Campaign Impact: Grants Support Student and Faculty Research

Associate Professor Michael Barresi and graduate student Carla Velez at work in Barresi's Zebrafish Research Center on campus.

Inside the Smith College Zebrafish Research Center are stacks upon stacks of containers—all of them home to thousands of small striped fish that may hold the key to our understanding of a range of human ailments, from autism to brain cancer.

Michael Barresi, center director and associate professor of biological sciences, is using a $354,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to not only study the fish but also expand the center into an interdisciplinary research hub. Already, for example, Mary Harrington, the Tippit Professor in the Life Sciences, is using the center and its tiny inhabitants to enhance her research into circadian rhythms.

Such endeavors are a part of the foundation of the liberal arts at Smith, says Katherine Rowe, provost and dean of the faculty. “Our faculty prioritizes research, seeing it highly integrated with their teaching,” she says. “That leads to flexibility of thought, productivity and new bases of evidence.”

Corporate, government and foundation grants are helping to fuel much of this scholarship. During the 2015–16 academic year alone, Smith received more than $7 million to support faculty research and curricular programming and initiatives. Likewise, Smith ranked at the top of the Oberlin Group’s 86 selective liberal arts colleges in terms of funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Being able to collaborate with students on research projects is a distinctive asset for faculty members, resulting in unique partnerships that often lead to game-changing discoveries. “The quality of our students is so high and their appetite to be partners in creating new scholarship is so strong that with the right intellectual scaffolding, they can join faculty at the edge of knowledge creation,” Rowe says.

Five current research projects showcase Smith’s culture of new ideas and collaboration.

Globalization of Ballet

For years, Assistant Professor of Dance Lester Tomé watched as ballet became a more global art form, yet he grew frustrated because most ballet historians continued to write about ballet as if it remained a European and North American phenomenon. “The notion that ballet is an art form for European and Euro-American bodies is not current anymore,” he says. With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Tomé is documenting the globalization of ballet, focusing on Cuba as a detailed case study of how ballet has been adopted outside of Europe. His work, he hopes, will highlight “the experiences of the dancers and choreographers and teachers that go beyond the official histories.”

How Atoms Behave

Assistant Professor of Physics Will Williams’ work in experimental physics focuses on the behavior of the tiniest building blocks of the universe: atoms. His research received a boost last year from a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award. His proposal for research on “High Precision Spectroscopy of the Beryllium Isotope Chain” is among the projects chosen for five-year federal grants through the highly competitive NSF program.

Williams hopes his NSF-funded research will bring advances in the field by testing theories about how atoms behave. “The theorists know we are doing this work, and they are eagerly awaiting the results of our experiments,” he says. “We’re working hand in hand to advance our knowledge of atomic physics.”

Filling in the Blanks of Evolution

Laura Katz, Elsie Damon Simonds Professor of Biological Sciences, and her team of student researchers are using a five-year, $579,043 grant from the National Science Foundation to fill in the blanks of evolutionary history and theory by studying the biodiversity of microorganisms. Their focus is on diverse and unstudied lineages of flagellates, ciliates and amoebae.

New Way to Pay

A project conceived in 2015 for an introductory engineering course—Engineering for Everyone, taught by Sarah Moore, assistant professor of engineering—resulted in a $100,00 grant for Smith students Christine Yee ’17, Darpan Bohara ’18 and Yashna Sureka ’17. With the Grand Challenges Exploration Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they developed a fingerprint authorization system connected with cellphones that allows merchants in India to accept non-cash payments from customers. The benefits, say the students, are far-reaching, helping business owners reduce costs and inspiring consumers to open bank accounts to save money for their purchases.

Scientists as Communicators

Professor of Astronomy James Lowenthal is the recipient of a $73,871 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for Science Communication Skill Building for Undergraduates. The project is a collaboration with Carthage and Dartmouth colleges, Stonybrook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). It aims to help science students better connect with the public, media and other scientists by emphasizing empathy and understanding of the audience, distilling messages to eliminate jargon and using theater improv exercises to bridge traditional boundaries between scientists and nonscientists.

“The Alda Center has developed a fabulous curriculum to help bridge the gap between scientists and a lay audience,” says Lowenthal. “All of us on the NSF project went through the training in August 2016. Now we’ll share those techniques and insights with our students, who will then be eligible to apply for paid summer internships at the AMC lodges in the White Mountains
doing science outreach with vacationers from around the country—on everything from climate change, astronomy and light pollution to ecosystems and botany.” Lowenthal has developed a new course, Astronomy and Public Policy, that will emphasize science communication.