Summer Research Discoveries

SummerScience3By Julia Munemo

On a sunny Friday in August, Schow Science Library is crammed with people. Nearly 200 students, mostly from Williams and some from other colleges, are presenting their findings from a summer spent conducting in-depth research. The college’s Summer Science Research Program always ends this way, with a session in which each group’s findings have been distilled into three-by-four-foot posters full of charts, diagrams and photos. Visitors make their way from poster to poster, learning about binary star eclipses, clustering DNA structures, PCB levels in Hoosic River trout and much, much more.

“The poster session allows students to share the results of their work with faculty, fellow students, and visitors in a format that is typical of professional scientific conferences,” says physics professor and director of the program Tiku Majumder. “It’s a friendly, informal event meant to celebrate the accomplishments and hard work of our summer research students.”

Accomplishments like the discovery of a pair of eclipsing stars. Hallee Wong ’18, and her partner Aylin Garcia Soto (Wesleyan University ’18), spent the summer working with astronomy senior lecturer Steven Souza to analyze data on a cluster of stars about four thousand light years away. Soto was here under a National Science Foundation-funded Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium program, which is composed of students and faculty from eight small liberal arts colleges. While looking for peculiar changes in the magnitude of light coming from certain stars in the cluster, Wong and Soto made a surprising discovery: an eclipsing binary. “When you look at thousands of stars in a cluster, you stand a fairly good chance of finding something you hadn’t planned on,” says Souza.

An eclipsing binary is a pair of stars that orbit each other. When one star passes in front of the other along our line of sight, an eclipse takes place. “This particular eclipsing binary hasn’t been discovered before,” says Wong.

“It’s fortuitous to have caught it,” Souza says. “Eclipses can happen once every day or once every decade and anywhere in between.” Next steps include continuing to monitor the binary in hopes of understanding how often the eclipse takes place and possibly publishing the findings.

Down the aisle of posters, Adam Jamnik ’17 stands before one with graphs showing the patterns of DNA packaging around nucleosomes in different cell types. He answers questions and describes the research he and his partner Ronak Dave ’17 conducted with biology professor Benjamin Carone. The work involved comparing the ability of two different chemicals to cleave a chain of nucleosomes apart. Once nucleosomes are separated, the DNA they had packaged can be analyzed and mapped. The team found that one chemical is considerably more effective at splicing the nucleosomes than another. The next step will be to deep sequence the DNA they isolated and correlate genes’ positions with gene expression.

SummerScience2The Summer Science Research Program is less regimented than graduate-school work, yet it allows students to gain research experience or lay the groundwork for future projects. It’s not uncommon for posters presented here to form the basis of senior theses or coauthored academic papers. Some 50 Williams students coauthor scientific papers with their professors each year.

“This program gives students the opportunity to move outside of the classroom environment and into the lab, and to actively engage with faculty members,” says Majumder. “Working closely with faculty is one of the major benefits of the program.”