Time to Explore: Summer Research at Smith

Abigail Edwards '20 demonstrates a pulse wave velocity test on her summer research adviser, Associate Professor Sarah Witkowski

Abigail Edwards ’20 is spending the summer practicing her bedside manner with participants in an exercise study on campus.

Edwards—one of 144 students taking part in Smith’s annual Summer Research Fellowship Program (SURF)—is studying heart disease risk in women of color by testing for signs of “arterial stiffness.”

“The stiffer your arteries, the faster your pulse wave velocity will be,” Edwards says, as she demonstrates the sophisticated blood-vessel readings she will be taking from study participants before and after they exercise on a treadmill in Scott Gym.

“I want to go to medical school, and I’m particularly interested in clinical research,” says Edwards, who is a member of Smith’s lacrosse team and president of the new Sports Committee on Inclusion and Diversity. “The pulse wave velocity test has become my favorite because I initially struggled to capture quality assessments. I kept trying, and now I feel so much more confident with this method.”

Since it was founded 50 years ago, SURF has provided some 3,500 students with opportunities for immersive summer research experiences under the mentorship of Smith science faculty members.

Studies show the program has had a positive impact on students’ academic performance at Smith, as well as the likelihood they will pursue advanced degrees after graduation. “The outcomes data for SURF are really outstanding,” says Kevin Shea, professor of chemistry and faculty director of the sciences. “We know this program works.”

In addition to benefiting students, summer research can also help advance scientific understanding, says Sarah Witkowski, associate professor of exercise and sport studies, who is advising Edwards on her project.

Given that there are few previous studies of arterial stiffness in women of color despite their increased risk for cardiovascular disease, Witkowski says Edwards’ project could break new ground, “adding to a growing field of research using what is a new measure for my lab.”

Time to explore

For Morgan Jones ’21, the best thing about SURF is the concentrated time it offers to delve into a research question.

“During the school year, it’s hard to be that focused,” says Jones, who is using digital mapping technology to illustrate how two different U.S. cities are responding to climate change. “SURF is such a great opportunity to explore something you’re really interested in.”

Morgan Jones ’21

Jones—who is studying for a bachelor of arts in engineering at Smith—says she has long been interested in issues related to water conservation. By using geographic information systems (GIS) to map water use patterns in New York City and Phoenix, she hopes to highlight lessons about how the changing climate informs the future of cities.

“The two cities represent two extremes: New York is moving in a more sustainable direction, while Phoenix is under water stress from climate change and usage patterns,” Jones says. “GIS is a perfect tool for researching this because it allows you to pull in big data sets and grasp them in a visual way.”

Building on Smith experiences

Emily Raphael ’18 and Stephanie Konas ’20 are doing research that builds on their science outreach experiences at Smith. Last year, they traveled to area high schools to help teach students about zebrafish from Professor Michael Barresi’s lab.

For their SURF project, Konas and Raphael are creating a website that will provide high school teachers with ideas about how to engage students in similar hands-on learning about science.

“We want to help teachers move their students from observation to critical thinking by having them design their own experiments,” says Raphael, who is now studying for a master’s degree in education at Smith.

Stephanie Konas '20 science outreach

Stephanie Konas ’20 (center) on a science outreach assignment.

“If the students come up with their own research questions, they’re learning about what works and what doesn’t in an experiment, instead of just listening to someone else describe the steps,” adds Konas.

Their SURF project started out as a resource for students, but shifted as they learned more about the importance of curriculum design, “and we realized we needed to focus on teachers,” Raphael says.

Adapting research questions is part of being a scientist, Konas says—a lesson she hopes to share with her own students someday. “This project has really solidified my own desire to teach middle- or high school biology,” she says.