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College students present research on math, movies and Muslim faith

MIDDLEBURY — If you’ve ever wanted to know just how your favorite Pixar animated films are made, Middlebury College rising junior Ammar Almahdy might be able to enlighten you about a thing or two.
He is one of dozens of Middlebury College students who stayed on campus over the summer to conduct research with professors on an eclectic range of academic topics that ran the gamut from combinatorial mathematics to the ways that Muslim faith and devotion are portrayed in news media. More than 130 students received stipends drawn from faculty grants and college-endowed funds to conduct faculty-directed research this summer.
Almahdy is a computer-science major at the college who lived on campus this summer working on a project meant to speed up the process of rendering animated films — basically, transforming the head-spinning mess of pixels of animated movies in their early stages into the sleek final products that appear in theaters.
“Animation is a lot of confusing dots and mesh objects happening on the computer, but in order for the user to be able to watch this as a movie something needs to happen,” he said. “That’s called rendering.”
This process can take an excruciatingly long time: up to four years for an eight-minute short film, Almahdy said. Working with college animation studios producer Daniel Houghton, though, he has developed a system using the college’s dozens of usually idle public computers to speed up the process exponentially.
“Instead of taking four years for our movie, it will now take us a couple weeks,” he said. “It makes it so much easier for us to produce more movies and make more high-quality work.”
Last Thursday, Almahdy joined 47 other student research groups that gathered in Bicentennial Hall for Middlebury College’s Summer Research Symposium. He and the other research teams presented richly detailed posters explaining the projects they’ve been working on since summer’s start.
Professors, friends and Middlebury residents milled about, enjoying refreshments and taking in poster presentations that students explained in riveting detail.
Two rising seniors, Julien Souffrant, an international politics and economics major, and Emily Stabler, a political science major, presented a poster outlining research the pair had done with political science professor Erik Bleich on how positively or negatively Muslim devotion is portrayed in news media.
Souffrant and Stabler combined quantitative and qualitative approaches in doing their research, both reading articles themselves and running them through digital analysis programs that tested hundreds of thousands of articles in order to determine whether news portrayals of Muslim devotion swung positively, negatively or neutrally.
“Our hypothesis was basically that due to the fact that many countries perceive Muslims to be more religious than other groups and due to the fact that they perceive certain faith practices of Muslims to sort of come into conflict with liberal values, we would expect the media to portray the Islamic faith in a negative way,” Stabler said. “That’s not what we found, though, which is why this was interesting.”
The pair was surprised to find that written news discussing Muslim faith swung largely neutrally. Overall, though, they just hope that their work will contribute to a dialogue centered around combatting some of the prejudices Muslims in Western countries face on a daily basis.
“Will this finding combat the prejudice that you see overall on Muslims in newspapers?” Souffrant asked. “Probably not. But you can kind of chip away at the issue by focusing more on these problems, on the way that Muslims portray their faith in a healthy way and show that they interact with other faiths in a positive manner.”
The pair’s research went into writing a paper that will be submitted to the journal Religion, and they hope that their work will be published in a special edition looking at representations of Muslims in media.
   MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE RISING junior Kevin Collins talks about his math research during a research symposium hosted by the college last Thursday afternoon.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Diverse topics
Other presentations were significantly more difficult for this humanities-minded reporter to wrap his head around.
“My research was in zero-sum theory and combinatorics, which is basically the study of what parameters we need to put on a collection of combinatorial objects such that we can guarantee that some subset sums to zero,” said rising junior and mathematics major Kevin Collins, who did his research with mathematics professor John Schmitt.
OK, Kevin.
Rising junior Casey Lilley’s summer research took a track a bit more rooted in real-world spaces. A geography major, she tackled an issue that has become a point of contention for residents of big cities: gentrification, or the takeover of lower-income city neighborhoods by homeowners and businesses of a higher-income group. But Lilley was interested in how these processes play out in rural environments — such as Vermont — as opposed to the urban ones with which gentrification is typically associated.
“Gentrification is a concept that is typically applied to urban areas, but we kind of transformed it and put it on a rural landscape,” Lilley said. “So our study put out surveys and interviews for rural study areas: Jackson, Wyoming, the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, and then here in Vermont: Middlebury and the Mad River Valley.”
Working with geography professor Peter Nelson, Lilley surveyed residents of rural areas, both upper-class newcomers and those being subjected to gentrification, about issues such as the loss of rural space as Vermont’s natural areas are encroached upon by wealthy ski developers and upper middle-class professionals interested in “getting away” from big cities.
Although some of the reactions she got were vitriolic, Lilley was surprised to find that many lower-income residents were fairly receptive to development and wealthy newcomers.
   MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE’S BICENTENNIAL Hall was filled with 48 teams of students last week for poster presentations of their summer research projects.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“In the Mad River valley, for example, everyone agreed that the sense of community was really strong,” she said. “And that was a reason that they wanted to keep people moving in.”
Lilley said that the experience gave her a valuable look at Vermont life that she frequently doesn’t get as a college student living in a campus environment that can often feel like a bubble to its students.
“Now I’m driving to Sugarbush and I’m not just driving to go skiing,” she said. “I’ll see a nice house and I’m like, ‘Oh wow, that’s a nice house,’ and I recognize that as part of a bigger issue.”

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