Research Magazine 2010

In the Field


Academic research at major universities—an exciting world of excavations, sediment sampling, and high-level lab tests—is typically reserved for graduate-level work. But at Boston University, a significant number of faculty members are giving undergraduates a key role to play in ongoing research projects—in some cases, as early as freshman year. From archaeological explorations in western Turkey, where civilizations have thrived for millennia at the crossroads of East and West, to methods of dating rocks that provide clues about the Earth’s past and its present-day processes, BU undergrads are learning firsthand how to gather, analyze, and report data at the forefront of endeavors in their fields of study.

Outdoor Classroom

An archaeologythemed writing seminar has piqued students’ interest in Bronze Age Lydian culture, and led several to site visits at Sardis, once the capital of Lydia and the burial ground of kings, in what is now Turkey.

An archaeology-themed writing seminar has piqued students’ interest in Bronze Age Lydian culture, and led several to site visits at Sardis, once the capital of Lydia and the burial ground of kings, in what is now Turkey.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Roosevelt

While studying historic travel journals and other accounts by early explorers for an archaeology-themed section of WP150—a writing seminar required of all undergraduates in the College of Arts & Sciences—Ali Clark had a “eureka” moment.

Clark, an art history major, realized that the plunder and sale of antiquities—a practice dating at least as far back as the Roman period—remains the modus operandi in today’s art world, where it continues to undermine a people’s ability to understand and preserve their cultural past.

“I’ve always been interested in art history, but I had never been exposed to that aspect of it before,” Clark says. “That really focused my studies on what I wanted to pursue at BU.” Toward the end of the semester, she contacted her writing instructor, Christina Luke, who is also a research fellow in the Department of Archaeology, about other opportunities to study looting and its impact on cultural heritage. The exchange sparked Clark’s long-term involvement in the Central Lydia Archaeological Survey, a project Luke co-directs with Christopher Roosevelt, an associate professor of archaeology.

Clark is one of several undergraduates who have been involved in the survey, which explores human activity in western Turkey from the prehistoric age until the present and is partially funded by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at BU. Launched in 2005, the survey centers on a 135-square-mile rural area south of Istanbul and east of the Aegean Sea.

Luke and Roosevelt initially chose the site because of its proximity to Sardis, the capital of the Iron Age Lydian Empire, and its role as a vast burial ground for Lydian kings. (Known as Bin Tepe, or “The Thousand Mounds,” the area is the largest tumulus cemetery in Turkey.) But before long, the project expanded in scope, from the Bronze Age through today.

Christopher Roosevelt

Christopher Roosevelt

“It began with a focus on the Iron Age and on understanding one of the world’s early empires and its hinterland,” says Roosevelt. “But it quickly grew into something broader because, as we learned very quickly, the remains of the area date to much more than just the Iron Age. There are much older and also much more recent periods of activity.”

In the second millennium BC, for example, when Mycenaean Greeks ruled the Aegean and Hittites had established themselves in Asia Minor, central Lydia saw the rise of a network of fortifications, which might have served as a buffer zone between the two empires. These Bronze Age structures provide exciting support for the existence of a sophisticated indigenous state and also offer clues about how the land was used by early populations.

“A system like this, with the complexity that we see at these sites, is unknown anywhere else in western Anatolia right now,” Luke says.

Christina Luke

Christina Luke

Unfortunately, there are others who have taken a less scholarly interest in the area. Widespread looting has already destroyed a significant portion of Bin Tepe’s burial mounds and is now encroaching on the ring of fortified sites near Turkey’s Marmara Lake, including the central citadel at Kaymakçı. To help track what has been looted and to prevent further destruction, Luke and Roosevelt have incorporated a preservation component into the Central Lydia Archaeological Survey.

Last year, Ali Clark and Caitlin Curtis, who received her BA in history in 2009 and is now pursuing graduate studies at SUNY Buffalo, combed through decades of auction catalogues at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, documenting artifacts on the art market that might have been looted from Lydia. Their findings were used to construct a database of looting activity. The two students are also helping Luke and Roosevelt as they develop a heritage management plan involving community workshops and cooperation with local museum and government officials to design and implement preservation strategies.

Two other students involved in UROP—Meg Sneeringer and Olivia Shoucair—have made significant contributions to archaeological research in their time at BU, and Sneeringer has gone on to a fully funded PhD program in archaeology at the University of Cincinnati.

“One of the things we try to do with our undergraduates is expose them to the full range of archaeological work that’s important for students to be familiar with if they want to continue in this field,” Roosevelt says. “We have them get their feet wet and their hands dirty in all aspects of the project.”

The benefits, he is quick to add, go both ways. “It’s really great to work with interested, diligent, serious undergraduates,” he says. “They’re new and fresh to the material and the project, with an eagerness and curiosity that carries projects like this through.”

Rock of Ages


Image from iStockphoto

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but garnet is the mineral proving most helpful for a team of budding earth scientists trying to map the Earth’s chronology.

Using a special method of garnet dating, Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Ethan Baxter and the undergraduates in his lab are gaining insight into tectonic processes—such as mountain building and plate movement—that occurred millions of years ago.

Garnets are minerals that grow over long periods of time and preserve information about geologic changes through a series of concentric spherical shells, not unlike the growth rings on a tree. One way to determine the age of individual rings is through a method known as samarium-neodymium isotope dating. The labor-intensive approach involves measuring the ratio of decay of a radioactive samarium isotope to a radiogenic neodymium isotope found in the garnet. Samarium and neodymium must be extracted through a meticulous process of chemical cleansing; then, specific isotopes are isolated and measured using a thermal ionization mass spectrometer (TIMS).

Julie Barkman, Leah MehlNora Sullivan, and Michelle Jordan

From sunny Sifnos, Greece, to chilly Vermont, undergraduate and graduate students in Ethan Baxter’s lab are venturing wherever garnet samples can be found: (l–r) Julie Barkman, Leah Mehl, Nora Sullivan, and Michelle Jordan.

Photos courtesy of Ethan Baxter

When Julie Barkman decided to pursue an independent work for distinction in Baxter’s lab her senior year, she had no background in the sophisticated chemical procedures that garnet dating requires. Soon, she had not only mastered the procedures, but had begun to seek ways to improve them. “I gained a really valuable skill set in terms of all the lab skills that I learned,” says Barkman, who earned her BA in 2007.

Her efforts to refine the samarium-neodymium garnet method—which was not yet capable of the precise results Baxter’s lab can achieve today—says Barkman, taught her “a lot about problem-solving and how to be more innovative.” They also helped her win a National Science Foundation fellowship to pursue graduate studies. “I know it was a huge part of why I got the fellowship,” says Barkman. “A lot of my reviewers pointed out that it’s really great undergrad experience.”

Ethan Baxter

Ethan Baxter

Baxter agrees. Getting students into the lab early is important, he says, because there “they really get to experience what science is all about. You can be told how science is done, but you don’t really learn it until you try to do it yourself.”

Another student, Grace Andrews, started working in the TIMS lab as a freshman. At first she was assigned basic lab tasks like cleaning beakers and organizing materials. By the time she graduated this May, Andrews had completed three directed studies and an independent work for distinction. Her senior thesis investigated the potential causes of pulses of accelerated growth in garnets from the Austrian Alps, a phenomenon first described in detail by Baxter and graduate student Anthony Pollington.

“For a long time, the classic model of tectonics and of mountain building was that these processes operated over a long period of time in a fairly smooth, uniform pace,” Baxter says. “Our study provides compelling support for another hypothesis—that slow and steady isn’t winning the race in tectonics, but that instead it’s brief, rapid spurts or pulses of activity that could be dominating mountain building, metamorphism, and tectonics in general.”

Andrews’s work on pulses of accelerated growth has taken her to the Goldschmidt Conference, the world’s largest geochemistry gathering, to present her findings on garnets from the Austrian Alps that were collected by Baxter and Pollington.

“I came to BU because I knew I wanted to do research,” Andrews says. “I’m doing stuff that’s literally never been done before. It’s exciting to be fresh out of my bachelor’s and at the front lines of scientific research.”

Baxter has mentored a total of 11 undergraduate students so far. “They’re just tremendous,” he says. “I have been extremely impressed with the quality and the dedication of our top undergraduates at BU.”

His enthusiasm seems to be contagious. “Ethan is a great person to learn from,” says Barkman. “He wants people to enjoy science and he wants people to be excited about the work that they’re doing.”



Reprinted courtesy of Inside Sargent

Do you listen to all the nutrition advice out there? The contradictions, backtracks, and reversals can set your head spinning. A student-built smartphone app shares healthy eating expertise in a couple of clicks.

The near-impossibility of getting a straight answer on healthy eating encouraged Larry Istrail, a recent graduate of the College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College, to help develop an iPhone app that will cut through the bad science and give users a simple, clear idea of their own food intake.

PhotoCalorie is a free food journal for Apple’s iPhone that calculates a meal’s nutritional information and records eating habits. Istrail started work on the app during a summer 2009 research project with Mark Boguski, a research associate at Harvard Medical School.

Although nutrition apps are common, Istrail says PhotoCalorie’s simplicity gives it a competitive edge. “For a lot of other apps,” he says, “you have to search for each item. It’s very tedious, and we wanted to eliminate that.” Users type a meal in one line (“poppy seed bagel, cream cheese, iced coffee”) and the app, which College of Engineering alumnus Vince Fusaro helped to program, tallies the meal’s nutrition: calories, protein, fat, and carbs. Rival programs lack PhotoCalorie’s Google-like search component. The photo aspect is also unique.

“You take a picture of the food as a way of personalizing your journal,” says Istrail, who used the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database to compile the extensive food list that powers the app. “A lot of people have told us that they just take the pictures, that’s it, and they have a visual food journal.”

Larry Istrail

Larry Istrail

Istrail also runs the PhotoCalorie blog, dispensing timely nutritional news and tips and offering a science major’s take on the latest dietary trends. His interest in seeking out the truth behind ever-changing healthy eating advice was encouraged in a class on nutritional epidemiology taught by Associate Professor of Nutrition Paula Quatromoni. Quatromoni says nutrition is such a hot topic right now that more people are seeing it as a career path. And she says that students need to understand the truth behind these studies because there is so much confusion.

“Any tool that helps people increase their awareness of their personal habits has the potential to shift behaviors,” she says. “The average person has difficulty identifying reputable sources of nutrition information and distinguishing fact from fiction. On the web, in magazines, on TV, and in the aisles of health food stores, it is easy for consumers to be misled and fall prey to false hope.”

Istrail is optimistic the app will make it easier to get nutrition facts into the open and help inform some of the millions of people who suffer from nutrition-related health problems. With the app picking up new users every month, Istrail plans to go to medical school and then focus on research full time. “If you can do a good study that is novel and actually shows something,” he says, “you can change the world; you can influence billions of people.”