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Researchers Spend Summer Working on Projects Near and Far

July 16, 2012

From the caves of Belize to laboratories in Japan, UC Merced faculty members and students are abroad conducting research this summer across the globe.

Though the semester ended in mid-May, the campus’ focus on creating and sharing new knowledge continues year-round. Summer offers faculty members a chance to focus their energy on their research.

The following is just a sampling of how UC Merced’s 146 ladder-rank faculty members and their students are spending their summer.

Literature Professor Katherine Steele Brokaw will be in England this summer to do archival work for her book in the British Library and Cambridge University Library. Her book looks at music from the late Middle Ages to Shakespeare’s time and how it negotiates religion at time when the state religion was in flux.

She will also present a paper at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds.

Cognitive science Professor Christopher T. Kello, along with undergraduate student Priscilla Montez and graduate student Graham Thompson, will ask people to arrange animal names on a whiteboard to express how they conceptualize the semantic relations among them. For example, is a bee closer to a bat or a blue jay?

They will use the arrangements to test a model of animal semantic relations and see how it compares to the way Wikipedia pages are organized.

“We hope to get an idea of what kind of networks people’s memories are,” Thompson said.

Montez’ work is supported by a National Sciences Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates stipend. Thompson is funded on the same grant.

Biology Professor Rudy M. Ortiz has three students conducting research in Japan for about 10 weeks at the Kagawa Medical University under the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program.

The students, Ruben Rodriguez, Bridget Martinez and Andrew Lee, are looking at the role of certain hormones in cardiovascular and renal disease as they relate to diabetes and diet-induced obesity.

Anthropology Professor Holley Moyes is at Las Cuevas in Belize for another summer of research. Moyes, who took a team of undergraduate and graduate students, will map the cave and continue a site survey.

UC Santa Barbara anthropologist Barbara Voorhies will help Moyes’ team with cave excavations. They are still trying to explain some mystery structures at the site. However, they are beginning to suspect the site is a pilgrimage place, from the late classic period, 700 to 900 AD.

The Las Cuevas project is investigating the role of ritual in the collapse of the Classic Maya political organization. Paleoclimate studies indicate droughts occurred in the late classic period leading to social instability, and were likely to have been the proximal cause of the collapse.

“The site of Las Cuevas is a perfect place for our study because there is a massive ritual cave located directly below the main plaza,” Moyes said. “To the ancient Maya, caves were sacred, powerful places where one could propitiate earth and rain deities. We suspect that large public rituals were initiated at Las Cuevas during the end of the late classic period.”

Moyes went with undergraduate students Erin Ray, Reem Yassin, Holly Beitch, Pedro Caraval, David Brantley and Shayna Hernandez. She’s also joined by graduate students Marieka Arksey, Mark Kile and incoming graduate student Nicolas Bourgeois. Justine Issavi, who graduated last year and is starting at Stanford this fall, went along as well.

Literature Professor Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez and two of his graduate students, Beth Hernandez-Jason and Alicia Ramos-Jordán, each presented papers at the Eighth International Conference on Chicano Literature in Toledo, Spain.

Virginia Adan-Lifante, lecturer with security of employment and foreign languages program coordinator, also presented a paper at the conference.

She is spending part of her summer working on the second edition of her Spanish language manual “Mas: español intermedio.”

Ramos-Jordán also presented a paper in Toledo on behalf of her husband, Marco Valesi, a UC Merced graduate student studying urban art. The two also presented at seventh International Conference on Interdiscplinary Social Sciences in Barcelona and The International Symposium in Torremolinos, Spain.

Literature Professor Jan Goggans was recently awarded $25,000 from the University of California Humanities Research Institute to conduct research in the Central Valley.

For the next year, Goggans and a team of researchers will look at the Valley’s working-class residents and the roles of music, literature, fashion and food in their lives. Traditionally, researchers look at class through an economic model. Goggans and other researchers will broaden this to include material culture.

Goggans will work with history Professor Mario Sifuentez, lecturer Ray Winter, and UC Davis professors Jesse Drew, Glenda Drew and Susan Kaiser.

World heritage Professor Maurizio Forte will continue his research at Catalhöyük in Turkey. The team is scanning artifacts and the site for preservation. The digital scans can then be shared with scholars around the world. Forte also uses the landscape scans to recreate the site in three dimensions.  

This year, the researchers will dig an entire Neolithic house. For the first time, they will use hyperspectral cameras during the excavation. The goal is to identify archaeological features invisible to human eyes but visible in different spectral signatures.

Engineering Professor Gerardo Diaz will spend a lot of time closer to home and indoors this summer, working on an outdoor issue: the effects of biomass energy production on air quality.

Part of his California Energy Commission- and Foret Plasma Labs-funded work deals with the economic challenges of producing energy here in California, too.

Biomass is organic material, like food, garden or agricultural waste, that can be used to generate electricity, and Diaz’s work will also examine the possibilities of using biomass to produce heat and power.

Diaz, fellow professors Wolfgang Rogge and Yihsu Chen and four mechanical-engineering students are working over the summer as part of the two-year research project. Three of the students are undergraduates planning to go to graduate school, and they say the hands-on experience will be invaluable.

For graduate student Neeraj Sharma, the opportunity to put his theoretical studies into practice is intriguing and exciting, he said.