Beyond the Book
By Sara LaJeunesse
Image: Christina Ullman
When night falls on Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, the tranquil beaches come alive as dozens of six-foot long critically-endangered leatherback sea turtles heave out of the ocean, gasping under the weight of their 1,000-pound bodies. These mammoth mothers will work until dawn, digging holes in the sand to serve as nests for clutches of around 80 eggs. Many will fail to hatch. Of those that do hatch, most will be snatched by predators.
Photo Courtesy: Julia Wesp
As a volunteer and paid employee of the West Indies Marine Animal Research and Conservation Service (WIMARS), Emily Weston ’09 has been a witness to the struggle since 2003. But with the help of a new award, called “Beyond the Book,” she is taking her work to the next level. Established in May 2007 with donations from alumna Jill Viner, trustee Philip T. George, and the College of Arts and Sciences, “Beyond the Book” encourages students to pursue academic interests outside the classroom. The grant is awarded based on a competitive process in which students must submit a research proposal and letter of recommendation from a faculty mentor.
Photo Courtesy: Julia Wesp
“One of the most important things we can do for undergraduates is provide them with intense experiences,” said Michael R. Halleran, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Some of those will happen in a classroom. Some will happen in a laboratory or art studio. But there are so many other opportunities that take students beyond the routine.”
For Weston, spending summers in the Virgin Islands working to protect sea turtles is what took her beyond the book. The award is allowing her to investigate why hatch success of Sandy Point leatherbacks is improved when eggs are incubated in artificial nest boxes during the last 10 days of development. “Without the scholarship I would’ve only been able to use a small sample size and measure temperature and soil moisture in my nest boxes,” said Weston, “but that really doesn’t give you a complete picture of what’s going on.”
To get the whole story, Weston needed to measure humidity as well as oxygen and carbon dioxide gas exchange in her nests. Too much or too little of these gases can harm the eggs. She also wanted to compare the fitness of beach babies to hatchlings born in her nests. The grant made it possible for her to purchase the equipment she needed to conduct the experiments.
ARCHIVING LATIN AMERICAN THEATER
Weston wasn’t the only student to receive a “Beyond the Book” award this year. Of the 50 students who applied for the grant, 14 were selected. Juan Flores ’10 was one of them.
A theatre arts and public relations double major, Flores is using his award money to add to the University of Miami’s Cuban/Latino Theater Archive, which is housed in the Richter Library. He is particularly interested in archiving the programs, reviews, set designs, floor plans, and video clips of plays produced or directed by Marcos Casanova, co-founder of Miami’s Hispanic Theater Guild. The renowned producer taught drama courses at Flores’ high school and cast the aspiring actor in three professional plays.
“I just love musical theater,” said Flores with the enthusiasm of an American Idol contestant, “the whole showy, singy, over-the-top thing.”
But it’s Spanish theater that really drives his passion. Although Miami-born, his parents are from Cuba. “Spanish literature and drama have always been much more interesting to me because of that connection,” he said. By tracking down items for the University’s archive Flores is learning about his Cuban heritage and contributing to its preservation.
Backstage, “Beyond the Book” recipient Derek Freitas ’09 is working on his own drama, which when unveiled, is sure to win the nano-world equivalent of a Tony. The microbiology and immunology major is using his award to work with chemistry professor Nita Lewis to improve molecular wires – or microscopic threads – that can be used to connect the components of miniscule computers or nano-sized medical devices that may, in the future, be used to fight diseases.
Photo: Fareed Al-Mashat
“Right now there is a lot of talk about nanotechnology,” said Freitas, “and molecular wires are one of the most important parts of molecular machines.”
But not just any wire will do. In the nanosphere, wire length is of the utmost importance. The process for producing the tiny wires, however, is not sophisticated enough to allow researchers to select the size. “You end up with an assortment of wire lengths and most of them get thrown away,” said Freitas. That’s why his project with Lewis is so significant. Using an entirely novel substance, and one that will remain a secret until published due to the competitive nature of the work, the pair is proving that molecular wires can be constructed in precise lengths. When revealed, the innovative method will change the nanotech world.
Whether they participate in major scientific breakthroughs that will change the future or look to the past to unravel the mysteries of history, “Beyond the Book” students are learning things that can’t be taught in the classroom. “We want students to inquire; we want them to discover; and this is a wonderful way to do it,” said Halleran.
Additional “Beyond the Book” scholars include Zachary Brown, Jason Espinosa, Sara Garamszegi, John George, Laura Gillespie, Lisa Havel, Yahya Mohammed, and Stephen Sinclair.