The Senior Project
Graduation approaches, a time to kick back. Hardly. For many seniors, the final year is a time to dig deep on a thesis that draws together undergraduate lessons and opens new horizons.
For Tyler Aten ’10, Src and Crk are pronounced “sark” and “crack.” No, these are not dubious additions to the vowel-free vocabulary of text messaging. They’re proteins. And decoding their messages might help find treatments for cancer.
For his senior honors thesis, Aten looked closely at what happens when Src and Crk get together–and made a discovery new to science about how cells interpret signals from outside their cell membranes.
When certain messages come in, like a growth factor telling the cell to grow and divide, Src and Crk are brought to the same “protein scaffolding” at the cell membrane, explains Aten’s advisor, biologist Bryan Ballif. There, they “act like foremen to further recruit, instruct, and coordinate the rest of the work crew proteins inside the cell,” he says.
But, sometimes, these two proteins are brought together abnormally and “they start barking out the directions for cell division when they shouldn’t,” Ballif says. Another word for unwanted cell division? Cancer.
Aten wanted to know if Src and Crk sometimes assemble around other not-yet-discovered scaffolds working inside various human cell types. His experiments in Ballif’s lab–using Vermont's only advanced "two-in-one" mass spectrometer called an LTQ-Orbitrap–identified not only a major one that biologists have known about, but another one too–“entirely novel,” Ballif says.
“As we map out more protein pathways, then we can more easily figure out targets for drug therapies, cancer drugs,” Aten says, “though that may be way down the road.”
As for Aten, his road is leading to the University of Connecticut’s dental school on a full scholarship. “I’ve always liked hands-on work, which is why I like doing research,” he says, “I want to do oral surgery and, maybe, keep doing research.”
Bryan Ballif doesn’t mind that one of his star students is leaving cell biology for dentistry. “Tyler’s discovery may just follow him: one of the first things we learned that happens to a mammal when its Src protein is absent is that the animal doesn’t form teeth properly,” Ballif says. “Hopefully Tyler will have everything figured out by the time my teeth are ready to fall out.”
Logan Bartram ’10
BRAIN FOOD BEGINNINGS
In a cave on the coast of South Africa during a junior year semester abroad, anthropology major Logan Bartram ’10 helped dig for answers to a big question: when and where did the cognitive abilities of modern humans arise? It’s the sea shells, ochre, and tools at this site–some 140,000 years older than the cave paintings of Europe–that many anthropologists today cite as the first signs of more powerful brains.
While the ochre was likely used for self-adornment and the tools were more complex than previous generations, the shells–found as the burnt remnants of an ancient seafood dinner–are among the most telling artifacts. They signify a radical change in diet for early hominids–and an ability to understand the rhythm of the sea (predicting the tide is crucial to subsisting off shellfish).
For a pre-med student like Bartram, the idea that higher cognitive function may have been aided by the brain-building omega-3 fatty acids that seafood provides is an intriguing one. The southern coast of Africa is also known for amazing biodiversity and an abundance of tuberous plants, which are high in carbohydrates. “You couple that with shellfish, and you’ve got a really nice nutritional package going on,” Bartram says. “Is it the reason we evolved, just because we had access to this nutrient? Probably not. But the ability to have that available to you and raise kids who are getting complete brain food–there’s no way that could have hurt.”
Back at UVM for his senior year, Bartram has been busy wrapping up his thesis: “Evidence for Modern Human Behavioral Origins on the Southern African Coast.” While based on his time in Africa, where he unearthed his own share of stone tools and looked out at the sea from the same cave shelters our ancestors once shared, he says that his thesis work is really about reviewing the published research. “It’s certainly a library project...There’s been so much literature published on these issues, and from this site,” Bartram says. “If nothing else, my thesis is helping me reaffirm the experience I had, not just for others, but for myself.”
–Amanda Waite ’02 G’04
Sarah Gruver ’10
photo by Sally McCay
BUILDING A BETTER GREENHOUSE
What’s next? For a graduating college student, it’s a familiar question–one that in a tight job market is likely to elicit some wincing. For Sarah Gruver ’10, the immediate future is set, a return to hometown Brattleboro and summer work for a landscape designer and on a vegetable farm. Beyond that, Gruver’s not so sure. She feels a deep pull toward an outdoor life and cringes a bit at the prospect of being “trapped in an office all day, every day.” Yet, she acknowledges it would be nice to “make a little more money than a struggling vegetable farmer in Vermont.”
But a senior project in the works for the past year has put her on a path to figuring out “what’s next” in the long view. There’s a nice logic to the fact that Gruver has found some answers to her indoor/outdoor quandary in the design and architecture of greenhouses. At the suggestion of Gary Hawley, research analyst and lecturer in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Gruver has developed a case and detailed design for potential renovation of an aging and energy inefficient greenhouse at the U.S. Forest Service Laboratory on Spear Street in South Burlington.
After doing extensive research into design options, Gruver focused upon the advantages of a highly efficient, earth-sheltered greenhouse. An Honors College student with a major in the Environmental Program, Gruver says the senior project pushed her in new directions–learning CAD programs, using a thermal computing model to calculate the thermodynamics of her proposed structure, weighing practical considerations such as the vapor absorbency of one insulation material versus another.
One key to her project was attempting to synthesize the strongest design features of three main types of greenhouse design–passive solar, high-efficiency/highly automated, and earth-sheltered. Professor John Todd, a pioneer of eco-design, has been an inspiration during her undergrad years and was Gruver’s main advisor on the work.
As she wraps up her senior project, Gruver still has plenty of questions and in some ways has just begun. She envisions herself in graduate school in the near future, studying architecture or landscape architecture, and just possibly still getting at how to build a better greenhouse.
Mimosa Collins ’10
photo by Sally McCay
When Mimosa Collins ’10 signed up for the course Food and Culture last year, cooking two dishes simultaneously (a lab requirement) was a challenge. A novice in the kitchen, she was also new to thinking about food in the context of culture. But that changed.
The class led Collins to her senior project, a study designed to determine whether learning cooking skills increases the likelihood of students preparing their own meals, a practice that generally leads to healthier choices.
“I hadn’t thought about how our values shape food practices and how we as a society view putting time into making good food,” Collins says. “So I was interested to see what the culture at UVM was around cooking and food.”
The project focused on students living off-campus who were taking the same course that inspired Collins. It involved a pre-survey on cooking experience, meals currently prepared, etc., lab observations, interviews with a sample of students, and a follow-up survey.
In terms of results, Collins, a dietetics major, found that students gained in both cooking skills and comfort with exploring new foods. What surprised her was that they didn’t apply it. “It’s the social context,” says Collins. “Students who weren’t responsible for feeding anyone else couldn’t rationalize investing so much time, energy, and money into meals only they were going to enjoy.”
“This was distinguished undergraduate research,” says Amy Trubek, assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences and Collins’s project advisor. “Her insight and focus were really impressive. The sample is small but I thought it was clear that it has some impact.”
As she departs UVM hoping to land an internship in community food systems before graduate school, Collins suggests that students need more living arrangements that encourage cooking shared meals. “I think people need to get back to community, having potlucks,” she says. “And we need to not sell ourselves short on the quality of meals we deserve.”
–Lee Ann Cox
Laura Townsend ’10
photo by Josh Brown
Laura Townsend ’10 eases a soggy lump of concrete out from what looks like a gigantic pizza oven. “Come on, whoa!–This bad boy is going to fall apart,” she says as she inspects the pebbly mass and then gingerly places it back in a tray of water. A few weeks ago, this concrete was solid. Now it’s been through about six years of ferocious weathering.
“This is a freeze/thaw chamber,” she says, “Twenty cycles in here is like a year in Burlington.” Cooked and frozen every five hours for days, her samples get old in a hurry.
“My honors thesis is evaluating the effects of weathering on fluid transport through building materials–like how much more fluid can get into concrete as it gets older.” And if that fluid happens to be a chemical weapon, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency would like to know what happens to it.
Townsend’s research is part of a project led by her co-advisors–professors Mandar Dewoolkar and Donna Rizzo in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences–and supported by the defense agency.
“Our goal is to understand the pore structure of common building materials,” Dewoolkar says, “with the eventual goal of developing decontamination strategies in case of attack.”
But not all buildings would be worthy of decontamination. “Our job is to model fluids,” says Donna Rizzo, “but Laura took it one step further–she realized that the buildings people would be most concerned with tend to be historical. So now Mandar and I are keyed in on the historical preservation side of this work.”
On Dewoolkar’s list of examples: the White House, Library of Congress, museums–as well as hospitals, military bases, bridges, and runways. “There has to be a way to decontaminate these quickly,” he says, “since demolition would not be an option.”
As for Townsend, she’s gathering first-of-its-kind data on the hydraulic conductivity and gas permeability of sandstone, limestone, landscaping brick–and four forms of concrete.
“Wherever I walk now I trail concrete dust,” Townsend says, laughing, “But it feels great after I present my work”–as she was invited to do at the American Geophysical Union’s national meeting last December–“to have a professor or someone in industry say, ‘you’re an undergrad? This is really good!’ Research has emotional benefits.”
Michael Rubin ’10
photo by Sally McCay
DO RIGHT CORPORATE CULTURE
There’s been a marked uptick over the past decade in the number of companies choosing to voluntarily report environmental performance data. Michael Rubin ’10 wanted to know why, so he asked managers at six Vermont firms and reported his findings in his senior thesis “Critical Drivers of a Firm’s Decision to Voluntarily Report its Environmental Data.”
Rubin, a business major with a double minor in economics and environmental studies who spent his junior year at the London School of Economics, sought to measure the effects that pressure from government, community and environmental interest groups, industry competition, and customers had on a firm’s decision to report environmental data.
The reasons he found for why some firms choose to produce a “Corporate Social Responsibility Report,” the industry standard for environmental reporting, were refreshing from a Vermont business perspective and led to conclusions that Rubin hopes will help lawmakers set policies that will encourage positive environmental behavior.
“Firms that are larger in size, owned by the public sector, or located in an area with high social awareness are more likely to voluntarily report their environmental data through mediums such as the CSR report,” says Rubin. “Surprisingly, these companies don’t seem to be doing it for profit. I truly believe firms in Vermont do business differently than the rest of the world and have a genuine commitment to the environment.”
Rubin, who stressed that the cost of producing a CSR report (about $70,000) makes it difficult for smaller firms to compete, said companies like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Seventh Generation, and Green Mountain Power can serve as national models for showing the benefits–financial and environmental– of adopting a model of corporate social responsibility.
“I really enjoyed writing this paper because it allowed me to dive into a real-world corporate environmental problem and utilize the skills that I have learned throughout my collegiate career,” Rubin says.
–Jon Reidel G’06
Xiudan Lin ’10
photo by Sally McCay
SENIOR SWAN SONG
When pianist Xiudan Lin ’10 left China for Vermont at age fifteen, she told her parents she was freeing herself from the tyranny of music lessons. But her gift betrayed her. A high school instructor heard her play and approached UVM’s music department and affiliate artist Paul Orgel. Lin and Orgel met and he’s been her teacher ever since. Whether she lacked the language or the will to protest is unclear. “My study of piano mysteriously started again,” laughs Lin.
Those seven years of practice culminated with Lin’s senior recital, an hour-long program that determines whether a music performance major will graduate. Lin’s–with difficult works by Bach, Messiaen, and Liszt–was a performance Orgel calls “a program of professional excellence.” The longest piece, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, is so demanding it took Lin a year and a half to learn.
However Lin perceives a piece, it’s clear that Orgel, himself educated at Oberlin, Juilliard, the New England Conservatory, among others, holds her talent in high esteem. “Xiudan could have been a piano major at a conservatory four years ago,” he says, “but instead she came to UVM and single-handedly raised the level of piano performance in our music department.”
With Orgel’s guidance, Lin created a senior recital that would also serve graduate school auditions. She was accepted to the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, though she’s choosing to pursue a career in concert and arts management while continuing her piano study privately.
Performing, for Lin, is both frightening and rewarding. It’s nervous-making, a mental challenge to focus on one piece at a time; it’s telling a story to an audience through body language as well as music. Her senior recital, she says, was fun, the best she’s given, in part because the hall was filled with people who have loved and supported her here. “This is a gift,” she told her audience. “Please accept it whether it’s good or not.”
–Lee Ann Cox
When Katie Accomando ’10 fires up the hair dryer, it’s not a sign that she’s readying herself for a new day or even a night out. The scene isn’t the bathroom or a hair salon; it’s a laboratory, where Accomando is the expert operator of a complex protoype–a plethysmograph–designed to help measure the volume of air in a mouse’s lungs.
Accomando is assisting Professor Jason Bates, a Vermont Lung Center researcher with his work. Bates needed an engineer to run the prototype and troubleshoot problems as they arose. “I saw in Katie a bright, young student with engineering quantitative experience, which is exactly what I wanted,” he says. “There are certain things done in the lab that only someone with Katie’s background can do.”
Cheeses aged at the Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont–housing perhaps the largest network of underground cheese caves in the world–have won international prizes. But a persistent and frustrating problem has bedeviled the three-year-old facility. Its high-tech HVAC system has been unequal to the task of venting ammonia, a natural byproduct of cheese making, and replacing it with outside air conditioned to match the cool, moist environment of the caves.
After a series of fixes suggested by top engineering firms fizzled, Jasper Hill co-founder Andy Kehler ’93 decided to take a different approach, turning to a group of UVM engineers, who took on the Cellars as their senior design project. The unconventional technology they devised may have solved not just Kehler’s problem–but one that has plagued an entire industry.
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