STEM Summer Research Project Descriptions

Below are some examples of faculty lab opportunities for summer 2023. Some of the faculty listed take part in the early STEM selection process, some do not. Please read carefully. For other STEM faculty members not listed, please see their web pages or contact them via email or in person.

Dr. Nadia Ayoub (Biology): Molecular variation in spider aqueous glues.
Nadia Ayoub (Spider Team) is seeking 2 students to assist with spider care, silk collection, silk purification, and protein analyses. Protein analyses, in collaboration with biochemist Dr. Friend, include identifying and quantifying silk glue proteins and their post-translational modifications, as well as the potential to express, purify, and assay recombinant glue proteins. Another potential route of investigation is in collaboration with Dr. Toporikova, investigating the genetics of circadian rhythms in spiders.

Dr. Ryan Brindle (CBSC & Neuroscience): Human sleep and stress psychophysiology.

This summer the W&L Sleep and Stress Psychophysiology Lab will be exploring how sleep and stress are associated with human interoception. Interoception is the collection of senses that our bodies must monitor our internal conditions (e.g., blood pressure, respiration rate, blood glucose, etc.). Interoception is increasingly being appreciated for its fundamental role in maintaining physical and mental health and its failure is being increasingly being recognized as a major contributor to poor mental and physical health. This summer we will be exploring how mental stress and sleep impact interoception, as both sleep and stress also play a role in mental and physical well-being. Students will gain experience measuring human physiology (e.g., cardiovascular and respiratory system), human sleep, and human cardiac and respiratory interoception. Please email Dr. Brindle for more information.

Dr. Paul Cabe (Biology): Using genetic variation to assess the taxonomy and origins of Virginia's crayfish.

Students in the Cabe lab will work on conservation genetics of Virginia crayfish. Most of the work will be in the lab, learning DNA extraction, PCR, gel electrophoresis, and preparing samples for sequencing. Students will also examine and analyze DNA sequence results. Many of the projects will investigate the biodiversity of crayfish in Virginia (still somewhat unknown!). In addition to lab work, we will also spend some time in the field, collecting crayfish from Virginia's streams and waterways.

Dr. Elizabeth Denne (Mathematics): Folded ribbon knots in the plane.

Professor Denne's lab works on geometric knot theory. We are all about discovering and proving mathematical results about physical knots. The current project is about folded ribbon knots, where a knot is folded from a long, thin strip of paper. One of the questions we look at is finding the least length of ribbon needed to fold any knot. Students who have some maturity in mathematics (such as having taken classes like Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra) will be able to best make progress on these problems.

Dr. Jon Erickson (Engineering): Building and application of non-invasive diagnostic techniques to study gastrointestinal motility in health and disease.
The Erickson Lab aka Colon Crew develops non-invasive techniques to monitor gastrointestinal motility in health and disease. During summer 2023 we will pursue 2 projects:

  1. Make multichannel electrical recordings on the skin surface in a cohort of IBS subjects and compare those findings to healthy normal controls. The aim is to characterize biomarkers of when and where the colon is misfiring.
  2. Develop and refine prototype of a GI stethoscope capable of listening to bowel sounds. This will culminate in making simultaneous recordings of bowel sounds along with skin surface electrical recordings.

We are an interdisciplinary team with interest and experience in electronics, signal processing, biology, and medicine. If you are interested in joining the Colon Crew, please reach out to Jon Erickson.

Dr. Kyle Friend (Chemistry & Biochemistry): RNA metabolism.
This summer, the Friend lab will be investigating the causes and regulation of abortive translation. We will be looking at how cells regulate abortive translation in response to nutrient levels and viral infection.

Dr. Carrie Finch-Smith (Mathematics): Number Theory
Prof. Finch-Smith works on research projects in number theory. In particular, her research group searches for families of positive integers with special properties. The only requirements to work with Prof. Finch are arithmetic skills and a sense of curiosity and wonder. The best part of the Finch-Smith lab is getting to work with Victor!

Dr. Jake Gibson (CBSC): Accuracy of personality, politics, and stereotypes

I am seeking 1-2 students who are interested in stereotypes, politics, religion, LGBTQIA+ identity, and the accuracy of social perceptions.

Dr. Erin Gray (Chemistry & Biochemistry): Illuminating new catalytic transformations

The Gray Group designs new catalytic transformations for the synthesis of complex molecules. To identify novel chemical bond-forming methods, we harness the activity of transition metal catalysts and visible light, with the goal of using these reactions to label and study biomolecules.

Dr. Lisa Greer (Geosciences): Habitat assessment and live coral analysis at Coral Gardens, Belize

I plan to take up to 3 students for ~8 days in the field and 6-8 weeks of summer research at W&L.
We will photograph set locations on the reef to compare live coral abundance with past years and to create 3D models of live coral structure. We will also collect and analyze temperature, light, pH, and dissolved oxygen on the reef.

Dr. David Harbor (Geosciences): River erosion of bedrock by plucking.

David Harbor is looking for two students for 8 weeks from geoscience, engineering or computer science to participate in an NSF funded experimental study of rock erosion by plucking. For this sixth year of research, he seeks curious students to build new equipment, code data collection routines in Arduino and Matlab, set up new devices and instruments, and collect and analyze video and time series data.

Dr. Bill Hamilton (Biology & Environmental Studies): Carbon and nitrogen cycling in Yellowstone National Park.

Dr. Robert Humston (Biology & Environmental Studies): Food web ecology of stream fishes.
We will be collecting fish samples from three different creeks where native brook trout coexist with introduced smallmouth bass populations. The goal is to examine the relationship between stable isotopes in muscle and fin tissues and to examine gut contents from collected fish. These data will be used to study the stream food webs and understand the overlap between brook trout and smallmouth bass trophic niches.

Dr. Helen I'Anson (Biology & Neuroscience): The role of snacking in early obesity onset.

The I'Anson research team studies the role of snacking using a developing rat model to understand the mechanisms involved in childhood snacking and obesity onset. This summer we will be investigating the role of the GI tract, and abdominal fat in development of obesity and related metabolic problems. I am looking for 2 students to join the team.

Dr. Mengying Liu (Engineering): Investigation of non-homogeneous deformation in 3D printed materials by digital image correlation.

Products from 3D printing require further investigation regarding internal defects due to printing errors as well as residual and thermal stresses. Those internal defects lead to localized deformation and accelerate the failure of the material. Thus, quantitative analysis of those non-homogenous deformations is of great importance for guiding the processing procedure and predicting the lifetime.

Two students will be working on different parts of the project: one will focus on synthesizing ceramics or metallic samples by 3D printing, and characterize the microstructure with optical and scanning electron microscope; the other will focus on analyzing the surface deformation through an advanced method - digital image correlation. Correlating the microstructural features and the mechanical response, one can investigate the root cause of non-homogenous deformation and have a better understanding of structure-processing-properties relationship.

Potential students must have great attention to details and be self-motivated. Prior knowledge on solid mechanics or materials engineering is preferred for working on digital image correlation, but not required.

Dr. David Marsh (Biology & Environmental Studies): Conservation biology and herpetology.

In my lab, we study the conservation biology of reptiles and amphibians. One major focus of our research is predicting the relative effects of climate change on both rare salamanders that are confined to single mountain ridges and widespread salamanders that are found throughout the Eastern U.S. Towards this goal, we are measuring the body condition multiple species of salamanders across elevational gradients from the tops of mountains down to the bottom.

The other focus of our lab is urban ecology - in particular, why some species of reptiles and amphibians survive in cities while others are absent. To study this, we use large databases for the locations where amphibians and reptiles have been found relative to spatial data on land cover such as forest, the distribution of wetlands, and the locations of city parks.

Dr. N. Toporikova (Biology & Neuroscience): Neural control of breathing and swallowing.
Breathing and swallowing are closely coordinated and require a precise timing to avoid suffocation. This summer our lab will be using Data Science tools to understand how the mammalian brain integrates those two rhythmic activities. We will be using brain recording data collected by our collaborators to analyze changes in electric potential and intracellular calcium in respiratory areas of a newborn mouse. We then will use our analysis to develop computational model of rat brain to generate rhythmic breaths and swallows. Finally, we will use our model to predict the changes in those two behavioral during opioid exposure. No previous programming experience is necessary, but familiarity or interest in data science software will be a huge plus.

  • 1-2 students are expected to work on this project

Dr. Erich Uffelman (Chemistry & Biochemistry): Cultural heritage science: noninvasive examination of old master paintings.
The Uffelman group uses portable instrumentation at collaborating museums and universities to conduct non-invasive analyses of cultural heritage objects---especially paintings.

Dr. Fiona Watson (Biology & Neuroscience): Optic nerve regeneration following injury and neurotoxic effects of pesticides.
The current goal of the Watson lab is to refine the cellular and molecular timelines of recovery from optic nerve crush injury in order to identify the four key phases of regeneration in tadpoles and frogs of varied ages (Xenopus laevis). Once we identify the four key phases of the regeneration timeline, we will then collect tissues at these distinct time points to generate transcriptional profiles for use in comparative studies. As a member of the Frogs Squad, you will be involved in all aspects of the project. This includes performing delicate microsurgical techniques that include crushing the optic nerve in frogs and tadpoles, injecting fluorescent dyes intravitreally, microdissecting the fragile optic nerves and other tissues, caring for the frogs and tadpoles, imaging the results using confocal microscopy and writing up and presenting your results.

Dr. Gregg Whitworth (Biology & Data Science): Gene expression and mRNA processing in eukaryotes
There are three main projects currently available in our lab. The first is an investigation of alternative splicing isoforms found in various mammalian tissues. The second is a study of how diet and hormone signaling affect the gut microbiome. The third explores the molecular mechanics of programmed cell death. We can welcome 1 - 2 new students in the lab for summer 2023.