After a semester of papers, projects and exams, summer vacation can be a welcome break for Keene State students.
But for dozens of science students, summer means staying on campus, gaining valuable experience conducting research in the college’s laboratories.
From May to August, these students spend about 40 hours per week working under the guidance of faculty members on projects in subjects ranging from biology to chemistry.
Brian Anderson, an associate professor of chemistry, is working with a handful of students this summer to synthesize new molecules, which he said could eventually be used to combat diseases such as cancer or malaria.
This is senior chemistry major Jeff Hall’s third summer doing research at the college, and he said it’s a good opportunity to be able to apply the theoretical knowledge he has learned in his classes.
“It’s been really fun,” he said. “It’s probably been the biggest learning curve I’ve had so far this summer.”
Nathan Parker, a senior chemistry major from Claremont, said he’s also enjoying his summer in the lab.
“I love being able to go to work everyday knowing I’m going to enjoy what I do.”
Both Parker and Hall aspire to attend doctorate programs in chemistry after they graduate and hope their research experience will help them achieve their goals.
Anderson said getting research experience as an undergraduate is “hugely” important.
“It sets you apart,” he said.
As a small liberal arts college, Keene State can offer students the opportunity to conduct research starting freshman year, which may not be the case at larger schools, according to Anderson.
In the biology department, associate professor Jason Pellettieri is working on a project examining what happens to a planarian worm when exposed to light.
Planarians are flatworms about a centimeter long and are capable of regenerating. If one were chopped into a hundred pieces, each would grow into a new animal, according to Pellettieri.
He said the inspiration for his research began four years ago in a class he taught for non-science majors. For one of the projects he assigned, a group exposed a planarian to light and noticed something he’d never heard of before, Pellettieri said.
The worms lost their pigmentation. Four years later, Pellettieri says he is still working to understand exactly what happens to them when exposed to light.
“The more we’ve learned, the more interesting it’s become,” Pellettieri said.
In the biology lab, the planarians are exposed to light using light boxes. The worms are then put under a microscope to see how the light affects them.
Researchers also use a computerto look at photos of the planarian and track their changing appearance.
Pellettieri said he thinks the planarian’s cells are dying when exposed to light, which could relate to how human cells are damaged by light and skin cancer.
This summer Pellettieri has nine students working with him.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s the best part of my job. They are incredibly motivated, and I think research is to me, it’s a really, really powerful education tool.”
Brad Stubenhaus graduated from Keene State in 2014 with a degree in biology, and said he grew a lot from his three years of research as an undergraduate. This summer, he’s working as a research associate.
“I think a lot more practically now about whether an observation actually has some application to our research, as opposed to just when I first started out I would constantly be like, ‘Wow that’s so interesting.’”
Next fall Stubenhaus will attend Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore for its Ph.D. program in cellular and molecular biology.
His research experience at Keene State is the “entire reason that I’m going where I’m going,” he said.
“Everything that I enjoy about research, I didn’t learn in a classroom.”
Junior biology major Casey Kimball of Milford is spending her first summer conducting research.
“The techniques I’m learning are going to be helpful for the future,” she said.
Kimball is working on a separate research project studying planarians under Pellettieri. She said she’s altering the worm’s genome by suppressing or expressing traits and then observing how the worm functions.
“Research isn’t boring like some people think it is,” she said.