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Students learn research skills through summer program

How does suspense affect heart rate? Or what can be learned from modeling and analyzing bacteria’s movements or examining the differences in coordination due to hand dominance with and without visual feedback? These are just a few examples of the range of research topics explored by first-year students last month in the Summer Discovery Experience, an intensive summer initiative run by the National Science Foundation-funded PRISM program.

In this four-week immersive program, students experience hands-on research in mathematics, physics, and biology, and receive an introduction to basic research and data analysis methods—all under the guidance of faculty and student mentors. The summer program is taught by three faculty members: Dagmar Sternad, professor of biology and electrical and computer engineering; Alain Karma, professor of physics; and Christopher King, professor of mathematics.

The summer program is one of the activities offered throughout the year by PRISM, run by an interdisciplinary team of five faculty members that also includes Rick Porter, professor in mathematics, and Christos Zahopoulos, director of the Center for STEM Education. Other components of PRISM include a week-long innovative mathematics course held in the late summer, a fall lecture series, and an interdisciplinary class in the spring. Together, these components are designed to attract and engage students through mathematics and science research as well as peer mentoring.

The summer program, Sternad said, gives students an advantage by familiarizing them with research techniques and opportunities early on in their undergraduate experiences. She noted it’s also an environment in which students get the freedom and flexibility to explore their interests, test out their theories, and solve problems without the worry of being graded.

“In this program, students can follow their own noses,” Sternad said. “They define their own research questions and encounter their own problems and challenges. It is the challenges encountered when they optimistically want to solve a problem that present an eye-opening experience for them.”

During the first three weeks of the Summer Discovery Experience, students get a crash course in topics ranging from random walks to heart arrhythmia and movement control through both instruction and hands-on practice. At the end of each week, all students give presentations on the research projects they conducted. In the fourth week, they divide into groups and select a specific research project of their own choice and design, usually related to one of the topics encountered in the previous three weeks.

Dena Guo, a rising second-year student, found the summer program a particularly enriching learning environment. “The thing I liked most was that it focused on the process and how we approached our problems, rather than whether our answers were right or wrong.” Her group’s final project involved creating an algorithm to analyze a patient’s electrocardiogram, specifically the rate and regularity of heartbeats. Guo also credited the summer program with exposing her to Sternad’s Action Lab, which opened her eyes to many exciting potential research opportunities.

Eric Holtzman, a rising third-year student, also attested to the program’s impact. He participated in his first year, and this year he served as a mentor. He explained how he learned even more the second time around from guiding other students’ perspectives.

Through the summer program, Holtzman had also learned MATLAB, a high-level language for numerical computation, analysis, and visualization. He said these skills helped him to land a co-op this summer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.

“It’s amazing to see the students arrive without any programming experience and then see how far they come in solving their problems,” Holtzman said. “The skills they learn, particularly understanding data analysis, are incredibly useful in the research they’ll be doing later on.”