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School of Arts and Sciences

Summer Scholars

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Summer Program Highlights Tufts' Commitment to Undergraduate Research of Teachers

Student with Senior Lecturer Elizabeth Lemons

by Alexandra Erath, A16

John Kelly, A15, and his faculty mentor, Elizabeth Lemons, senior lecturer in the religion department, before the his oral presentation for the Summer Scholars program on August 8, 2014.

John Kelly, A15, and Elizabeth Lemons, senior lecturer in the religion department, review Kelly's final presentation for the Summer Scholars program for his project. "Rape Crisis Counseling through a Catholic Pastoral Lens." (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

Alison Sikowitz, A16, delivers her oral presentation about her research project, "Out for Blood: Seeking Compensation and Justice in the British Legal System." Rosemary Taylor, professor of community health and sociology, was Sikowitz's faculty mentor.

Taylor Strelevitz, A15, gives her oral presentation on her research project, "Conceptualizing Gender Conscious Early Childhood Education for Intersex Families Taylor." Strelevitz worked with Richard Lerner, professor of child study and human development. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

After finals, many students leave Tufts for summer internships, jobs, and vacations. But for a select group of students, June marks the beginning of a new and exciting period in their Tufts years: their time spent as Summer Scholars.

Since 2006, the Summer Scholars program has provided motivated undergraduates the opportunity to pursue independent research while still at Tufts. For ten weeks, the scholars remain on campus to conduct their chosen research projects, meet regularly with their academic mentors, and attend lectures given by professors about research and academic careers. The program concludes in August with oral presentations by the scholars about their research.

"We emphasize the connection between students and their faculty mentors," says Anne Moore, who oversees scholar development for the program. The Summer Scholars application includes a letter of collaboration co-authored by the student and their mentor, explains Moore. "Their working relationship is one of the criteria we consider when selecting applicants," she adds.

Over fifty student scholars each summer, chosen from about twice as many applicants, have research interests spanning a broad array of topics. Rebecca Sinai, A16, examined sustainable cities and their economic development this summer, while Aaron Langerman, A15, explored French philosopher Michel Foucault's alternative means of thinking. Biology major Bradley Reinfeld, A15, studied the mechanisms underlying the expansion or contraction of repetitive sequences, a phenomenon observed in both yeast and humans.

The desire to collaborate with professors with whom they'd taken classes inspires many of the Summer Scholars to apply to the program. After taking Politics of Sustainable Cities with Professor of Political Science Kent Portney, Sinai expressed interest in his research and worked with him to develop a proposal for her summer collaboration. Langerman decided the topic of Professor Kris Manjapra's Modern European Intellectual History class was one he wished to further explore. While completing an independent study course focusing on Foucault, Langerman finalized his idea for a creative-writing experiment exploring alternatives to the philosopher's ways of thinking, and his Summer Scholars project was born.

This sort of intellectual springboard is characteristic of many Tufts students' experiences: a particularly interesting class propels them into independent research, which catapults them well into their senior thesis or further graduate research. The theology classes John Kelly, A15 took with Professor Elizabeth Lemons inspired him to apply for the program, and his summer research focuses on how the Catholic Church theologizes issues of sexual and domestic violence. But, Kelly is already thinking beyond the summer research to his senior thesis. "My thesis looked like it was going to be bigger than anticipated, and this way I could use the summer to hone in on what to write," he explains. "This project is jumpstarting my thesis, which may in turn influence my work towards a master's degree in divinity."

Similarly, Reinfeld hopes to use his research this summer as the groundwork for his senior honors thesis. He views his participation in the program as a logical extension of the work he's been doing in Professor Stephen Fuchs's biology lab since his sophomore year.

"It was a very natural progression," says Reinfeld, who considers Summer Scholars an excellent precursor for the M.D./Ph.D programs to which he's considering applying. "It's a taste of all-encompassing dedication, sort of getting your feet wet in the research world."

This evolution is exactly what faculty advisors like Moore hope to see from the participating students. "My dream is that the program gives students a broader sense of the direction of their future research," she explains. The Summer Scholars," says Moore, "have this fantastic opportunity to see what graduate school will be like before making the commitment of enrolling in a program."

In the next few years, Moore hopes to further diversify the pool of scholars. While the university provides a stipend for living expenses and a research budget, housing scholarships - offered for the first time this summer - are just one step in this direction. In the future, she hopes to work more closely with other summer research programs at Tufts, such as the Research Experience for Undergraduates or Leadership Alliance.

The Summer Scholars are unanimous in their praise of the independence the program offers. "I have my own project and my own research methods," says Sinai. "I determine my own schedule. Each day is different, and I really like that." Langerman agrees. "The program gives you a lot of freedom with how you structure your time," he says. "It's exciting just to have such freedom, to chart unknown waters."

The flipside of such autonomy, of course, can mean a few dead ends along the way. Here, science and humanities researchers face similar setbacks. "You have to remember not to get discouraged by unsuccessful experiments or a bad day in the lab," says Reinfeld. "Everything's a learning experience."

"The biggest challenge I've faced is writer's block, where I don't know in which direction to take my research," says Langerman. "Sometimes I feel like I'm traveling through a labyrinth, and then I'm trapped in random side corridors that aren't bringing me where I need to go. There are moments when I doubt what I'm doing, but almost every week I feel like I've made a major breakthrough."

For their part, the students involved are more than satisfied. "I can't think of anything I'd change," says Kelly. "It's been an absolutely amazing experience." Langerman agrees. "Maybe make it longer than ten weeks," he laughs. "The time has flown by."

Reinfeld believes the program has succeeded in fostering independent undergraduate study and is just another concrete example of Tufts' commitment to research. "The undergraduate population is really engaged," he says. "And the university is very supportive. It's definitely a good place to be asking research questions."