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(Re)searching for summer

A look ahead to summer research projects on campus

By Hope Bollinger | Echo

Kathy Bruner, assistant professor of media communication, finishing her master’s degree in Filmmaking at Vermont College of Fine Arts (photo provided by Kathy Bruner).

Kathy Bruner, assistant professor of media communication, finishing her master’s degree in Filmmaking at Vermont College of Fine Arts (photo provided by Kathy Bruner).

For most students, research projects end during finals week, but during the last week of May, some students and faculty will start summer-long research projects at Taylor.

Jessica Vanderploeg, assistant professor of biology, will stare at fruit flies this summer. Vanderploeg began the research for the project as an undergraduate, but the actual project took place at Taylor last year. According Vanderploeg, this multi-year analysis will study fruit flies in order to understand how human bodies develop and function.

“That means we are not studying, for example, how to limit the number of fruit flies in your house,” Vanderploeg said. “Studying human development is incredibly complex and difficult. However, we can use animal models to help us understand human biology.”

According to Vanderploeg, both humans and flies contain cells with similar proteins. Vanderploeg, along with juniors Won Chang, Han Chang and Alex Hord, will manipulate the genes in the flies that control certain proteins. One of the ways the team will cause mutations is by cross-mating flies that have “loss-of-function mutations”—modifications that inhibit gene expression.  

By altering the proteins over the course of eight weeks, they will observe the mutant specimens under powerful microscopes to compare the altered flies to normal, unmutated counterparts. The team’s ultimate goal is to use the genetic data between the normal and mutated flies to study how a healthy organism develops from a single cell into an adult.

Senior Olivia McCash works on film professor Kathy Bruner’s documentary on teens struggling with academics, health issues, addictions and poverty (photo provided by Kathy Bruner).

Senior Olivia McCash works on film professor Kathy Bruner’s documentary on teens struggling with academics, health issues, addictions and poverty (photo provided by Kathy Bruner).

The experimental process may hit a few snags. “Because we are completing experiments that no one else has done before, I fully expect we’ll run into obstacles,” Vanderploeg said.

But despite possible setbacks, team member Han Chang looks forward to the project. “Honestly it’s something I’ve never done before,” Chang said, “and I really want to get more familiar with the research side of science.”

Students working on the project will be funded through the Faculty Mentored Undergraduate Summer (FMUS) scholarship program. Vanderploeg hopes after one or two summers the project will qualify for grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Across campus, a group of students in Rupp plans to pursue a research project that started last year.

Kathy Bruner, assistant professor of media communication, has two goals for this summer: create a documentary and complete her Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In order to achieve the second goal, she has to finish the first.

Eighteen months ago, she filmed at what she referred to as a “last-chance high school” in Marion. There, she filmed the stories of struggling teens who had wrestled to attain diplomas because of health issues, addictions and poverty. Bruner shot in a style called cinéma vérité, a genre which covers a long period of time without a plot structure in mind. Due to this unpredictable format of storytelling, she ran into complications.

“Some of the students we followed early on changed their minds and asked us not to continue,” Bruner said. “Others have family members (who) don’t want a camera around, so we can’t connect with those students outside of school.”

A group of Biology Directed Research students work as “flypushers,” viewing fruit flies through a dissecting microscope and use paintbrushes to sort them (photo provided by Jessica Vanderploeg).

A group of Biology Directed Research students work as “flypushers,” viewing fruit flies through a dissecting microscope and use paintbrushes to sort them (photo provided by Jessica Vanderploeg).

This summer, Bruner will struggle to compress over 300 hours of raw video into one coherent story. “And yet, even with that enormous amount of content we will inevitably be missing some footage that we can’t go back and recreate,” Bruner said.

She has several students who have helped her in previous months organize footage and transcribing interviews. And a handful will help complete the project over the summer in time for her October deadline for her Master’s degree. These team members include senior and producer Elyse Horb and juniors Paul Burris and Niko Hays.

Some students helping with the documentary will earn pay through a grant, according to Bruner. Others will use the project to earn credit for an independent study or log participation hours for the department.

Burris, who has worked on the project since last August, looks forward to seeing the final product. Bruner shares Burris’ sentiments.

“The project has been more than an exercise in making art. It has been a deep dive into the world of poverty, addiction, abuse and more.” Bruner said. “It’s difficult to explain how transformative the process has been for me, but I look forward to telling these amazing teenagers’ stories.”

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