Harley Marrocco '15
Last summer, Randolph-Macon College student Harley Marrocco ’15 kept her cool. While the temperatures climbed outside, the engineering physics major participated in a SURF (Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship) project, working with Chemistry Professor Rebecca Michelsen, studying the pH of ice and its effects on the Earth’s atmosphere. SURF offers students the unique opportunity to conduct 10 weeks of full-time, original research during the summer months, under the guidance of a faculty mentor.
“Everything I learned was extremely interesting," says Marrocco, “especially in regards to the complexity of ice.”
Michelsen explains, “It used to be thought that when you have a blanket of ice and snow, then all the chemical reactions between land or water and the atmosphere would stop. But in fact a great deal of chemistry happens on the surface of snow and ice, and some of those reactions are pretty important in terms of the composition of the atmosphere above. What Harley did was try to see what the acidity was at the surface of ice, because reactions often happen faster in acids or in media that is more acidic.”
One reason the research is important, says Michelsen, is that global climate change is decreasing the amount of snow and ice covering areas like the Arctic Ocean. “It is important to know how the ice affects the atmosphere, because we are changing how much ice there is.”
Cutting-edge ResearchTo answer such big questions takes time and patience. Michelsen has been working with students on this research since 2007. “The good news for Harley,” she says, “is that the groundwork had been laid, and she had some really good data at the SURF Symposium in August.” Michelsen and Marrocco will also present their findings at a national professional conference some time during the coming school year.
For Marrocco, the research was an exciting opportunity to move out of the classroom and into the world of true research. “I liked that I didn't know what the answer was, that I wasn't working for the textbook answer. It was challenging because with hands-on research you don’t get the immediate results or definitive answer. It was eye-opening for me, not knowing what was going to happen next, and as a student it made me see that you don’t just work for the answer, to get an ‘A.’ To be successful as an individual, you work for your own mental and intellectual growth and learning.”
Adds Michelsen, “What is amazing about SURF is that the students are doing real, cutting-edge research. Nobody had done this experiment before. Her results are going to be truly important in this field and could get a lot of attention when we publish.”
A Summer of DiscoveryAs an engineering physics major, Marrocco had not expected she would end up spending a summer working in the field of chemistry research. However, she says, “I think it is important to try new things. Although this wasn’t something I was expecting to do with my time at Randolph-Macon, I learned more things than I thought I would.” Already minoring in mathematics, Marrocco is considering adding chemistry as a minor as well, or pursuing chemical engineering after graduation.
“All the students I have worked with in my lab have gone on to some sort of postgraduate studies,” says Michelsen. A number have pursued Ph.D.s, she notes.
“Working with students in the research lab is my favorite part of my job,” says Michelsen. “I love science, and I love doing science, and it is really fun to do it with someone else and to work with students as colleagues.”
Strong Science, Liberal Arts BenefitsOne reason Marrocco chose R-MC, she says, is that the college offered a setting where she could study science within a liberal arts context. “I feel that the liberal arts education is very important for helping you develop strong communication skills.”
She also has appreciated being able to combine her studies with her passion for soccer. “Playing soccer has always been a huge part of my life,” she says, “and being able to play varsity soccer here while pursuing my academic goals has been such a great opportunity, and I am loving every second of it.”
Generous SupportThe SURF program was established in 1995 through a generous gift made by Ben ’64 and Peggy Schapiro. The Schapiros continue to support this program, which promotes scholarly undergraduate research by R-MC students in all disciplines.