Becoming Experts in their Fields: Undergrads Exhibit Research Prowess at Spark 2.0

Funded by the Undergraduate Research Council, Kayla Kroning ’18 brought her chemistry research to center stage at a recent American Chemical Society conference in San Francisco. “The fact that this person has a Ph.D. and has been doing science longer than I’ve been alive, and they’re questioning me about things is an incredible experience,” Kroning said about interactions she had with experts in her field at the conference.

Dubbed the “TED Talk” of Gordon, Spark 2.0 showcases research work done by Gordon students, promoted and funded by the Undergraduate Research Council. Kroning’s presentation of her experience 3,000 miles from the Wenham campus served as a blueprint for the evening.

Philosophy major Shalomita Maleachi ’17 made esoteric concepts of transhumanism and phenomenology accessible by beginning her talk with a clip from Terry Bisson’s short story, “They’re Made Out of Meat.”

“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines,” one alien says.
“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat,” retorts the other.

Maleachi masterfully presented a portion of her Scholar’s Semester in Oxford thesis with this back-and-forth that pits transhumanism (which views the human body as an object capable of being enhanced) against phenomenology’s view that the body is a medium that opens a unique sense of the world. A change in embodiment would alter humanness, Maleachi said. However, a beverage as commonplace as coffee participates in this altering of the human condition, Maleachi said, as caffeine enhances our already present ability to focus.

Julia Webster ’17, a social work major, brought the conversation to the largest of Kolkata, India’s seven red-light districts—Sonagachi. There, Webster lived and studied among the area’s more than 11,000 sex workers. Prior to arriving in Kolkata, Webster only had a limited view on sex work and the perils of sex trafficking.

After working with Durbar, a sex worker’s rights advocacy group, Webster has established a view on sex work that extends beyond the theoretical. “Rather than holding tightly to the fundamental disagreements around the morality of sex work, I think that the anti-sex trafficking movement must engage (with) the complexities of sex work,” Webster said.

Webster has internalized Durbar’s belief that the best way to help is through a harm reduction approach. The results are tangible, Webster said, as HIV rates have drastically decreased in Kolkata, a place where Webster can now associate a name, a face and a story.

Kroning, too, is in the practice of saving lives—specifically infants who suffer from Respiratory Distress Syndrome. Studying the lung surfactant and how it works like a balloon, whose surface tension gets so tight that it pops, has decreased the morality rate of this syndrome from nearly 100 percent to less than 10 percent. Future research, Kroning said, will compare all three peptides and see how the efficiency of trapping lipids compares, a key function in a healthy lung surfactant’s activity.

Having been involved in research since the latter half of her first year, Kroning is looking to pass the torch on to another student. Any Gordon student is eligible for URC funding by choosing a conference and applying for a grant through URC.

By Dan Simonds ’17, communication arts