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Videos: Holy Cross Students Tap Intellectual Curiosity Through Wide-Ranging Summer Research Projects

Over 100 projects range from splicing proteins in a chemistry lab to developing the perfect strategy to win the game of Risk
August 2nd, 2019 by 

Mercedes Ruiz '21 works with a pipette in the lab

This summer, more than 100 College of the Holy Cross students took a deep dive into cutting-edge research through the College’s Weiss Summer Research Program. Under the mentorship of faculty, students engaged in focused projects that push intellectual boundaries and fuel their academic interests.

The nine-week program, which supports research in academic disciplines across the spectrum, allows students to identify their own research project or to work alongside a professor who is engaged in ongoing research. Summer research is an ideal experience for students interested in pursuing graduate studies, but it also provides valuable experience in planning and executing an extensive project, budgeting project expenses, working within a team and strengthening written and oral skills. Students develop real, substantive expertise in ways that can’t be matched elsewhere.

Check out five student projects here, representing a wide range of interests, from discussing nutrition in local food pantries to exploring what life might look like in outer space.

Studying Vietnam War-Era Comics

Unlike your typical summer reading list, Rose Grosskopf ’20 dove into the colorful world of comic books and graphic novels this summer. The English and music double major studied problematic depictions of women in comic books from the Vietnam War era under the guidance of Jorge Santos, assistant professor of English. Throughout the summer, Grosskopf pored over graphic novels from all around the world — both ones written during the Vietnam War and ones written more recently that revolve around the Vietnam War.

“Earlier this summer, I requested a book over interlibrary loan — it was all about American G.I.-produced comics and dirty limericks and all these other interesting tidbits from the war. I opened it, and on the inside cover I see a stamp. It was a military address for a base in Saigon. So it was really interesting to find out that this book had made it all the way to Vietnam and was being read by American soldiers. It even had potential to be shaping the war in the aspect that it was changing the opinions of the American soldiers as they’re fighting.”

The Perfect Board Game Strategy

Xu “Mike” Ding ’21 is trying to get ahead of the game — the game of Risk, that is. The mathematics major spent the summer testing mathematical models to devise the best strategies for winning the board game Risk, alongside Eric Ruggieri, associate professor of mathematics. Ding input all the variables from the game, such as different countries and types of attacks, into a program that makes mathematical models.

“I love to play Risk with my friends or parents. It’s a very interesting experience for me. I like to take time to think about which path is most desirable for me. I always want to know, if I choose this way or if I choose the other way, what will that look like? Am I making the best decisions? Such ideas motivate me to work on this mathematical models program to simulate the game.”

Going Beyond Earth

Is there life on Mars? We can’t say for sure, but what we can say is it most likely would look like what Mercedes Ruiz ’21 explored in the lab of Kenneth Mills, professor of chemistry. Ruiz, an English major, and a few other students spent the summer studying microscopic organisms — called extremophiles — that live in harsh conditions on Earth. If humans were to find life on other planets, Ruiz said, that life wouldn’t look like the stereotypical green aliens everyone thinks of — it would be like these extremophiles.

“Some of the extremophiles we focus on in my lab are halophiles, which live in very salty conditions. You can find them in lakes and salterns. We also study thermophiles, which you can find in deep sea thermal vents and places like hot springs. We do what is known as conditional splicing, where we look at different conditions that we’ll put our protein through to see if the protein can actually do what we think it will. This is kind of a way that we can not only just visualize but actually understand what might be going on somewhere beyond Earth.”

Do Economic Disasters Make People More Religious?

Mary. Paul. Eve. Do people give their babies more religious names after economic or natural disasters? That’s what Jacob Bucci ’21, an economics major, researched with Joshua Congdon-Hohman and Justin Svec, associate professors of economics. The two faculty members wanted a way to economically measure religiosity, or how religious people are. That’s where baby names came in. Bucci worked all summer to try and find links between names from the Bible and economic crises.

“Working in the economics department has been great. You really get to develop relationships with professors and see what they do on a daily basis. I’m thinking of doing grad school after I graduate, so this is a great opportunity see what it’s like to do advanced research. In the eight weeks, I’ve gained a lot of hands-on experience that has been really useful.”

Talking Nutrition at Local Food Pantries

For Megan Hawke ’20, what started as a summer internship in 2018 has evolved into a full summer research project and, when the semester starts, a senior thesis. The anthropology major explored how nutrition is talked about in food pantries, conducting ethnographic research in Worcester and beyond with the guidance of Daina Cheyenne Harvey, associate professor of sociology. Hawke spoke with volunteers and observed participants at food pantries like AIDS Project Worcester, listening to how the topic of nutrition was talked about.

“The discussion of nutrition is present, but it’s also absent. At AIDS Project Worcester, for instance, they have a nutritionist come in and talk about different ways that clients can take the food they get from the pantry, bring it home, and incorporate it into healthy meals. But there is this absence of clients actually wanting to talk about it or engage in that conversation. So the discussion is present in that there’s all this information on nutrition in these sites, but the conversation isn’t there; it isn’t wanted.”

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