Cornell University: A&S chooses first Nexus Scholars for summer research

Sarah Gates ’25 will help build instruments to study the early universe. Alexis Terracciano ’24 will delve into molecular genetic techniques during their first research experiences. Joaquin Smith ’24 will study 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 assessment data to identify the most effective ways to teach economics to undergraduates.

These students are among the 50 undergrads in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) who will take part in paid research projects in Ithaca this summer with faculty from throughout the college – in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics – as the first class of Nexus Scholars, which is funded entirely through philanthropy. Nexus Scholars will earn $7,000 for full-time work during the eight-week summer program.

Nexus Scholars will also take part in professional development workshops and career exploration events and form connections with other students who are passionate about hands-on learning.

“Right out of the gate, student interest has been overwhelming. We received nearly 320 applications for the inaugural cohort, far more than anticipated for a brand-new program, so we scrambled to secure resources to support 50 Nexus Scholars this summer – double the number planned for initially,” said Ray Jayawardhana, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts & Sciences.

“Clearly, our undergraduates are enthusiastic about working with our outstanding professors, so I am grateful to our faculty for stepping up and to our generous donors for enabling these coveted opportunities. We would love to expand the program in the coming years,” he added. Jayawardhana will mentor a Nexus Scholar, together with postdocs in his exoplanet research group.

Gates will be working with Abigail Crites, assistant professor of physics and Fred Young Faculty Fellow, on her research 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 seemed very interesting to me.”

Terracciano applied to work with Kelly Liu, professor of molecular biology and genetics because they share the same research interests. “I am really looking forward to seeing firsthand things that I have only learned about in lectures,” Terracciano said. “And as this is my first research experience, I am looking forward to learning my way around 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 in the research of Jane-Marie Law, associate professor of religious studies and Asian studies.

“My grandmother is Buddhist and my cousin is all about sustainability – she’s built her own house and has her own garden,” said Smith, who’s majoring in astronomy and minoring in Asian studies. “What I’ve learned from both of them, combined with my own passion for sustainability, makes me want to work on projects that will better our world. I know it may seem like astronomy is unrelated, but I think that before we can go about exploring the universe, we need to focus on bettering our planet.”

Smith and other students will work at Law’s Fallen Tree Sustainability Center, a teaching homestead in Ithaca. They’ll learn about composting systems; vegetable and herb garden planning and maintenance; adding chickens or bees to a homestead; and hugelkultur, a traditional way of using decaying wood and other biomass to make a garden bed, among other topics.

“They will learn a lot of really practical things about how to have an ecologically sound suburban space, and then teach those skills to others,” Law said. “And they’ll study how this process impacts peoples’ understanding of their own environmental ethics and their relationship to their neighborhoods.”

Law said her students will emerge from the summer as confident public speakers, able to concisely and emphatically present information.

Students were chosen as Nexus Scholars based on their interest in research, their ability to work collaboratively and their potential to contribute to their chosen project. The program is made possible through a number of alumni gifts, including from Elaine Wong ’97 and Fritz Demopoulos.

The paid research opportunities are a benefit for students who can’t afford to accept unpaid summer research experiences; the program also helps faculty to reach a broader group of potential research assistants than the students they teach.

“I applied to the Nexus Scholar Program because it involved working directly with Doug McKee,” said Amaro, an economics major who said he’s hoping to expand his skills in econometrics and research. “I took ECON 3130 the previous semester with Prof. McKee and that piqued my interest in statistics. That prompted me to enroll in his econometrics class and I found it more interesting building and working with models to estimate phenomena.”

McKee said he normally recruits research assistants through his classes, but the Nexus Scholars Program gave him a much bigger pool of students from which to draw.

“My students this summer will learn a ton – I’m expecting them to be full participants in my research projects,” McKee said. “They will brainstorm project ideas, analyze data, present results, search the literature for relevant work and do lots of writing. Perhaps the most important thing they will learn, through observation and participation, is how actual research is done.”

McKee’s researchers will analyze student survey and assessment data collected at the beginning and end of several economics courses to identify what methods of teaching work well for a diverse population of economics students. The project will focus on the role of student attitudes toward economics: how initial attitudes shape student experiences in the classroom and how the course in turn changes those attitudes during the term.

“We will keep instructors at Cornell in the loop throughout the project as we learn concrete lessons that can be used to improve student outcomes,” McKee said. “We also plan to share our results with instructors outside Cornell by presenting the work at economics conferences and publishing it in economics education journals.”

Cornell University