Stellar Summer Research 2017

Moises Hernandez '19 analyzed proteins during the Summer Research Program at Saint Mary's College.This summer, I found out that the answer to a question can go in the opposite direction of your hypothesis. As a student researcher in the 2017 School of Science Summer Research Program, I worked with Professor Mark Barajas to study cultural competency among mental health professionals in Guam and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through a rigorous process, we put together a lengthy proposal, gained approval from the Saint Mary’s Institutional Review Board, and worked together to collect and analyze hundreds of data points from our 41 participants. One of our results went in another direction than we expected, causing us to adapt our explanations and rethink our assumptions. I was part of the largest field of participants since the program’s founding, with 18 students selected.

“The more students, the merrier,” School of Science Dean Roy Wensley said. “It’s a great experience for students that you can’t replicate in class, and it really shows students that research is something they’d love to pursue.”

Each year, the School of Science conducts a scholarly research competition where high-achieving students can select a faculty mentor and apply for funding to conduct summer research in their field of interest. Each student prepares a project proposal and the chairs and program directors of the School of Science choose the most meritorious projects for funding.

Sometimes students continue a professor’s body of work, or build on previous research from students’ findings. Others create an original project and carry it out over the summer with faculty guidance.

“We think it’s great to have either one, whether a student-inspired question or a faculty-suggested question, or whatever it might be,” said Wensley. The number of students awarded is based on available funding, and this year, more endowment money became available, allowing for this year’s large field of participants. Wensley said that he had hoped to increase the “high impact practice” of research, and that outside donors listened. With a greater number of students, there was a diversity in fields and projects. Wensley said, “There were seven different majors represented. Most of the students were biology students, but we had representation from math, allied health science, and we had three students in psychology, among others.” Wensley attended multiple summer research students’ meetings to become acquainted with the students and their projects.

Maya Szafraniec ‘19, a biology major, worked with Professor Joel Burley, chair of the Chemistry Department. Szafraniec examined the ozone weekend effect, a phenomenon in which secondary pollutants like ozone increase on weekends while primary pollutants decrease. Szafraniec worked with Burley over the semester, traveling across California monitoring ozone. She and KC Kitzman ’19 went on research trips to scenic locations such as the White Mountains, which was Szafraniec’s favorite part of summer research. Szafraniec said, “I thought research is interesting, and because I want to go into grad school, I thought it would be a great introduction to what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life.” Kitzman agreed that research field trips were the best part of his summer, although statistical analysis through Excel was unexpectedly fun.

Another distinct project was from Professor Emily Hause’s students, Clarissa Velez ’19 and Maegan Lasecke ’19. The two worked as a duo—the first to do so on a single summer research project—expanding upon a project they created in Psychology 103, the psychological methods class. Lasecke and Velez studied the pratfall effect, a social psychological phenomenon in which near-perfect individuals seem even more attractive when they commit minor mistakes. They applied the pratfall effect to the perception of male and female professors.

“The most significant thing I gained from my research experience was learning about the pratfall effect and gender biases,” Lasecke said. “Gender biases in particular are very strong in academia with male professors tending to be seen as more worthy of receiving tenure than female professors. On a more personal level, I learned how much I love researching a social psychology topic and designing an experiment to study it. It was also a rewarding experience to witness my peers’ research projects and provide support for each other in the process.”

Diana Zhu ‘17 also worked with Hause during the 2016 summer research program. Zhu agreed that it was a rewarding experience, and that it provides students with the preparation they need for the rigors of graduate school.

Moises Hernandez '19 (above in the lab) and Joe Sperling '18 analyzed proteins. Hernandez said working in a lab confirmed he wants to pursue research as a career, while Sperling added he enjoys the focus on the experiments and not a grade.

Last Saturday, the summer research program culminated with a poster session in the Brousseau atrium. Students described their research to a curious field of parents, students, and professors. Wensley thanked the participants and faculty, and two awards were presented: The Fletcher Jones award, judged by Professor Michael Marchetti, the Fletcher Jones endowed biology professor, and the Joseph P. McKenna medal, judged by a panel of four professors across the School of Science and two students. Juliann Jugan ’18, who studied stress in male lizards won the Fletcher Jones award. For the McKenna medal, Kitzman ’19, who studied ozone pollution, was second runner-up, Rachel Henley ’18, who studied factors affecting dendritic growth, was first runner-up, and Kyla Cole ’19, who studied the effects of Bisphenol-A (BPA) on frog embryo development, won the prestigious award.

Student presented their summer research in a poster session in October. For more details and links to their research, look here.