|From Spiders to Satan -- Summer Research Heats Up at Davidson!
August 03, 2011
by Cathryn Westra
|Ree Lightsey and his Golden Orb Weaver spiders.
Tinkering in a physics lab to measure the strength of spider silk. Performing an in-depth analysis of John Milton's 17th-century poetry. Researching the relationship between public opinion and the judicial sovereignty of the United States Supreme Court during the early 19th century.
Most college students don't choose to spend their summers in pursuits such as those. Yet they are examples of the wide range of projects that 24 Davidson students are now exploring with faculty guidance through grants provided by the Davidson Research Initiative.
Ree Lightsey ‘12, a.k.a. "Davidson's Spiderman," maintains a cluster of golden orb-weaver spiders in his biology lab. Orb-weavers are responsible for building the toughest webs in the insect kingdom, strong enough to catch small birds. The silk in their webs is comparable in strength to Kevlar, the material used to make bulletproof vests. A biophysical chemistry major, Lightsey collects silk from the spiders' webs, chemically prepares it in his lab and examines it under laser microscopes. He believes he is the first person who has tried to measure silk strength using a science instrument known as optical tweezers.
"Spider silk and spider silk-like material have numerous applications," Lightsey explained. "It can be a means to make lighter, stronger parachute threads. It can also have biomedical value as replacements for ligaments or tendons and as degradable sutures."
A rising senior at Davidson who is currently applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs in Chapel Hill, Boston and New York, Lightsey hopes his research will help transform silk's potential applications into a reality, and that his experience in the labs at Davidson will prepare him for research in years ahead.
In the English Department, Amanda Lehr is '12 delving into Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Reborn. She is carrying out an in-depth analysis of the Satan character in both texts, setting close readings of misogynistic passages alongside historical literature. "In these works, Satan is prominent and famously complex," said Lehr.
Her ultimate goal is to use Milton's Satan to explore anxieties about masculinity in the 17th century. This preliminary research is a precursor to work she will do in the fall for her senior honors thesis.
Lehr looks at the DRI experience as a valuable step in furthering her ambitions to study English in graduate school. She said, "The DRI experience gives me a taste of graduate research. I get to mold out a project of my choosing and focus on it intensely. That's something you just don't get to do during the year with three other classes."
Past DRI recipients, like Matthew Surdel '10, attest to the value of the DRI summer in postgraduate careers. At Davidson, Surdel studied proteins that replicate DNA in the immune system. Now enrolled in an M.D./Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University, his DRI project prepared him well to pursue his Ph.D. in microbiology.
Each summer the Davidson Research Initiative allots $4,800 to individual students for an academic endeavor of their choosing. Not all are Davidson students. Five of this summer's grants were presented to students from historically black colleges. Students must apply for grants, and preference is given to those who propose well-considered topics with real-world application, as well as strong recommendations from faculty mentors.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.