This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Associate professor of biology David Jemiolo and Maria Kern ’11 in an URSI biochemistry laboratory. Photo courtesy Vassar College / John Abbott.

URSI Celebrates Silver Anniversary

The Undergraduate Research Summer Institute celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer, when 60 students will tackle nearly 40 projects spanning the departments of anthropology, biochemistry, biology, chemistry, cognitive science, computer science, earth science, mathematics, physics and astronomy, and psychology. They join more than 1,100 alumnae/i who’ve participated in the program since its inception in 1986.

For many students, URSI will prove a defining moment of their time at Vassar, says Joe Tanski '95, associate professor of chemistry and URSI director. It will also prove a launching point. A 2005 survey revealed that more than 80% of URSI alumnae/i pursued advanced degrees, and more than half earned a Ph.D., M.D., or both.

In a typical year, URSI will only have enough room to accept 1 in 3 applicants, and this year is no different. Highlights of the 2011 projects include:

  • An archeological excavation in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands where students will camp on cold, rainy Adak Island for 6 to 8 weeks, working 7 days a week, 13 to 14 hours per day, excavating an Aleut site.
  • A cognitive science project that will work on building “bioinspired sensory systems” for underwater navigation, studying the electromagnetic perceptual abilities of sharks.
  • A computer science project that will develop “self-reconfigurable robotic systems,” essentially building Transformers that can morph from one shape into another.
  • A physics and astronomy project at the Vassar Applied Optics Lab, where students will focus their energies on studying better, more environmentally-friendly photodetectors and solar cells.
  • A psychology project in which students will explore how our personalities as adolescents may or may not predict our later-life adult selves.

This fall, on October 1, the annual URSI Symposium will recap these projects and more, and include visiting speaker Dr. Eric R. Kandel, M.D., winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

URSI’s role at Vassar—and in the broader scientific community—has long been recognized as fundamentally important. An oft-cited analysis by Nobel Prize winner Thomas Cech in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, noted that liberal arts colleges produce about twice as many science Ph.D.’s per graduate as baccalaureate institutions in general. Meanwhile, top liberal arts colleges “vie with the nation’s very best research universities in their efficiency of production of eventual science Ph.D.’s,” wrote Cech.

Now with the new planned Integrated Science Center—anchored by the Bridge building and including updates to much of the college’s science facilities—URSI’s future is looking particularly bright. –Peter Bronski

June 2011

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