Lab Profile: Sylvia Woodmansee ‘15

Sylvia Woodmansee is a rising senior doing geology research in Amanda Schmidt’s lab.

What kind of work is your lab doing over the summer?

This summer I have been working in the geology department in Amanda Schmidt’s geomorphology lab. Geomorphology is about studying the earth’s surface and landform dynamics, asking the question of why does the earth’s surface look and operate like it does? Amanda has a bunch of different projects going on, mostly related to how people alter the landscapes they live in and how that affects erosion. The major project going on in the lab right now is a National Science Foundation funded project. This project, a collaboration between Oberlin, University of Vermont and Sichuan University in China, is a multidisciplinary study looking at the relationships between land-use and fluvial sediment transport in a mountainous region in western China.  The project uses hydrological observations and isotopic measurements to estimate sediment transport over a variety of spatial and temporal scales, determine the sources and sinks of the sediment, and tie this to regional land-use history. Everyone in the lab is working on a small sub project related to this larger project as well as keeping the lab running, which mostly consists of running China soil samples in our germanium detector to count the radioactive isotopes 137Cs and 210Pb. We collaborate with one another through discussing our pieces of the project, helping each other solve problems and through discussion of related papers. Our lab also uses Geographic Information System (GIS) software and remote sensing for much of the work that we do.

What is your role in that work, as a student researcher?

This summer I have been working on a project exploring the effects of agricultural drainage tiles on depth of erosion in the Vermilion watershed in Northern Ohio. This project is connected to the larger China project that most of my lab mates are working on in that it uses similar techniques to learn about land use in a different location. This project was part of my second summer as an Oberlin College Research Fellow, and I will continue working in the lab this coming year. In addition to my individual project, I helped run samples for the China project. Our lab uses a technique called gamma spectrometry, in which we run samples in a germanium detector (seen in the image of me) to count the radioactive isotopes 137Cs and 210Pb. These two radioactive isotopes can be used to trace the movement of soils and sediments and can therefore give us information about erosion. This summer I focused on doing a correlation analysis between 137Cs concentrations in the Vermilion River samples and percentage of upstream land drained by drainage tiles. In addition to this, I and a few of my lab-mates are going to be using X-Ray Diffraction (XRD) techniques to look at what minerals are present in our soil samples. For my project this will provide a second way to investigate the effects agricultural drainage tiles are having on erosion. So I spent time this summer learning about XRD techniques for clay minerals (clays are a major component of soils and are difficult to deal with using XRD).

What is it like to do summer research at Oberlin?

Doing summer research at Oberlin is great. It has given me a sense of what doing research is really about and given me much more insight into what graduate school entails. Summer research allows you to really focus on one thing and go in depth in one particular discipline or subject area, which can be difficult to do during the academic year. This has helped me get more of a sense of what careers I want to pursue and given me more insight into what kind of graduate school might interest me. I have been doing summer research at Oberlin through the Oberlin College Research Fellowship, a program for low income, first generation and students of color that provides you with a stipend to pursue summer research. This program includes a lot of programming, some of which is accessible to everyone on campus over the summer, which enhances the summer research experience. We have programming about graduate school, careers and much else. Additionally, doing research in Oberlin over the summer gives you the opportunity to interact with students and faculty who stay on campus who you wouldn’t necessarily meet during the rest of the year. During my two summers at Oberlin I have made a point of meeting with professors who I think do cool research and talking with them about their work. Doing research in Oberlin over the summer also gives you a different perspective – Oberlin changes a lot during the summer and doing 40 hours a week of research is a very different experience than taking classes.

What are your future goals in science?

I’m actually not a science major – I am a Latin American Studies major with a minor in Geology. However, I approach my studies in an interdisciplinary way, have many interests and have taken a wide variety of classes at Oberlin, including many science classes. That being said, I don’t have specific future goals in science as I am not sure if I will go on to pursue graduate school or a career in science. It is not out of the question that I would pursue medical school at some point, or try to get an advanced degree in the geosciences, but at this point I plan on working for a few years out of college to better figure out where I want to go with my career and if I want that career to be in the sciences.

What advice would you give an Oberlin student interested in pursuing summer research?

I would say definitely, definitely do it. It has added a lot to my Oberlin experience and has been a wonderful opportunity. Besides the research aspect of it – and it is so great to get a sense of what doing research is all about as an undergraduate – I feel like I have a much better sense of the area and community in which I go to school after spending two summers in Oberlin. It allows you to explore parts of Oberlin and Lorain County that you don’t have time to explore during the year. Additionally I have made many connections with students and faculty over the summer that I probably wouldn’t have during the year because I am so busy. There are also a lot of resources available over the summer – getting to know people in the career center is a great idea. Also, if you are a lower income student, first generation student or student of color definitely look into the Oberlin College Research Fellowship and Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. You apply for them during your sophomore year. The Oberlin College Research Fellowship has been provided me with many opportunities and taught me a lot about research, and I would highly recommend it if you are eligible and interested in research in any subject area.

What are some other activities, interests, or hobbies that you pursue?

I am interested by just about everything. Some of my main activities at Oberlin include a number of student organizations such as Immerse Yourself in Service, the Nicaragua Sister Partnership and Tanwir  (the Middle East Studies Student Organization). I am also a Bonner Leader, which is a program at the Bonner Center in which you complete 900 hours of community service over the course of two years. I enjoy playing the cello and study with Catharina Meints in the conservatory. I also enjoy hiking, running and exploring. 

Lab Profile: Lisa Learman ‘16

Lisa Learman is a rising junior doing biology research in Maureen Peters’ lab.

What kind of work is your lab doing over the summer?

Pumping blood, sleep patterns, and the germination of flowers are all examples of biological clocks. Although we are able to understand how these types of systems work on a large scale, relatively little is known about the underlying molecular mechanisms. The Peters lab is starting to understand the mechanisms involved by looking at a biological clock in a somewhat simple organism: Caenorhabditis elegans. The digestive system of C. elegans, called the defecation motor program (DMP) is characterized by three muscular contractions: posterior body muscle contraction, anterior body muscle contraction and finally the enteric muscle contraction which leads to the expulsion of intestinal contents. Currently, we understand that the expulsion contraction is controlled by a molecular pathway that begins with a wave of calcium in the intestinal cells. The calcium wave triggers the release of a neuromodulator called NLP-40. NLP-40 binds to receptor AEX-2 on GABAergic neurons, activates the neurons and causes them to release the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA binds to a receptor on enteric muscle cells, which triggers the calcium influx that allows the expulsion contraction to occur. We have created a mutant that has a defective calcium wave and a mutant that has defective NLP-40. Based on our pathway, these mutants should both have the same defect. We have observed, however, that the calcium wave mutant is much more constipated than the NLP-40 mutant, leading us to believe that the calcium wave may control the release of another neuromodulator that can affect defecation. This summer, we are doing assays to confirm the presence of this additional signaling molecule.

What is your role in that work, as a student researcher? 

As a student researcher, my responsibilities include performing assays, preparing stock solutions and supplies, and maintaining different strains of C. elegans. Additionally, I am sometimes responsible for utilizing C. elegans we have to breed strains of C. elegans with certain genotypes that we require for our assays. On the theory side of things, I am responsible for reading and understanding current publications in our field. It is important that I be able to discuss these papers and raise key questions about their contents. 

What is it like to do summer research at Oberlin?

Doing research at Oberlin during the summer is an informative and rewarding experience. Doing full-time research for several months straight gives student scientists an idea of whether research is an area that they might be interested in pursuing. In my lab, some of our assays take so much time that they are quite difficult to schedule during the school year, making it essential to do them during breaks. Summer allows us the time to answer some of our research questions and raise many more.

What are your future goals in science?

Upon graduating from Oberlin, I plan to pursue a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology or in Molecular Medicine. I hope to one day do research that has a direct impact on human health and disease. Right now, I am still deciding whether I would like to eventually work at a large research hospital or as a professor/researcher at a college or university.

What advice would you give an Oberlin student interested in pursuing summer research?

The most important thing to know about pursuing summer research is that it is not as competitive as one might believe. At Oberlin, most professors are usually willing to let new students into their lab as long as they show genuine interest in their research area. If you are interested in doing summer research with a specific professor, just send them an email or go to their office hours. If they don’t have space for you in their lab, they will most likely be able to recommend another lab for you to work in that does have space for another student researcher.

What are some other activities, interests, or hobbies that you pursue?

In addition to being a Biology major, I am also a Musical Studies major with a concentration in Music Theory. I play flute in the Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra, the Oberlin College Marching Band and in pit orchestra for OMTA shows. Additionally, I enjoy hiking, cooking, and writing.

Lab Profile: Daniel Laufer ‘15

Dan Laufer is a rising senior doing physics research in Rob Owen’s lab.

What kind of work is your lab doing over the summer?

Over the summer, my lab has been working on a couple of different projects. My research advisor and I have been working on generalizing a mathematical formalism that is used to generate approximate symmetries in the simulation of binary black hole mergers. These black holes are assumed to be topological 2-spheres in order to simplify theoretical calculations and to expedite the computational simulations. My lab mate, Perry, has been working on writing a computer program that demonstrates the effects of gravitation lensing on an image of the Earth. It’s also been a time to learn about and explore topics related to General Relativity, since it is not typically taught in the physics curriculum. This has included learning about mathematical structures underpinning the theory, experiments used to test theoretical predictions, and applications of the theory.

What is your role in that work, as a student researcher?

As a student researcher in a theoretical physics lab, I have mainly acted in the capacity of a researcher-learner; while I have helped the lab’s advisor, Rob Owen, with calculations related to the work I mentioned above, this time has also been an opportunity for me to continue my learning as a physicist in preparations for research with Rob for the next two semesters.

What is it like to do summer research at Oberlin?

Since I’m working in a theory lab, the summer research has been relatively laid back. Since there is no equipment apart from a computer and whiteboard, most of the work is in grappling with the abstractions used in the research. As such, I have the freedom to work from home and take breaks as I need to. There are also a lot of very interesting people.

What are your future goals in science?

I’m planning on pursuing graduate studies after I graduate from Oberlin in May, likely either in theoretical physics of some kind and/or network science. After that, I am considering teaching, professorship, research in a government lab or think tank, or some other sort of work a similar vein.

What advice would you give an Oberlin student interested in pursuing summer research?

My advice to students interested in pursuing summer research is as follows: If you’re interested in experimental research, I highly recommend doing summer research. Especially for those first starting to learn about physics, it’s a great way to get a feel for what a research environment feels like, what the community is like in the department, learn, and make some money in the process. As a more theoretically-minded person, this summer has been my first research experience since such research usually requires a knowledge of canonical topics in physics at a higher level than you’d acquire from introductory classes. If you are interested in theoretical research though, don’t let this dissuade you. Talk with professors whose researcher interests strike your fancy and see what you can work out with them. In addition, try to get to know some of the awesome people who are doing research over the summer with you; while it’s important to do research while you’re here, it’s also the summer, so you should try to enjoy the relatively large amounts of free time at your finger tips before the semester starts up.

What are some other activities, interests, or hobbies that you pursue?

I have a strong interest in history (I’m actually a double major in physics and history in the college) and plan on doing simultaneous research in both starting in the fall. I enjoy blues and swing dancing, watching anime and eating in a co-op during the school year (Pyle Inn specifically).  I also like practicing Permaculture Design, along with composing and producing music and improvising at the piano.

Lab Profile: Geoffrey King ‘15

Geoff King is a rising fifth year doing biology research in Laura Romberg’s lab.

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What kind of work is your lab doing over the summer?

How do bacteria know to divide in the middle?  I’m Geoff, and I work for Professor Laura Romberg this summer, as I did last summer.  The Romberg lab is attempting to answer one part of this incredibly complicated question by looking at the interaction between two proteins: FtsZ and EzrA.  When a bacterium is ready to divide, FtsZ forms strands called protofilaments, and from there protofilaments can associate laterally into bundles.  This two step process forms the Z ring, an essential structure onto which other division machinery assembles.  EzrA, the other subject of my work, blocks the lateral association step, called bundling.  This makes Z rings less stable.  Interestingly, EzrA is found both at the poles of a cell, where a bacterium doesn’t want to divide, and in the middle, where it does.  Our interest lies in determining the nature of the interaction between FtsZ and EzrA.  If we can figure out the mechanistic details of the interaction, we’ve discovered a new potential antibiotic target.

What is your role in that work, as a student researcher?

My role in all of this is to do much of the experimental work.  In theory the most important part is to figure out how EzrA interacts (if at all) with different parts of FtsZ.  But behind the scenes, everything is more complicated.  It falls to me to determine how best to purify the proteins, how best to measure their behavior, and carry out some of the assays.

What is it like to do summer research at Oberlin?

Research in Oberlin during the summer is an intense experience, and complements the school year well.  While class is in session, it’s impossible to focus on one thing for an extended period; conversely, summer research demands constant focus.  I find that the two complement each other well.  As the summer passes, more questions about your research invariably arise - is this protein active? Am I controlling for everything? What’s the best medium to grow bacteria? - which add to the workload.  But all of this is immensely satisfying because it gives you a rare chance to know something that no one else in the world knows.

What are your future goals in science?

If I pursue a career in science, I hope to be a doctor of some kind (yet to be determined).  Following graduation, I plan to work as a lab technician to hone my skills and figure out what I actually want to do.

What advice would you give an Oberlin student interested in pursuing summer research?

If you want to do summer research here (and if you’re in the sciences, trust me, you do) the best advice I can give is ask.  No professor will be mad at you for asking, and if they don’t have room for you, there’s surely another who does.

What are some other activities, interests, or hobbies that you pursue?

When I’m not working in lab, I’m most likely working on a piece of music (I’m also a composition major in the Con, and will be studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London in the Fall), making food from all over the world, running, or exploring northern Ohio.

Lab Profile: Chris Eckdahl ‘17

Chris Eckdahl is a rising sophomore doing Physics research in Stephen FitzGerald’s lab.

What kind of work is your lab doing over the summer?

We are investigating how gaseous hydrogen is adsorbed by certain materials called MOF’s (metal organic frameworks).  MOFs consist of metal atoms bound together by organic linkers.  These linkers form micro-pores which molecular hydrogen can get “stuck” inside of.  Our lab uses infrared spectroscopy to investigate how strongly and by what mechanisms hydrogen sticks in these pores.  In the future, MOFs may become useful as a means of storing hydrogen for use as a more environmentally friendly fuel source.

What is your role in that work, as a student researcher?

My work this summer has been focused on two MOFs: “VSB-5” and “MOF-5”.  VSB-5 is a material the lab has not looked at much previously, so my goal was to get nice-looking data that we can build on in the future.  MOF-5 has been studied a lot in the lab, and so I investigated it in much more detail compared to the VSB-5. Two of the main things I am looking at in MOF-5 are conversion between spin isomers of adsorbed hydrogen and the intensity of the hydrogen’s vibrational overtones.

What is it like to do summer research at Oberlin?

Doing summer research gives you a chance to really hone in and focus on one thing.  Rather than bouncing back and forth between different classes, extracurricular activities, and socializing like during the school year, you get a chance to devote all the time and energy you want to working on research, which I have found to be very rewarding.  Also, when you work so closely and frequently with a professor, you learn so much more than you could in any class.  Plus, Oberlin’s campus is absolutely gorgeous during the summer.

What are your future goals in science?

I am still not entirely certain which field I would like to go into, but in any case I would like to continue doing research.  After college I plan to go to school for a PhD and then hopefully begin a career as a professor.

What advice would you give an Oberlin student interested in pursuing summer research?

Do not be afraid to talk to professors whose research interests you.  Oberlin provides a great environment for undergraduate research that a lot of places do not, and a big part of that is how devoted the professors are to getting students involved in research.  Besides making money and getting valuable experience, it is also a lot of fun to work on something you really care about.

What are some other activities, interests, or hobbies that you pursue?

My main other interest is music, specifically playing jazz trumpet.  When I’m not reading about math or science, I’m probably reading about music theory.  I also really enjoy playing soccer and reading about Buddhism.

Oberlin Summer Research Institute students took a break from their work this past Saturday for a bike ride to Elyria, a stop at the falls, and lunch at Donna’s Diner!

The Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences: a HHMI-funded resource for faculty, staff, and students at Oberlin. An awesome source of all things science in Oberlin and in the world. oberlin.edu/clear

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