Two months before they took their first classes at Vassar, Chase Morgan-Floyd ’18 and Alexandra Frazier ’18 were hard at work in science laboratories on the campus. Morgan-Floyd, of Grand Rapids MI, was using an infrared spectrometer to study hydrogen bonding in a lab in the Mudd Chemistry Building. Frazier, of Estes Park CO, was analyzing the behavior of mice in experiments conducted in Blodgett Hall that could lead to a treatment for autism in humans.
Morgan-Floyd and Frazier were enrolled in Diving Into Research, a program designed to give first generation, low-income students, who are under-represented in the sciences, a jump on how science is taught at Vassar. Six students were enrolled in the program this summer, working with faculty and upperclassmen in the chemistry, psychology, biology and physics departments.
Ja’Wanda Grant, director of Vassar’s Quantitative Reasoning Center, oversees Diving Into Research. Grant says the program benefits incoming students in two ways. “It gives them early exposure to faculty and students involved in the sciences, and it also helps orient them to campus,” she says. “It enables them to find what resources are available to them well before they start classes.”
Morgan-Floyd and Frazier both say they appreciated having the chance to begin their Vassar careers a few weeks early. “I’d done some work in high school preparing solutions for chemistry experiments, but I’d never used a spectrometer before,” Morgan-Floyd says. “It was really exciting being given the opportunity to do original research.”
Chemistry professor Sarjit Kaur says she chose the project for Morgan-Chase because understanding hydrogen bonding is a key to the study of many concepts in chemistry. She was impressed by how readily her new student learned his way around the lab. “I wanted to treat him like any other research assistant, and he took to the task quickly. When he hit a snag, he went to the journals published by scientists who had run similar experiments, and he found the solutions,” Kaur says.
Frazier was given the task of studying the behavior of mice, some of which lacked a certain gene in their brain and others whose brains were normal. The gene is believed to make the mice more social, so the experiment was run to determine if those without it mimicked the behavior of humans with certain kinds of autism when they were placed in cages with another mouse.
“It was a perfect opportunity for me because I want to major in neuroscience,” Frazier says. “Since I’ve been here I’ve met a lot of the cognitive science and neuroscience faculty, and I’m getting to know my way around. It’s really given me a kick start on college.”
Frazier’s faculty mentor, assistant psychology professor Bojana Zupan, says she was impressed with how fast Frazier grasped the techniques she needed to carry out the research. “Alex jumped right in and learned the standards and tolerances of scientific research and got right to work gathering the data,” Zupan says.
Now in its fifth year, Diving Into Research was conceived as a way to encourage incoming freshmen with an interest in science to pursue it throughout their college careers. Grant says most of the students enrolled in the program have ended up majoring in one of the sciences. Last year the college asked all of the students who had participated in the program if they would recommend it to future incoming first-year students, Grant says, “and all of them said they would.”
One student from the program’s inaugural session, Pedro Sepulveda ’14, is working as a research technician at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City. Four years later, Sepulveda says he still values the experience he gained as a Diving Into Research student. “It helped me get a jump on the science curriculum,” he says, “but just as importantly, enabled me to interact with professors and other students in an informal way. I was a shy student and it got me over that hump. I’d recommend it to anyone.”