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Intellectual Journeys

Summer Research Grants Open the Door to a World of Opportunity

For many people, summer is a time for lounging by the pool, improving one’s golf swing, or serving as fodder for mosquitoes. For others, summer offers the chance to dig deeply into a project with a level of commitment and focus that isn’t possible the rest of the year. Intrepid Weinberg students with a taste for the latter can apply for one of the College’s summer undergraduate research grants, which cover research and living expenses for eight weeks.

Summer grants enable students to devote themselves full time to scientific research, academic inquiry, or creative projects in all fields of study. Freed from the constraints of employment and the demands of the academic year, they dig deeply into their interests under faculty supervision. Their exploration enhances their education and opens their eyes to career possibilities they might never have considered.

Following are reports from five students who spent last summer working in fields ranging from political science to philosophy to cancer research. They offer a glimpse into the rich opportunities these grants make possible.

Young Professionals in Russia

Andrew Jarrell ’13

Andrew Jarrell ’13 arrived in Moscow last summer speaking barely a word of Russian. A month later, he returned to the U.S. with a passion for Russian politics—and the makings of a study he would soon publish in a respected academic journal.

Jarrell, a history major, grew fascinated with the political process in Russia during a winter 2012 class. The last few lectures of the quarter, which focused on recent anti-government protests, left him spellbound. “I fell in love with the topic,” he said.

With help from his professor, Jarrell pursued and won funding for an in-country research study. After arriving in Moscow, he interviewed more than two dozen young professionals to get their take on prospects for democratization. His research was published in the Russian Analytical Digest in October.

Now, Jarrell is learning Russian, applying for a Fulbright to build on his findings, and planning to pursue graduate work in the field. “It was a transformative experience,” he says. “I had an interest and pursued it, and now it’s the path I’m following. I owe the grant for that.”

Mechanisms of Tumor Invasion

Rachel Spann ’13

Rachel Spann ’13 first became interested in neurology a few years ago, when a relative developed a neurodegenerative disease. To prepare for a career in medicine, she declared a major in Weinberg’s Cognitive Science Program, which includes training in psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and neuroscience.

Last summer, Spann conducted research at the Cell Imaging Facility at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. There, she studied the ways that cancer cells that have migrated into the bloodstream break through the endothelial cells (which form the inner layer of blood vessels) to reenter the body and form secondary tumors.

What Spann observed in the lab shocked her at first. “Cancer cells grow so quickly, and they can be totally indestructible,” she says. “You have to take such care with the endothelial cells, but the cancer cells are really tough and resilient, and they take up a huge blood supply.” Yet her experience also gave her hope and an appreciation for the progress being made at Feinberg. “It’s been really inspiring for me to work with these researchers and see their efforts to eradicate a disease that’s so prevalent in our society and that attacks so many loved ones,” Spann says.

The Internet and the Social Contract

Mauricio Maluff Masi ’13

The Internet would seem the perfect place to see the “social contract” in action. Members of online communities accept the rules set by leaders in exchange for the right to join in the discussions, and both parties are free to end those agreements with a click. But philosophy major Mauricio Maluff Masi ’13 observes that it’s not quite so simple.

“All of the old problems of existing societies are laid bare on the Internet,” Maluff Masi says. “You see sexism, harassment, racial slurs—and nothing is done about it. The community has ways to regulate this behavior—moderators have the power to ban users and delete comments—but they frequently choose not to do so.”

It’s an area worth studying, Maluff Masi says, as an increasing amount of human interaction takes place online. “Unlike a lot of areas, there hasn’t been much philosophical study about this. It’s important for me and my generation to develop the tools to analyze something that will play such a large role in our lives.”

The Intersection of Art and Morality

Dana Grabelsky ’13

How can one evaluate the aesthetics of works by artists such as Leni Reifenstahl, the German filmmaker best known for the Nazi propaganda film "Triumph of the Will"? Or how about the writings of the Marquis de Sade, which described sexual perversion and violence? Can viewers acknowledge aesthetic quality in such cases, or does the works’ immorality negate all their aesthetic value? Dana Grabelsky ’13, a philosophy major, pondered this question as part of her independent study on the intersection of art and morality, which she will include in her senior thesis.

“Ethics is my primary area of interest in philosophy, and I wanted to see what happens when aesthetics and ethics conflict,” she says. “Over the summer, I looked at a range of views. Some say the two domains are entirely distinct and that you can’t evaluate one in terms of the other. Another view says that ethical flaws are always aesthetic flaws.”

Grabelsky ended up endorsing a view known as “contextualism,” which falls between the two extremes in arguing that an ethical flaw can sometimes be, in fact, an aesthetic merit. Such in-depth research, she says, would not have been possible without a grant to alleviate financial constraints. “I’m very interested in a career in academia, and it was wonderful to be able to focus all my attention on researching this topic.”

Gene Expression in Asthma

Jocelyn Cooper ’13

Jocelyn Cooper ’13, the daughter of physicians who both graduated from Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, was inspired to become a doctor after growing up in a family where medicine was discussed frequently. Despite her long-term career goals, however, she chose to major in history at Weinberg. “I really loved history and wanted a well-rounded liberal arts education, and to take advantage of all Weinberg has to offer,” Cooper explains.

Thanks to a summer research grant, she was able to prepare for the next step in her medical career by working in the allergy and immunology department at Feinberg. She studied genetic factors in asthma, in particular how different gene expression profiles can cause a faulty immune response in patients whose asthma is exacerbated by the common cold.

“The grant gave me a good opportunity outside my academics to engage in real scientific research,” Cooper says. “I’m planning to take time off between graduation and applying to medical school, and I’m looking for research jobs. Last summer I learned basic skills that I can take with me to any lab.”

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