Megan Rodriguez

Hood Alumna Wins Top Prize

Megan Rodriguez ’15 earned the Council on Undergraduate Research Prize by Pi Mu Epsilon, the national mathematics honor society. The prize is award to the most outstanding student research talk at the Mathematical Association of America’s annual MathFest conference. Rodriguez is the first Hood College student to win the award.

Her talk, entitled “Graph Theory Representation and Computational Complexity of Sliding Block Ice Puzzles Inspired by Legend of Zelda,” focused on winning strategies using algorithms for puzzles in video games. The research was originally for her honors thesis work, but she continued it after her project was complete and went on to present at MathFest in August.

“While I was conducting my research my senior year, I had hoped I would be able to present it at some conference after its completion,” said Rodriguez. “However, I hadn’t even considered Mathfest, let alone the 100th celebration of the Mathematical Association of America. It was very exciting to be accepted to speak at such an important conference.”

Rodriguez’ research adviser was James Parson, associate professor of mathematics, who offered general suggestions about what types of math to use and served as a sounding board for her ideas.

“It was her initiative throughout,” he said. “She was really driving the whole thing. She turned the games into real mathematical problems.”

There were approximately 2,500 registered participants at MathFest, and about 80 students from around the country presented in the Pi Mu Epsilon undergraduate research sessions.

Rodriguez was excited to present her research, but she didn’t realize the possibility of an award until her talk was over. With a topic based on video games, she wasn’t sure if there would be broad interest.

“Receiving such an award reaffirmed my belief that mathematical work in any field really is valuable and that mathematics can be applied in fun and strange new ways,” she said.

Over the summer, Rodriguez also created interactive websites where people can go try the puzzles she had studied and see her algorithms in action. The one-block version of the puzzle is here. The multiple-block, or n-block, version of the puzzle is here. To play the games for both, click the play button in the top left corner.

“There are preset puzzles to try out, and I encourage people to look through the code and try to improve it,” she said. “I only ask that they send their code to”

Rodriguez also encouraged those at her talk to go to the sites and see if they could improve her methods.

“She’s a great representative of what Hood is,” said Parson. “She’s one of the brightest students I’ve had at Hood. She has an amazing eye for detail, but she can also see the big picture.”

Rodriguez is currently enjoying her work as a software engineer at iNovex Software Solutions

“I get to apply my mathematics, web development and computer science skills all at the same time,” she said. “The atmosphere of the company is fantastic, and I feel right at home.”

CJ Blickenstaff

From the Military to College

A veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard where she served four and a half years, CJ Blickenstaff has a different perspective on her undergraduate college career than the average student.

At 32 years old, she has three children, one in pre-K, one in kindergarten and one in first grade. Her active-duty husband is stationed in Baltimore, and she is working toward her bachelor’s degree in communication arts with a concentration in digital media at Hood College. She hopes to finish her degree by 2017 before the Coast Guard transfers her family to another location.

Blickenstaff, who rose to the rank of petty officer third class before leaving active duty in 2010, has a wide range of interests within communications, and she will be looking for a job with a small company in public relations, social media or networking.

“I like to communicate both verbally and visually,” she said. “I dabble in photography. So I’m setting myself up for maybe the perfect job landing in my lap that meets everything I love to do.”

The support she has received from the military and Hood College has provided her a smooth transition into the life of a college student. With her GI Bill, other funds from Hood grants and Hood’s involvement in the yellow ribbon program—a program that supplements the GI Bill—there is no out-of-pocket cost to her.

Blickenstaff credits her experiences in life and in the military for giving her the mindset and habits to succeed even with such a busy life.

“I think I’m a more dedicated student,” she said. “Back in 2001 I graduated from high school, and I went to Stockton College in New Jersey on a scholarship. Within a month and a half, I dropped out. I wasn’t happy with where things were going. I joined the service a couple years later to get direction in life. I feel like now, as a spouse, as a parent and as an adult, I have to sit down, and I have to do it, so I do my best because I respect that it’s being paid for by something I earned, and it’s not just been given to me.”

Blickenstaff likes the Hood campus in part because she has seen a wide variety of students, and she feels welcome. As a person with years of experience in the real world, her younger classmates look to her for perspective and advice.

“I don’t feel like the students treat me differently because I’m older,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of students say it’s cool to have a mom’s perspective in the classroom. I think I’ve lost my direction enough times that I can be a good coach for bringing people back.”

Taking classes on top of being a full-time mom, Blickenstaff has a full plate.

“It’s busy, but it’s doable,” she said. “I feel like the real world is equally busy. Life is full time.”

NSF Project

New Spectrometers Boost Chemistry Lab Experience

Alex Jarnot ’17 and Angela Mansfield ’17 spent the summer working with professors Christopher Stromberg and Kevin Bennett on ways to incorporate new technology into Hood College’s chemistry curriculum.

“The goal of our summer research was to design labs around a new piece of equipment, the handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, so that students would be able to have hands-on experience with it,” said Jarnot, a chemistry major. “We also designed a user manual for easy setup and troubleshooting.”

During the project, Jarnot and Mansfield designed the labs that they will be doing the next few semesters, so they will already be familiar with the theory behind X-ray fluorescence when the time comes to learn it in class.

The research is made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and it includes professors and students from Frederick Community College and Mount St. Mary’s University. The research includes four different spectrometers. This summer, Hood researched the XRF spectrometer, which analyzes what elements are present in a sample.

“These instruments will allow our students to do work beyond the laboratory,” said Stromberg. “Because the instruments are portable, they can be used in field studies in disciplines as diverse as art, archaeology, geology and environmental science.”

The research has given Jarnot and Mansfield unique and valuable student experience with XRF research.

“I have a better understanding of how the technique of X-ray fluorescence works,” said Mansfield, a chemistry and mathematics major. “The project has given me a look into what it would be like to conduct research. And, by using the XRF, I have experience using different instrumentation that could be beneficial to my career.”

Jarnot added: “Not many people have in-depth and hands-on experience with X-ray fluorescence.”

Jarnot was grateful for the experience he gained, noting the theory and the science behind the equipment, and the experience of working with other institutions and doing real research for the first time.

Mansfield appreciated that the experience taught her how to cope with adversity in the researching world.

“The most valuable aspects of the experience were learning that, while researching, sometimes things do not give the results you were hoping for and learning how to deal with things when they go wrong,” said Mansfield.

“Alex and Angela both took on a great deal of responsibility for the development and refining of the experiments that they developed,” said Stromberg. “We talked with them about possible ideas, but they were the ones who actually tested the ideas, improving them and transforming the raw ideas into full-fledged laboratory experiments. Along the way, they took initiative to suggest modifications and entirely new directions for the labs.”

The other three instruments being researched with this grant are a fourier transform infrared spectrometer, which uses molecular vibrations to identify the types of compounds in a sample; a Raman spectrometer, which gives additional insight into the types of compounds in a sample; and an ultraviolet and visible spectrometer, which looks at electronic transitions available in a molecule.

All four instruments will be swapped between the three institutions the next two summers, so each college will have the opportunity to develop experiments and activities for each instrument.

“The goal, of course, is to use these experiments in our courses over many years,” said Stromberg. “We will also be disseminating the experiments in journal articles, talks at conferences, and a project website.”

Jason Trent and Nicole Wilson

Psychological Study: Trust Judgments of Women

Through Hood College’s Summer Research Institute, psychology major Nicole Wilson ’16 worked with Jason Trent, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, to conduct psychological research into trust judgments of women and which personal traits play into those judgments.

According to Trent, judgments of trust can play an important role in determining which social situations to approach and which to avoid. Previous research into these judgments and which perceived traits play a role in them has primarily focused on men.

In this research, the first study had 100 participants rate female target photos on how mature, intelligent, feminine and attractive they were perceived to be, as well as what kind of emotion they appeared to be feeling. The second study had of 105 participants rate the photos on whether they appeared to be criminals, as well as what emotions they appeared to be feeling. The third study, yet to be completed, will have a different sample of people rate the targets on whether they appear to be trustworthy. When Wilson and Trent collect the data for the third study, they will combine the results to see how the trait and emotion judgments relate to judgments of trust. They will then compare the results of this study with the results of their previous research using male target photos to come to a better understanding of how people determine whom to trust.

Trent has been working with Wilson on research for the past two years, so he was confident that she had the skills and ability necessary for this project. He said he has observed her ability to critically assess problems, organize her thoughts and interpret complex data, along with many other qualities that make a successful researcher.

“I am very impressed with how she has developed as a researcher,” he said.

Under Trent’s supervision, Wilson conducted a literature review of the relevant research, created the studies, analyzed the raw data and put together an abstract and a poster to submit to the Eastern Psychological Association’s annual conference.

“One of the most difficult challenges I faced was when we analyzed data,” said Wilson. “A lot of problem solving goes on—figuring out which analyses are most appropriate, which data needs to be used, etc. But those challenges are also what made it rewarding. My favorite part was getting answers to the questions we had about the data!”

Working through the phases of this project—developing a series of studies, running the studies, analyzing the data and presenting the findings—taught Wilson research methods that she will use in the future.

“The SRI opportunity directly related to what I hope to do after Hood,” said Wilson. “I want to go to graduate school and eventually do research of my own, so learning how to do that now with Professor Trent was really helpful.”

The Summer Research Institute gives students the opportunity to work with faculty advisers on a research project. The projects involve laboratory or field work for eight weeks during the summer. The SRI provides students with a $2,500 stipend and free housing.



Early childhood education majors Shelley Hynson ’16 and Emily Richardson ’16 taught an education camp as part of Hood College’s Summer Research Institute this summer.

Marisel N. Torres-Crespo, Ph.D., assistant professor of education, developed and directed the STEAM camp—science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics—at Hood’s Onica Prall Child Development Laboratory School.

The camp included 12 four-year-old children, six boys and six girls. Hynson taught the boys, and Richardson taught the girls.

To prepare, Hynson and Richardson spent a couple of weeks before the camp writing each day’s lessons. During the camp, they worked after hours each day modifying and preparing the lessons for the next day.

“The most valuable aspect of this summer research was all the planning I had to do as the lead role in the classroom,” said Hynson. “I had never realized how much needed to be planned ahead of time.”

One of Torres-Crespo’s focuses was to study how boys and girls differ in learning in the classroom. Hynson and Richardson observed a number of differences.

“Emily and I found that girls would always take much longer and wanted their projects to look pretty, whereas the boys rushed through it and just wanted to get it done,” said Hynson. “Boys also had a harder time working together in groups. This research is something I can keep in mind in the future when planning lessons for my own classes.”

The camp is fun for the students, and it teaches them problem-solving skills through the use of play, according to Torres-Crespo.

“If you ask them, they are playing all the time,” she said. “For two weeks, they are immersed in hands-on activities. They learn not only the skills, but how to work in groups, to be creative, how to solve the problem and respect others’ ideas.”

The camp taught Hynson and Richardson about ways to teach their classes in the future.

“I definitely got a greater understanding of STEAM and how it should be implemented into a classroom,” said Richardson. “It was interesting to see the students work through these concepts and see how they discovered things on their own. The incorporation of STEM and STEAM is now in public schools, so I have that experience going into my internship this year.”

Torres-Crespo hopes to implement her camp in a broader setting outside of Hood in the future.

The Summer Research Institute gives students the opportunity to work with faculty advisers on a research project. The projects involve laboratory or field work for eight weeks during the summer. The SRI provides students with a $2,500 stipend and free housing.

Elizabeth Slick and Ammarah Spall

Research in Biofuels

The Hood College Summer Research Institute afforded Elizabeth Slick ’17 and Ammarah Spall ’16 the opportunity to do biological research on proteins this summer.

Slick, a biochemistry major with minors in mathematics and physics, and Spall, a biology major with minors in chemistry and psychology, took on this project under the supervision of Craig Laufer, Ph.D., professor of biology. They were in Laufer’s microbiology class in the spring, and he asked them to help out with a research project. They learned many of the fundamental techniques necessary for the research in that class.

The Summer Research Institute gives students the opportunity to work with faculty advisers on a research project. The projects involve laboratory or field work for eight weeks during the summer. The SRI provides students with a $2,500 stipend and free housing.

The main goal of the summer project was to utilize bacterial proteins to eat waste products of the sugar industry to produce methanol, which can then be used to power cars and houses.

“Our research revolved around biofuels—energy that comes from living things,” said Slick.

The backbone of the research was finding the protein that will produce the most methanol. The project yielded multiple proteins, called pectin methylesterases. In the next few years, a graduate student at Hood College can continue the research by creating a super protein—one that will produce more methanol than the others—and that protein can be patented and put into production.

“This research experience taught me to think critically and hone my problem solving skills,” said Spall. “Most importantly, I learned to value the scientific process and was grateful to be able to conduct research that could be extremely useful in the future.”

Spall said her experience working in the lab and using laboratory techniques will help her in her future classes and in her career.

Slick wants to research immunology in the future, so she was grateful for the lab experience to complement her classroom experience.

Due to their quick and successful work, they were able to try some additional science activities that were not in the original plan, including purifying and characterizing proteins to determine which ones are realistic for production.

Slick added: “Science is much more exciting when it works, so the fact that we had a very productive summer means we had fun!”

Sara Eckard

Testing the Waters of Frederick

As part of the Hood College Summer Research Institute this year, Sara Eckard ’16 completed research for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to determine the safety of water in Frederick County. She found above-average levels of harmful bacteria in several freshwater streams.

Eckard, a biology major and coastal studies minor, completed the work under the supervision of Drew Ferrier, Ph.D., professor of biology and director of the coastal studies program. Eckard wanted to do something science-related during the summer, so she accepted Ferrier’s request for her to work in his lab.

The Summer Research Institute gives students the opportunity to work with faculty advisers on a research project. The projects involve laboratory or field work for eight weeks during the summer. The SRI provides students with a $2,500 stipend and free housing.

Eckard got hands-on experience in several areas, including building temperature monitors and deploying them, but her main project was taking the lead on the enterococcus bacterial monitoring for the CBF.

The goal of the project was to determine what was in the water and make people aware of it.

“We want everyone in this community, from citizens to lawmakers, to really think about what they can do to be better stewards of our waterways,” said Eckard.

She tested the water at six sites in Frederick County that are not designated recreational areas but that people do use to swim and fish. After rainstorms and during dry periods—periods of at least 72 hours free of rain—she took water samples, cultured them, incubated them and reported to the CBF how many harmful bacteria she found. The bacteria levels were well above what the EPA recommends as safe for swimming, and the CBF posted the numbers on its website to inform the public. While the bacteria are not life threatening, they can cause upset stomachs or intestinal problems if ingested.

The CBF sent out a press release to local news sources about the high levels of bacteria in the water, and Eckard’s findings have been reported in articles from the Frederick News-Post, the Baltimore Sun and WHAG in Hagerstown.

“I think the most valuable aspect was getting to do something that really matters and affects the community,” said Eckard.

In addition to helping the CBF, her experience helped her learn about biological research.

“I got a lot of hydrology field experience, bacterial plating and procedure experience, as well as experience in project management,” she said. “I have doubled my skill set and am more confident in the lab.”

Eckard was also able to develop an independent study from her experience, which she is continuing this semester.

ECAP Organizers

ECAP: Excellence in College Admission Preparation

Hood College’s Summer Research Institute gives students the opportunity to work with faculty advisers on a research project. The projects involve laboratory or field work for eight weeks during the summer.

One SRI project this year involved building a program from the bottom up to help high school students prepare for the college admission process and find a college that is the right fit for them. Students Logan Samuels ’17 and Ryan DiGirolamo ’16 collaborated with professors Diane Oliver and Kathleen Bands to build ECAP—Excellence in College Admission Preparation.

ECAP held two bootcamps, one June 22-24 for rising seniors and one Aug. 3-5 open to all grades. The camps included work on essay writing with Jo Ellen Smallwood, the program’s senior writing consultant, and mock interviews. Students also attended informational sessions with members of Hood’s admission, athletics, financial aid and study abroad offices.

“We’re collecting data to find out what is making a difference to the kids,” said Oliver, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and ECAP co-director.

Oliver thought of the idea for the camp originally when she watched her nephew go through the college search process. He had a college adviser, and Oliver watched that experience help him own the process and gain confidence.

“I was thinking I want this for every kid,” she said. “If they had more advice and guidance, this wouldn’t be so hard. I just want to see them empowered, emerging into adulthood.”

Bands, Ph.D., professor of education and ECAP co-director, noticed a need for a camp of this sort during her time working with college admission and wanted to organize something at Hood.

“A college campus is an authentic place to do this,” she said. “We use the great resources that the institution provides. Hood is a gem, a jewel, and a mosaic of life.”

Samuels and DiGirolamo, both first-generation college students, got involved with this program as research associates because they believe in its cause.

“It’s a program we both wish we had,” said Samuels. “We want it to work because it’s a great program.”

Having completed the process in the past few years, Samuels and DiGirolamo can relate to the students and help them through the process by sharing personal stories and experiences.

“We cater to all students,” said DiGirolamo. “This program teaches everybody something.”

Oliver said they are trying to complement the work of the school guidance counselors, and ECAP participants leave the camp much better prepared for the college application process.

The main message of the camp is that applying to colleges is all about fit. Different students fit better in different places, and the college application process should be completed with that in mind.

Exploring Utopia

Exploring Utopia

Heather Mitchell-Buck was recently named an Apple Distinguished Educator, recognizing her as one of the most innovative educators in the world, for her use of technology in the classroom.

Mitchell-Buck, Ph.D., assistant professor of English, uses technology, specifically the iPad, to challenge students to be more active in the learning experience by using digital and online resources such as e-books, apps, the college’s course management system, blogs and online class projects. She also encourages students to continue discussions outside class time using their devices. Her students enhance their work and research using the varied media available on their tablets, including images, sound, text and video.

In her ENG 364 Exploring Utopia class in the spring, students used Twitter to communicate outside of class by raising concerns, asking questions or live-Tweeting books or films.

“Every week, students were required either to initiate a conversation or respond to some of their colleagues’ thoughts outside of class,” said Mitchell-Buck. “We used our special class hashtag, #Utopia364, to keep up with each other. It’s been really beneficial.”

The innovative style of teaching caters to a wide variety of students.

“The way she teaches class, using the more informal blogging and Twitter assignments, really provides the opportunity for any type of student to succeed,” said Sara Eckard ’16, biology major and member of the Honors program.

Zach Willis ’15, an English major, enjoys the sway that the students have in the discussion topics.

“Dr. Mitchell-Buck helps facilitate and designs the syllabus, but as a whole, the students get to steer the discussion,” he said. “It’s cool that in a utopia class, she kind of mimics the structure of a utopia. That’s different and makes it way more enjoyable.”

As the class progressed, Mitchell-Buck said the topics expanded from talking just about the texts the class was reading to having related discussions about the real world.

“It’s truly a liberal arts class,” said Logan Samuels ’17, an English major. There’s a lot that comes up in class that I see in my other courses. There are a lot of overlapping themes and topics. We get to talk about things that are relevant in today’s society and compare them to what we’ve seen in literature.”

Mitchell-Buck will teach the class again during the 2016-17 academic year.

Michél Lavarn

Biology Student Makes Impact

For many students, schoolwork consists of going to class, studying and completing homework assignments. For others, it includes fieldwork, summer research and discovering new areas of interest.

Michél Lavarn, a student in the Honors program who graduated May 16, was active in Hood’s biology department throughout her academic career. She earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and policy with a concentration in environmental biology and a minor in coastal studies.

She first developed an interest for coastal studies during her entomology class, which was taught by Professor Ron Albaugh, coordinator of the Coastal Studies Semester. With a little encouragement, she enrolled the following year in that program. Albaugh was her professor in her Coastal Oceanography and Coastal Research Practicum classes.

“When I took coastal studies, I decided to be an environmental studies major,” said Lavarn. “I love it. The professors really like what they’re teaching, and that comes across and makes it fun to learn.”

Participants in the Coastal Studies Semester earn 16 to 17 hours of academic credit by taking block courses specifically designed for them. Lavarn took full advantage of the opportunity.

“Throughout her experience, Michél was always enthusiastic, energetic and exceptionally well-organized,” said Albaugh. “Academically, Michél never deviates from an A average.”

During the 2013 January term, Albaugh coordinated the Hood portion of a Neotropical Natural History course at the La Suerte Biological Field Station in Costa Rica. Lavarn, along with 11 additional Hood students, enrolled in this two-week field course.

In the summer of 2013, Lavarn assisted Albaugh with a native pollinator research project on Albaugh’s farm in northern Frederick County.

“It required tedious data collecting for many long hours under a variety of sometimes extreme weather conditions,” said Albaugh. “She completed every task, and at no time did I ever hear her complain.”

Lavarn later prepared a poster demonstrating the results of the research, which she presented at the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Ecological Society of America.

During the senior year, she worked with the Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies on numerous hands-on projects, including water quality monitoring and analysis of Culler Lake, Carroll Creek Linear Park and Lake Linganore. She has also assisted with Project BOOST, which involves raising rainbow trout in high school classrooms and releasing them in local streams.

Now that she has graduated, Lavarn plans to teach English in Costa Rica for six months. Upon her return, she plans to continue teaching and researching.