Monday, July 7, 2014

Solar powered water purification

Zhe Zhang ’15 set out to learn about solar-powered water purification. But his summer research project has taught him at least as much about determination and hard work.

He has spent much of his summer trying to make one chemical reaction happen, which he originally assumed would take only a couple of days. But he takes that in stride. “It’s always fun to try different things and to finally get a solution,” he said. “I just don’t want to fail.”

Zhang has long had an interest in ways of using chemical reactions to purify water. Considering the world’s demand for potable water as well as the potential for energy shortages in the future, he thought developing a sun-powered water purification system would be important. Zhang was particularly interested in titanium dioxide, a semiconductor that is known to purify water when it is exposed to sunlight.

If only that process worked quickly.

“The process is not new, but it’s not efficient enough to be practical,” said Bill Bare, a Randolph chemistry professor advising Zhang on this research. “We’re hoping to make it a little more practical.”

Sunlight causes chemical reactions that increase energy in titanium dioxide atoms, causing the semiconductor to break down organic compounds. But it only absorbs ultraviolet light, meaning much of the light that hits it has no effect.

Bare and Zhang suggested that binding a luminescent compound called ruthenium to titanium dioxide could help increase the spectrum of light that can interact with the material. They designed an experiment to test this. Zhang began the summer by measuring the rates at which titanium dioxide would purify water on its own. But he hit a roadblock when he tried to attach the ruthenium to the semiconductor. The molecules that would make the binding possible were not connecting.

Zhang and Bare experimented with the problem for several weeks. Finally, two weeks ago they made the chemicals bind by changing the acidity of the solution, although the process needs more testing to confirm the success. Zhang looked back at the detour as an effective learning opportunity that helped him understand how to solve problems in original research.

“It’s both a process of learning and researching,” he said. “In the lab, the professor knows everything and can answer all the questions. But in research, there may be a topic that the professor is not very familiar with, and you have to research together.”

Bare added that this is part of the purpose of fostering research opportunities for students who may spend much of their lives solving research problems. “In a research project, we don’t know what’s going to work and what isn’t,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, we have to put our heads together and find out why.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Student examines links between social media use and narcissism

Recent psychological research has shown links between Facebook usage and narcissism—a personality trait characterized by an inflated sense of importance, a constant quest of admiration from others, and a lack of empathy. What does that mean about the millions of people who check Facebook daily?

Penny Trieu ’15 wants to find out. She is using her summer research project to study the links between activity on the social network and narcissism. Particularly, she wants to find out whether engaging in different activities on Facebook in different affects a user’s personality.

Trieu said that scientists have tracked an increase in narcissism over the past 40 years. The increase began after a period of “positive psychology” that focused on self-esteem. “The theory was that if you have a high self-esteem, everything will work out well for you,” she said. “Parents and schools started to work on ways of raising kids that builds self-esteem, regardless of the accomplishments of the children.”

Those attempts, however, can lead to negative repercussions related to narcissism. For example, people who are accustomed to receiving a reward regardless of their performance might not know how to handle a minor failure. “It’s healthy to accept that, rather than inflate self-esteem by saying everybody wins,” Trieu said.

Social media may have magnified the effects for self-esteem among some users. Trieu started wondering about that as she saw many people posting multiple self-portraits and talking openly about their accomplishments and other good things about their lives. She then read scientific studies about links between Facebook and self-esteem and started formulating ideas for her own project.

This summer, Trieu has read many research studies about links between Facebook and narcissism. She has worked with project advisor, Beth Schwartz, the Catherine E. & William E. Thoresen Chair in Social Sciences and assistant dean of the College, about those studies to glean ideas for an original research project.

Trieu plans to have participants use Facebook in different ways. Some would share photos and information about themselves. Others would use the network to post photos and talk about other people. She will have each group participate in an activity to help gauge narcissism.

Trieu and Schwartz believe that focusing Facebook use on interacting with others might decrease traits of narcissism. “Research in the past has shown that connection to others leads to lower levels of aggression and narcissism,” Schwartz said. “It could be that it’s not going on Facebook, but it’s what you’re doing on Facebook that leads to narcissism.”

Trieu plans to begin her own research on the topic sometime this fall and continue in the spring.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Student explores more efficient soil remediation options

This summer, Hannah Edwards ’16 is searching for a better way to remove toxins from soil.

She started her summer research by contaminating several containers of soil with lead, an element that is known to cause developmental defects, especially in younger people. Then she started experimenting with plants to see which would best remove through a process called phytoremediation.

“We’re trying to show that phytoremediation is an economically viable option for brownfields and vacant lots in general, but especially in Lynchburg,” she said.

Her quest for a better way to clean soil started during her first year at Randolph when John Abell, an economics professor, took some of his students to visit Lynchburg Grows, an urban farm and nonprofit in Lynchburg. The farm is operated in greenhouses on a former brownfield site that was remediated by removing a significant amount of soil and bringing new soil in.

“There has to be a better way,” Edwards thought.

There is—phytoremediation is an effective way to cleanse soil, and Randolph students and professors have experimented successfully with the process before. However, as Edwards learned more about phytoremediation, she saw a common problem: the plant that is best at removing lead is a type of corn that is not native to Virginia and requires a lot of water to grow.

This led Edwards to propose a project for the Summer Research Program. She wrote her own research proposal and asked professors to advise her on the project this summer. Sarah Sojka, an environmental studies and physics professor, and Kristin Bliss, a biology professor, agreed to help.

Edwards faced some roadblocks in her research. For example, some of the plants she was growing for the tests died. However, she did get a strong population of ragweed for the tests.

She planted the ragweed, as well as corn, in several containers of soil that had various amounts of lead. This week, she harvested the grown plants, dried them, and began processing them with nitric acid to determine the lead content.

Finding a native species that can pull lead from soil but requires less water to grow would help make phytoremediation more feasible, and even economically beneficial. “If you can’t show people that a plan is going to make them money, it doesn’t matter how good it is for the environment, because they’re not going to see it as the best option for them right now,” she said. “You have to be able to give them hard figures.”

Edwards plans to incorporate her findings into a report on how phytoremediation can be used effectively in Lynchburg.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Michels Plaza graces cover of national architectural journal

Randolph College has landed the cover of the June issue of the Landscape Architect and Specifier News.

The magazine, which is a popular industry trade magazine, featured Randolph’s new Michels Plaza on the cover of the magazine and in a major article inside.

The article details the efforts of the College and the designer to create a gathering place on campus that helped blend the historic feel of campus with the new modern look of the Student Center. The plaza includes a fountain, two bubbling pools, amphitheater-style seating, and amazing views of back campus and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The plaza, completed in 2013, has become a popular spot for the entire Randolph community.

To see the online version of the magazine, please go to The article on Michels Plaza begins on page 40.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Teaching institute and science camp continue education research

Three  Randolph students and three Randolph professors are spending this week with local teachers and children at the Jubliee Family Development Center in Lynchburg.

Thao Nguyen ’17 helps a participant in the science summer
camp at the Jubilee Family Development examine a flower.
The annual science camp at Jubilee is part of an ongoing research project that aims to improve science education. Randolph has hosted the camp for at least 10 years as a way to examine how hands-on, experiment-based science lessons impact the way teachers and children think about science.

The camp is part of the 2014 Teacher Institute, which is a special program for K-8 teachers in Campbell, Bedford, and Amherst County Schools, Lynchburg City Schools, and New Vistas School. The institute, funded through a grant from the State Council of Higher Education, trains elementary and middle school teachers to better teach science with an emphasis on using hands-on and inquiry based methods. Randolph is in its sixth year of offering the institute, and last week, more than 60 local teachers participated in this year’s program, “Despicable Me—Getting Your Minions Interested in Science and Math.” Teachers selected for the institute received a stipend, recertification points, and equipment.

Several of the institute’s participants are joining the Randolph students and professors at Jubilee this week. While the local teachers put the lessons they learned from the institute into action, the Randolph professors and students continue their ongoing research by observing the teachers and the children.

Hart Gillespie ’15 leads a game of science-themed BINGO.
“There are some major problems in science education that our research project addresses,” said Hart Gillespie ’15, a student helping with the project this year. “One is the phenomenon that students lose interest in math and science as they get older and as they progress through school. In general, the Jubilee science camp and the institute have been shown to improve the perceptions of students towards science.”

In addition to helping operate the teaching institute and science camp, the Randolph students help contribute to resources that will allow more teachers to implement interactive science lessons.

Gillespie, a physics major, has been editing lesson plans for The New Science Teacher, a web page that disseminates information about hands-on approaches to teaching science and math. Shaun Chopp ’15, who is majoring in biology, has been editing videos from last year’s Jubilee camp so teachers can watch the experiments for lesson ideas. He also is recording experiments during this week’s camp. Thao Nguyen ’17, majoring in global studies, has been doing a literature review to find sources to be cited in a paper being written by the Randolph professors.

They each have different perspectives that allow them to contribute to the project in unique ways. “It takes everyone's skill sets and applies them in different ways,” Chopp said. “It’s been a pretty fulfilling project in that sense.”

Nguyen, who comes from Vietnam, said it has been interesting to see how science education is done in the United States. “I think the project will help to promote active learning and help teachers to make science and math more fun,” she said.

Peter Sheldon, a physics professor and director of the Center for Student Research, Peggy Schimmoeller, an education professor, and Amanda Rumore, director of the Summer Research Program, are the Randolph professors who oversee the project.

Randolph students selected for the Davenport Leadership Program will also volunteer at the camp on Friday.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Randolph renames donor society in honor of William F. Quillian, Jr.

Randolph College has renamed one of its giving societies in memory of William F. Quillian, Jr., the College’s fifth and longest-serving president.

Quillian was the 2010 Commencement speaker.
The Legacy Society, which recognizes people who have included the College in their estate plans, has been renamed the Quillian Society. Randolph College President Bradley W. Bateman announced the change during a donor recognition event at the recent Reunion for alumnae and alumni.

Quillian, who died on March 4, led the College for 26 years and oversaw significant changes such as campus expansion and racial integration of the student body. “Upon his retirement, Dr. Quillian took on an even more active role in the Lynchburg community,” Bateman said. Quillian was co-founder and executive director of the Greater Lynchburg Community Trust, which administers and invests gifts and bequests to benefit people living in the Lynchburg area. He also was the force behind the founding of the Lynchburg chapter of Leave A Legacy, a nonprofit that encourages people to include charitable causes in their wills.

Quillian’s wife, Margaret Quillian, and his daughter, Anne Quillian, were present at the announcement to represent her family. Anne presented Bateman with the yellow doctoral tam that members of the Class of 1959 gave to her father upon their graduation.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Student research zeroes in on motivations and obstacles for volunteers

Abigail Smith ’15 hopes her Summer Research project will help more young adults to spend time serving others in their communities.

She is researching the factors that influence the decisions of Randolph College students to volunteer—or not volunteer.

Abigail Smith ’15 interviews Pujan Shrestha ’15 about his thoughts on volunteering.
“It’s a part of their life that hasn't been explored,” Smith said.

When she took a class on research methods taught by sociology professor Danielle Currier, she had to design a research experiment. She took interest in volunteerism because of her own experiences with volunteering when she was growing up in Jamaica.

As she worked on that project, she learned that there was not much published research on the motivations behind volunteering. She asked Currier to advise her for the project during the Summer Research Program.

Currier was not planning to get involved in the Summer Research Program, but Smith’s request changed her mind. “One of the best ways to change things on a micro level is by volunteering,” she said. “I wanted to know how we could help more students here want to do it.”

In the spring, they prepared a survey about volunteerism and had 91 students complete the survey. This summer, they are conducting interviews with other students who are on campus.

To determine which factors are most influential in volunteering decisions, they will watch for correlations and patterns in the responses of both the survey and the interviews.

n addition to asking about motivations for volunteering, they also are finding out about the barriers that stop some students from doing service. For example, last week they interviewed a student who pointed out that when he does have time that he could volunteer, he does not always have access to transportation to go somewhere.

This summer’s work will be a pilot study and the basis for further research in the fall. Smith plans to involve students from other colleges, too. The project might result in her senior paper, and she thinks she may continue the research in graduate school.

She enjoys getting to apply the concepts that she has explored in the classroom setting. “This has given me a chance to use all that I have done, putting what I've learned to the true test,” she said.