Focus on Research: Norwich University Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows

Norwich University Office of Communications

September 18, 2015

Each year, Norwich University undergraduates vie for prestigious Summer Research Fellowships to explore diverse topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Developed by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation. Working in labs, libraries and fields sites on campus and around the globe this summer, 28 fellows discovered the challenges and rewards of independent research. Read the stories of six recent fellows and some of the faculty mentors who support them.

Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows

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Maggie Cross ‘16
Electrical Engineering

A Glove That Helps Teach Sign Language
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Christopher Eddy ‘17
Geology

Deciphering a Tectonic Creation Story
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Abigail Seaberg ‘16
History

19th Century Painter William Brenton Boggs
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Jesse Abruzzi ‘16
English

Religious Tolerance in Stratford-upon-Avon
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Macial Porto ‘16
Biology

Leptin Receptors in the Avian Hypothalamus
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Keith Stipe ‘16
Architecture

Rammed Earth Buildings of the Desert Southwest
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Faculty Highlights

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Amy Woodbury Tease, PhD
Assistant Professor of English & Program Director, Undergraduate Research Program

5 Questions: Surveillance, Media Culture & Student Scholarship
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Megan Doczi, PhD
Neuroscientist & Assistant Professor of Biology

5 Questions: Neuroscience, Research & Lifelong Learning
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Undergraduate Research: A Summer-Long Immersion in Molecular Biology

Senior biology major Maciel Porto was one of 28 Norwich University undergraduates awarded Summer Research Fellowships to explore diverse topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Developed by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

September 17, 2015

This summer, rising senior Maciel Porto spent 10 weeks in the lab investigating leptin receptors in the avian hypothalamus and their potential role in regulating appetite.

The hypothalamus is a small area of the brain that plays a big role regulating energy balance, body temperature, satiety, heart rhythm, sleep patterns and other essential body functions.

Activated by the hormone leptin, leptin receptors are gene-encoded proteins connected to fat metabolism.

Did decreasing food supplies influence the genetic expression of leptin receptors over time in chicken embryos? That was a question the biology major from San Antonio, Tex., wanted to explore.

Porto focused his summer research project on measuring leptin and leptin receptors in the hypothalamuses of embryonic chickens between 8 and 14 days old.

“In avian models leptin and its receptor, theoretically, have the same functions as those within mammals,” Porto notes. “The mystery to the receptors presence within the chicken genome presents many questions.”

Porto worked in the lab of his faculty advisor, Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Doczi, a neuroscientist who also studies avian hypothalamus tissue to investigate the developmental regulation of potassium ion channels in neurons.

Porto’s own research employed state-of-the-art procedures used in molecular biology labs around the world.

Starting with micro-dissection of embryonic chicken brains to extract the hypothalamus, Porto isolated RNA from the tissue samples. He then synthesized what’s known as copy, or C-DNA, to determine if genes for leptin receptors were expressed.

Porto then tested c-DNA primers, the “short segments of base pairs of nucleotides that kind of align with a specific section of a gene,” Porto says.

Using a procedure called agarose gel electrophoresis, Porto then separated the genetic material by molecular size.

Adding ethidium bromide enabled Porto to tag DNA fragments and fluoresce them under UV light, creating a visual bar code for the genes expressed in the sample cell tissue.

While Porto initially identified a difference in the abundance of leptin receptors in chicken embryos that were 8 and 14 days old, he found no statistically significant change in gene expression between younger and old embryos overall.

“This proposes a more in depth study of relative change of LEPR gene expression, which would include more samples for each time period,” Porto concluded in a final research paper on his study.

Porto says his summer research fellow experience taught him the value of even the smallest data discovery and the volume of contributions required to solve big research questions.

“I also realized that although my findings were astronomical in my eyes, this was only a ten-week timeline, in which is a fraction compared to other researchers,” he says.

“It put things into perspective on how much work and dedication it really takes to provide a contribution within the research profession.”

Porto says he plans to enter a research or graduate program to study immunology when he graduates from Norwich this spring.

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Undergraduate Research: A History Sleuth’s Eureka Moment

Senior Abigail Seaberg was one of 28 Norwich University undergraduates awarded Summer Research Fellowships to explore diverse topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Developed by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

September 10, 2015

For years, they sat in a box under a bed in New Jersey. But in 2014, the collection of 100-plus watercolors, sketches, and oil paintings by 19th century Norwich alum William Brenton Boggs was donated to the university’s Sullivan Museum and History Center.

Abigail Seaberg, a rising senior history major and undergraduate Summer Research Fellow, set out to learn more about the paintings and the artist behind them.

Boggs was an early Norwich cadet who joined the Rodgers-Ringgold Expedition of 1853-1856. The four-year U.S. naval expedition sailed from Hampton Roads, Va., around the Horn of Africa on a Star Trek-like mission to boldly explore new civilizations and natural wonders of the Pacific.

Visiting Polynesia, Australia, Japan, China, and beyond, Boggs painted much of what he saw to capture a visual record of the expedition. Little is known about the expedition today or Boggs, it’s official painter.

Urged on by her faculty advisor, Dana Professor of History Gary Lord, Seaberg endeavored to see what she could uncover during a 10-week summer research fellowship.

The Air Force veteran and budding historian combed related archives and collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; a “Raiders of the Ark” like Smithsonian warehouse in Virginia; and the Swem Library at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va. But material on Boggs was scant.

Visiting her grandmother, who lived in Williamsburg, Seaberg pondered her next steps. It was there that her grandmother invited Seaberg to the Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg, suggesting she investigate its large collection of documents belonging to the Carter family.

A member of the prominent Virginia clan, Robert Randolph Carter, had sailed on the Rodgers-Ringgold Expedition. Seaberg doubted anything would come of it, but went anyway to humor her grandmother, who volunteers at the library.

Seaberg started with a collection of 20 letters Carter penned to his wife in minute script on tissue-thin paper. Scanning microfiche copies for a reference to Boggs, Seaberg froze on the very first page of the very first letter.

Near the bottom, Seaberg saw the name Boggs. “It’s not really so bad,” the letter read. “For we all manage to laugh, joke, quiz and argue and Boggs to pun very much as men do when at their ease.”

Seaberg says she then erupted in a series of exclamations and fist pumps worthy of a touchdown celebration. She hadn’t found Boggs. But she had found the next best thing: His best friend on the expedition, a prodigious letter writer to boot.

“Boggs pops up in every single letter from that point forward,” all 20 of them, Seaberg says. Through Carter’s correspondence, Seaberg pieces together a portrait of Boggs.

“All of a sudden the man has a personality,” she says. “He tells horrible jokes, and we have horrible jokes written down for the rest of the world to see for all time. He’s a great artist.”

“It’s a huge discovery because nobody has looked at these [letters] in God knows how long. They were photographed and put on microfilm and then forgotten.”

Seaberg has written a lengthy research paper on her findings and notes wryly that her scholarship owes a huge debt of thanks to her grandmother. “It’s just a huge thing and it was shear dumb luck. Because my grandmother made me go to this [archive]. And now I have to thank her in whatever … I do.”

Of Seaberg’s scholarship, history professor and faculty advisor Gary Lord says, “It could be a lifelong endeavor.”

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