The fruit of some of the best young minds in the territory was on display Saturday at the University of the Virgin Islands’ annual Spring Science Symposium in the cafeteria of the St. Croix Campus Center – having outgrown its previous venue, the Great Hall.
Innovative scientific research was undertaken by 36 students on both campuses. Most of their work was conducted while participating in National Science Foundation-funded programs such as the Minority Access to Research Careers, the Minority Biomedical Research Support Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement, and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program.
The symposium was organized by the Emerging Caribbean Scientists Programs office in UVI’s College of Science and Mathematics, part of the school’s effort to foster student research and improve student communication skills in science and mathematics.
Not only did the students – both undergrads and graduate students – prepare display boards on their projects, they explained them to dozens of adults and even more high school students roaming the hall. Junior and senior high school students and teachers were invited to attend, and the student researchers were expected to be able to explain their work in laymen’s terms.
That might sound easy until you know that the projects had such names as "Overgrowth Interaction of Dictyota pinnatifida with Live and Dead Porites asteroides," or "Chemical Resolution of 1,10-Phenanthroline Derivatives with (R)-Mandelic Acid."
Michael Celestine, the author of the latter, explained that it involved finding a way to separate a particular type of molecule. A junior at UVI’s St. Thomas campus, he plans after graduation to study pharmacology.
In fact, all of the students presenting work at the symposium have plans to go on for advanced degrees, usually doctorates, in scientific fields.
Bryan Legare, a master’s student in marine environmental science, spent part of his research chasing juvenile blacktip and lemon sharks in the waters around St. John – catching them once to radio-tag them.
Every time the young shark swam past one of the monitors planted underwater, Legare had a record of where and when the shark went, tracking their sometimes surprising movements. The purpose of the study is to learn how young sharks use the waters as they develop and understand how onshore development can affect the predator fish.
Laurie Barnswell, a computer science student nearing graduation, drew on her personal experience for her ongoing study, "The Correlation Between Recruitment and Retention and Computational Thinking." The work is based on her own observations that a lot of young people starting school think they want to learn computer science, but very, very few can stick it out.
Only 15 to 20 percent of freshmen computer science students actually graduate in that field, she said. "In my first programming class of about 20 or 30 students, I was the only one left," Barnswell said.
Students enter the field of study unprepared for how difficult it is, and "they’re shocked when they find out how much they have to do."
The goal of her study is to find ways to better prepare incoming students, to provide them with the logical, computational skills and critical thinking necessary to see it through.