NORTH ADAMS, MASS. —Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ (MCLA) Third Annual Summer Undergraduate Research Institute is in full swing this month, as participants conduct experiments to hone their research skills and further their projects.

This year’s participants include Andrea Fachini ’17 and Daniel Heinen ’18, both of whom are biology majors at MCLA. They are working on research related to endosymbiont bacteria from sea anemones and an augmented virtual reality laboratory simulation, respectively.

Under the direction of Dr. Ann Billetz, associate professor of biology, the Summer Undergraduate Research Institute provides students with an opportunity to focus on their research on a full-time basis as they work with a faculty mentor to sharpen their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

According to Billetz, this opportunity is of particular benefit to students as they apply to graduate schools: they can demonstrate their abilities to design and carry out an experiment, apply what they learn, and reach conclusions.

“The fact that they are able to do this work for the entire summer is really important,” Billetz said. “Most of our students do research in addition to classes, so they only might have a few hours to do research each week during the regular semester. At the Institute, these students spend 30 hours a week conducting research.”

“Unlike during the semester, this summer institute gives me an opportunity to concentrate on development, and allows me time to learn new software and design techniques,” Heinen said. “In addition to gaining more confidence in my abilities as a virtual reality developer, I am gaining valuable experience that will aid me in future projects.”

Using a three-dimensional gaming engine and an advanced virtual reality headset, Heinen is working with chemistry chair Dr. Rob Harris to create a virtual environment to allow students to visualize chemical reactions, as well as complete virtual experiments.

“The aim is to prepare students for real chemistry labs and give them the tools to understanding complex concepts in chemistry,” Heinen said.

Fachini said it’s imperative to have this dedicated time for her research.

“I am investigating the normal flora of the sea anemone Aiptasia pallida, with focus on the antimicrobial properties these bacteria may possess,” Fachini explained. “I have identified several bacteria, and am growing them in tandem with marine and human pathogens to look for inhibition.”

Through this process, she is learning more about the bacteria to see if they are providing protection for the anemones from pathogens that could infect them. She potentially could find bacteria that attack human pathogens.

“This is how new antibiotics can be discovered,” said Billetz, who is supervising Fachini’s work.

The projects resulting from this summer’s Undergraduate Research Institute will be presented at MCLA’s next Annual Undergraduate Research Conference, held each April on campus.

MCLA’s Third Annual Summer Undergraduate Research Institute, which began on July 5, will continue through Aug. 26.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) is the Commonwealth's public liberal arts college and a campus of the Massachusetts state university system. MCLA promotes excellence in learning and teaching, innovative scholarship, intellectual creativity, public service, applied knowledge, and active and responsible citizenship. MCLA graduates are prepared to be practical problem solvers and engaged, resilient global citizens.

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