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Women of Science

Brains, bees, bowerbirds, bacteria—these are just a few of the research topics 10 female Swarthmore students explored over the summer via the Panaphil Foundation’s Frances A. Velay Fellowship program.

“What motivated me to study chemistry is my curiosity about the atomic and molecular world and its invisible but detectable influence on everything,” says Sooyun Choi ’17, pictured with mentor Robert Paley. “Thanks to this experience, I’m excited to pursue a Ph.D. and a research career in organic synthesis.”

Swarthmore is one of five Philadelphia-area schools to benefit from this program, whose purpose is to promote women in science.

“This is my very first research experience,” says Charlotte Raty ’18. “I’ve really enjoyed it, and have learned a lot. I now feel like research might be something I’d want to do in grad school and beyond.”

“I’ve really grown as a computer scientist,” adds Sarah Fischmann ’18. "I’ve learned so much, not just about programming skills but about collaboration outside the classroom.”

Fellowship eponym Frances Velay, who earned a master’s in chemistry from New York University in 1947, died in 2007. She was born in France but became a U.S. citizen and adopted Philadelphia as her home. She established the Panaphil Foundation in 1990 to focus mainly on environmental concerns, including the preservation of oceans and endangered species.

Meghann Kasal ’17 summarized the goal of her summer research: “Bacteria are in communication with each other through a signal molecule. I’m researching how these bacteria are binding to this signal molecule. If we can figure out how the signal is produced, bound, internalized, and processed, we can manipulate levels of bacteria and try to find, for example, an alternative to antibiotics, thus subverting the idea of creating a ‘superbug.’”

In addition to learning as scholars, the researchers are developing as people. This is especially true for Rhiannon Smith ’17, whose project was “Constraining the Initial Conditions of the Universe.” 

“Something I was focused on this summer was how to work through the frustrations that naturally arise from this kind of work,” she says. “No one else has done it before. There’s not somewhere to look when you get stuck or something goes wrong. So I had to try to figure out when to step back from the work and when I really needed to push through even when I didn’t want to.”

The College will welcome 10 additional researchers in each of the next two summers, as the Velay Fellowship initiative is a three-year program.

Swarthmore’s 2016 Velay Researchers, Projects, and Faculty Mentors

Talia Borofsky ’18, “Do Brains and Bees Think Alike?” with Professors Christopher Mayack and Victor Barranca


Sooyun Choi ’17, “Examining the Scope of the Chemistry of Planar Chiral N-Oxazolidinoyl Iron(0) Tricarbonyl Complexes” with Professor Robert Paley


Grace Farley ’17, “Two photosynthetic symbionts differentially control light response behavior in a clonal anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima)” with Professor Rachel Merz


Sarah Fischmann ’18, “Implementing Tuples in the Pyret Language” with Professor Joe Gibbs Politz


Rebekah Gelpi ’17, “Metaphor Processing and Eye Tracking” with Professor Frank Durgin


Meghann Kasal ’17, “Quorum Sensing” with Professor Steven Miller


Makayla Portley ’18, “Numerosity” with Professor Frank Durgin


Charlotte Raty ’18, “Type Error Resugaring” with Professor Zachary Palmer


Tessa Rhinehart ’17, “Co-Option of Male Courtship Signals from Nestling Gapes in the Satin Bowerbird” with Professor Sara Hiebert Burch


Rhiannon Smith ’17, “Constraining the Initial Conditions of the Universe” with Professor Tristan Smith