Summer research shines light on new paths for progress

This is a new column that seeks to   explore research conducted by students and faculty at the College, both on and off campus.

Ah, summer break. A time to picnic outside, sail on the lake, build sandcastles and … research? Professor of Chemistry Lee Park, Brent Eng ’12 and Professor of Biology Luana Maroja told me about these past few months’ intellectual adventures under (and away from) the sun.

Saluting the Sun

Park did not waste the sunshine this summer. Instead, she put it to good use, generating electricity in tiny solar cells she made to test out the efficiency of light-absorbing molecules she and her students synthesized in the lab. “Coal, oil, gas – we’re going to run out. However, we will not run out of sunlight in the foreseeable future,” Park said. Because sunlight is renewable, it is a more sustainable source for electrical power.

Brent Eng '12 in West Bank
Studying the graffiti on the separation wall in Palestine led Brent Eng ’12 into broader questions about the local conflict.

However, solar cells cannot yet meet large-scale energy needs. “Solid-state solar cells today are based on silicon,” Park said. “Those are the solar cells in your calculator or in your watch. However, there are drawbacks to using silicon.” On a much larger scale than merely powering individual calculators or watches, silicon becomes costly and bulky – not an ideal material for solar cells. This is why Park is searching for an alternative material that will absorb sunlight more efficiently than silicon (which can only absorb a limited amount of sunlight) that will be smaller, lighter and less costly to produce. She thinks the answer could lie in organic (carbon-based) molecules, which have material properties better suited to efficient light absorption. “As carbon-based life forms, we are fundamentally interested in organic chemistry, and we know a lot about synthesizing organic molecules,” she said.

Investigating Cultural Barriers

Eng also spent his summer in the sun, but he was researching in the West Bank. He was interested in the separation wall, a controversial barrier Israelis claim is necessary for security but that Palestinians claim is blocking them from returning to their land and livelihoods. Specifically, he wanted to know about the politically charged graffiti drawn on the concrete portions of the wall by internationals not directly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Eng went to a Palestinian refugee camp bordered by the wall to ask the refugees how they felt about the graffiti. “Some wanted awareness raised about [the wall, which] they see as a human rights violation, and they especially wanted international aid,” Eng said. This group supported the internationals’ graffiti. “Then, there were [others] who thought the internationals were trying to tell them what to do.”

As Eng got to know the refugees, the scope of his inquiry broadened, and he began asking why they put up with the limited infrastructure and harsh living conditions of the camp instead of relocating elsewhere. The refugees explained that they were fiercely committed to having their right to return to their land recognized. However, their relative complacency seemed equally tied to a fear of violent reprisals should they actively protest camp conditions. “Aida [Refugee] Camp was deeply scarred by Israeli backlash against the Second Intifada [the second Palestinian uprising],” Eng said. “The buildings [of the camp] were scarred from gunfire and missile impacts … The people there were scarred, too. So many people were killed.” When he reflected on his summer, Eng was struck that even in the face of these tensions, “people are just trying to live their lives as normally as they can.”

Cricket Mating Mania

Unlike Park and Eng, Maroja tried to avoid the sun because crickets don’t like direct sunlight. She and her students woke up early to capture crickets with their bare hands, all in the name of solving a mystery. There are two species of crickets – one that lives on the coast and one that lives inland. These species can mate and have hybrid baby crickets. However, despite their ability to interbreed, they have remained two distinct species instead of merging into one hybrid species. Maroja knew there had to be some barrier to gene flow that kept the species separated. When she got the crickets to the lab, she listened to their calls, measured their pheromones and monitored their behaviors. She found two interesting differences between the species. First, the females of different species exuded different pheromones. Second, the males sang different mating songs depending on which species of female they were courting. At an international conference on evolution, Maroja’s students presented these findings.

So, next sunny summer, consider researching. I have to admit, it sounds more interesting than sailing, picnicking and even sandcastle-building.