2017 Gibbons Fellows Nine Bowdoin students are using technology this summer to analyze old maps of Mongolia, develop a novel Tourette's therapy, and improve teacher mentor programs, among other summertime projects

Each summer, Bowdoin faculty are invited to apply for funding from the college’s Gibbons Summer Research Program to hire students to help with technological research. John A. Gibbons, Jr. ‘64 established the grant program to enable students and professors to explore interdisciplinary projects and to develop fresh approaches to the study of complex problems. This year, nine students received Gibbons funding to work on research projects in oceanography, politics, arctic studies, neurology, history, education, psychology, and Italian and German studies.

The Gibbons Program is administered by Bowdoin's Academic Technology & Consulting group.

What old maps of Inner Mongolia can tell us about environmental change

Stephanie Sun, with some of the old maps of Inner Mongolia from a recently discovered 1939 Japanese book

Stephanie Sun ’18 is spending her summer poring over an obscure 500-page manuscript about Inner Mongolia, written by Japanese officials during Japan’s invasion of Manchuria (1931-1945).

The 1939 manuscript, Research on Rangelands and Grazing Practices in Northern Khinggan Province, contains pages and pages of densely printed data, as well as eighteen maps. The information covers the lands and habits of this region’s nomadic and pastoral inhabitants, whom the Japanese occupiers were encountering for the first time.

Sun’s advisor, Assistant Professor of History and Asian Studies Sakura Christmas, first saw the book listed in Stanford University's online catalog. She asked a colleague to bring it to an academic conference, where she copied it to use in her research about the environmental effects of the Japanese occupation of Inner Mongolia.

Some of the eighteen original maps in the manuscript
A “georeference” map of summer and winter pastures, which means an old map is overlayed onto current satellite imagery
Digital representation of land use in 1939
The map on the left shows Stephanie Sun's attempts to figure out grazing routes by hand before digitizing the data. The picture on the right shows some text and Sun's translating notes.

This summer Christmas hired Sun to spatially analyze the book’s maps and data, which will provide a clearer sense of the book’s contents. Besides being proficient in ArcGIS and other spatial analysis tools, Sun has a personal and academic interest in Asian history; she grew up in Hong Kong and is majoring in history and environmental studies.

"Stephanie's cutting-edge research is illuminating a dark and relatively unknown period of history in Inner Mongolia," Christmas said. "Her project will definitely garner the interest of historians and anthropologists internationally as we try to piece together what happened during the Japanese occupation."

Sun is first deciphering the manuscript’s maps and tables, which catalog such information as Mongolian migration routes, family size, herd size, and breakdown of men and women, and of Han Chinese and Mongolians, in the region. She is also comparing the older maps with current-day satellite imagery, paying particular attention to where desertification has occurred on the steppe. The Japanese manuscript provides a snapshot of land conditions during the waning decades of pastoral life in Inner Mongolia.

Sun argues that the book’s purpose was to legitimize the Japanese occupation. “One of the first things people do when they come across a ‘new’ place is map it and mark it as their own,” she said. By turning herders and nomads into farmers the occupiers could “transform this nomadic borderland into a sedentary, productive part of the Japanese empire,” Christmas writes in her grant proposal. When the Chinese regained control of the area, after WWII, they continued the process of land reform and forced settlement.

These changes in land use led to severe environmental degradation. As the Mongolians shifted their nomadic way of life, they stopped herding a variety of animals — sheep, goats, cows, horses, and camels — to concentrate more on goats. Goats could provide quicker profits because there meat, as well as cashmere wool and milk, are marketable. Yet, goats tear up the ground more than other grazing animals. Sun says that over the last eighty years, verdant grasslands where once Mongolians raised their herds have become increasingly barren.

Sun says the Gibbons project is giving her a firmer grasp of how GIS technology, history, and environmental studies can fit together. While her first survey of the highly technical document was somewhat intimidating, she said that knowing she can apply data visualization technology to it, to “see the data in a different way and bring different sets of data together and manipulate it in a way that is understandable, is very exciting and reassuring.” She added, “There is so much space for technology in history, it’s going to change the way in which we study history.”

More 2017 Gibbons projects in brief

Maine’s Arctic Connection: Xin Jiang ’20 is developing an interactive and expanded digital version of the Maine Arctic Trail Map, first published in 2016. The map explains the state’s historic and contemporary connections to the Arctic.

Climate Histories of Coral: Zoe Aarons ’19 is helping Assistant Professor of Earth and Oceanographic Science Michele LaVigne develop novel data analysis techniques for her deep-sea coral research. These corals preserve past oceanic conditions in their growth bands, similar to trees. By analyzing their geochemical make-up, scientists can get a better sense of what drove oceanic and climate changes over the last three centuries.

Digital Humanities and Italy: Dean Zucconi ’19 is working on several projects in the Italian department, including updating and improving the Bowdoin Digital Clip Archive, digitizing a corpus of 17th-century Italian texts, and analyzing the curated, crowd-sourced website Dante Today, which contains almost 1,000 citing of Dante in contemporary culture.

Remembering the Past: Jessica Solis ’19 is assisting Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Erika Nyhus’s examination into how our brains retrieve memories. Solis is helping to analyze the flow of information between brain regions, as well as determine which brain regions are interacting as we recall memories.

China in Germany: Quyen Ha ’18 is helping Birgit Tautz, Bowdoin’s George Taylor Files Professor of Modern Languages, investigate German’s perceptions of China in the 19th century. Germans looked positively upon China until about 1800, and Tautz would like to find out why. As part of this research, Ha will use digital research methods to scour 18th- and 19th-century German journals.

Women’s Rights, Human Rights: Katherine Henneberger ’20 is helping Professor of Government Janet Martin design a coding scheme to analyze the speeches of US presidents and secretaries of states going back to 1993. Martin wants to elucidate how, when, and where the term “human rights” is used and whether women’s rights, or issues of concern for women, such as equal pay, are referred to as human rights.

Effective mentoring partnerships for science teachers

This summer Michael Walsh ’19, a biochemistry and education coordinate major, is helping Assistant Professor of Education Alison Riley Miller examine the relationship between teacher mentors and student teachers who teach science in public schools. Traditionally in teacher training programs, a more experienced teacher, recommended by the principal, is assigned to guide a new teacher through their first year of teaching.

“The ultimate goal is we want to see what is effective between the [mentor-mentee] pairs and what is not effective,” Walsh said. “There is not a lot of professional development around teachers becoming good cooperative [or mentor] teachers, which is crazy to think about because it’s such an important job. It’s a make-or-break situation for a new teacher to have a good relationship.”

He added: “Whatever findings we come out of this project with, Professor Miller wants to put an emphasis on coming up with effective professional development for science teachers to be good mentors.”

Walsh’s job this summer is to parse, with textual analysis software, several transcribed interviews of mentor teachers and their student teachers who work in Arizona and Maine. He’s using NVivo software to highlight themes from the interviews — such as teaching backgrounds, comfort with science, and attitudes toward new science education standards. The researchers call these themes or concepts, “nodes.”

After coding the interviews, he and Miller — and three other professors helping with the project from other institutions — will attempt to draw connections between the dominant nodes that emerge from the interviews.

“We’re trying to use the software to see if, for instance, similarities in their background lead to a more effective relationship,” Walsh said, among other cause-and-effect correlations.

While this is not an image from Walsh’s work, he says this graphs of nodes (themes) is similar to the kinds of visualizations he is helping his professor put together.
Left: This visual shows the highlighting of a document being parsed and placed into nodes (themes). Right: This screenshot displays word frequencies that allow the researcher to find emerging themes in texts.

The overarching goal, beyond recommending more effective mentorship models, is to improve science education for students. “Science education is critical to not only students who think they might want to go into science but also to those who don’t want anything to do with science,” Walsh said. “We’re entering a time when technology and being a good scientist is important to just living. Having these skills and practicing with models and learning by doing rather than memorizing is going to be so much more important to the generation going through middle and high schools to solve problems.”

Walsh says he’s more interested in an eventual career in dentistry rather than in teaching at the moment, and is majoring in education at Bowdoin in part because he is interested how education relates to public health. But be believes teaching is critical to most every role in life. “To be able to teach and be a good educator is important to whatever field you enter,” he said. “If I enter dentistry, having the skills and ability to teach would be helpful for patients.”

Online therapy for people with Tourette syndrome

Grace Wheeler is assisting with an online therapy program to treat people with Tourette syndrome.

Grace Wheeler ’19 is helping Assistant Professor of Psychology Hannah Reese develop an innovative online therapy program for people with Tourette syndrome or persistent tic disorder. The basic premise of the eight-week therapy program is to encourage participants to develop a mindfulness practice to overcome debilitating tics.

Wheeler said that while online mindfulness programs have been adapted to treat people with other disorders, such as anxiety and ADD, they have not yet been tried on those with Tourette’s. “People with Tourette’s are performing the tic because they get an urge like a sneeze or cough,” Wheeler explained. “It’s an uncomfortable sensation that is eased when they perform the tic. Mindfulness will help them sit with the discomfort, so hopefully they can pass through the curve of the urge.”

A screenshot of the online therapy program

In addition, those with Tourette syndrome often don’t respond to available treatments or find them unacceptable, often because they are too expensive or time consuming, according to Reese’s Gibbons proposal. In the longterm, if the mindfulness program is successful, making it available online could increase the number of people it can help.

This summer, Wheeler is helping Reese develop a website that will be the portal for the therapy program. She’s adding written content and video and audio recordings, such as instructions for meditation and relaxation exercises. To participate in the study, patients must take online questionnaires to determine if their condition qualifies them for the free study. Six will pilot the program next spring.

Wheeler says she is excited by the opportunity to partner with a psychology researcher this summer. “It’s also a unique opportunity to work on something that is going to be useful to people in the study,” she added.

Created By
Rebecca Goldfine
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