Science Institute Faculty-Student Research Paves Career Paths

Science Institute Faculty-Student Research Paves Career Paths

(l-r) Gabriel Rodrigues ’22 , Professor of Biology Brian G. Walker, PhD, and Mystic Aquarium employees working on microplastics research.

(l-r) Gabriel Rodrigues ’22 , Professor of Biology Brian G. Walker, PhD, and Mystic Aquarium employees working on microplastics research. Photo courtesy of Mystic Aquarium.

Through the Science Institute, College of Arts and Sciences faculty members and undergraduate students work side-by-side in trailblazing summer research projects that yield real-world results and offer students career potential.

The Science Institute at Fairfield University is an endowed program in the College of Arts and Sciences; it supports activities and programs in the areas of science and mathematics, including: innovative teaching, curriculum development, lectures, seed grants for research, and projects that promote the cultivation of an appreciation for scientific teaching and inquiry in the University and the community at large.

“For many years, Bannow has been the home of a vibrant summer research community,” said Shelley A. Phelan, PhD, professor of biology and director of the Science Institute. “Our esteemed faculty members in the sciences and mathematics are widely recognized for their active research programs, and they are extremely committed to engaging our students in these unique experiences to help prepare them for future academic and career paths.”

This summer, five faculty and student duos have had their innovative research projects funded through the Science Institute. From investigating potential environmental risks to animals and humans, to using worms to study gene function, students and faculty are staying busy and breaking new ground as they engage in fieldwork and collaborate in laboratories.

One of these dedicated pairs is biology major Gabriel Rodrigues ’22 and professor of biology Brian G. Walker, PhD. They are fast at work on setting up the analysis protocols (i.e., technical lab activities) for analysis of microplastics in biological samples, initially focusing on penguin feces. Dr. Walker and Rodrigues have developed partnerships with Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. and the Central Park Zoo in New York City, and they are currently conducting research at both organizations.

“The idea is to be able to compare incidence of this potentially detrimental pollution between captive animals in zoos and aquariums and those in the wild in Argentina, where I have been working for over 25 years,” Dr. Walker said. “As microplastics are now understood to be prevalent in every ecosystem, we are only beginning to examine the potential negative effects of having these very small plastic particles all around us, as well as inside us.”

In another area of study, S. Ashley Byun, PhD, associate professor of biology, and undergraduate student Cristian Navarro-Martinez ’22 are working with Murray Patterson, PhD, of Georgia State University, on the ancestral reconstruction of "the first cat call," or ancestral feline vocalizations. The overarching goal of their project is to reconstruct the calls of the first felid ancestor that lived approximately 10.8 million years ago.

Additional faculty-student research partnerships include: Chelsie Counsell, PhD, assistant professor of biology and Rebecca Buonopane '22 on reef habitats; Anita Fernandez, associate professor of biology and Julia Stobierska '23 studying gene function in worms; and David Winn, professor of physics, and Andrew Maresca '23 studying high-speed photodetectors.

While many of these cutting-edge research projects are still in their infancy, throughout the entire year the College of Arts and Sciences empowers and encourages undergraduate students from all disciplines to conduct innovative, in-depth, and collaborative research under the guidance and encouragement of faculty experts and staff.

Each year, more than 300 faculty-student research projects are conducted in the areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the humanities, the arts, and social sciences; more than half of these collaborative projects are presented at national scholarly meetings and/or published in professional journals and manuscripts.

The research conducted within the College of Arts and Sciences provides undergraduate students the opportunity for faculty mentorship, active learning, and the ability to discover new knowledge while being challenged in new ways. With research being conducted across multiple disciplines, students have the ability to engage in or develop original research projects that allow them to explore their passions while developing important industry connections and making invaluable contributions to their field of study.

To learn more about the faculty-student research projects being conducted within the College of Arts and Sciences, visit

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