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ISSUE 120 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 4/27/2007

Summer research showcases discovery

By Kirstin Fawcett
Copy Editor

Friday, April 27, 2007

After a frigid Minnesota winter runs its course and the sun starts to shine, most Oles begin dreaming of summer vacation. For the most part, vacation fantasies feature leisurely boat rides at lake cabins. However, select students from St. Olaf’s biology, chemistry, math and computer science departments eschew the prospect of relaxation, choosing instead to spend three months of potential summer fun hunched over microscopes and humming computers with St. Olaf professors.

The aforementioned students are not in remedial summer school, nor are they attempting to earn enough credits to warrant a triple major. Instead, they are involved in St. Olaf College’s Summer Research Program. Financed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Merck Foundation, St. Olaf’s summer research program gives undergraduates the opportunity to engage in specific areas of research. Aided by professors, student researchers spend 10 weeks gathering information in their fields, which they later present through discussions and posters.

To some, summer research at St. Olaf sounds only a tad more exciting than watching dust slowly collect on one’s unused textbooks throughout the summer months. However, the contagious zeal of soon-to-be summer researchers helps transform the cynicism of naysayers into genuine intrigue.

One such student, Taylor Reece '09, believes that his research project with St. Olaf’s computer science department has the potential to enhance research findings for other departments. “"My research team and I will be working on a massive computing structure called the ‘Beowulf Cluster.’ [The Beowulf Cluster consists] of approximately 30 computers, or nodes, which work together to perform difficult computations,”" said Reece, a computer science and mathematics major.

The nodes of the “Beowulf Cluster” will be used to solve a variety of problems, ranging from the genetic analyses of the biology department to comparing phrases found in Luke’s gospel with other texts of Greek literature (an effort which will aid the classics department in determining the Apostle Luke’s specific literary influences).

Some projects, however, do not involve the participation of multiple departments and researchers. Ben Thompson ‘'09 will be working one-on-one with Nathaniel Schaefle, assistant professor of chemistry, in his research of the thermodynamics and kinetics of beta diketones by use of an NMR.

“"When I say thermodynamics and kinetics I’'m saying that [Schaefle] and I will look at how fast a reaction goes and where the reaction ends up,”" Thompson said. “"The NMR will tell us how much of whatever has reacted at a given time. Knowing thermodynamic and kinetic information helps [researchers] paint a chemical picture of a given system, in this case, beta diketones.”"

The results of Schaefle and Thompson’s research endeavors will aid the biochemists of St. Olaf’s chemistry department in a comprehensive study of an RNA sample, as the researching duo will be investigating the occurrences of one of its chemically active sites.

Summer research at St. Olaf not only helps prepare students for future careers in their chosen fields, but is also a valuable component for graduate school resumes.

“"Research of some kind is pretty much required of anyone who wants to go to graduate school in chemistry,”" Thompson said. “"At St. Olaf, some chemistry majors are pre-med, but I believe some of them do summer research. [In general], most ... summer researchers want to go on to [be professionals in their field].”"

In the latter quote, Thompson sums up the essence of summer research. Although some may look forward to thoroughly exploring the intricacies of dense subjects such as “molecular beam spectroscopy,” a combination of ambition and passion is what ultimately drives students to forfeit three months of sun and fun for the shadowy confines of a lab. However, what St. Olaf’'s labs lack in light and warmth, they more than make up for in possibility.

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