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grab your coffee, sit back and hang out with the UD Honors Program for a while

Month: September 2012

Honors Students Reflect on a Summer of Scholarship

by Katie Galgano

With the stress of spring semester and final exams behind them, most students at the University of Delaware packed their things to return home for a relaxing summer, but for the participants in the Summer Scholars Program, their academic pursuits were only just beginning. As their peers made their way to the beaches, the Summer Scholars made their way into labs, classrooms, and the field to conduct original research alongside distinguished faculty in their various departments. Though the program is open to students across campus, its rigor makes it particularly attractive to Honors students like Kevin Chang, a junior biomedical engineering and computer science student. He calls it “an experience that you can’t replicate anywhere else.” Kelly Burke, a junior music education major with minors in disability studies and math, expressed some initial reservations about participating in the program: “I was really hesitant, because it meant that I wouldn’t be able to go home for the summer, but I’m so glad I did it.” Her research, under Professor of Music Suzanne Burton brought her into classrooms of infants and toddlers to analyze how music affects vocalization in those with speech and language disorders. “Working with the infants and toddlers was so much fun. Every class they’d find a new way to impress me with their progress,” she reminisces.

The insight that Kelly and the other scholars gained expanded far beyond the confines of their specific focus areas into the practice of conducting research as a whole. As Kevin Chang explains, his research on using jello-like hydrogels to control the growth of blood vessel cells under Professor of Materials Science and Deputy Dean of Engineering Kristi Kiick taught him “much more than just lab techniques; it also [taught him] how to ask the right questions so that [he] could find out what [he wanted] to know.”

Kyle Tucker, a junior in chemical engineering and computer science conducted research with Chemical Engineering Professor and Interim Dean of Engineering Babatunde Ogunnaike. Kyle, who focused on improving wind turbine efficiency by predicting future wind speeds, learned that “things hardly ever work out the first time,” and that you should “be prepared to fail before you succeed.”

Neuroscience and psychology student Erin McKenna reflects Kyle’s sentiments as she recalls a particular day when she was left with no option but to turn away all her subjects. In the midst of an intense July heat wave, Erin was slated to gather data for her studies on emotion-induced blindness only to discover that the air conditioning in Wolf Hall was not working. “We had to send subjects home because sweat interferes with the signal picked up by the electrode cap,” she describes. “Essentially, we had to send people home because they would’ve been too sweaty in our lab and our equipment wouldn’t have worked properly as a result.” For Erin, working with Psychology Professor James Hoffman, the Summer Scholars Program taught her not only how to roll with the punches, but the importance of anticipating as many of those punches as possible when designing experiments. “I was surprised by how much thought and preparation goes into designing each experiment. With strict ethical standards and the cost of running an experiment, professors need to be sure that each experiment will draw some type of conclusion, whether supporting or not supporting the hypothesis.”

The Summer Scholars Program offers a doorway into research that many of its participants eagerly pursue during the rest of their undergraduate careers and perhaps even beyond. While Kevin’s research over the summer focused primarily on the impact that the stiffness of the hydrogels had on cell viability, he will next explore the effects of other hydrogel properties on viability to ensure that the hydrogels can most effectively aid in blood vessel cell replacement. For junior ecology and biology student Samantha Nestory, her work on re-vegetating a disturbed industrial landscape with Professor Judith Hough-Goldestein in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology introduced her to restoration ecology, which she now is considering as a possible career path. Each of these students will also produce a senior thesis, earning them the Honors Degree with Distinction come graduation.

As the Summer Scholars came together to present their finding at the research symposium on August 9, they were able to reflect on a truly remarkable journey of discovery. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the Summer Scholars Program, though, is not the field experience, but the bonding and close sense of community that forms when a group of highly motivated, intellectually curious students come together to work in close conjunction with leading experts in their departments. “I became close with the members of my lab and the department, so UD feels even more like a family for me,” Samantha explains.

UDHP Welcomes the Class of 2016

On September 7 2012, the Honors Program class of 2016 filed into Smith 120 for the traditional Freshman Welcome, many not quite knowing what to expect. Rebecca LaPlaca, a first-year art major, attended the event with her floor. “None of us really knew how close-knit and family-like the Honors community is” she comments. “When the professors started talking, we could tell that they genuinely wanted us there and that the “freshman” stigma didn’t really apply here.”

Students, Fellows and staff mingle at the reception at the CFA.

Faculty and administrators from all across the University came to give the new class a warm Honors Program welcome. Special guest President Patrick T. Harker encouraged students to engage with the world around them: “Because your ultimate challenge—the challenge of all scholarship—is one of service, to apply your gifts to pressing areas of need, and be the leaders we know you’re capable of being” he said. Honors Program Director Michael Arnold greeted students and faculty in a video and shared with them lessons he learned from his father. He encouraged students to “Enjoy ice cubes [the little things in life], challenge yourself, explore the world, and be generous.”

Students await the beginning of the presentation portion of the Freshman Welcome.

One of the highlights of the Freshman Welcome was the traditional Russell Fellows skit. This year, the fellows based their skit on imagined events at the Olympic Village. “The Russell Fellow Welcome Skit was perfectly executed, and it was apparent how much time, energy and effort went into making us laugh and feel further connected to our Russell Fellow,” says Rebecca. The Class of 2016 also became Honors Program donors. Students were asked to bring $1 to the event and raised $194. A committee of Honors freshmen decided that the money will be used towards set-up costs and prizes for an Honors Program 2016 class t-shirt.

UDHP students chat with Economics professor Liz Bailey at the reception in the CFA.

Sarah Georger, co-curricular coordinator, was instrumental in planning this year’s welcome event. “I was excited and pleased at how well everything came together. Students and faculty in attendance had a great time watching the Russell Fellows skit, Ms. Kerrane and Dr. Arnold had strong notes of welcome, and it was an honor to have President Harker speak. I think students and faculty made some great connections at the reception, too!” The reception that followed was held in the beautiful lobby of the Louise and David Roselle Center for the Arts building and provided students with the opportunity to mingle with professors and Honors Program staff.


Honors Alumna Alyssa Serra: Bring Clean Water and Better Nutrition to Haitians

by Katie Galgano

Imagine a community where hunger endangers nearly one-quarter of all children, and of those who survive, 42% are permanently impaired. This was the reality of Leogane, Haiti before the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Since then, RSOs have rushed into Leogane to help reconstruct the community, which had 90% of its buildings ruined by the quake. Long before the earthquake though, the NGO “The Children’s Nutritional Program of Haiti” (CNP), or “Kore Timoun” in Creole, has been working in Leogane, helping the community lower its acute malnourishment rate from 24% in 1998 to less than 3% today. The organization is now tackling chronic malnutrition. Six months ago, Alyssa Serra, a 2009 Honors Degree with Distinction graduate in anthropology joined the staff of Americans and Haitians as the clean water intern for CNP. Alyssa is helping Leogane residents combat the chronic diarrhea and cholera that threaten their lives.

Alyssa’s involvement in water purification happened almost by accident but has since blossomed into a passion. While studying at UD, she wanted to research the politics of NGOs’ involvement in developing countries. In January 2009, Alyssa traveled to Cameroon, Africa, with UD’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) to collect primary data for her research. The EWB members were working on water purification projects in the remote village of Bakang. Alyssa quickly learned the importance of a hands-on, real life field experience.

While studying the relationships and political dynamics between EWB students and the Cameroonians, Alyssa attended functions with EWB at the Mayor’s and Chief’s houses and attended town hall meetings with the entire community. Alyssa fondly recalls the excitement during one particular meeting when a Cameroonian introduced biosand filters—essentially concrete boxes filled with sand to filter water. Bakang residents cheered and danced exuberantly, relieved that by using simple technology, clean water was at long last on the way.

Alyssa explained with a laugh that in the village two little huts at a crossroad functioned almost like Wawa convenience stores. Each night Alyssa would sit at this crossroad and chat with the Cameroonians, becoming particularly close to a woman named Diane. On Alyssa’s last night in the country, Diane invited Alyssa over to her home, a house far removed from the affluent homes that Alyssa had visited with the rest of EWB. Diane’s invitation to Alyssa communicated the utmost hospitality and gratitude. Being in Bakang taught Alyssa that people are the same with “the same needs, same wants, same issues that we all have.”

As Alyssa weighed her options after graduation, she again turned to Dr. Weil for advice. After constantly guiding her, and at times, Alyssa chuckles, “dragging her through” writing her thesis, Dr. Weil recommended graduate school at the University of Sussex in England as an excellent match for her intellectual interests. The University boasts a renowned anthropology department and employs many of the world’s experts in the field. At Sussex, Alyssa pursued her Masters in Social Research Methods, and hoped to complete her doctorate. When funding was unexpectedly cut, Alyssa had to change paths. Remembering the cheering women of Bakang and Diane’s smiling face, Alyssa decided to return to water purification projects, this time as an active member of an NGO.

In Leogane Haiti, Alyssa encountered a community where cholera outbreaks and chronic diarrhea are responsible for 30% of deaths of children under the age of five. With Leogane’s infrastructure destroyed by the quake, a desperate need for water drives community members to contaminated wells. Alyssa has been able to bring her knowledge of the biosand filters used in Cameroon. These filters are easily constructed with available materials, allowing for quick distribution on-location. She has also tackled a hygienic latrine project known as arborloo. These latrines use basins that once filled can fertilize freshly planted trees. The project not only promotes hygiene but also the reforestation of the ravished countryside.

In many ways, Alyssa’s role in Haiti is not unlike the support she received at the University of Delaware. Alyssa explains, “My department was really small, but I knew everyone really well, so I got a lot of help when I needed it and that helped me get to where I needed to be to do research. It was my first time, and they walked me through it and pushed me until the very end.” In the same way, Alyssa is getting to know Leogane residents. She is walking them through how to use new and unfamiliar technologies and hygienic practices. Alyssa has had “some lively conversations, some of which have gotten rather heated” with hour-long arguments over how to best complete a project. These interactions, though at times leave her “wiped,” allow her to better understand the community and its needs, so she can help them get to where they need to be: well-nourished and healthy.

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