Projects + Proposals

2021 Proposals

Anthropology

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

Gibbons are a diverse group of primates, represented by over a dozen species living throughout Southeast Asia today. These “lesser apes” are relatively understudied compared to other primates, such as monkeys which are more distantly related to humans, or the Great Apes which are more closely related to humans. Nevertheless, gibbons are a compelling group for understanding human evolution.

This project will examine variation in gibbon brains, as represented by “endocasts,” which record the impressions of the brain and overlying soft tissues onto the internal surface of the bony skull. In addition to brain endocasts, we will also study the bony labyrinth, which captures the shape of the organs of hearing and balance within the inner ear.

Students will use “virtual anthropology” methods, first to create a database of digital endocasts and labyrinths, produced from computed tomography (CT) scans of skulls, as well as digital models of actual brains produced from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. We then will use this dataset to test various hypotheses, such as whether brain shape better reflects adaptation or evolutionary history. Results of this research will provide new information about these endangered apes, as well as aid interpretation of the human fossil record.

Prerequisites: Students who have taken biological anthropology courses will be given priority, though students of all backgrounds are encouraged to apply.

How should students express interest in this project? To express interest in this project, mention it explicitly in your URSI application, including what relevant experience you have and how the project fits with your interests and long-term research or career goals.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Biology

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

Translation initiation sets the reading frame of protein synthesis. It is the rate-limiting and the most highly-regulated step in the pathway. In eukaryotes, initiation is mediated by a group of eukaryotic initiation factors (eIFs) that bind to the smaller subunit of ribosome (40S) to assemble the ribosome at the start codon and initiate translation. The process begins with the assembly of a  pre-initiation complex (PIC) on the 40S subunit. The PIC then scans along the mRNA from the 5’ end to the 3’ end until it identifies the start codon. Physical features of the 5’ untranslated region (UTR) such as the length or secondary structure impact the scanning efficiency of the PIC, and thus affect translation initiation. eIF3 is the largest and most complex eIF and it participates in mRNA recruitment, scanning, and start codon recognition. We investigated two Saccharomyces cerevisiae mutants lacking eIF3 or a part of it. One mutant targets the structural eIF3a/b subunits (degron), mimicking the loss of the entire eIF3 complex; the other mutant targets the eIF3i subunit (DDKK), resulting in the loss of both eIF3i and eIF3g subunits from the PIC. We measured the translational efficiency (TE) of individual mRNAs using ribosomal profiling, a technique that tracks the ribosome across the entire genome. In both mutants, the overall translation of mRNAs was reduced, with the degron mutant exhibiting the most severe decrease in translation. In both mutants, the most down-regulated genes tend to have longer and more complex 5’ UTRs. We identified a set of mRNAs strongly affected by each mutation and are working to validate these results in vitro. We also compared the TE changes of degron and DDKK with those observed in the presence of mutations to the DEAD-Box RNA helicase Ded1 and eIF4A and a moderate overlap was observed. These results shed new light on the role of eIF3 in promoting the translation of mRNAs at the transcriptome level.

Prerequisites: One 200-level Biology course

How should students express interest in this project? Students should not contact me directly. I will review the list of applicants and reach out to a short list of students for interviews.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

Small Ubiquitin-related Modifier (SUMO) is a post-translational modification that is rapidly attached to target proteins upon exposure to heat, cold, and drought and mitigates damage inflicted by these stresses.  How and why are still unknown. If 'in-person', the student will generate and screen for SUMO knockouts in moss to enable a deeper understanding of the role of this modification in plants.  Students will learn cloning, PCR, Sanger Sequencing, and plant transformation and selection techniques.  If 'remote', the student will design a SUMO sensor system.  Identifying when SUMO modification is occurring requires the use of immunoblotting, which is time consuming and only captures a snapshot of information from when the tissue was collected.  A SUMO sensor would instead use microscopy-based fluorescence to dynamically track SUMOylation.  Students will mine the literature to help rationally design a SUMO sensor.

Prerequisites: None

How should students express interest in this project? Interested students should briefly explain why they are interested in this research topic, and how it fits into their future goals. After reviewing applications, I will set up an interview with a short-list of compatible candidates, and then select from that group.  Students should not contact me directly.

This is an 8 week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

Small Ubiquitin-related Modifier (SUMO) is a post-translational modification that is rapidly attached to target proteins upon exposure to heat, cold, and drought and mitigates damage inflicted by these stresses.  The identity of the SUMO targets in mosses are unknown.  If ‘in-person’, the student will clone histidine-tagged SUMO constructs and introduce them into moss to enable purification of SUMO targets.  The student will learn cloning, PCR, mutagenesis, Sanger Sequencing, and plant transformation and selection techniques. If ‘remote’, the student will mine plant genomes to facilitate identification of elusive SUMO pathway genes in moss.  The information will be used to construct phylogenetic trees to infer evolutionary relationships and gene function.  Students with programming skills are especially encouraged to apply for this project. 

Prerequisites: None.

How should students express interest in this project? Interested students should briefly explain why they are interested in this research topic, and how it fits into their future goals. After reviewing applications, I will set up an interview with a short-list of compatible candidates, and then select from that group.  Students should not contact me directly.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

The webs of orb-weaving spiders are evolved to catch prey. A spider spins a web by combining five silks, some in the form of threads and others as a sticky adhesive. The sticky adhesive silk — microscopic glue droplets placed on capture threads  — is the focus of our research. The versatile properties of this glue make spiders good predators of flying insects, except for one type:  moths.  When moths hit webs, they don’t stick: they shed sacrificial scales that coat their wings and body. This defense has been outflanked by one taxon of spiders that produce a special glue. To study the behavior of this glue as it interacts with the scales of moths, we use a variety of techniques: high-speed micro-videography, adhesive tests, RAMAN spectroscopy, and microfluidic modeling. We seek students with an interest in long-term research training as a Spider Fellow.  Spider Fellows join the laboratory for two years, starting as apprentices and then becoming mentors to incoming apprentices. Preference will be given to rising sophomores/juniors (Classes of ’24/’23) for the three apprentice positions and to rising junior/seniors (Classes of ’23/’22) for the mentor position. This research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Prerequisites: None

How should students express interest in this project?  The student should joint email Candido Diaz, cdiaz@vassar.edu, and John Long jolong@vassar.edu for an interview.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

 

The microbiome plays a critical role in host health, and the close association between microbes and their hosts begins early in development. Environmental challenges such as invasive pathogens and stressful abiotic conditions can perturb the microbiome. However, the impact of environmental stressors on the microbiome during early host development remains virtually unexplored. The goal of this URSI project is to expand our understanding of how environmental stressors influence early formation of the host-associated bacterial communities from the skin and gut of wood frogs (Rana sylvatica). Wood frogs breed in ephemeral ponds, including ponds near roads that have elevated salinity levels due to run-off from de-icing salts. This project seeks to understand if stress induced by elevated salinity disrupts the formation of the skin and gut microbiome and contributes to greater susceptibility to ranavirus infection in wood frog larvae.

This study will include both field and laboratory components. Thus, students should be prepared to participate in a wide variety of activities, from collecting samples in muddy ponds to performing DNA extractions in the lab to processing sequence data on the computer.

Prerequisites: Prior experience with microbiological or molecular research, computer programming, or bioinformatics are welcomed, but not required. BIOL107 or equivalent is required. Must be interested in amphibian conservation.

How should students express interest in this project?  Students interested in this position should send me an email indicating why you are interested in this project and ask any questions that come to mind. Please also briefly describe any relevant experience that you may have.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type – A - Remote-only:  Student participants will not live on campus.

One of the unusual features of eukaryotic genomes is the discordance between genome size and the complexity of the organism. The smallest chromosome in Drosophila melanogaster is chromosome 4 (also known as the Muller F element), with an estimated size of ~5.2 Mb.  While the F element has maintained a similar size in many other Drosophila species, it is substantially larger in at least four Drosophila species (i.e., D. ananassae, D. bipectinata, D. kikkawai, and D. takahashii). For example, the D. ananassae Muller F element is more than 18.7 Mb in size. The goal of this study is to examine the factors (e.g., transposon density) that have contributed to the expansion of the F element in these four Drosophila species, and assess the impact of this expansion on gene characteristics (e.g., codon bias, intron size).  This is a collaborative project with the Genomics Education Partnership, involving hundreds of undergraduate students from around the country, to produce coding region and transcription start site annotations for F element genes in D. ananassae, D. bipectinata, D. kikkawai, and D. takahashii, as well as for genes in a euchromatic reference region derived from the Muller D element.  Comparative analyses using these datasets will provide insights into the evolutionary impacts of changes in chromosome and gene size. 

Prerequisites: BIOL 108

How should students express interest in this project?  Students do not need to contact me before or after applying.  After reviewing all the applications from students who have expressed an interest in my project, I will reach out to the subset of applicants who I am interested in interviewing.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - C - In-person-only: It will be cancelled if we are not allowed to have URSI students come to campus this summer.

Herbaria, collections of pressed and dried plants, are important for documenting plant biodiversity, understanding how plant biogeography has changed over time, and predicting future change.  Advances in digital imaging, data capture, and georeferencing have made herbaria especially valuable for studies of the effects of climate change on plant distributions, flowering times, etc., and for pinpointing introductions and tracing the spread of invasive plant species.  Supported by the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program of the National Science Foundation, we are making a concerted effort to digitize six herbaria belonging to member of the Hudson Valley Environmental Monitoring & Management Alliance (EMMA).  You will be part of a travelling team that will image specimens at the Fordham’s Calder Center, the Highstead Arboretum, the Huyck Preserve, and the Mohonk Preserve.  You will learn how to prepare herbarium specimens, make digital images of them, geo-reference them, and transcribe specimen data for online availability.  You will also learn how to apply the international rules for naming plants, the science behind plant classification, why the correct name and classification for a species can change, and how herbaria are utilized in big data studies of climate change, invasive species, habitat fragmentation, etc. 

Prerequisites: Enthusiasm for plant biodiversity is a must!  Relevant course work, i.e. BIOL 208, BIOL 241, BIOL 393 on plant biodiversity, ENST 124, is desirable but not required.  You must also be comfortable with traveling to the EMMA herbaria and possibly staying at some locations overnight.

How should students express interest in this project? Please email Dr S. (schlessman@vassar.edu) to express your interest, ask questions, and arrange for an interview.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - C - In-person-only: It will be cancelled if we are not allowed to have URSI students come to campus this summer.

The Vassar Ecological Preserve is implementing a Conservation Action Plan to manage the threats its ecological communities are facing in a changing climate.  The characterization of the ecological communities on the preserve is important for understanding the status of habitats and developing interventions to ensure that the key ecological attributes of priority communities are maintained and restored.  Many of the vegetation patterns we see on the ecological preserve are driven by its complex land use history.  This collaborative URSI project will focus on assessing the accuracy of the existing ecological communities map, mapping land use history on the preserve, and working to implement ongoing monitoring protocols that track indicators of ecological community health.  We will work to link our findings to management interventions that will improve the resiliency of communities on the ecological preserve.  Ecological restoration of priority areas on the Preserve and natural areas on campus such as the Edith Roberts Ecological Laboratory will also be conducted, including on-site propagation of native species for these restoration efforts.

Students will have the opportunity to learn a wide range of field techniques and restoration strategies. This position will provide an excellent opportunity for any student interested in pursuing conservation biology, restoration ecology, natural resource management and/or ecology as a career.

The project will be based out of the Collin’s Field Station at the Vassar Ecological Preserve.

Prerequisites:  An interest in land management, restoration, ecological monitoring, and mapping is essential.  Classes such as GIS: Spatial analysis, Cartography, Ecology, Plant Diversity, Introductory Biology, and Conservation Biology would be helpful.  Applicants should have plant and animal identification skills and be able to use a dichotomous key.   The successful candidate must enjoy working outdoors, have good organizational skills, and be capable of working in adverse conditions.

How should students express interest in this project? This is a collaborative project between Keri Van Camp (Director of the Ecological Preserve) and Meg Ronsheim (Biology) and we will work together to build a team for this summer's project.  Once we have received all the URSI applications we will contact you to set up a time to meet.  We are also happy to answer any questions you might have during the application process.  This project is in-person only.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Chemistry

Project Type - A - Remote-only:  Student participants will not live on campus.

Two-dimensional (2D) transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDs) are attractive semiconductors for use in electronic, optoelectronic, and spintronic devices. The optoelectronic properties of 2D TMDs can be tuned for specific applications via doping, alloying, or applying strain. Previous experimental and theoretical studies have investigated the individual effects of each of these modification strategies. In this project, we propose to use density functional theory calculations to examine the combined effects of alloying and applying strain in TMDs, focusing on the group-VIB TMDs.

Prerequisites: Chem-125 - Chemical Principles
Strongly recommended: Chem-292 - Computational Techniques in Chemistry
Familiarity with Unix shell environment and basic Unix commands is a plus

How should students express interest in this project? Students will be contacted for interviews after applications have been submitted.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

The microtubule associated protein tau has a variety of important cellular functions, most notably binding to, stabilizing, and organizing microtubules in axons. Tau is also implicated in a host of neurodegenerative disorders such as Pick’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, parkinsonism linked to chromosome 17 and Alzheimer’s disease, which are all characterized by abnormal aggregation of the protein. In spite of significant recent research attention, the full range of tau's normal functions are not completely understood. The overall goal of this project is to build a better understanding of tau’s behavior when it is bound to microtubules, including changes in structure and function that precede pathological aggregation. To achieve this end, this project will investigate the properties of tau when it is bound to solid supports in physiologically-relevant conformations, applying an atomic force microscopy (AFM) based assay that interrogates the protein at the nanoscale.

Prerequisites: Courses desired, but not required: introductory chemistry, biology, and physics.

How should students express interest in this project? Email me with a one paragraph description of why you're interested in the project and how it fits into your overall academic and/or career goals. After reviewing this description, resume, and transcript I will select some students for in person interviews.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

Humans and microbes have a complex relationship. The advent of antibiotics allowed humans to fight pathogenic bacterial infections that threatened our livelihood. However, microbiome dysbiosis, the imbalance of symbiotic microbial populations in the body which can be caused by lifesaving antibiotics, has been implicated in many areas of human health. We will use biochemical and biophysical techniques to characterize proteins from various pathogenic or symbiotic microbes. These studies help to provide further understanding of essential microbial processes at the molecular level. Students working in the lab will gain experience with gel electrophoresis, protein expression and purification, in vitro enzyme assays, and protein crystallization.

Prerequisites: Chem 125 (required); Bio 107 (or equivalent intro bio course) and Bio 272 (preferred)
OR related previous lab work (describe in application)

How should students express interest in this project? In their application, students should describe briefly 1) why they are interested in this project, and 2) how working on this project will help them reach their career goals. Students do not need to contact me directly. After reviewing the applications, I will contact selected candidates about setting up an interview.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - C - In-person-only: It will be cancelled if we are not allowed to have URSI students come to campus this summer.

The goal of this project is to investigate new reagents that will advance the state-of-the-art in the field of chiral amine synthesis. Specifically, the research will focus on compounds of transition metals with chiral ligands that will be investigated as reagents for imine (C=N) reductive hydrogenation to produce chiral hydrocarbon substituent on amines, and perhaps other similar organic transformations. We will prepare and characterize new imine substrates and reductive hydrogenation reagents, and examine the conversion to product amine, the stereoselectivity, and the mechanism of the transformation.

Prerequisites: Interested students must have completed Organic Chemistry 244/245 before the start of URSI, and experience with NMR would be helpful but is not required.

How should students express interest in this project? Before submitting their application, I invite interested students to write me an email with a short description of why they would like to conduct a synthetic chemistry project and how it fits into their overall academic pursuits as an undergraduate and beyond.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Computer Science

Project Type - A - Remote-only:  Student participants will not live on campus.

This project involves a group of three students working together to implement and test algorithms from the literature on Simple Temporal Networks (STNs) and Simple Temporal Networks with Uncertainty (STNUs).  The goal will be to create a library of efficient implementations that will be made available to researchers in temporal reasoning, as well as a repository of repeatable test results evaluating, comparing and contrasting temporal reasoning algorithms.  Students will be given tutorials, papers and/or pseudocode for the algorithms to be implemented.  The focus will be on quality over quantity (e.g., well documented efficient code, as well as thorough & reproducible empirical evaluations).

Prerequisites: Students should have familiarity with object-oriented programming (e.g., in Java, Python, or Lisp), basic CS algorithms, and general software design concepts, for example, as demonstrated by a strong record in computer science courses such as CMPU-102, CMPU-241 and CMPU-203.  A basic background in mathematics would also be beneficial.

How should students express interest in this project?  Interested students should contact Prof. Hunsberger by email (hunsberger@vassar.edu) explaining their interest in the project, as well as their general interests in computer science. Interviews can then be conducted by Zoom where possible.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

Lightweight virtualization environments, or microVMs, are gaining popularity as a secure unit of execution that can meet the increasingly stringent performance demands of emerging cloud programming models like serverless computing.  For example, to boot a Linux kernel under 150 ms, modern virtual machine monitors (VMMs) bypass much of the traditional boot sequence, especially bootstrapping logic.  However, these fast boot times can come at the expense of security.  This project explores the interface between the Linux kernel and VMMs to provide secure and fast booting of virtual machines.

Prerequisites: Having completed CMPU-224 is required. Familiarity with building the Linux kernel and installing Linux helpful but not required. Knowledge of the Rust language also helpful but not required.

How should students express interest in this project?  I will contact students who have applied.  Students do not need to contact me.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Cognitive Science

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

This URSI project continues our lab's long-term project of exploring the phenomenon of learned categorical perception and the claim that learning new categories changes the way we perceive stimulus differences and similarities.  The work will include evaluating current research, visualizing and analyzing data, developing further experiments, conducting experiments online, applying meta-analytic techniques to relevant research literature, and preparing material for conference presentation and/or publication.

Prerequisites: Intermediate level coursework in cognitive science, interest in the project, and a willingness to learn and program in JavaScript and R are required; background in programming, research methods, and statistics, and prior familiarity with R, are very desirable.

How should students express interest in this project?  Students do not need to contact me with regard to their application.  Applications should address what the student finds interesting about this particular project and what they hope to gain from the experience.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type -B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

This project will continue design and development work for The Brain Game Lab (thebraingamelab.org). The Brain Game Lab is an online research platform to study human cognition. On the website, groups of people can play a series of social games together. These games are designed to assess different aspects of cognition, such as attention, perception, memory, and decision making. By randomizing different aspects of the games and seeing how players perform, we can run large-scale controlled experiments.

As an URSI student you will contribute to the project in at least one of the following ways:

(1) Game/experiment design and development, using JavaScript, HTML, and CSS as the core technologies.

(2) App development, focusing on building the website infrastructure to support games. This involves working with React (https://reactjs.org/) and Firebase (https://firebase.google.com/).

(3) User Experience (UX) research and design.

Prerequisites: Requirements depend on the way that you imagine yourself contributing. For game/experiment design and development, experience with programming and/or experience with experimental design are valuable skills. For app development, experience with JavaScript and React (or the ability to quickly learn these technologies) is crucial. For UX research/design, experience in design work and experimental methods will be very useful.

How should students express interest in this project?  I will contact students for interviews after applications are submitted. When you submit an application, please describe what kind(s) of work you imagine yourself doing on the project (e.g., game design vs. app development vs. UX). If you have any relevant prior experiences or projects, please share those in the application. Seeing something you've done, even if it is a small project, is valuable.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Earth Science

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

What role did the ocean play in climate change in the ancient past? In this project, we will use sediment cores collected from a recent deep-sea drilling expedition to investigate the evolution of climate and ocean chemistry during the Eocene period (57-40 million years ago). During this time, Earth experienced an overall warm climate alongside rapid warming events; crocodiles swam at the poles and rainforests blanketed Antarctica. Understanding how climate and life operated in a warmer world is a central question in Earth science today. This project will constrain how the Southern Pacific Ocean (close to Antarctica) responded to and controlled Eocene climate change. To do this, we will use tiny marine fossils called foraminifera as our indicators. Foraminifera are small marine protists that make calcium carbonate shells, similar to corals. The species assemblages and geochemistry of these shells yields insight into climate and ecosystem changes over time. Research tasks will include general characterization of marine sediments, processing of marine sediments to isolate fossils, determination of fossil preservation and species composition, and geochemical analysis. This project will involve coordination with an international group of researchers working to characterize these newly recovered ocean sediments.

Prerequisites: ESCI 151 or another Introductory course in Earth Science or Environmental Studies.

How should students express interest in this project?  To apply for this position, please email me with a short statement (~100-150 words, or a few sentences) of how this project fits into your interests and goals. Upon receiving your email, I will reach out to set up an appointment for us to discuss the project.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Physics

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

Ultrafast lasers produce pulses of light that are less than 1 picosecond (A millionth of a millionth of a second) in duration.  These remarkable light sources allow for investigations of extremely short-lived phenomena in solid materials.  Of particular interest to my research group are the conduction of heat and the propagation of ultrasound in novel nanostructures. We have several goals this summer. First, we have an ongoing project to study very thin (in some cases a few atomic layers!) transition metal dichalcongenides which are materials that have interesting optical and electronic properties.  Second, in specially designed nanostructures we are generating and detecting surface acoustic waves at their highest possible frequencies-near 50 GHz.   Techniques will include laser experiments, the growth of thin metal films, and computational modeling of vibrational and electromagnetic waves.

Prerequisites: Required: 1 full year of physics and math at Vassar.   Recommended: PHYS 200, PHYS 202/203, MATH 220, MATH 228

How should students express interest in this project?  Aside from this application, you do not need to contact me in order to express your interest in the project. I will send out emails to contact you once I have read through all the applications.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

Topological insulators are a special kind of crystals that allow the existence of unidirectional currents at the quantum scale. This unidirectional current—also called edge state— has an exceptional ability: it is not disturbed by material imperfections. Then, these materials promise to be an important part of more efficient electronic devices. Unfortunately, the observation of the edge states in quantum systems require very sophisticated instruments.  Though, it was recently demonstrated that topological phases could exist even in classical devices, under the appropriate conditions. Actually, these conditions are met when the materials are engineered to emulate the properties of quantum systems. Nowadays there are reports of acoustic, photonic, and mechanical topological insulators. In the case of a mechanical topological insulator, a crystal lattice can be emulated by using an array of harmonic oscillators.  In this project, the student will implement a mechanical topological insulator. In particular, one- and two-dimensional cases will be under analysis. The design of the structures will be done by numerical simulations, while their fabrication will be performed by using 3D-printing techniques. It is expected that the results of this project find technological applications.

Prerequisites: Any student at Vassar has the skill required for this project. Though, it is an advantage to have the following knowledge:

  • Harmonic oscillators
  • Basic understanding of crystals
  • Basic quantum mechanics

Exceptional students without one of these requirements will be also considered.

How should students express interest in this project?  Students must submit their application to the URSI program. I will email the students that meet the requirements of the project to arrange an interview. After the interviews, I will email the selected student.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Psychological Science

Project Type - C - In-person-only: It will be cancelled if we are not allowed to have URSI students come to campus this summer.

Generalization represents the transfer of conditioned responding to stimuli that perceptually resemble the original conditioned stimulus. Despite the immense theoretical importance of generalization in the field of psychology, the nature and site of formation and storage of generalization in the brain is poorly defined. One way to study the physical representation of memory in the brain (i.e., the engram) is through genetic “tagging” technology. Genetic tagging allows for the identification and tracking of groups of neurons in the brain over time in a genetically modified mouse model. Recently, we began a transgenic breeding program to produce mice that express a Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) reporter that is restricted to functionally defined (Arc/arg3.1) populations of neurons in the brain (ArcCreERT2). These mice permit indelible genetic access to functionally defined neurons, for the lifetime of the organism. The goal of this URSI project is to conduct a “proof-of-principle” series of experiments to verify the use of ArcCreERT2 x EYFP transgenic mice to visualize neurons activated in response to a conditioned stimulus, and under experimental conditions that promote generalization (the passage of time). In this way, we will have the opportunity to identify and directly compare the underlying neuronal ensemble structure of a cued and generalized aversive memory trace.

Prerequisites: The URSI project requires interest/experience in psychological science and/or neuroscience. Courses in Introduction to Neuroscience & Behavior (Neuro 105), Research Methods in Physiological Psychology (Psyc 249), and Principles of Physiological Psychology (Psyc 241) are desirable, but not required. Basic animal handling skills, chemistry lab skills, and data analytic skills are also highly desirable. The project will involve working with a team that will include fellow URSI students and faculty. See the Memory Neuroscience Lab website for more information about our research.

How should students express interest in this project?  Dr. Bergstrom will evaluate all applications and reach out to students. Please do not contact Dr. Bergstrom with interest.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type -B - Flexible:  It will be in-person if we are allowed to have URSI students on campus, but it will become a remote project if not.

Understanding brain function requires the ability to image neuronal activity and then process neuronal network computations in real time and space. Here at Vassar, we have recently developed a miniaturized microscope (i.e., the Miniscope) that allows us to peer deep inside the brain to study neuronal activity at single cell resolution and at high speed. This technology produces terabytes of high-dimensional video data, creating challenges in both data processing and data analysis. Last year a team of URSI students constructed a computational architecture derived from a series of open-source packages in Python to address these challenges. This team also implemented other analysis tools, specifically DeepLabCut, to correlate behavioral data with its corresponding neural activity. This URSI project will 1) apply the Miniscope and behavioral analytic pipeline to numerous experimental videos to obtain quantifiable neural and behavioral activity patterns, and 2) begin to develop a set of data analytic tools using machine learning to decode the relationship between brain activity and behavior.

Prerequisites: Experience or interest in programming, data science, big data, machine learning, neuroscience, psychology, and/or cognitive science is preferred. The project will involve working with a team that will include fellow URSI students and faculty, so we encourage students who have some but not all of the relevant experience or interests to apply.

How should students express interest in this project?  Profs. Bergstrom and Zupan will contact applicants to schedule interviews.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - C - In-person-only: It will be cancelled if we are not allowed to have URSI students come to campus this summer.

This project will follow up an archival sample to examine adolescent predictors of longevity, with specific hypotheses to be developed by early in the summer.  This summer's URSI work may build on previous studies (both published and pilot studies) using this sample.

Prerequisites: Psyc200 Statistics & Experimental Design (required)  Psyc262 Fundamentals of Clinical Psychology (preferred)

How should students express interest in this project?  Students' application statement should highlight academic interests and preparation.  Once applications have been submitted, the faculty researcher will review them and may contact students for interviews.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Sue Trumbetta (Psychological Science), Maria Höhn (History), and Adam Brown (New School, Clinical Psychology)

Project Type - A - Remote-only:  Student participants will not live on campus.

As part of a multi-year project with the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education’s (CFMDE), two Vassar URSI students will conduct empirical research on mental health among forcibly displaced populations.  Students will work with Professor Adam Brown and his graduate students in the Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab at the New School for Social Research (New York City) during the first part of the summer (4-6 weeks).  This work will introduce students to some of the databases and data analytic techniques necessary to their URSI research.

Prerequisites: PSYC 200 or other Statistics course strongly preferred.  Command of a language other than English strongly preferred.

How should students express interest in this project?  Professors Trumbetta and Höhn will contact students for interviews; students will also interview with Professor Brown.

This is an 8-week project running from June 15 – Aug 7 (1 week later start and end than other projects)

Project Type - C - In-person-only: It will be cancelled if we are not allowed to have URSI students come to campus this summer.

The mouse model of Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), the largest single-gene cause of autism, recapitulates many autism-related behaviors including abnormal sociability, a core symptom of many neurodevelopmental disorders. Our lab has shown, however, that genetically unaffected mice derived from fmr1-deficient females also show behavioral abnormalities, specifically increased sociability, suggesting that reduction in maternal fmr1 expression has an intergenerational programming effect on offspring neurodevelopment. Sociability is modulated in part by oxytocinergic (OXTergic) signaling in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and while intranasal OXT increases social approach in control mice, those programmed by maternal fmr1 deficiency show reduced social approach following OXT administration. Reduced sensitivity to OXT may be due in part to altered expression of OXT receptors (OXTRs) in the VTA and/or dysregulated OXTR function. As our previous data suggests no differences in OXTR expression in a subset of OXT VTA neurons, this project will assess VTA OXT receptor function using an already established behavioral neuropharmacology approach. The project will involve extensive animal handling, behavioral testing, and data processing. Opportunity to perform surgical manipulation and tissue harvest will depend on candidate’s degree of experience/comfort with invasive procedures.

Prerequisites: Previous rodent handling and research experience as well as successful completion of Research Methods in Physiological Psychology preferred.

How should students express interest in this project?  Applications will be assessed by Dr. Zupan who will email applicants if they are invited for an interview. Please do not email Dr. Zupan directly.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31

Project Type - C - In-person-only: It will be cancelled if we are not allowed to have URSI students come to campus this summer.

Social behavior is modulated in part by activity of dopamine (DA) neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Specifically, DAergic projections to the nucleus accumbens (NAc) bidirectionally modulate duration of social interaction: increased DAergic activity increases social interaction time while decreased neural activity decreases time spent with a novel same-sex conspecific. Our lab has found that maternal fmr1 deficiency (a mouse model of Fragile X Syndrome, largest single-gene cause of autism) programs social behavior, possibly by altering DA neuron activity in the VTA. Electrical activity of neurons is accompanied by rapid changes in intracellular calcium levels, which can be detected in vivo using fluorescently-labeled calcium sensors and miniscope technology (see G. Coste URSI 2018 project). This project is a continuation of ongoing work in the lab that aims to determine whether maternal fmr1-dependent changes in sociability are indeed associated with dysregulated activity of DAergic neurons in the VTA.  The project will involve extensive animal handling, behavioral testing, and data processing. Opportunity to perform surgical manipulation and tissue harvest will depend on candidate’s degree of experience/comfort with invasive procedures.

Prerequisites: Previous rodent handling and research experience as well as successful completion of Research Methods in Physiological Psychology preferred.

How should students express interest in this project?  Applications will be assessed by Dr. Zupan who will email applicants if they are invited for an interview. Please do not email Dr. Zupan directly.

This is an 8-week project running from June 7 – July 31