Summer Research Program Culminates in Symposium and Project Presentations
The results of 52 scientific research projects conducted this summer by 77 Vassar students and 27 members of the faculty were on display September 29 at the 36th annual Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) Symposium. Addressing those assembled in the Villard Room and dozens more who took part via Zoom, Dean of the Faculty William Hoynes lauded the faculty members for their participation in the research projects, but he offered special thanks to Professor of Biology Mark Schlessman, who has spent 21 of his summers mentoring and collaborating with URSI students.
The symposium’s guest speaker, Mark Daly, Founding Chief of the Analytic and Translational Genetics Unit (ATGU) at Massachusetts General Hospital, Assistant Professor at the Harvard Medical School—and brother of URSI Director and Professor of Physics Brian Daly—spoke about his career in the field of genetics and his recent work collaborating with scientists around the world in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
The researchers have been exploring the genetic determinants of COVID19 susceptibility and severity, and Daly reported that all of the scientists who joined the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative when it was established last year agreed to share all of their data with everyone else. He said he hoped the success of the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative would spur biologists across the globe to share more data with each other in the future. He also noted that the global nature of the pandemic had exposed a lack of inclusion and diversity of patients used in clinical studies. He noted that an initiative has been launched in Africa to help close this gap.
Three of the students who gave oral presentations at the symposium said they had encountered roadblocks during their projects that truly informed them about the nature of research. Jordan Norman ’24 and Lilith Schwarz ’22 said their first attempt to purify proteins for a biochemistry project had failed miserably. “When we tried our first method, the protein simply disappeared,” Schwarz said. Norman said she and Schwarz consulted with some other URSI students and found a solution to their problem.
Luke Thatcher ’22, a physics and mathematics major from Portland ME, said his first idea for building an apparatus for his physics project had also failed, but he soon figured out a way to continue with his project. “I prefer this (research) to the classroom—there are no known answers to the questions you’re asking,” Thatcher said. “Sometimes you’re staring at a blank whiteboard for a while before you figure out the math. The learning is open-ended.”
“URSI is a shining example of what we do—a true collaboration of students and faculty,” Dean Hoynes told the student researchers. “I was struck by the interdisciplinary nature of many of these projects. This integration of teaching and learning and solid research will lead to future research, the publication of papers, and perhaps even the start of your careers. When you leave Vassar, URSI will have given you a strong foundation.”