Sequencing the DNA of sea stars. Exploring authenticity in religion. Examining neurons of worms to better understand them in people. These are just a few of the more than two dozen research projects that Rollins students and professors partnered on this past summer.
Photo by Scott Cook
Sequencing the DNA of sea stars. Exploring authenticity in religion and how it applies to those in need. Examining neurons of worms to better understand them in people. These are just a few of the more than two dozen research projects that Rollins students and professors partnered on this past summer.
This kind of scholarly research is typically available only at the graduate-school level, but here at Rollins, we know how valuable these opportunities are for undergrads as they’re discovering what makes them tick. The following seven projects produced original research and new thoughts about questions to which no one knows the answers ... yet.
How do species come to be? How do they evolve over time? These are the questions at the core of the collaboration between biology professor Fiona Harper and Damian Clarke ’19. They focused their research on sea stars, specifically Asterias forbesi, which are found only in North America and survived the last ice age 20,000 years ago by retreating south.
“Damian is a natural in the lab,” says Harper, pointing to his uncanny ability to multitask—a skill he picked up working in his dad’s restaurant in Barbados. The well-matched pair hit the ground running trying to find out how different the East Coast populations of sea stars are from each other (the creatures live all along the East Coast, from Florida up to Prince Edward Island, Canada).
Biology professor Fiona Harper and Damian Clarke ’19 | Photos by Scott Cook
Their aha moment came when the DNA sequencing unexpectedly revealed that the populations are almost genetically identical. “When you don’t have any gene variation,” says Harper, “susceptibility to disease increases.”
“When we look at Forbes’ sea star next to the common sea star (Asterias rubens), the only thing separating them is the interaction between the sperm and the egg,” Harper says, her voice growing with excitement. Exploring different techniques and methodologies to understand this could lead to a breakthrough in unexplained infertility. This research could potentially change the lives of women the world over experiencing the painful process of trying to do the one thing that’s supposed to be the most natural of all.
“Understanding the fragility of the species was something I could really learn only by doing, not from reading in a book,” says Damian Clarke ’19. “I want to spend many years of my career doing research and ultimately manage a coastal marine reservoir, so this chance to collaborate on a real project with Dr. Harper was an amazing experience.”
Like with any worthwhile research, the analysis continues. After presenting their findings at Rollins, Harper and Clarke will attend the Benthic Ecology Meeting in March 2018 in Corpus Christi, Texas, and plan to publish in Invertebrate Zoology by the end of the academic year.
Religion professor Mario D'Amato, Lamia (Lily) Tawam '19, and Joshua Brown '19 | Photo by Scott Cook
Stumbling across a passage they liked became the basis for Joshua Brown ’19 and Lily Tawam ’19’s deep dive on the father of existentialism, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. D’Amato eagerly jumped on board, and with the philosophy of language as their focus, the trio spent eight weeks poring over the published works and journals of “the Fork,” as Kierkegaard was often called for his ability since childhood to stick it to people by discerning their weaknesses.
“Kierkegaard often addresses language in his writings—the philosophy of language, how it works, how it affects our thoughts,” says D’Amato, “but it’s not often studied.” By extrapolating Kierkegaard’s thoughts on language and wrestling with his knotty syntax and complicated use of pseudonyms, the team ultimately contributed significantly to the interpretation of his 20-odd volumes (all available at the Olin Library).
As tedious as studying Kierkegaard can be, this likeminded threesome had a blast toiling through the texts, often “geeking out, laughing at inside jokes, and making obscure references,” says D’Amato, “which would often lead to a new thought or direction.”
“This project taught me how to be an autodidact. I feel like I can tackle any issue now because I have these new skills,” says Joshua Brown ’19.
“Well, it’s philosophy, of course,” says D’Amato, grinning, “so the direct application isn’t as clear-cut as it would be in, say, science or math.” Ultimately, though, D’Amato points to the merit of thinking about what it means to be human, to cultivating the capacity for self-reflection, to examining our innate ability to choose as the ongoing contributions of research like this. Doing so creates sharper thinkers, more effective philanthropists, stronger teachers, and overall, better humans.
“These collaborations are also key to teaching students the difference between writing for courses and writing for publication,” says D’Amato, stressing the importance of understanding other scholars’ interpretations before entering the conversation.
“One of my biggest takeaways was learning that the methodology with which you approach research is just as important as the content,” says Tawam, who credits this project for cementing her plans to become a professor. “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to do this research. I now know I want to study the philosophy of language and how it relates to metaphysics and German Idealism, and I would’ve never narrowed that focus without delving into Kierkegaard.”
“Working on Kierkegaard entails heavy textual interpretation and teaches you how to derive some sort of limited concept out of something that can be interpreted in different ways,” says Brown, who also plans to pursue academia as a career. “This project helped me discover that I prefer tackling issues that are more involved with science or math and tying them to logical structure.”
By the end of the academic year, their paper will be submitted to Rollins and then to two or three Kierkegaard Studies journals. D’Amato explains that the detailed nature of this research lends itself to a niche journal.
Jack Allen ’18, physics professor Chris Fuse, and Chris Becker ’20 | Photo by Scott Cook
Often to the soundtrack of “She Blinded Me with Science,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and other beloved ’80s pop hits, the astrophysics summer research encompassed three projects, each focusing on a different aspect of planet formation both in our solar system and beyond.
Chris Becker ’20 and Josephine Spiegelberg ’20 essentially explored two different sides of the same coin. Becker investigated the possible existence of an Earth-mass planet (aka Planet Nine) in the extreme outer edge of our solar system, while Spiegelberg examined the positioning of the outer planets, specifically Neptune and Uranus, and the correlation to moon formation.
Jack Allen ’18 went rogue and devised a project of his own making that tackled the question of what would happen to surrounding planets if Jupiter was systematically taken apart. Allen studied Tabby’s star, whose unusual behavior manifests in huge fluctuations of light output that can’t be explained by other surrounding planets, comets, or dust formations.
“One possible cause of the brightness dips could be that Tabby’s star is surrounded by an incomplete, artificially made sphere used to collect radiation,” says Fuse, “and, yes, this implies aliens!” To the disappointment of Fuse—a die-hard scientist—the findings cannot rule out the existence of aliens since reorganizing the mass of Jupiter surprisingly didn’t cause the other planets to become unstable.
“The fact that we are able to perform such sophisticated simulations at a small liberal arts college is wonderful,” says Fuse with pride. “Students are able to be involved with cutting-edge research that would normally be the dominion of R1 universities.”
Each of these projects will provide data—an astounding 35 gigabytes, to be exact—that will contribute to a better understanding of the universe. “The experience of working with all three of my students in the same lab space and making new discoveries together was a great feeling,” says Fuse, explaining how everyone played off each other well and that every day was filled with laughs, successes, foibles, and a genuine desire to probe the unknown.
“The main reason I chose to come to Rollins was because I would have the chance to do research as an undergrad,” says Becker, who wants to travel to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. “[Europa] is one of the best candidates for other life in our solar system, and I want to be a part of that.”
Physics professor Chris Fuse, Josephine Spiegelberg ’20, and Chris Becker '20 | Photo by Scott Cook
“Dr. Fuse has challenged me to creatively problem-solve while also helping me communicate my research effectively to others. This wouldn’t have been possible without working so closely with him,” says Allen. “I also enjoyed sharing my research with my peers and found that many of the questions they asked required me to think anthropologically or philosophically. This was a true collaboration, across departments, in learning and finding new solutions.”
Innately curious, Spiegelberg says she was so excited to delve deeply into a topic not covered in class. “I think it’s really cool to do something no one else has done, to contribute new insight about our solar system, and to do my small part in expanding human knowledge.”
The three students are at different points in completing their research, and they’ll submit work for publication next semester to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, The Astrophysical Journal, or The Astrophysical Letters.
The team will also be traveling to our nation’s capital in January to attend the American Astronomical Society conference, where they will present their research.
Madeleine Scott ’18 and religion professor Todd French | Photo by Scott Cook
In a world saturated by social media, can religious authenticity exist? Do churches sacrifice part of their eternal reward by promoting their good works? These hardball questions are the drivers behind the collaboration between religion professor Todd French and Madeleine Scott ’18, their research path at times as serpentine as San Francisco’s famous Lombard Street.
“What began as a question of how holiness is conceived and communicated evolved into how authenticity is practiced and packaged in the world of social media,” says French. “This is important to me because so much of what is communicated in scripture seems to indicate that practices of sharing one’s good deeds undermines the value they have.”
Examining religious authenticity in the context of social media and our ever-changing, all-access world is no small task, and French and Scott are still hashing it all out. They completed the read-interpret-discuss portion of their research this summer. Next up: going into the field and asking Central Florida megachurches the tough questions.
Photo by Scott Cook
“We live in a world filled with people in need,” says French, “and these needs are often ignored by late-capitalist societies. The argument is often made for religious communities picking up the slack on caring for people in need.” He continues by explaining that having a better sense of how religious communities conceive of their role in serving people in need, and are communicating their work to their members and the outside world, gets at one of the most critical questions of contemporary religious thought.
“There is really no way this level of work and related experience could have happened without the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship grant,” says French. “I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to engage in this high-impact practice with our brightest students.”
French explains how he and Scott recently presented a paper at a conference where Scott was the only undergrad present among a selection of master’s students from top universities.
“A leading colleague in the field leaned over to me and remarked, ‘She’s clearly the brightest one up there,’” says French. “Madeleine was able to get feedback from senior scholars, meet a number of leaders in the field, and begin to plot her future graduate work.”
“It’s been an abstract process,” says Scott. “We’d start out with one idea and then hit a bunch of walls, but we finally zeroed in on our direction.” Realizing that this kind of research isn’t linear or clear-cut was a big moment for Scott, who, going into the project, expected to have the final paper completed in eight weeks. French, of course, knew that wasn’t possible but wanted to let her figure that out for herself, to discover that the world of academic research is one that demands patience and the ability to adjust and readjust and adjust again.
“I never would’ve had the amazing opportunity to present at the University of British Columbia’s Buddhism and Business, Market, and Merit conference if it weren’t for Rollins and Dr. French,” says Scott. “And this was the moment when I realized that academia could actually be my path, my life’s work.”
The goal is to have the paper completed by the end of the semester before Scott heads to London to study abroad. They’re planning to submit their work to a peer-reviewed journal in the field of religious studies but haven’t settled on one quite yet.
Kendall Perkins ’18 and biology professor Jay Pieczynski | Photo by Scott Cook
Professor Pieczynski—or Dr. Pie, as his students call him—has always been fascinated by how neurons in the brain are used to sense the world around us. Learning that his student Kendall Perkins ’18 shared in his passion made them the perfect pair to examine the role of the protein KLP-4 in neurons.
“When you think about it,” says Pieczynski, “neurons are really amazing marvels of engineering. They transmit signals almost instantaneously so you can respond to your surroundings.”
What’s more is that some neurons can signal very fast despite being extremely long. The KLP-4 protein seems to be particularly important in organizing these extremely long neurons.
“We studied a small round worm called C. elegans, which has 70 percent of its genetic information in common with humans, so anything we learn about the neurons in these worms is directly applicable to us.”
“Beyond lab techniques and technical skills, the most useful lessons I learned were the importance of work ethic and how to positively deal with failure,” says Perkins.
After they began performing experiments, the persistent duo discovered that KLP-4 didn’t physically move cargo, like neurotransmitters, through the neurons, as their original hypothesis had asserted, but actually organizes the neurons.
“When we removed KLP-4 from a neuron, our worms got overexcited,” says Pieczynski. “This opens up a whole new avenue of research, and it’s been fun coming up with new ideas and experiments to test.”
Neuron function and degradation are major human health issues and can help us better understand diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS. Pieczynski and his students are also looking at other neuronal functions and how they contribute to quality of life. Issues like anxiety, depression, addiction, aging, and obesity are major questions involving defects in neuronal signaling.
“One of the most important things I learned over the summer is that research is a process,” says Perkins. “It’s easy to have the misconception that science is straightforward based on doing class-based lab assignments that are designed to work, but the reality is that research is more of a process of trial and error that requires innovative thinking and persistence.”
Photo by Scott Cook
After following up on their surprising results, the team plans to test whether their findings are specific to only one type of neuronal signaling or lead to general defects in signaling.
“We only need a few more experiments to publish this data,” says Pieczynski, “and we’re aiming to submit a manuscript on this work sometime in 2018.”
In the meantime, they’re preparing to present a poster on their work at the annual American Society of Cell Biology meeting this December in Philadelphia.
Photos by Scott Cook
Students are eligible to participate in the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program after their freshman year.