A&S Fellows study distant galaxies, emotion in art, human rights and more during summer research

Samantha Adams spent her summer imaging galaxies with supermassive black holes at their centers


Funding provided by the A&S Student Fellows Program helped 16 students pursue research and creative projects over the summer.

KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 20, 2022 – Lurking at the centers of certain galaxies throughout the universe are highly luminous objects that spew vast jets of radio waves out into space. These “active galaxies” are the result of matter churning around a supermassive black hole in a galaxy’s core, and scientists are interested in learning more about these immensely powerful galactic objects.

Now, thanks to a summer project by a URI undergraduate, astronomers are getting a new look at two of these active galaxies. The radio frequencies emitted by these galaxies aren’t visible to the human eye, but they are visible to radio telescopes. Samantha Adams, a junior majoring in physics and German, spent part of her summer processing data from National Radio Astronomy Observatory to create striking new images of galaxies known as 3C200 and 3C223. Adams hopes that images like these will help spur more public interest in astronomy, as well as aiding in the development of the data techniques used to compile such images.

“One thing that really drew me to physics and astronomy initially was the idea of visualizing things that could normally not be seen,” Adams said. “I like the fact I can explore this interest more through research.”

Adams’s project was one of 16 that students carried out this past summer with support from the Arts and Sciences Student Fellows program. The program provides funding for students to pursue research, scholarly, or creative projects under the supervision of a faculty member for up to 10 weeks during the summer. The idea is to make research opportunities available to students who may otherwise need to work a paying job over the summer.

“We know that taking on projects like these can have a profound impact on a student’s academic career,” said Jeannette Riley, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Students learn to think independently and creatively, and they get a chance to really take ownership of their work. Experiences like that can be transformative and set students up for success after they complete their undergraduate studies.”

Projects this year spanned physics, philosophy, computer science, music, theatre and more. The fellows program had traditionally been offered to students who already had an independent research or creative project in mind, but this year the program broadened somewhat to include students who hadn’t yet fully formulated their own project. Those students had the opportunity to join a faculty project already happening.

Dayanara Monzon, a sophomore double majoring in criminology and criminal justice and gender and women’s studies, worked with Skip Mark, an assistant professor of political science and director of URI’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, on an ongoing project of Mark’s to measure the extent to which governments around the world respect human rights.

“I have always had a huge passion for advocating for human rights, especially women’s rights,” Monzon said. “I have had some experience dealing with these issues and helping those [in need], but I’ve never fully understood the impact of not having these rights. When I heard about this project with Professor Mark, I was instantly intrigued and thought it was a good way to have a better understanding of women’s rights all over the world.”

Mark said projects like this are important for students because they have the chance to work on something that will be useful to scholars and policy-makers around the world. Along the way, students get valuable experience in extracting meaning from data.   

“I think projects like this are broadly applicable to the private and public sector where data collection and analysis has become an integral part of every field,” Mark said.

But it’s not just data-driven projects that give students a leg up before embarking on a career. Milana Cepeda’s project involved composing three pieces of music to accompany an anthology of  video animations. The animations aim to evoke the emotional impact of a particular life experience, and the musical compositions seek to reinforce those emotions. In addition to exploring how emotions are conveyed in art, Cepeda says the project will give her something she can show to potential employers.

“Completing this work means that I will be able to have hands-on experience writing music for the screen, which is my career path,” she said. “Whether it’s applying for a job to compose for video games or films, I will be able to proudly show future employers this work as part of my portfolio.”

But it’s not just future careers that students were thinking about this summer. For Clare Tyler, senior history major, a summer of learning about a subject she loves was simply a summer well spent. Marcus Nevius, an associate professor of history, to transcribe the diary of James Parker, a Scottish loyalist during the Revolutionary War. The diary sheds light on the views of common British loyalists, including views on race and slavery.

“My favorite thing to do is learn and gain knowledge on my interests, which is essentially what research is,” Tyler said. “Why spend time doing nothing when you could be learning, especially learning the first-hand experience of someone who was in the British army during this critical period?”

That is exactly the type of experience Dean Riley envisioned when she launched the fellows program in 2018. 

“This is about seeing our students deepen their understanding and excitement,” she said. “That helps them to be more engaged in their college experience and ultimately helps them to be more successful students.”