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The Albright Creative Research Experience (ACRE) is a multidisciplinary initiative that affords students the opportunity to conduct research or pursue creative endeavors during their time off from classes. Last summer, 13 students participated in the program, working on projects ranging from traditional textile hand-spinning to economic development in sub-Saharan Africa to the exploration of a pumpkin antifungal.

AFrom Fleece to Yarn: An Exploration of Textile Hand-Spinning

yarnCostume design major Susie Benitez ’15 never imagined she’d spend a summer in Utah learning how to spin fleece into yarn. But there she was, more than 2,000 miles from home, working under a hot sun, cleaning "gunk" from some recently shorn fleece. Once the fiber was clean and dry, Benitez would hand-spin it using a drop spindle, a centuries-old technique.

"If someone asked me two years ago what I would be doing over the summer, I’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll be at home.’ I’m a costume major. Who’s going to want to do an ACRE with me? Leave it to the science guys," said Benitez.

But ACRE projects are multi-disciplinary, and any student, regardless of major, can apply. Benitez’s ACRE involved researching the wool industry and traditional hand-spinning techniques, speaking to shepherds and weavers, and learning firsthand how to spin shorn fleece into yarn. Most ACRE projects are conducted close to campus; Benitez’s was a rare exception. Her faculty adviser, Paula Trimpey, M.F.A., assistant professor of theatre and fashion design, had a connection in Utah, a hub of the American sheep producing industry.

"This is something I probably would have never have done if we didn’t have this program," said Benitez. "I don’t have the means to go out and spin for a summer. I don’t even own a sheep."

Through the project, Benitez gained an appreciation for the craftsmanship behind every spool. Though accustomed to working with wool in class, especially for creating period pieces, and when making hats and scarves for fun, Benitez didn’t really think about its origins.

"It’s really cool to see how people have done this for centuries. You just gain an appreciation for the art and the new skill," said Benitez, who plans to weave a shawl from the yarn she spun in Utah.

The ACRE also exposed Benitez to real-world workplace dynamics, said Trimpey. ACRE students and advisers adopt a different type of relationship, one that is "one-on-one, more like a senior and junior colleague relationship," said Trimpey, a longtime ACRE adviser. "And you’re both making discoveries at the same time."

A-orangePumpkin Antifungal Exploration

punkinAndrew Samuelsen, Ph.D., had a problem. Every year, after just a couple of weeks perched upon his porch, his perfectly plump pumpkins would turn black and decompose. The culprit: fungal spores in the air around his home. While others would be squashed by their unfortunate luck, Samuelsen, a biology professor, realized his problem was an opportunity for his student, Rodger Rothenberger ’14, who was in search of an ACRE project. Rothenberger, a biochemistry major, dove right in and began brainstorming ways to extend the lifespan of jack-o’-lanterns. The project has included everything from topical treatments to genetic modification. Along the way, Rothenberger may also succeed in getting a pumpkin to glow green.

A third-generation Albrightian, Rothenberger has developed a spray to apply to pumpkins to keep the microbes at bay. In July, he treated fungal samples growing on petri plates in the laboratory, and by September it was still working. "I don’t know how long it will last. It’s kind of a mystery," said Rothenberger, who did some more testing on fully grown pumpkins in October. His summer ACRE is a long-term project.

But Rothenberger didn’t want to stop with a spray. He wondered if, instead of a treatment, it was possible to alter a pumpkin’s genetic makeup to make it resistant to the fungi and bacteria that cause rotting. It would involve the introduction of a new gene, and Rothenberger had to first create the system of modification. To test if the process works, Rothenberger is introducing a green fluorescent protein (originally from a jellyfish) into pumpkin embryos to serve as a marker. The embryo will be cultivated in the lab and greenhouse, and "if it goes well it should fluoresce green," he said. That will give future researchers the green light (so to speak) to introduce an antifungal protein. Longer-lasting pumpkins could have tremendous implications for the pumpkin industry and autumn enthusiasts everywhere. "It would be pretty cool if it actually took off," said Rothenberger.

So what degree of verdigris might this test yield? Samuelsen says not to expect a "Frankenpumpkin." A dark room or black light may be needed to see the glow.

Rothenberger, who plans to attend medical school after graduation, loves research and says the ACRE helped him realize it should always be a part of his life.

A-greenEconomic Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

coffeeJean Philippe Irigale Bli ’14 sees his ACRE as more than just a summer research project; it’s a step in his long-term goal of improving the lives of his countrymen.

The Ivory Coast native and economics and mathematics major spent the summer researching the economic development of his homeland, as well as neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, in an effort to find solutions to the problems that plague these sub-Saharan African nations.

Bli explored the history of the three countries, the lingering effects of French colonization, the role of foreign investment, government corruption and interference, and the impact of social institutions, including a weak infrastructure and educational system. Using data from the World Bank and other sources, Bli created economic models to determine the relationship among these factors. All three countries have commodity-driven economies (coffee and cocoa in the Ivory Coast), which are volatile and unpredictable. Bli recommends diversification and improvement of social institutions, especially education.

ACRE adviser and economics professor Farhad Saboori, Ph.D., said Bli brought a wealth of personal information and first-hand knowledge to his research, the type that can come only from growing up in sub-Saharan Africa. "He was fresh with ideas from his home country," said Saboori. "I found him to have learned a lot, and I learned from him, too."

After graduation, Bli wants to return to the Ivory Coast. Armed with what he’s learned at Albright and through his ACRE, he believes he can be an instrument for real change. "I want to create a new economic system, to be more open, to share my knowledge," he said. "I really want to see the whole of Africa change. It’s why I chose this project."

Above all, Bli is hopeful that his homeland can grow and thrive. "They have the potential to do extremely well," he said. "I’m optimistic. I live in a generation that can take control of our own nation."

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