alumni who have gone on to doctoral programs or medical school — or in some cases, both. Danielle Smith ’03 is a student at Northwestern University who has completed her first two years of medical school and started work on her molecular biology doctorate.
Smith, whose thesis project focuses on developing a better understanding of estrogen’s many roles, became interested in reproductive physiology in one of professor Margaret Field’s courses at Saint Mary’s.
“We had a lab where we surgically removed ovaries from rats and then looked at the effect on uterine weight,” Smith said. “It was rare to have the opportunity to do a project like that in an undergraduate class.”
Smith and Field worked in summer 2002 on a breast cancer research project, examining why the cancer essentially “turned off” certain parts of a woman’s genes. They presented their findings at the American Association for Cancer Research meetings in Hawaii.
“My relationship with Dr. Field was the single most important thing that led me to pursuing a career in science,” she said. “To this day I seek Margaret out for career and personal advice, and I have not made one trip back to California without spending at least a few hours visiting with her and her family.”