ANJUM SHAIKH ’22 knows if you’re paying attention.
As part of the Connecticut College Summer Science Research Institute, Shaikh spent eight weeks conducting funded neuroscience research and developing an alert system that is capable of monitoring neurons in the brains of test subjects to detect when their minds begin to wander.
For those of us who are notorious daydreamers, this technology, which uses a process called electroencephalography, may not seem especially appealing at first. But the potential impact on a wide range of specific occupations could actually save lives.
“This type of research is incredibly important when it comes to any task requiring sustained attention that can be a bit boring, such as an everyday activity like driving,” Shaikh explains. “But it can also apply to people who have jobs that are typically quite repetitive, like TSA agents who screen luggage for weapons, or radiologists who examine X-rays for signs of abnormalities. It’s crucial for these types of professionals to remain focused, as slip-ups could be dangerous.”
The system works by tracking the brain’s neural activity in real time and then sounding an audio alert the moment somebody’s attention begins to falter, snapping them back into focus.
This is the second year in a row Shaikh has participated in the Summer Science program, which provides campus housing and a $4,000 stipend, and involves an eight-week intensive research project overseen by faculty. This summer, 42 students were accepted to participate in a variety of projects with 20 different professors from across the math and science departments.
The students present updates on their research throughout the eight-week period in weekly colloquia with their fellow summer science participants, and the program culminates with a poster symposium in the fall during which students share their work with the entire College community.
“This is a way to give students a significant head start compared to their peers from other schools,” said Emily Tarsis, a lecturer in chemistry who is coordinating the 2019 Summer Science Research Institute.
“We see this as an important tool for science students to immerse themselves in the language of science the way world language students study abroad for their immersive experience,” she added.
Grace Kovic ’21, who has participated in the Summer Science program the past two years, worked with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jacob Stewart on his current research analyzing the gas Isoprene using Infrared Laser Spectroscopy. Isoprene is a key gas found in the Earth’s atmosphere and plays an important role in the production of ozone and other gases related to climate warming. Levels of the gas in a person’s breath may be linked to medical conditions as well, such as lung cancer.
“I’ve learned more than I ever imagined I would during these few short weeks, but I also had a lot of fun,” Kovic said. “Spending summer days with a group of students and professors who share my scientific interests has been great.”
The Connecticut College Science Leaders program was awarded a 2019 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education.