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VIDEO: Growing Initiative Spawns Original Student Research

This summer, 20 students remained on campus to complete research projects of their own design through the Davidson Research Initiative (DRI). Under guidance from faculty mentors, students' DRI projects covered topics across the humanities and sciences, ranging from a study of developing-world economics to the health effects of electronic cigarettes.

The DRI has grown tremendously since its inception in 2007, as more students apply for grants each summer and more resources are devoted to creating fellowship positions for them. The program is open to Davidson first years, sophomores and juniors. Participants should expect to spend five to 10 weeks on campus as part of a collaborative community of researchers.

DRI / Physics

Ryan Kozlowski '16 is one such DRI student researcher who designed his project this summer to involve Davidson's innovative Digitome® non-destructive x-ray imaging system. Under the guidance of Professor of Physics Dan Boye, Kozlowski used the Digitome® system to create images of artifacts collected from the wreckage of the Queen Anne's Revenge, the flagship of the infamous pirate known as Blackbeard.

The artifacts recovered from the ship's resting place at Beaufort Inlet are stored at the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources' QAR Conservation Laboratory located at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. The objects include coins, firearms and metal tools, though most are thickly encrusted with more than 300-years-worth of sandy concretion, thus making it difficult to examine them with the naked eye.

For his DRI project, Kozlowski proposed using the Digitome® system to help conservators better see and understand these valuable historical objects. Unlike traditional x-ray systems, which create two-dimensional images, the Digitome® system can record and compile multiple perspectives of a single object.

"Up until I proposed using the Digitome®, the conservators had been using traditional two dimensional x-ray film to image these objects," Kozlowski explained. "They could record two dimensional images from multiple angles, but that didn't give them an idea of the objects' depth."

Kozlowski explained that the Digitome® system helped the conservators get a better understanding of the size, shape and volume of the objects hidden under concretion. "The Digitome® software compiles multiple images of a single object and creates a volumetric display of what's inside it," he said.

Not only did Kozlowski's project teach him the potential rewards of applying physics to archeology, he also became much more familiar with a complicated piece of equipment. "Every time I used the Digitome® system I better understood how to apply it," he said.

DRI / Economics

Kevin Roberts '15 devised a DRI project to study economic growth in developing countries. Roberts worked with Professor of Economics Shyam Gouri Suresh to develop an economic model to predict how government policies affect technological innovation and economic growth in countries like China and India.

Roberts explained that the project involved "agent-based modeling," which includes using a computer program to create an artificial economy. "We were able to run simulations on the program to see how interactions among people lead to increased complexity in developing economies," Roberts explained.

Roberts added, "I was able to run experiments repeatedly and examine the outcomes like I would in a natural science lab."

Part of Roberts' project included an examination of China's Hukou permanent residence registration system, which limits the number of Chinese citizens migrating from rural to urban areas. "Examining the theoretical impact of that policy showed how it could impact progress in Chinese cities."

Roberts said one of the most valuable experiences of the DRI was the weekly lunch he attended with Suresh and other faculty. "It was great to interact with faculty and students who I normally wouldn't see, and gain different perspectives on my own research," he said.

Roberts added, "My DRI project offered me a deeper look at the material I learned in class during the semester. I also delved into economics literature and learned how new research continually builds on the old."

DRI / Biology

Kaki Bennett '15 spent her DRI summer investigating the biological effects of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). Bennett worked alongside Professor of Biology Karen Bernd to question whether the increasingly popular smoking devices are less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

Biology DRI
Kaki Bennett ’15 works to determine whether e-cig vapor is as benign as proponents claim.

Unlike traditional cigarettes, which create smoke via combustion, e-cigarettes use a battery-powered heat coil to vaporize a liquid substance that contains nicotine. E-cigarettes produce vapor, not smoke, which leads many consumers and makers of the devices to claim they are somehow better for users' health.

To help put these claims to the test, Bennett developed a DRI project to expose rat lung cells to e-cig vapor and then observe the vapor's effect on their biological processes. She placed the cells, grown in small plastic trays, inside exposure chambers that she then filled with e-cig vapor.

Bennett found that cells exposed to e-cig vapor die before those in the control group, which remain unexposed. It remains to be seen, however, exactly how e-cigarettes compare to conventional cigarettes. "The point of my project is to build a body of knowledge for other scientists to use in the future," she explained.

Bennett expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to accomplish such an important project. "I love my DRI project because it starts conversations," she says. "Every one knows someone who smokes, either with e-cigarettes or traditional cigarettes."

Bennett added, "This project makes science accessible to those who are unfamiliar with it. I'm also a big proponent of bridging the gap between science and the policies aimed at keeping the public healthy and safe."