Summer off? No, these Middlebury College students dig into research
MIDDLEBURY — Have you ever wondered why the wires in your cell phone are so big and inefficient? No?
Well, it’s something that Middlebury College chemistry student Peter Dykeman-Bermingham has thought about. A lot.
That’s why he’s spent the entire summer tinkering with chemical equations to create synthetic wires that could solve that very problem, and why, this past Thursday, July 27, Dykeman-Bermingham’s work was one of 40 research projects that were on display at Middlebury’s annual Summer Research Symposium.
This year, more than 130 students participated in the college’s Summer Research Program, work that culminated in more than 42,000 hours of research alongside a faculty member(s). Funding for the research came from a variety of sources, including faculty and institutional grants and gifts to the college.
That Thursday was the first time this summer that the researchers were all in the same place, the main lobby of McCardell Bicentennial Hall, and Dykeman-Bermingham said talking to students who had been sharing similar challenges this summer was enlightening.
“Today is all about supporting our successes and really learning from one another, which is really important,” he said at the symposium. “Last week, in my research, I talked to some people in another lab, and their insights, their findings helped me interpret my own results in a way I wouldn’t have been able to do.”
The impetus behind Dykeman-Birmingham’s research is, in part, tied to miniaturization, a technological trend that has allowed electronic products to simultaneously shrink in size and grow in efficiency. Though great progress has been made, traditional electronic circuits are approaching physical limits, thus creating a need for smaller, synthetic wires made from organic materials like carbon.
“Wires and circuits are larger than we’d like them to be and this would be a smaller alternative. We’re trying to shrink the size of your cell-phone,” he said. “Carbon is way smaller than gold, for instance, on an atomic level.”
PETER DYKEMAN-BERMINGHAM, Middlebury College class of ’18.5, presented his research on molecular wiring during Middlebury College’s Summer Research Symposium in McCardell Bicentennial Hall last Thursday afternoon.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
The New Hampshire native’s research is a continuation of research done in past years by Middlebury students, and is drawn from the work of E.J. Corey, a Nobel-Prize-winning organic chemist. This summer, Dykeman-Bermingham is working alongside Jeff Byers, a chemistry professor at the college. Though the Middlebury junior has not yet found a solution to the chemical equation, he is not giving up — the research will be part of his thesis.
“The challenge that I’m still facing is I haven’t tried everything yet. Sometimes in this process I have made something and it worked right away, and sometimes you have it wrong. Essentially, we’ve guessed wrong four times,” he said. “I do believe this will work.”
For some students, like Dykeman-Bermingham, the research they conducted this summer will serve to supplement their senior thesis, however, for others, like Daryl Morrison, their research is simply on a topic that they’re interested in.
Morrison, along with three other biology student-researchers, used male meadow voles to examine the relationship between the rodents’ home range size (how far they move around during mating season) and the growth of cell tissue in the part of the brain known as the hippocampus.
The process began last summer when researchers captured 18 wild voles in a meadow adjacent to the college, fitted them with radio collars, and estimated their home range size. This summer, they examined the results to test their hypothesis: that there would be a positive correlation between home range size and the regeneration rate of cell tissue, thus proving, simply put, that voles who were more active had healthier brains.
Though Morrison emphasized that it is difficult to draw a parallel to humans, their research shows that there is a correlation between movement and cell turnover.
“The hippocampus is a really important area of the brain for spatial memory and memory in general,” she said. “If we can start to understand the relationships between the hippocampus and cell turnover, cell deaths, cell proliferation, we can start to understand things like Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.”
Though both Dykeman-Bermingham and Morrison conducted research in the natural sciences, a number of students worked alongside faculty members in the English, American Studies, and Computer Science departments, among others.
Two computer science researches, Scott Westvold and Nick Jaczko, worked alongside Professor Ananya Christman to prevent crashes on shared computer servers. A server is what allows shared programs or software applications to run on networked computers. Often, when one application crashes it will bring down the server, thus causing all other applications to do the same. This is often a problem for organizations that have multiple people working on one server.
To solve this, they developed an algorithm that allowed them to approximate how to efficiently distribute the same application across multiple servers. This way, if an application fails on one server, it will be available to run on another and users will still be able to access the application.
Jaczko emphasized that this is just an approximation and that next steps may include looking for an even better approximation, expanding the experimental results and seeing how this algorithm works in practice, or actually testing it with an organization or business.
Like many of the other researchers, Jaczko and his team tested dozens of ideas before coming to a solution. However, as many of the presenters emphasized, trial and error is just part of the scientific method.
“When we rolled this project out, we thought it was impossible,” he said. “We have a whole notebook of bad ideas.”
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