Sarah Gates ’25 will help build instruments to study the early universe. Alexis Terracciano ’24 will delve into molecular genetics techniques during their first research experiences. Joaquin Smith ’24 will explore the relationship between faith communities and environmental movements, then teach community members a host of sustainable practices. And Richard Amaro ’24 will work with survey and evaluation data to identify the most effective ways to teach economics to undergraduates.
These students are among 50 undergraduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) who will participate in paid research projects in Ithaca this summer with faculty from across the college – in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics – as the first class of Nexus scholars, which is entirely funded by philanthropy. Nexus Fellows will earn $7,000 for full-time work during the eight-week summer program.
Nexus Fellows will also participate in professional development workshops and career exploration events and connect with other students who are passionate about hands-on learning.
“Right from the start, student interest was overwhelming. We received nearly 320 applications for the inaugural cohort, far more than expected for a brand new program, so we have been working to secure resources to support 50 Nexus Scholars this summer – double the number originally planned,” said Ray Jayawardhana, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts & Sciences.
“Clearly, our undergraduates are excited to work with our exceptional professors, so I am grateful to our faculty for stepping up and to our generous donors for enabling these coveted opportunities. We would like to expand the program in the coming years,” he added. Jayawardhana will mentor a Nexus researcher, as well as post-docs in his exoplanet research group.
Gates will work with Abigail Critesassistant professor of physics and faculty member Fred Young, on his research into developing instruments to deploy on telescopes and to study early galaxies.
“Professor Crites’ research merges the creative aspects of engineering and design with an understanding of theoretical research into the behavior of the early universe,” Gates said. “The idea of looking at the theoretical side of physics through a more concrete problem-solving lens struck me as very interesting.”
Terracciano applied to work with Kelly Liu, professor of molecular biology and genetics because they share the same research interests. “I’m really looking forward to seeing things firsthand that I only learned at conferences,” Terracciano said. “And since this is my first research experience, I’m looking forward to familiarizing myself with a lab and learning new techniques that will be useful to me in the future.”
Smith said he was inspired by both his grandmother and his cousin to join the search for Jane Marie Lawassociate professor of religious studies and Asian studies.
“My grandmother is a Buddhist and my cousin is all about sustainability — she built her own house and has her own garden,” said Smith, who majored in astronomy and minored in Asian studies. “What I learned from them, combined with my own passion for sustainability, inspires me to work on projects that will improve our world. I know astronomy may seem unrelated, but I believe that before we can explore the universe, we need to focus on improving our planet.
Smith and other students will work at Law’s Fallen Tree Sustainability Center, a teaching property in Ithaca. They will learn about composting systems; planning and maintenance of vegetable and herb gardens; add chickens or bees to a farm; and Hugglkultur, a traditional way of using rotting wood and other biomass to make a garden bed, among other topics.
“They’ll learn a lot of really practical things about how to have an ecologically healthy suburban space and then teach those skills to others,” Law said. “And they will study how this process affects people’s understanding of their own environmental ethics and their relationship to their neighborhoods.”
Law said his students will emerge from the summer as confident speakers, able to present information concisely and energetically.
Students were chosen as Nexus Fellows based on their interest in research, their ability to work collaboratively, and their potential to contribute to the chosen project. The program is made possible by a number of donations from alumni, including Elaine Wong ’97 and Fritz Demopoulos.
Paid research opportunities are an advantage for students who cannot afford unpaid summer research experiences; the program also helps professors reach a wider group of potential research assistants than the students they teach.
“I applied to the Nexus Scholar program because it involved working directly with Doug McKeesaid Amaro, an economics student who said he hoped to broaden his skills in econometrics and research. “I took the ECON 3130 course the previous semester with Professor McKee and it piqued my interest in statistics. This prompted me to enroll in his econometrics course and I found it more interesting to build and work with models to estimate phenomena.
McKee said he normally recruits research assistants into his classes, but the Nexus Scholars program has given him a much larger pool of students to draw from.
“My students this summer will learn a ton – I expect them to fully participate in my research projects,” McKee said. “They will brainstorm project ideas, analyze data, present results, search the literature for relevant work, and write extensively. Perhaps the most important thing they will learn, through observation and participation, is how real research is done.
McKee researchers will analyze student survey and assessment data collected at the beginning and end of multiple economics courses to identify teaching methods that work well for a diverse population of economics students. . The project will focus on the role of student attitudes towards economics: how initial attitudes shape students’ experiences in the classroom and how the course in turn changes these attitudes over the course of the term.
“We will keep Cornell instructors updated throughout the project as we learn actionable lessons that can be used to improve student outcomes,” McKee said. “We also plan to share our findings with instructors outside of Cornell by presenting the work at economics conferences and publishing it in economics education journals.”
Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.