WHAT THEY DID LAST SUMMER: Reed students share their research projects. Center: bio major Sasha Chang ’22 presented her work on neurogenesis in the eye of the zebrafish.

WHAT THEY DID LAST SUMMER: Reed students share their research projects. Center: bio major Sasha Chang ’22 presented her work on neurogenesis in the eye of the zebrafish.

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Teaming Up With June, July, and August

Reed helps students take advantage of a valuable resource—summertime.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | March 9, 2020

Deciphering the genetic machinery of the Zika virus. Translating the poems of Gerald of Wales. Digging for archaeological relics in Cyprus. Those are just some of the 88 intriguing projects that students pursued last summer, thanks to Reed’s emphasis on student research.

Research, whether it involves test tubes or medieval manuscripts, is fundamental to every discipline. But it also has striking educational benefits for undergrads. A growing body of evidence shows that those who do research get better at overcoming obstacles, thinking independently, and understanding how knowledge is constructed. And 83% of potential employers believe that developing research skills in college will help grads succeed in their careers, according to a study by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

“Undergraduate research is one of the distinguishing features of Reed,” says Alice Harra, director of the Center for Life Beyond Reed. “Our students know how to take in vast amounts of information, synthesize, analyze, and troubleshoot.”

The cornerstone of Reed’s academic program has always been the senior thesis, a yearlong project in which students pursue original scholarship. In the last decade, however, Reed has set out to provide students with more opportunities to undertake research in their sophomore and junior years; the skills they gain from these projects often prove invaluable for their theses and their careers.

“I’ve been really impressed by the resources Reed makes available to support undergraduate research,” says Prof. Tristan Nighswander [economics 2018–], an economist and member of Reed’s Undergraduate Research Committee. “The collaborative approach we take at Reed gives students a real leg up in developing a researcher’s tool kit, not only for their senior theses but for potential careers in think tanks, academia, consulting firms, or policy institutions.”

Summer is the obvious choice for digging into a big project. But it also presents challenges for students and their families, especially those with financial need. Where will they live while the dorms are closed? How will they pay for their room and board? What if they need to earn money to help their families? What about travel expenses?

With the help of generous donors, Reed is building an extensive system to support students’ strong appetite for summer research, including departmental fellowships, opportunity grants, research grants, internships, and creative fellowships.

“There is significant demand for summer research fellowships, and with very good reason,” says Prof. Nigel Nicholson [classics 1995–], dean of the faculty. “These fellowships provide a wonderful opportunity for students to partner with faculty members on their research projects and understand in an intimate way what high-level research looks like. Not only do students learn specific skills that can help them in their own academic work; they also learn crucial soft skills, such as how to work in teams, how to take responsibility for a specific part of a project, and what it means to be answerable to someone else’s agenda and schedule.”

Many alumni say the experience of doing research at Reed proved invaluable later in their careers. Biotechnologist Nick Galakatos ’79 did a summer research internship in organic chemistry after his sophomore year. “This was a great learning experience for me, one that shaped my further academic focus, that included a PhD and a postdoc,” he says. “It was also great fun to be on campus in the summer, and get to know folks without the day-to-day academic pressure. The greatest value for me, however, was to experience research itself, which by definition is doing things that no one else has done before. It was exhilarating to be able to do that. Also, and more importantly, it taught me how to deal with uncertainty and manage failure. When you try to innovate, the outcome is uncertain and failure is more likely than success. Research itself is a great teacher; the more you do, the more successful you are likely to be, and the more successful you are, the more comfortable you become taking risk and innovating!”

Nick, who is now the global head of life sciences at Blackstone (and a Reed trustee), established the Galakatos Fund at Reed to support student research.

Check out some of the amazing projects Reed students pursued last summer, thanks to support from donors like Nick.

Digging for Clues in Cyprus

The death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE plunged the ancient Mediterranean into political chaos. The Walter Englert Classics Student Opportunity Fund and the Rumpakis/Dussin Classics Research Fund helped Reed students go to Cyprus for an archaeological dig. Project supervisor: Prof. Thomas Landvatter [classics 2015–].

The Translator Is a Traitor

Gerald of Wales [1146–1223] is a key source for understanding medieval Britain. An influential writer and priest, he witnessed the Anglo-Norman colonization of Ireland and was a close adviser to Henry II. Surprisingly, several of his poems have never been translated. English major Kashaf Qureshi ’20 pored through medieval Latin manuscripts to transcribe and translate twenty poems, ranging from priestly angst (“On the Given Misery of the Human Condition and Advice for Its Cure”) to political intrigue (“On Dogs and His Rivals Gerald, Acting in the Manner of St. Jerome, Bites Back in Response to Constant Insults”).

Kashaf says, “I learned a lot about the process of translating, which I can sum up with a phrase Prof. Faletra repeated throughout the summer: traduttore, traditore, or “translator, traitor.” I was constantly immersed in this dilemma of translating, struggling to do justice to Gerald’s voice. Translating from any language is difficult because a word in one language can never convey the same thing (at least not in the same way) in another language.” She also caught more than 40 transcription errors made by previous scholars. Her work was supported by a Ruby-Lankford Grant. Project supervisor: Prof. Michael Faletra [English 2001–].

Healing a Wound

How exactly does an organism heal a wound? Skin cells boast an internal structure (known as a cytoskeleton) composed of a network of actin and microtubule microfilaments, which gives the cell shape and allows it to move. Key to this network are gargantuan modular proteins known as spectraplakins, which physically bind the cytoskeleton together.

Bio major Julia Montes-Laing ’20 conducted a series of experiments to examine the role of a particular spectraplakin, known as Shot, in fruit-fly cells. She scratched “wounds” into epithelial sheets to investigate the behavior of cells that were starved of Shot.

“My experience of doing research is very positive,” says Julia. “Impostor syndrome is something I have struggled with throughout my time at Reed, and my time in the Applewhite lab has taught me to be confident in what I can offer the Reed community . . . Having a space that was safe to make mistakes and grow was a crucial part of my Reed experience.”

This project was supported by the Galakatos Fund. Project supervisor: Prof. Derek Applewhite [biology 2014–].

The Physics of Delay

We often associate gadgetry with speed—we want faster calculations, faster searches, faster downloads, and we want them now! But sometimes it’s vital to slow the signal down—stutterers, for example, often find that hearing their own speech echoed back with a split-second delay will smooth their articulation. Some commercial audio gear does this sort of thing, but not very precisely.

Physics major Alex Striff ’21 designed and built an electronic circuit that takes an analog signal (such as music), converts it to digital format, introduces a precise amount of delay, and converts it back to an analog signal.

“Working on this project taught me a lot about both electronics and the human process of research,” says Alex. “While I had a good deal of electronics skills from my own tinkering before Reed and the introductory labs, the need to apply those skills to a real project helped to solidify them. The most important skill that I learned was how to design professional printed circuit boards.”

This project was supported by the Delord-Mockett Fund. Project supervisor: Prof. Lucas Illing [physics 2007–].

Tags: Academics, Financial Aid, Giving Back to Reed, Institutional, Research, Students