Science Spoken Here

Summer immersion at Middlebury extends beyond its renowned Language Schools. In another intensive learning tradition, more than 100 undergraduates have been conducting summer research in the sciences and humanities with their Middlebury professors. We visited five science labs in McCardell Bicentenntial Hall and met students and teachers working full-time on advanced scientific questions. Although the language they use can sound foreign (myristyltrimethylammonium, anyone?) they explained what they’re working on and how it could translate into everyday life—from carbon-neutral home heating to cleaning up toxic spills with a material right underfoot.

Feats of Clay

They’re highly toxic and as common as the gasoline that contains them: benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene, or BTEX chemicals. Keeping them out of soil and water is essential for public and environmental health, but standard methods for chemical clean-up using activated charcoal are expensive. Professor Molly Costanza-Robinson and her environmental chemistry researchers are probing new ways to use clay, which is cheap—and everywhere.

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Littlefield prepares to calibrate the UV visible spectroscope to measure adsorption. The instrument can detect contaminants; as they get adsorbed by clays, the signal decreases.

Malcolm Littlefield ’13 and Annie Mejaes ’13 are environmental studies majors with chemistry foci. It’s Littlefield’s second summer and Mejaes’s first in the lab with Costanza-Robinson. Environmentalists and chemistry enthusiasts since high school, the students will each do a thesis with her this year. “It’s super important for them to be here in the summer so they can develop the methods,” Costanza-Robinson says.

The project is new to this lab, and although others have shown that it more-or-less works, the available literature hasn’t explained the detailed chemistry behind the process. So the trio must experiment with ways to mix surfactants—soap-like substances—with clay to create an organophilic surface that will bind, or adsorb, the organic (carbon-based) BTEX toxins. Clay’s physical qualities—high surface area and dense packability—render it valuable in lining landfills. By chemically tweaking it with the right surfactants at the right levels, it could become what Mejaes calls “superclay.“ To do that, Costanza-Robinson says, “we’re digging in on the chemical level to understand how the surface properties and structure of the modified clay influence adsorption of contaminants. You want predictive capability so you don’t have to test every chemical in the world.”

Costanza-Robinson notes, “All my projects have a dual scope: studying fundamental processes in the lab and thinking about the real-world environmental applications.” After graduating next year, both Littlefield and Mejaes are considering working in environmental fields and then entering graduate school.

Taking a Bite Out of Lyme

Tracy Borsinger ’13 and Joe Damron ’13 both plan on medical careers. This summer, they’re researching a contributing factor to a disease U.S. physicians increasingly encounter—Lyme. Each student has seen the tick-borne illness‘s effects: Tracy’s brother and father in New Jersey both suffer from it, and during an internship in the emergency room of his Virginia hometown hospital, Joe helped patients who had come in with related ailments. “That’s the big picture,” says Damron. “Now we’re looking at the small-scale processes beneath it.”

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Damron and Borsinger at the bench. Each has seen the suffering Lyme can cause: “It gives great context to the bench stuff we do,” says Damron.

Their guide to Lyme’s biochemical scale is Professor Bob Cluss, who since 1988 has been investigating different properties of the disease’s agent, the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi. Cluss explains their focus: “We’re looking at enolase, an enzyme the spirochete secretes outside itself. Enolase is a workhorse enzyme in metabolism, but it seems to have a ‘moonlighting’ or secondary function that helps it establish itself in a mammalian host and cause disease.” Borsinger and Damron are both new to Cluss’s lab, building the techniques they’ll use in their senior theses this year, including cloning genes and working with live organisms. For both students, controlling their procedures is key: “We’re both learning to set up consistent procedures so we can recreate conditions over and over,” Borsinger says.

The students are also learning the dynamics of their first full-time experience in a research lab. Cluss explains, “There’s so much to learn—the specific vocabulary, the literature, even getting used to one another.” As a veteran teacher, he can tell them what to expect: “It takes about a month to get your bearings. Experiments start to click, you feel your rhythm, and after six  months, we’re complete equals—you’re bouncing things off me, I’m bouncing things off you. That’s the way science is—it’s collaborative.”

A Subtle Force in Physics

Microchips govern the accelerometers in your car airbags and tell your smart phone which way is up. If this kind of technology continues to shrink, quantum mechanical Casimir forces will come into play. While they’re negligible in everyday life, Casimir forces (aspects of the electromagnetic force) matter in microelectronics and nanotechnology, says Professor Noah Graham. As these forces interact with different shapes in devices, will they create greater precision or greater hazard? The answer hinges on a larger question Graham and his student researchers are asking:  “How do light and matter interact?”

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How does light reflect off objects with different shapes? An experimental apparatus is set up to measure the Casimir force between a sphere and the planar substrate below. Though these forces were first theorized by Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir in 1948, computers weren’t robust enough to verify them until the 1990s. Photo courtesy of the Mohideen lab, UC Riverside.

For two summers, Aden Forrow ’13 and Bjorn Kjellstrand ’13 have worked with Graham on increasingly advanced versions of that question. Their scale is quantum-mechanical; their tools are equations and computers. Kjellstrand shares his “elevator” version of their research: “What happens when you shoot one particle at another? They don’t hit each other—they get really close and they scatter.” Scattering theory, says Graham, is a broad subject in physics and engineering and has many useful applications. Forrow adds, “We have equations we know are correct. We know what the rules are for interaction. If we have a new situation, what happens?” What they find can help calculate the strength and potential effect of Casimir forces.

Kjellstrand and Forrow both plan on graduate school. Meanwhile, this summer’s research and their senior thesis work will continue to advance this project, which Graham shares with fellow physicists at MIT, in Italy, and in Germany.

This is Your Brain on Trauma

Why do some trauma survivors overreact (or underreact) to events in daily life? By testing combat veterans and people who’ve survived motor vehicle accidents in his psychology lab, Professor Matthew Kimble and his student researchers are amassing evidence that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is neurophysiological—trauma actually rewires the brain. “You can’t fake brain waves,” Kimble says.

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“I’m interested in PTSD, and it’s great to be focused 100 percent on my work here," says Patrick Hebble (left) shown with Professor Matthew Kimble. "I’m excited to come in to the lab every day.” He’ll conduct his thesis research with Kimble this academic year and is considering medical school, research, or teaching.

Pat Hebble ’13 has spent several years in Kimble’s lab, working with subjects, analyzing a growing body of data on PTSD, and building critical skills for his thesis. “I can start to edit data and explain the results,” he says. “I’m having a blast.” Although Hebble has taken to research’s “many tasks and minute details,” not all students do; Kimble considers that an insight best attained while having the options of an undergraduate. “I have a subset of students who are in graduate school for neuroscience or clinical psychology; some who are medical doctors, and some who decide ‘research isn’t my cup of tea,’” Kimble says. “And that’s fine with me.”

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to map brain waves, and an eye scanner that records which of two photos a subject views first and for how long, the lab explores hypervigilance and attention—whether someone can tune out a distraction or becomes focused on it—and brainwave reactions to stimuli that range from expected to disturbing. While someone without PTSD typically has a large brain response to a sentence with a traumatic ending and a smaller response to an “expected” ending (e.g., The field was covered with bodies versus The field was covered with flowers), someone with PTSD has the opposite—they expect bad things to happen and are surprised when good things do. Fortunately, says Kimble, findings like these are prompting research on techniques to help PTSD sufferers recover.

The Silent Power in Rocks

One reason Julia Favorito ’14 studies geology is that “a lot of people don’t know about their surroundings, and geology is a tool to help them.” Vermonters will know more about theirs thanks to her summer internship with Middlebury Professor Pete Ryan and geologist Jon Kim of the Vermont Geological Survey (VGS). Through funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the VGS is assessing the state’s potential for geothermal energy.

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Another day at the office: Favorito (center), Middlebury classmate Kevin Chu ’14 (left), and Eric Weber UVM’13 (right) take a break at an anticline in Bristol. They’re working in the field with geologist Jon Kim of the Vermont Geological Survey (not shown) mapping the state’s geothermal potential. Photo courtesy of Jon Kim, VGS.

Ryan explains, “When the temperature of groundwater is above 10 C (50 F), heat can be extracted from the water to heat homes, schools etc. One reason groundwater might be elevated above 50 F is higher-than-normal amounts of uranium and thorium in the rock.” Favorito, from Winchester, Massachusetts, works on a field team mapping the hills and mountains of Bristol and Starksboro for these formations and testing area wells for fractures and temperatures. While uranium and thorium in drinking water wells would need remediation, a geothermal well in their temperature range is a plus. Favorito is enthusiastic about geothermal: “There are so few environmental negatives—you have to get the technology right, but people can’t complain it’s ugly, it’s not intermittent like other renewables, and you can piggyback on structures already in place. Where can you go wrong?”

Spending summer outdoors working with a state geologist is an obvious job perk, and Favorito will also work with Ryan in the lab analyzing rock samples. She’s getting a close look at the subspecialties needed to parse the area’s complex geological history. “There are so many parts to it: structural geology to detect the fractures and where water’s recharging or leaking in a fault; geochemistry to analyze the radioactivity; hydrogeology to locate fractures.” Hydrogeology isn’t her forte, she says. “I like the statistics, but it’s hard to sit and wait for the probe to go through the well.” She does like the idea of going to graduate school, taking her skills to other parts of the world, and possibly teaching college geology. “Middlebury students are so passionate about what they’re doing—I’d like to teach students like that.”

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  1. This is really great news! I’m really glad to hear that the time-tested language teaching tradition is now extending to include sciences. How wonderful would it be if the science program could be modeled on Language Schools and open to undergraduates from other institutions and/or fashioned as a pre-college enrichment program from high school students? My kids are 2 and 4 and I hope this option will be available for them at Middlebury when they grow up.

  2. I, too, am glad to read about the summer research programs at Middlebury, particularly that there’re summer opportunities for students in the humanities. I’d also like to let Ms. Reeves know that across the country there are many summer research opportunities for undergrads in the sciences as well as prep programs for high school students. For example, here at UCLA, there’re the Summer Programs for Undergraduate & Graduate Research (SPUR/GR; http://www.gdnet.ucla.edu/asis/srp/srpintro.htm) and, for high school/middle/elementary students, there’re programs like the Math Project (http://centerx.gseis.ucla.edu/math-project).

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