Posted on Jul 13, 2009

Summer research at Union offers undergraduate students an exceptional opportunity to explore academic interests in laboratories, libraries and local forests.

Casey Sheridan ’10 hopes that by immersing herself in the ancient traditions of East Asian narrative song, she’ll become a better international lawyer. And Tyler Cross ’10 endures scratched fingers and hands, and dozens of mosquito bites, because he believes his work with Japanese barberry will make a real ecologic difference.

They’re just two of the more than 120 students expanding their knowledge this summer under the helpful and watchful eye of their advisors.

“They have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty member in an area of shared interest,” said Kristin Fox, director of Undergraduate Research. “This allows them to explore their interest and see the direct application of the concepts and skills they learn in their classes.”

Herewith is a glimpse of this summer’s student research, which often extends beyond the hot days of July and evolves into senior theses and other extensive endeavors.

To learn more, attend any of the oral presentations this month, or the poster sessions in Olin Rotunda Tuesday, Aug. 4 and Thursday, Aug. 6. Click here for a schedule of July presenters.


Casey Sheridan ‘10

Topic: Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale of all: An exploration of East Asian narrative singing

Faculty advisor: Jennifer Matsue

Professor Jennifer Matsue, left, helps Casey Sheridan '10 with her summer research project on East Asian narrative song.

Casey Sheridan is using her summer research project to explore another facet of her many-sided and complex passion.

“With my majors, Asian Studies and organizing theme, I study Asian culture mostly in the context of law – I want to be an international lawyer who specializes in that part of the world,” said Sheridan, whose organizing theme work focuses on economics, political science and Japanese. “But then Professor Matsue suggested I do something different, that I look at storytelling.”

Storytelling, in the form of narrative song, is a deeply rooted and important part of many Asian societies. As such, Jennifer Matsue, an assistant professor of music, Asian Studies and anthropology, saw an immediate connection between the practice and Sheridan’s career goals.

“We can come to appreciate and understand a culture through performance,” Matsue said. “In order to work with people, you have to understand people, and performance is a great way to understand people.”

Sheridan agrees.

“Communication between two peoples can be very challenging. Language in the U.S., for instance, is used differently than it is in Japan,” she explained. “If I’m able to understand Asian culture from its own point of view, by learning and performing narrative singing, that will help me a lot.”

Sheridan has chosen three narrative song genres to study more closely. Rakugo, Japanese comedic storytelling; p’ansori, a Korean form in which the solitary singer-drummer usually tells sad love stories; and piangtan, a Chinese style performed with string instruments that tends toward political or military conquest stories.

Not only will Sheridan study the historical and social importance of these three traditions, she will also learn to play the proper instruments for each and sing or narrate with appropriate technique. During the poster sessions on Thursday, Aug. 6 at 12:30 p.m., Sheridan will give a performance outside Reamer Campus Center that incorporates aspects of rakugo, p’ansori and piangtan.


Tyler Cross ‘10 

Topic: A comparison of techniques in removing Japanese barberry

Faculty advisor: Jeff Corbin

Tyler Cross '10 counts garlic mustard plants in a plot where Japanese barberry has been removed.

At Union, summer research can be anything you want it to be. Just ask Tyler Cross. Most days of the week he’s not even on campus, he’s 96 miles to the south in Ulster County’s Minnewaska State Park. In the shadow of the Shawangunk Mountains, Cross is trying to remove a plant that’s become a real thorn in the sides of park officials.

And in his own side.

“When I first got to Minnewaska, I was a little bit scared because there’s so much Japanese barberry – acres and acres of it,” Cross said. “The smallest plants are up to my knees and the largest are up to my shoulders, and of course they’re covered in little barbs and really unpleasant to work with.

“If you ever went blackberry picking as a little kid, that’s what it’s like.”

Despite the discomfort sometimes caused by the prickly shrub, Cross is extremely dedicated to his mission to help park officials discover the best way to stamp out and control the invasive, Asian plant.

“Japanese barberry is low-light tolerant and out-competes native vegetation in the forest understory. It also puts out its seeds after everything else has already dropped its leaves,” Cross said. “The birds love the bright, red berries because they’re tasty and they appear at times when there’s little else to eat, and by eating them, they spread barberry all over.”

“You have very few plants that aren’t Japanese barberry in Minnewaska’s understory, and that’s got a really negative impact on native biodiversity,” he added. “Invasive species like this can cause localized extinctions.”

Tyler Cross '10 and Reed Olsen '09 bag Japanese barberry, which they are surrounded by, for study.

Cross, a double major in English and biology, is studying four barberry removal techniques: manual removal (digging up the entire plant, roots and all), manual removal followed by wild rye planting, herbicide removal, and herbicide removal followed by wild rye planting.

The wild rye acts as a place holder of sorts. It helps keep invasive vegetation out and gives native vegetation a chance to colonize the newly cleared space first. Cross arrived at this tactic after observing what happened in areas where barberry was simply extracted without any follow-up action.

“In plots that received no more attention after manual removal, things went from bad to worse because it just allowed garlic mustard, another invasive, to flourish,” he said.

Though plenty of research still needs to be done, Cross believes combining removal with rye planting or herbicide looks most promising. If this continues to be the case, he’ll recommend Minnewaska officials use these techniques to control the imperialistic barberry.

“What I’m doing is actually going to affect policy in the park, and that’s very cool,” Cross said, smiling.


Emily LaCroix '11 works on her summer research project, which examines private schools and the local housing market.

Emily LaCroix ‘11 

Topic: Home values and private and Catholic schools

Faculty advisor: Stephen Schmidt

Sitting cross-legged in a large armchair in a sunny corner of Schaffer Library, Emily LaCroix talks about real estate the way some people talk about football or fashion.

“I really like the housing market aspect of my research,” she said. “Growing up, my parents always kept an eye on the market, and that got me into it.

“It’s fascinating how home prices vary region to region, and it’s interesting to see what factors actually go into the prices,” LaCroix continued. “It’s not just one thing; it’s the town, the neighborhood, the school district.”

Her summer research encompasses on all three of these criteria.

“I’m looking into private and Catholic schools in Albany County, and the housing values in those schools’ neighborhoods,” said LaCroix, a math and economics double major. “Traditionally, neighborhoods in good school districts experience an increase in home values.

“Are local neighborhoods surrounded by private and Catholic schools also seeing that increase?”

Finding an answer to this question is by no means easy.

Emily LaCroix '11 plots the locations of private and Catholic schools on an Albany County map as part of her summer research project.

She’s already combed through six weeks of a local newspaper, cross referencing its real estate information with other sources, while simultaneously tracking down every school in Albany County. Of the 109 schools, 39 are private.

Having indentified all the schools, LaCroix is now labeling each on an Albany County map so she can determine what neighborhood they’re in and how close the nearest private or Catholic school is. She’ll then try to determine if the private institutions might be impacting the local housing market.

“This kind of research is important because it has to do with housing preferences of families looking for new homes. Do they consider just public schools or private and Catholic schools too?” LaCroix said. “It shows us more about consumer choice and helps us gain a deeper understanding of the way the housing market functions.”



Konstantin Avdashenko ‘10

Topic: An advanced wearable running monitor

Faculty advisor: Shane Cotter

Russian-born, Brooklyn-raised Konstantin Avdashenko has a closer relationship with electricity than most.

“When I was three, I was electrocuted by an outlet. I put a pair of bobby pins in it,” he said, shaking his head and smiling.

Konstantin Avdashenko '10 discusses his summer research work to develop an advanced, wearable running monitor.

For Avdashenko, an electrical engineering student, the jolt only sparked a greater interest in all things carrying a charge.

“I’ve played around with electronics for as long as I can remember,” Avdashenko said. “I started this project, the running monitor, during spring of my junior year.”

His goal is to help runners and other athletes, like cyclers or even snowboarders, better track their performances. The monitor, which will be about the size of a matchbox when complete, uses a compass to determine direction and an accelerometer to log incline and decline changes the athlete experiences during a workout.

“The idea is that you can plot the image generated by this data over Google Earth and find out exactly where you are,” Avdashenko said. “It also records your incline and decline, which means you can use the information collected during each run to show your performance and progress over time.”

Avdashenko, an avid snowboarder himself, hopes to have his first prototype built in time for the winter season. Though he hasn’t yet determined exactly how he’ll affix the monitor to himself or anyone else, he has a good idea of where it needs to be to function properly.

“It would have to be attached to the most active part,” Avdashenko explained. “For a runner, the foot. For a snowboarder, the board.”

“There are products out there similar to this,” he continued, “but no product I’ve found uses the same mechanism I’m using. I’m taking a new approach.”