Ten students conduct summer research through the Honors Program

Elisa Garcia '22, Honors Summer Research Program
Elisa Garcia ’22

Each year, the Honors Program awards fellowships to a select group of students to support them in conducting independent research projects under the supervision of a faculty member. The eight-week Honors Summer Research Program brings together students and faculty from all disciplines to create a unique academic experience. The students are able to dedicate time to intensely focused research and one-on-one work with their faculty mentor. Throughout the summer, both faculty and students present highlights from their ongoing research or project.

This summer, 10 honors students and their mentors took advantage of the program. Their studies ranged from microplastic behavior to climate change and even creating a new archiving system. The group of students that completed the Honors Program this summer are majoring in a variety of subjects. Some of which include three engineering students and two environmental studies students. 

Mary Katherine Baker '22, Honors Summer Research Program
Mary Katherine Baker ’22

Mary Katherine Baker ’22, English and creative writing 

“My summer research project was about the sympathetic representation of the Jewish character, Shylock, in William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and the play’s historical significance,” says Mary Katherine. “I argue that there is enough evidence within the text to suggest Shylock is deserving of sympathy from the audience. “I found that Shakespeare establishes his Christian characters’ religious hypocrisy and subverts the audience’s expectations that they will be redeemed and Shylock will be proven to be the villain. Shakespeare condemns anti-Semitism by making it impossible for his audience to defend the morality of those engaging in anti-Semitism throughout the play.”

Ruth de Souza '23, Honors Summer Research Program
Ruth de Souza ’23

Ruth De Souza ’23, engineering

“The long-term goal of my research was to further analyze how different synthesis methods influence the photoluminescence response of zinc oxide (ZnO) nanoparticles. There are a lot of methods used to create ZnO particles, and during my research I worked with three of them: sol-gel, chemical precipitation and solution combustion. Through the three synthesis processes, I tried to control for the size, density, pH and other variables that are already known to alter the photoluminescence of the ZnO so I can analyze each process and compare them knowing the other variables are identical.”

Elisa Garcia '22, Honors Summer Research Program
Elisa Garcia ’22

Elisa Garcia ’22, engineering and music

Elisa’s program mentor, Professor Bryan Kuhr, tells us about her research:
“Elisa researched and designed electronic musical instruments. Music professor Joshua Harris conceived the idea when he saw an Instagram post by engineering professor Michelle Gervasio showing an arduino controlled flex sensor input device. Elisa started by developing prototypes with several types of sensor and input devices. She then worked with musicians to find out which sensors and input devices they like the best and what mode of performance they can envision with such a device.”

Victoria Kaciuba '22, Honors Summer Research Program
Victoria Kaciuba ’22

Victoria Kaciuba ’22, biology and chemistry

For my honors summer research I studied the wood digestion capabilities of microorganisms from campus,” says Victoria. “My scientific inquiry included learning about the biochemical pathways and genetics of these microorganisms. I am passionate about creating a sustainable future, which is why I was excited to find microorganisms that could be used to pretreat biomass for biofuel. Throughout the year, I worked with Professor Herlihy to find bacteria and fungi capable of degrading wood, and I even found some candidate microorganisms in the switchgrass field. Biofuels are a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels but they require the plant biomass to be pretreated.”

Ciara Kocik '23, Honors Summer Research Program
Ciara Kocik ’23

Ciara Kocik ’23, education

“In one of my honor’s classes, I researched and wrote a paper on the pipeline for women in STEM,” says Ciara. “Through this I found that there was a lack of in-school support, especially at the elementary level, which is where it is most crucial. I researched programs in K-12 that exist to support the pipeline of women in STEM. In particular, I focused on best practices and strategies used by out-of-school programs and compared them to what is being done in public schools. With this research, I created a unit plan or resource for elementary teachers to use and infuse these supports into their curriculum. My framework has far exceeded any expectations that I could have had.”

Annika Kuleba '22, Honors Summer Research Program
Annika Kuleba ’22

Annika Kuleba ’22, environmental science and economics

“Climate change is a key issue that is currently impacting humans and agriculture at the same time as anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are its primary cause,” says Annika. “My honors summer research looked into the role of phenology in switchgrass carbon fluxes, which focused on how phenology metrics relate to photosynthesis. Phenology means studying the timing of recurring events such as switchgrass seasonal growth. The Eddy Covariance Carbon Flux Tower that was established in 2016 provided me with remotely sensed data which included the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (reflectance index related to biomass) and Green Chromatic Coordinate (vegetation greenness). I also completed switchgrass field composition through the collection of percent cover and species identification which lead to the creation of a Sweet Briar Switchgrass Field: Species Field Guide. I found that phenology metrics such as Normalized Difference Vegetation Index and the Green Chromatic Coordinate are successful when capturing big seasonal changes in photosynthesis but may not be reliable during periods like grass ripening and senescence.”

Emma Leaseburg '22, Summer Honors Research Program
Emma Leaseburg ’22

Emma Leaseburg ’22, environmental science

One of the most important principles to live sustainably is recycling, especially food waste,” says Emma. “According to the EPA, in 2018 about 68% food waste ended up in a landfill, which releases greenhouse gases and pollutants that deteriorate surface and groundwater quality. As a biology and environmental science double major, I wanted to work on research that touched on both areas. I decided to investigate the environmental and agronomic effects of green manure (plant-waste-based composts) on vegetable crops. This research aided in identifying alternative sources to inorganic fertilizers commonly used in agricultural operations and municipal areas.

Sarah Mihelic '22, Honors Summer Research Program
Sarah Mihelic ’22

Sarah Mihelic ’22, archaeology

“My summer research focused less on the research aspect and more on the action,” says Sarah. “I was tasked with creating and carrying out a new archival system for the Sweet Briar Museum which was also a continuation of work I had already done through my internship in the spring of 2021. I digitized the collection and provided some light preservation work for many of the artifacts. Other objects that were in less stable condition, I noted, and reached out to several professional restoration companies to get their opinion as well as an estimate on cost. In retrospect, I believe I may have set my expectations of what was able to be completed in eight weeks a bit higher than what was technically possible. However, I have been assured through my faculty sponsors that the work I have done is impressive on its own and that I should be proud that I have completed such a thorough system that can now be followed by future generations of Sweet Briar students.”

Veronica Nelson '22, Summer Honors Research Program
Veronica Nelson ’22

Veronica Nelson ’22, chemistry

“In my research, I set out to find the amount of time needed to extract the most betulin from birch bark and to find a way to enhance its antimicrobial properties. The long-term goal of this research was to develop a medication that can be used to fight bacterial infections in humans. In particular, I worked on synthesizing betulin to fight Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is a bacteria naturally found in the environment that can make immunocompromised people sick, especially cystic fibrosis. This research is important because of the evermore increasing antibiotic resistance. Betulin is a great source for new medicines as it is a product that can be naturally sourced from birch bark and already has properties to fight bacterial and fungal infections.”

Allison Wandling '23, Honors Summer Research Program
Allison Wandling ’23

Allison Wandling ’23, engineering

“My research focused on microplastic behavior. I specifically focused on creating a simulation of microplastics when submerged in water. This simulation will help remove microplastics in water during wastewater treatment. This is important research because the health risks of microplastics consumption for humans is unknown.”