Autumn 2017

Spaced out

One van, 11 students, 2,000 miles. This past August, Professor Beth Parks took a group of incoming first-year students on a pre-orientation trip to Spring City, Tenn., to view the solar eclipse (pictured above; Parks is bottom, left).

“It seemed like something not to be missed,” said Parks, who is teaching the introductory class for potential physics and astronomy majors this semester. “Especially because it would give some of the students a chance to get to know each other before classes started and hopefully draw them into the physics and astronomy department.”

Most Colgate students weren’t born when the last total eclipse in the continental United States occurred in 1979, and Parks missed it, so the group was eager to see the phenomenon.

One of the most memorable aspects happened before the totality of the eclipse. All of the shadows from tree leaves appeared as crescent shapes on the ground due to the gaps between them acting as pinhole lenses. Once totality occurred, the group was so mesmerized that they didn’t even notice each other’s reactions. “We were all so busy looking at it, we weren’t looking at each other,” Parks said.

After the event, Parks and her crew began the journey north, but they made some pit stops in Washington, D.C. The group visited the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and other science-based locations. At some stops, scientists gave the group tours and spoke to the students.

In addition to learning about science through the trip, students also got to know their peers and create lasting relationships.

“Besides the eclipse itself, which will be seared in my mind forever, my favorite memory is the time I spent with the guys on the trip who have become my closest friends here at Colgate,” Paul Nugent ’21 said.

In the field

Student scuba diving

Yingqi Zhang ’18 took her studies to some unconventional places during an internship at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

Colgate students aren’t just busy when school is in session. In the summertime, many participate in internships and research projects exploring topics ranging from tomatoes to coral. Here are just some student adventures from the summer.

The results of a research project conducted by Christine Horn ’19 could be pretty juicy. Horn’s two-year independent project will explore whether the agriculture industry’s penchant for red, juicy tomatoes causes reduced defensive abilities in the plants. Horn will conduct the project with the help of biology and environmental studies professor Frank Frey. The results of the study may help us understand how to reduce agricultural dependency on pesticides. “I am excited to be conducting this research for the rest of my time as a student at Colgate, and I can’t wait to see where it will take me,” Horn said.

Meanwhile, this summer, Molly Nelson ’19 went back in time. Through archaeological excavation in a small town outside of Brescia, Italy, Nelson analyzed layers of soil in a medieval home. In addition, she cleaned and cataloged finds such as shards of pottery, animal bones, and mosaic pieces from her team’s excavations. “Such slow and sometimes painstaking work showed me how meticulous study of the different layers of soil could paint a picture of events that had transpired within the space,” Nelson said.

Tim Englehart ’18 spent the summer at Colgate exploring student patterns in volunteerism through data from selective colleges around the country. From his research, Englehart found that, although volunteer work is common in high schoolers, only one-third of students participate in altruism in their first year of college. This may be because many high schools require volunteer work, while many colleges and universities don’t. Englehart is continuing his research this year with his sociology honors thesis.

Yingqi Zhang ’18 didn’t just learn about coral during her internship at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences — she also learned that science isn’t always glamorous. “I could be diving at a beautiful reef site one day and scrubbing tanks the next day,” Zhang said. “But everything paid off when I saw the final results. It felt so satisfying.” For 11 weeks, she studied the response mustard hill coral had to thermal stress and how that response varies among different reef zones. Zhang found that corals from inner reef zones perform better under heat stress. Zhang’s hard work was worth it; because of the research, she hopes to become a coral reef scientist.

Teaming up against the opioid epidemic

As a psychiatrist in central New York, Richard Brown ’79 has seen firsthand the devastation wrought by the opioid crisis.

“One week, I had three people who had lost relatives,” said Brown, who practices through the Bassett Healthcare Network in Cooperstown.

Despite seeing the brutal evidence of the epidemic, however, Brown felt frustrated by the lack of information about what’s causing the crisis — and whether it’s getting better or worse. He reached out to Colgate’s Upstate Institute, which matches university researchers with community partners to study issues of regional importance. The institute connected Brown with geography professors Ellen Kraly and Peter Scull, who agreed to help drill down into the data to better understand what is emerging as a health crisis. They enlisted geography student fellows from the institute — Lydia Ulrich ’17 and Jonathan Santiago ’18 — to help gather and interpret temporal data and conduct geographic systems analysis. The team also consulted with Michael Komosinski ’11 who, as an Upstate Institute fellow, conducted population data analysis at Bassett.

The group decided to take a closer look at the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing (I-STOP), a 2013 New York State initiative mandating that practitioners use electronic prescriptions and check an online database before issuing one to a patient. Although the program aims to cut down on opioid abuse, some have worried that cutting down access might have the unintended consequence of increasing illegal heroin use. The researchers address the issue in a paper just published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“It was a clear and straightforward research question: What is the effect of I-STOP on opioid morbidity?” Kraly said. “Like a lot of research, however, the results raised more questions.” Looking at I-STOP data, they found that while the number of prescriptions for opioids decreased after the implementation, the total amount of opioids prescribed stayed the same, implying doctors were prescribing higher dosages. Even so, the number of opioid-related deaths in New York has leveled off since 2013. “That is a promising sign in light of the increasing national trend in prescription opioid morbidity,” Kraly said.

At the same time, the researchers saw a steady increase in heroin deaths starting in 2010, before the start of the I-STOP program. That suggests that other factors, such as decreasing heroin prices, might be driving it. “I-STOP didn’t cause the heroin epidemic, because clearly it had started before then,” Brown said.

Despite that conclusion, the program doesn’t seem to have succeeded in decreasing opioid deaths either. “It is necessary but not sufficient,” Brown said. “It can help identify rogue prescribers or people with aberrant behavior who go to multiple emergency rooms, but you can’t rest on that.”

Brown has pushed Bassett to adopt a multitiered effort to deal with the epidemic, including better communication between doctors and mental health workers, programs for safe disposal of prescription drugs, and non-opioid alternatives for managing pain. “This is the biggest epidemic of our time, and we need to be doing everything we can to address it,”
he said. “I hope we can implement more effective treatment and radically lower mortality.”

The researchers’ next step is to look geographically at patterns of opioid prescriptions and deaths — examining, for example, how proximity to prescribing doctors, heroin treatment clinics, and state borders affect prescriptions and overdoses. They’ll also examine whether opioid overdoses are fewer in the area covered by Bassett’s network, as an early indication of whether their strategy is working.

While there are still more questions than answers in the opioid epidemic, the university researchers and doctors hope they can find better solutions by working together. “This is what the relationship between higher education and community organizations can be,” Kraly said. “Our students gain superb experience working shoulder to shoulder with health professionals at Bassett to build evidence-based health programs. It’s an exciting example of how Colgate can contribute in partnership with the people who are working to serve people in our communities.”

— Michael Blanding

Choosing scholarships over STEM

Illustration of scales balancing books and a graduation cap with a stack of money

iStock/Alexander Doubovitsky

Merit-based financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants is intended to ease the burden of a student’s debt load, but is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Some studies suggest that students who receive merit-based aid may be deterred from pursuing a major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields for fear that subpar grades could cost them their scholarships.

Meg Blume-Kohout, visiting assistant professor of economics, has been awarded a three-year, $230,647 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate this perceived problem. Her research project, titled “Evaluating Impact of Student Debt on Early Career Choices,” aims to determine whether merit-based aid has an impact on the college majors of women and minority students and, in turn, their career paths after graduation.

“If students are on the margin about whether they can stay in school from a financial perspective, they can’t always afford to take STEM classes — in which the average grade distribution is lower — if they need to maintain their scholarships,” Blume-Kohout said.

The project assesses the effects of two types of merit-based aid: lottery scholarships, which are awarded to students of all majors; and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) grants, which are awarded to students who pursue majors in a science-related field.

Using two existing data sources — one from a large, public minority-serving institution and the other from the NSF’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics — Blume-Kohout will first evaluate whether SMART grants and merit-based aid affect undergraduates’ retention in and completion of STEM degree programs. She’ll then compare the effects of such scholarships and other types of financial support on students’ cumulative debt loads and early career paths.

The grant will also fund the work of four undergraduate research assistants who will conduct literature reviews, perform statistical analyses, and have the chance to test their own hypotheses.

Blume-Kohout hopes the results will help to inform policies that aim to retain women and minority students in STEM fields. “STEM graduates in higher-paying occupations could help address socioeconomic inequality and social mobility, which are some of the reasons we’re concerned about the effects of student debt,” she said.

— Erin Burnett ’19

Frame of mind

Spot the difference: A group of people or people in a group? While these phrases might seem interchangeable at first glance, recent research by Erin Cooley, assistant professor of psychology, shows that humans interpret these similar statements in unexpected ways.

Cooley’s research investigates the topic of mind perception — the idea that we can ascribe mental capacities to others. She sought to discover whether people perceive a “mind” differently in groups of people — a country, for example — than in individuals. Her paper, titled “The Paradox of Group Mind: ‘People in a Group’ Have More Mind Than ‘a Group of People,’” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General this past spring.

Intuitively, groups should be perceived as having lots of minds — after all, they comprise many individuals. The results of Cooley’s first study, however, support the opposite; overall, people perceive groups — such as companies or sports teams — as having less “mind” than an individual.

In a second study, Cooley found that slight shifts in the way a group is described can significantly affect how that group is perceived. The results show that shifting the statement from “a group of people” to “people in a group” led people to perceive groups as having as much “mind” as an individual.

“Our interpretation of these findings is that people start seeing the humanity of groups when the focus is placed on the people within the group rather than the group as a unified whole,” Cooley explained.

She coauthored the project with two Colgate researchers: Alyssa Berger ’16 and William Cipolli, assistant professor of mathematics. Other coauthors include Cooley’s former graduate advisers and peers.

For Berger’s senior thesis project, she and Cooley discovered that, by affecting “mind” perception, linguistic shifts also affect whether people feel compassion for a suffering group.

“For instance, ‘people in a company’ who suffered bankruptcy were not only perceived as having more mind than ‘a company of people,’ but they also elicited much more sympathy,” Cooley said.

Beyond the lab, the findings have several real-world applications, including the perception of governing bodies in the media and an individual’s willingness to donate to charities that aid suffering groups. In future research, Cooley hopes to investigate how individuals make moral decisions involving groups.

“I’m interested in how people make decisions that harm groups,” Cooley said. “For instance, would people think it is more ethical to attack ‘North Korea’ or ‘the people of North Korea’? Our findings suggest that word choice is not arbitrary; instead, it can affect whether we sympathize with those who are suffering or ignore their plight altogether.”

— Erin Burnett ’19

CRISPR at Colgate

Illustration of tweezers extracting part of an enlarged representation of DNA


The technologies in science fiction films like Gattaca and Blade Runner may seem light-years away, but the development of a gene-editing technique called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is bringing our society closer to these futuristic worlds than ever before.

During her talk titled “CRISPR: The Genome Editing Revolution” in June, Assistant Professor of Biology Priscilla Van Wynsberghe spoke to students and faculty about this scientific breakthrough as part of Colgate’s Summertime Lecture Series.

“The science community has had methods to alter a genome directly in a cell, but [these methods] haven’t been as easy to use, as simple, or as fast acting as CRISPR,” Van Wynsberghe said. “It allows [scientists] to make a specific alteration to a nucleic acid in a human cell.”

This past summer, Van Wynsberghe and her team of student researchers used the technology to study the effects of specific proteins on development of the nematode C. elegans.

“One of the ways we can study a protein is by pulling it out and seeing what it’s bound to through immunoprecipitation,” Van Wynsberghe said. “To do that, you need a way to tag your protein to see where your protein is, how much is there, and what it’s binding to. What I’d like to do with CRISPR is engineer a short little ‘tag’ into my protein so that I can specifically, confidently identify it.”

Although scientists first noticed CRISPR in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until 2012 that they announced its potential as a gene-editing tool. Using Cas9, a protein that can create double-stranded breaks in DNA, CRISPR allows for the deletion or insertion of a gene at virtually any location in the genome. As research progresses, the technique could potentially be used to advance our understanding of biological systems; treat genetic diseases caused by a single, known mutation; grow organs for transplantations; and even edit human embryos. However, most traits, including intelligence and height, are impacted by multiple genes and environmental influences, and thus are too complex to be altered by CRISPR technology.

Along with the power of CRISPR comes the need for ethical responsibility. Although the technology has the potential to save lives, it also can be used to genetically modify organisms for reasons other than solving life-threatening problems.

Throughout her talk, Van Wynsberghe posed situational questions to audience members to gauge their thoughts on the ethics of gene editing. When asked if they would be interested in having their genomes sequenced, most people said yes; but, when asked if that sequencing information should be used to “fix” errors in their genomes, many weren’t convinced.

“There are going to be so many applications for CRISPR’s use, and we as a society need to have some discussions about if and how much editing is appropriate,” Van Wynsberghe said. “Talking, understanding, and breaking it down is really important.”

— Erin Burnett ’19

Serving our veterans

This summer, I worked for the Home Base Program through Massachusetts General Hospital and the Red Sox Foundation, which provides clinical care and support services to veterans of post-9/11 conflicts. It also conducts research to identify and implement new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, and other invisible wounds of war.

In my role as a research intern, I aided in tailoring the Resilient Family stress management course to cater to the needs of veterans’ caregivers. I transcribed focus group interviews, entered intensive care program (ICP) patient data and other Home Base patient data, attended research meetings and treatment rounds, and conducted literature reviews to aid in the writing of several studies.

Hearing the Home Base patients’ stories was both humbling and inspiring. On the last day of the two-week ICP, an Afghanistan combat veteran spoke of how his PTSD symptoms were so severe that he hadn’t been able to leave his house during the Fourth of July holiday — fireworks and other loud noises were intense triggers for him. He devoted so much of his life to defending something represented by a holiday that he couldn’t take part in because of his disorder. The treatment he received at Home Base, he said, helped him to be able to finally celebrate Independence Day. Seeing how the treatment helped him moved me.

Since taking Introduction to Psychology my first year at Colgate, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in mental health, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go into psychiatry, psychology, or social work. The Home Base program employs individuals in each of these fields. That was a huge draw, because I was able to learn the nuances of each mental health profession and the ways in which they work together to improve patient treatment outcomes.

— Peter Tappenden ’18


A first-year seminar (FSEM) is more than just a class — it’s a community where students meet some of their initial friends and make lifelong connections with professors. This sampling of fall FSEMs might just make you want to revisit your first year.

The Science Fiction Effect
Christina “CJ” Hauser, assistant professor of English

Is fictional writing about real science helping to achieve public scientific literacy? By reading selections from Best American Science Writing, recent articles, and contemporary science fiction novels, students in Hauser’s class are investigating the ways in which science is expressed in texts intended for laypeople. Along the way, students are gaining a deeper understanding of how works of science fiction draw readers in and popularize the fields they discuss.

Is the Planet Doomed?
Daniel Bertrand Monk, George R. and Myra T. Cooley Professor of peace and conflict studies and professor of geography; director, Middle Eastern and Islamic studies program

In this course, the newest crop of Benton scholars comes together to wrangle a question that faces all who inhabit our planet. While assessing whether or not we have reached “peak humanity,” students are considering the potential for apocalyptic events on Earth. Together, the class examines the ways that existing assessments of world extinction peg the mass displacement of peoples and political border crossing as catalysts for the end of the world.

Religion, Film & the Holocaust

Benjamin Stahlberg, senior lecturer in religion

This class considers how Holocaust films address religious ideas, motifs, and communities as well as prompt us to think about God, evil, and meaning. Surveying a broad range of films, students ask and answer critical questions about how the Holocaust is portrayed in specific religious and political communities.

— Erin Burnett ’19