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Graduate-Level Excellence

Reported by Molly Minturn, Caroline Newman and Fariss Samarrai

Graduate Students play a crucial role in Arts & Sciences: they teach and mentor undergraduates, assist faculty with work in labs and take on groundbreaking research projects of their own.

“In the ecosystem called the College, we have students and faculty, but the glue is our graduate students,” said Dean Ian Baucom. “They teach and conduct research and serve as a magnet to attract new faculty. Graduate students are the carriers of the University’s reputation.

As state appropriations declined over the past few decades, graduate funding shrank. With philanthropic support for graduate fellows, the University can bring more top Ph.D. candidates and post-docs to Grounds, which, in turn, will attract the best undergraduate students and faculty, boosting departmental rankings and strengthening the College’s reputation as a world-class liberal arts institution.

Here is a look at innovative work by Arts & Sciences grad students, concerning everything from local bees to distant galaxies.

Kathryn LeCroy: The Buzz on Bees

In the United States and worldwide, bee populations are declining, and Kathryn LeCroy wants to know why. Her project out of UVA’s Blandy Experimental Farm in Clarke County, Virginia, is helping to solve the mystery.

Last spring, LeCroy, an environmental sciences graduate student, constructed 100 wooden “bee hotels” at Blandy for a project to monitor mason bee populations in Virginia. She organized a citizen science project and hand-delivered 98 of her bee hotels to residents in urban, rural and forested locations across Virginia. Mason bees nested within LeCroy’s hotels throughout the state. LeCroy also distributed 45 bee traps to capture a sample of all the bee species that inhabit the same areas where mason bees “checked into” the hotels.

The decline of Virginia’s native mason bees likely relates to the proliferation of two non-native species of bees that compete for resources and can introduce exotic diseases. LeCroy and her faculty mentor, UVA environmental scientist T’ai Roulston, collected the hotels and traps and worked to identify collected bees.

Over the past year, LeCroy and Roulston documented the distribution of two Japanese species of bees. One, the Osmia taurus, which cropped up in 2002, “was found in almost every part of Virginia,” LeCroy said, “and its abundance in our surveys were orders of magnitude larger than all of the other native mason bees we found in the Commonwealth.”

“For the first time, we’re starting to have a good understanding of what’s happening with these important pollinators in Virginia.”


Sandy Liss: Galactic Discovery

Astronomy graduate student Sandy Liss is part of a team of astronomers that discovered groups of dwarf galaxies—nuggets of stars and gas 100 to 1,000 times smaller than the Milky Way—in the process of merging together. This discovery offers evidence that the mature galaxies we see in the universe today were formed when smaller galaxies combined billions of years ago.

The team began their search by poring over Sloan Digital Sky Survey data looking for pairs of interacting dwarf galaxies.

“We noticed that several of our pairs appeared to be in close proximity to other small galaxies,” Liss said. “Furthermore, many of these nearby galaxies appeared to have irregular shapes, bright clumps and other features that could be indicative of interactions.”

The researchers then traveled to Chile and used the Magellan Baade telescope to take more advanced readings that confirmed the dwarf galaxies were gravitationally bound together.

“There’s a balance between the tranquility of being on a dark, quiet mountaintop with only a few other people and the excitement of collecting brand new data from some of the best telescopes in the world,” Liss said.

Liss’s colleagues on the study include UVA astronomy professors Sabrina Stierwalt, Kelsey Johnson and Nitya Kallivayalil, astronomy Ph.D. alumnus George Privon and astronomers at other institutions. They published their findings in Nature Astronomy last year.


Steven Lewis: Research Maestro

Steven Lewis, a doctoral student in the McIntire Department of Music, helped curate the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Musical Crossroads exhibit, housed on the museum’s fourth floor. More than 1 million people have visited the museum since it opened in September 2016.

Lewis was hired in late 2015 as a research assistant to Dwandalyn Reece, the museum’s curator for music and performing arts. He spent most of 2016 doing research and editorial work for the Musical Crossroads exhibit, writing artist biographies and artifact descriptions and creating a timeline that traces the development of more than 14 music genres over 400 years, from the arrival of the first African Americans in the British colonies in 1619 to the emergence of hip-hop in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It has been a privilege to be involved and to take what I do as a scholar and make it accessible to other people of color and anyone interested in African-American history,” Lewis said. “One of the key points the museum makes is that black history is also the history of all Americans. We are all heirs of this history.”

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