A Summer To Discover
Dozens of Tufts students spent their vacations collaborating with Tufts faculty on research projects that spanned the globe.
As part of the Summer Scholars program, 48 students spent the past few months working with Tufts faculty on research projects ranging from jazz theory to organ formation. The selective program, created in 2003, provides funding for students to collaborate with university mentors on summer research. Here is a sampling of the work that took place this summer.
At Home In A 'Distant Land'
Where she went, almost no one spoke English. The temperature was a scorching 100 degrees at times. Electricity and hot water were sometimes scarce.
Anjuli Fahlberg ('07) couldn't have been more excited.
Familiar with life in developing nations thanks to a nine-year stint in Rio de Janeiro as the child of Christian missionaries, Fahlberg, along with her mentor, Associate Professor of Political Science Pearl Robinson, journeyed to Africa this summer to research Islam and female empowerment.
"I was at church, and I mentioned to someone that I was going to study Islam and feminism, and because of this stereotype that exists, they said, "What? Aren't those oxymorons?" And I said, "Well, no, not necessarily," said Fahlberg, who presided over the Tufts Feminist Alliance last year.
In fact, Robinson and Fahlberg found a case where the two seem to be synonymous: that of a Senegalese woman known as Mama Kiota.
"She's been able to do all these really fabulous things for female empowerment," Fahlberg said. "So Professor Robinson became really interested in asking: How were you able to do all these things if you're Islamic?"
The answer perhaps lies in Kiota's Sufi branch of Islam, the only branch allowing female religious leaders. But Robinson and Fahlberg hoped to uncover the complete story by documenting Kiota's life and the way in which her spiritual authority and community power help her obtain the necessary technical and financial support for her goals.
"She's been able to go and get funding from the government, she has gone to NGOs, she's gone to UNESCO, she's gone to the World Bank, and she's gotten money to build a huge educational complex, to set up local language literacy programs for women and children," said Robinson.
After coordinating their plans in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, student and mentor parted ways. Robinson headed to Niger, where Kiota lives, to observe her community work. Fahlberg, meanwhile, traveled to Kiota's Senegalese birthplace of Kaolack, to investigate her background. They corresponded by phone and by email as often as possible, but for the most part Fahlberg was on her own in a distant land, sustained by the fact that her project is a conglomeration of three long-held interests: religion, Africa and feminism.
After studying African politics with Robinson during her freshman year, Fahlberg's interest in the continent deepened and she soon became one of the professor's research assistants, reading literature on West African Sufi orders and giving Robinson summaries.
"I've wanted to go there since I was about 15," she said. "I really want to do development work eventually, but I figure to go in as a researcher now is the best way instead of going and saying, 'I'm going to change this and I'm going to change that.' No, first, I'm going to learn about it."
Taking Note Of Tradition
For Associate Professor David Locke and senior Rebecca Sacks, the summer wasn't about looking in a lab microscope or doing fieldwork. For them, it was about doing something they both love: listening to music.
The compositions they studied come from West Africa, but the pair did most of the work in Locke's Professors Row music building office and at Sacks' keyboard analyzing, annotating and promoting an unusual form of music rarely heard in America.
Agbadza, from the Ewe tribe of Ghana and Togo, is a centuries-old percussion-based music style involving drums, handclapping, rattles and a lead singer and chorus. It's a style that is losing popularity among a younger generation of Africans, and about which a limited amount of research has been done. That's where Sacks and Locke come in.
"We're trying to revive a style of music which has fallen into disuse over the last 30 years," Locke said. "We want to resurrect and revitalize this beautiful, orderly, older music."
And they're doing it by helping to convert what has primarily been an oral tradition to record, working with a West African musician who has made a rough recording of 25 songs.
"If we can lay it out in a way that people who are familiar with reading music here or anywhere in the world can understand, then it will really expand the community of people who know about this," said Locke, who met the musician 30 years ago when he was doing his doctoral dissertation in Africa. "It's an intercultural collaboration and it's a very important thing to do."
Sacks first heard Agbadza while in Locke's African Music Systems class last year, while Locke's initial experience with African music came as an undergraduate at Wesleyan College. While the music instantly hooked them both, they appreciate Agbadza even more as they study the meaning behind it.
"When you teach [Agbadza] you get to all the issues of identity and cross-cultural relations, ethics and politics of the contemporary world and music, the history of the United States with the African slave trade, the issue of race relations and cultural identity, contemporary America," Associate Professor of Music David Locke said. "Music connects to everything."
"It's the type of music that sounds kind of hazy and foggy when you first listen to it," said Sacks. "But once you study it and see what's behind it and what's actually going on it's incredibly rich and complex and beautiful. When you start to dig in you can really start hearing what's happening."
What's happening, Locke explained, is an inspiring musical statement of hope.
"The Agbadza songs traditionally revolve around war, about the contesting of wills and power. But instead of it just being about life or death, it's about life as a struggle and about achieving your goals," he said. "You can think of anything that's a challenge for you, that you might be reluctant to encounter, and a song like this could be a stiffening of your resolve, of being courageous and doing whatever you need to do."
An 'Organic' Approach
It was five in the morning on a Tuesday in early June, and while most Tufts students were sleeping, Alicia Harvie ('06) and Assistant Professor Kathleen Merrigan were already on the road. Of course, they wouldn't get much sympathy where they were going.
For their research on organic farming, Harvey and Merrigan were at the start of an 18-hour work day that would see them visit 10 dairy farms in rural Vermont.
"We would be complaining, 'Oh, we were up at five to come here' and the farmers would say, 'Oh, that's when I started milking the cows; we got up at four,'" said Harvie, an environmental studies and anthropology double major. "It's an entirely different way of life."
But it is a way of life that holds great interest for Harvie, Merrigan and scientists who are studying the nutritional and health benefits of organic farming. They believe that organically-farmed produce contains higher levels of antioxidants - chemicals found in many fruits and vegetables that help slow the aging process and decrease the risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases - than conventional farms produce.
Because organic farmers don't use synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms, scientists think crops are forced to work harder to defend themselves from insects and the elements. This summer, Harvie and Merrigan put the theory to the test.
During a series of trips across New England, the pair took milk samples from five conventional dairy farms and five organic dairy farms. They also collected both organically and conventionally grown berries for comparison.
"I think this will be a good experience for Alicia because part of it is interacting with farmers, part of it involves being a bookworm, and part of it is working with others as part of a research team," Merrigan said, adding that the research will be part of her upcoming book on organic public policy. "Hopefully it will have some dividends for her as she starts to think through a senior thesis."
A self-described "political animal," Merrigan headed up the United States Department of Agriculture for the last two years of the Clinton administration before coming to Tufts as the Director of Agriculture Food and Environment program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She brought with her a strong interest in organic farming, developed through her work helping to write the 1990 Farm Bill for Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy when he was the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
For Harvie, the pairing with Merrigan was ideal.
"For me, in terms of this summer, it couldn't have been more perfect for where I am academically and as a person," Harvie said. "I have a gut feeling that a lot of times environmental advocacy is very right, in terms of not just ethical, but also social and economical reasons, so this is a way to get a slice of it all. I can see an intersection between anthropology and environmental studies, in terms of consumerism, in terms of human impact on the environment. This takes everything in."
Look For Blue's Clues
Of course, when it comes to analyzing Harvie and Merrigan's collected samples, that's where Josh Kessler ('07) and Paul Milbury, a scientist at Tufts' Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), come in. On the fifth floor of HNRCA in Boston, the pair worked this summer processing the results in the Antioxidants Research Laboratory.
"It turns out that most plants, when they're under heat or drought or insect stress, will [heighten] internal defense systems, which include some of the chemicals that we perceive as antioxidants in our diet. This doesn't happen as much when they're growing in ideal conditions, which is what conventional farming tries to do," said Milbury. "So the question is: do those organically grown plants truly have more antioxidant potential? We think so. We want to get to the bottom of this and find out if there is a measurable difference."
Kessler and Milbury's work consisted of several different projects and subprojects; their early research centers on the ability of anthocyanins, an antioxidant compound in blueberries and their cousin bilberries, to assist in the defense against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which gradually leads to blindness.
"In AMD, the retina actually malfunctions in a manner that results in the deposition of nondigestible lipids and proteins in the retina of the eye, leading to blind spots," Milbury explained. "That's a significant problem for the elderly population."
That's what the pair was trying to fight.
"We've already known that anthocyanins act as antioxidants," says Kessler, a stark white lab coat offsetting his casual shorts and sneakers. "But there's new evidence suggesting that the more important way that they work is at the genetic level, up-regulating transcriptions of enzymes that help fight oxidative stress. That's what we're trying to learn more about."
The duo's work was very specifically focused in the lab, and Kessler, an international relations and Spanish double major who is also premed, admitted that they were really just trying to gain a better understanding of how the body's systems deal with oxidative stress. But down the road, his mentor said, the goal for scientists is to be able to "prevent or ameliorate the development of the disease."
Kessler, whose grandmother has AMD, acknowledged that the HNRCA laboratory setting is more challenging than his previous experience in lab classes.
"But," he said, "that also makes it nicer when you actually do get results."
Profile written by Ben Hoffman, Class of 2006
Ben Hoffman, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is an English major and communications and media studies minor. Ben has been a sports editor at the Tufts Daily for the past two years, and last fall he served as the head of the sports department. He also interned for the Boston Globe in the fall before studying abroad in Prague in the spring.