Above: Gabrielle Rivera ’23 with her research mentor, Professor Emlyn Hughes, in their laboratory in Columbia’s Pupin Hall.

Barnard’s popular Summer Research Institute (SRI) leaped to new heights this summer, supporting 243 students as they pursued scientific research on campus and around New York City — doubling in size from its founding in 2014 and growing 33% since 2019. (SRI 2020 was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.)

“It is so wonderful to be able to give our dedicated and intelligent STEM students a chance to shine again and develop skills they can use to bolster their careers,” said associate professor of psychology Koleen McCrink, who co-directed the program with associate professor of chemistry Marisa C. Buzzeo ’01.

The annual program provides students the opportunity to conduct funded research with a faculty mentor in STEM fields, while also attending panels and workshops designed to hone their scientific skills. On July 28, 2021, students presented their final research at the Lida Orzeck ’68 Poster Session, which was held virtually this year.

“The scope and diversity of our students’ research projects was truly remarkable,” said Buzzeo after the poster session. “It was thrilling to see students back in the lab this summer, engaged in hands-on work alongside one another.”

Iris Liu ’22 in the lab holding up the gold particles she uses to study light emissions
Iris Liu ’22 in the lab holding up the gold filaments she uses in her research

Mentorship Matters

This year’s SRI was groundbreaking for more than just the size of its student cohort. More than 150 faculty members joined the program as mentors, the highest-ever faculty participation. Additionally, the Computer Science Department, inaugurated in 2019, joined SRI, with 26 students pursuing research.

“It is such a privilege to support the faculty in the execution of the Summer Research Institute each year,” said A-J Aronstein, dean of Beyond Barnard and a key player in planning SRI. “With so many students and mentors, it takes a true cross-campus effort to carry out this program.”

The importance of that faculty mentorship cannot be overstated, with studies showing that women are more likely to be interested in STEM careers when they have female role models. For SRI researchers Olivia Kowalishin ’21 and Esha Julka ’24, the idea for their computer science research project came from the top: Learning about President Sian Leah Beilock’s research on test anxiety motivated them to explore self-disclosures of test anxiety on social media using an area of computer science called natural language processing.

Kowalishin, the only English major participating in SRI this year, might not have thought to do scientific research without President Beilock’s research inspiration. She didn’t take her first computer science course until her junior year. “I definitely struggled with test anxiety, so I think it’s really interesting to see how other people express that as well,” Kowalishin said of President Beilock’s work. “I really wanted to work on this project this summer because it was so focused in the actual text, and I think that’s really interesting from a computer science perspective.”

That interdisciplinary spirit cuts to the heart of SRI’s mission. “The goal is to create young research scholars and to give students the kinds of opportunities that enable them to go on in their fields and excel,” said Provost Linda Bell. “Exposure to research is a critical part of a Barnard education, and we want students to feel that they have the opportunity to thrive in a community of scholars regardless of their discipline and regardless of their specific interests.”

In the videos below, hear directly from SRI participants about the research projects they conducted this summer.

Evardra Bell ’22 and Grace Biondi ’23

Under the mentorship of assistant professor of neuroscience María de la Paz Fernández, Evardra Bell ’22 and Grace Biondi ’23 focused their SRI research project on the behavioral differences in fruit flies based on sex. Specifically, the two students — a biology major from New York City and a neuroscience major from Boston, respectively — looked at how the activity levels and sleep patterns of male and female fruit flies are impacted by changes to their environment. 

Esha Julka ’24 and Olivia Kowalishin ’21

Esha Julka ’24, a computer science major from Texas, and Olivia Kowalishin ’21, an English major from London, teamed up this summer to explore how people self-disclose test anxiety on social media. Julka and Kowalishin — mentored by Adam Poliak, the Roman Family Teaching & Research Fellow in Computer Science — used natural language processing to pull and categorize data from the social media platform Reddit and draw conclusions about how people discuss anxiety online.

Iris Liu ’22

Physics and astronomy major Iris Liu ’22 has wanted to be a scientist since she was 7 years old. Now, at SRI, she’s working under the mentorship of Columbia professor Latha Venkataraman and Columbia graduate student Angela Paoletta to study light emissions from gold. Her research contributes to the field of miniaturizing technology. Hailing from L.A. County, Liu is a student in Barnard’s Science Pathways Scholars Program (SP2); her research is supported by a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant from the National Science Foundation.

Gabrielle Rivera ’23

The SRI project of biochemistry major Gabrielle Rivera ’23, supervised by Columbia physics professor Emlyn Hughes, was a welcome step in a new direction for her. The Westchester native is working with a group at Columbia’s Irving Medical Center, in collaboration with the University of Sheffield in England, to study the long-term effects of COVID-19 in patients. This summer, Rivera learned how to use different features in the programming language MATLAB that will aid her in categorizing and manipulating the data when it comes in. “It’s been a great way for me to learn outside of the classroom and outside of what I’m used to,” said Rivera, whose research is supported by the Hermione Foundation STEM Fund. “This is a hands-on experience that’s a little different than what I’ve been learning, but it complements what I will be doing in the future.”

Although SRI 2020 was canceled because of the pandemic, STEM at Barnard continued to shine last year. During the summer, nine students conducted research as part of the inaugural Computer Science Summer Research Program. Barnard also checked in with four students pursuing research with mentors during the academic year.