Summer Science Scholars gain insights

A s Kenyon junior Ryan Depew begins to think about life after college, he dreams of moving from his current study of the stars to a job developing in-line skates for roller-bladers. Perhaps his experiences in the College's Summer Science Scholars program will help him bridge the gap between those two disparate pursuits.

The physics major from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, says he learned a great deal about the scientific process last summer as he used an image-processing program on a Unix computer to analyze a colliding galaxy system called NGC 520.

"I'm very thankful for the experience," says Depew. "I gained an insight into what it's like to do a lot of the dirty work involved when you're starting out in research. I also understand a lot more about galactic collisions than I ever did before, and I learned firsthand that not all research comes out the way you want it."

Depew was one of twenty-eight Kenyon students who received $2,500 fellowships to participate in the Summer Science Scholars program in 1998. The program provides opportunities for students to work in close collaboration with faculty members, each of whom typically serve as mentor to just one or two students during the course of a summer. Students are full participants in the processes of creating a research plan, executing the project, and preparing the results for a public presentation.

Their research interests vary widely. Marisha Stawiski, a senior from Grand Rapids, Michigan, studied how gill-membrane proteins in fiddler crabs affect their ability to regulate their metabolisms as water salinity changes. Katie Varda, a senior from Ada, Michigan, used computer molecular modeling to study enzymes in the brain that have been linked to development of Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. Heather Mathews, a senior from Canton, Ohio, focused on an area of statistics, decision theory, that quantifies decisions so one can pursue actions that minimize losses in specific situations.

"It was an amazing experience for me," says Mathews, a mathematics major who created computer simulations in her research and wrote a fifty-page paper on her findings. "I was able to devote my time to a thorough exploration of one topic, unlike during the academic year when my time is split between classes and so many other activities. It still amazes me how much I accomplished."

She also enjoyed building a closer working relationship with her Summer Science Scholar mentor, Assistant Professor of Mathematics Brian Jones. "He has a natural enthusiasm for tackling problems, which made the summer all the more enjoyable," says Mathews.

Enjoying a similar experience was Stawiski, who worked with Assistant Professor of Biology Chris Gillen. "I learned how challenging it is to work in a lab setting," she says, "but at the same time how rewarding it is when you get good results."

Such collaborative research between students and faculty members reflects Kenyon's philosophy about the teaching of science. "We feel it's important for students to do chemistry and not simply read chemistry," says Assistant Professor of Chemistry Scott Cummings. "They become more engaged in their field when they conduct research. Research is a major part of our teaching."

The Summer Science Scholars program provides students with an opportunity to see the human side of their professors, according to Gillen. "They see we don't carry around in our heads every known thing in our disciplines," he explains. "They see us go to reference manuals to look up things. That helps teach them the processes by which a researcher learns to perform a task in the lab. Once they have that, they can do anything."

The program isn't all work, though. "We went berry-picking one day and had a cookout," recalls Mathews. "On Fridays, each lab would take a turn providing a snack of some sort--ice-cream sundaes, fruit salad, or cheesecake. There also were community softball games and a group that got together to play volleyball in the evenings. While we all spent plenty of time on our research, we also had time to have some fun."

Like some of his fellow Summer Science Scholars, Depew says he wasn't aware of the program when he enrolled at Kenyon. "It's just another plus," he says. "I came here because I loved the campus and how I felt whenever I visited. I still feel that way."

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