Undergraduate research
Linda Zhang ’10 explains her and Robert Stefani’s (’10) project, “Bioengineered Sutures for Controlled Drug Delivery.” Credit: John Abromowski/Brown University

Summer labs and learning yield student discoveries

More than 100 undergraduates brought their bright ideas – from blink-controlled robot arms to a novel allergy treatment – to the Summer Research Symposium on August 6.
By Anne Diffily  |  August 6, 2009  |  Email to a friend

The interior of Sayles Hall resembled a high school science fair on Thursday, August 6 – row upon row of tables and easels holding printed backboards, laptop computers displaying charts and videos, earnest students eager to explain their work – with a major difference: The Brown undergraduates at this year’s Summer Research Symposium were not competing for a prize or a grade. Rather, they were demonstrating the sophisticated results of their original work, funded by a variety of Brown-administered programs and fellowships this summer.

Brown undergraduates present their summer research findings at a poster session in Sayles Hall.: Brown undergraduates present their summer research findings at a poster session in Sayles Hall. Ninety-one of the 114 projects on display were supported by UTRAs – Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards, established in the 1980s to give students opportunities to work closely with faculty members and to participate in the process of course development and revision by adding new areas of knowledge to the curriculum. This summer, said Besenia Rodriguez, associate dean of the College for undergraduate research, a total of 212 Brown students received UTRAs. Of those, 203 did research in the United States and the rest at a variety of international locations. Those in the United States received $3,000 to cover their living expenses; those overseas, $3,500. In both cases, the expectation is that recipients will work 35 hours per week for 10 weeks.

Elias Scheer, Ahmad Rana, and Will Allen hope their summer research will lead to a new treatment for allergies.: Elias Scheer, Ahmad Rana, and Will Allen hope their summer research will lead to a new treatment for allergies. “About 45 percent of the UTRA recipients who were in the country presented posters at the symposium,” Rodriguez noted.

Elias Scheer ’12, Ahmad Rana ’11, and Will Allen ’12 were eager to explain their UTRA-funded biomedical project that focused on developing a synthetic treatment for allergic rhinitis – the familiar sneezes and sniffles that afflict sufferers at various times during the plant-growing season. Their method involves inserting a bacterium (Staphyloccus epidermis) found in ticks into a person’s nose to modify the body’s allergic response.

The S. epidermidis is specially engineered to secrete a histamine-binding protein in response to elevated histamine concentrations during an allergic attack. “We incorporated a safety mechanism so that the bacteria won’t grow out of control,” said Scheer. The team of four sophomores and five juniors worked under the aegis of the Brown iGEM program, which enters an annual fall competition in synthetic biology held at MIT. 

Justin Williams ’12 (right) worked with Prof. Corey Walker on a study of race and higher education.: Justin Williams ’12 (right) worked with Prof. Corey Walker on a study of race and higher education. On the other side of the hall, Associate Professor of Africana Studies Corey Walker looked on as his student Justin Williams ’12 presented his study of race and higher education in the 1960s and afterward. The project, “Brown, Tougaloo, the National Security State, and the Survival of Democracy: Rethinking the Relationship During the Cold War,” examined the 1968 walkout by African-American students at Brown that helped spur the University’s targeted recruiting of students of color.

Although sciences were heavily represented, research posters at the symposium spanned the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. In addition to the 91 UTRA grants, project support was provided by Research Experiences for Undergraduates (seven students), Materials Research in Sciences and Engineering Center (four), iGEM (three), the Center for Advanced Materials Research (three), and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowships Program, the Summer Research Assistantship Program, and the Undergraduate Translational Research program (one apiece).

Emily Fessler ’10 worked with a Brown pediatrician on her research in prenatal medicine.: Emily Fessler ’10 worked with a Brown pediatrician on her research in prenatal medicine. While the research projects are invaluable learning experiences and stepping-stones for students, many of whom said they would continue their projects during the academic year and in some cases develop senior theses, Rodriguez noted that the benefits of UTRAs flow both ways: to faculty mentors as well as their students. “Faculty get so much out of this,” she said. “For example, in the case of course development UTRAs, faculty have an opportunity to expand their thinking about a topic and reimagine a course’s content or format.”