What They Did Over Their Summer Vacations

Across the globe and around Tufts’ campuses, these ten students did research, volunteered, interned—and earned some money
a young man teaching a class at a blackboard
John Zeleznak, F19, teaching at a school in Tripoli, Lebanon, which serves Syrian refugee children who don’t have access to the Lebanese school system.
September 5, 2018

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It’s called summer vacation, but for most students, summer isn’t a time to just kick back and relax, it’s a time to work. We caught up with ten students from five schools at Tufts to find out what they were up to.

Gabrielle Horner, A14, M21

School of Medicine students, from left, Tara Ahmadi, Gabrielle Horner, Megan Harper, and Emily Miller, with Tuli Nakanyala at the Ministry of Health office in Windhoek, Namibia. What she did on her summer vacation: Participated in the School of Medicine’s eight-week Global Health Program in Windhoek, Namibia

On the clock: I worked alongside another first-year medical student in the HIV/AIDS subdivision of Namibia’s Ministry of Health and Social Services. While we assisted with various division-led projects, most of our time was spent in the field completing an evaluation of a community-based medication-delivery program. This evaluation consisted of interviewing physicians, nurses, field workers, and people living with HIV. We found the days spent in the field the most rewarding not just because we were collecting the data to write up, but because we heard firsthand about the impact of HIV on the lives of people in Windhoek. 

Off the clock: Windhoek is right in the middle of Namibia, so we went on several weekend road trips in all different directions. Our favorite was a trip to Sossusvlei, which is known for its massive red sand dunes. We went sand-sledding, climbed the dunes, camped outside the national park, and answered the question, “How many medical students does it take to pitch a tent?!”

Final thoughts: We are extremely grateful for the collaboration between Tufts faculty and staff at the Namibian Ministry of Health. This relationship between the two institutions enabled us to travel abroad and feel confident in how we prepared and what our goals were for the summer. Three of our professors even traveled to Namibia shortly after we arrived to check in on us and work on their own projects. —CH

Gauri Khanduja, F19

Figuring out what young children are learning from a radio show is tough, Gauri Khanduja, F19, discovered as she interned with Search for Common Ground Rwanda this summer.

The three- to six-year-olds Khanduja worked with “required us to think on our feet all the time,” she said. “Their attention spans are low and we had to constantly come up with ideas to ensure they enjoyed the process.”

Khanduja met with the children as part of evaluating a radio program called “Itetero,” which means “children’s nurturing space.” The weekly program uses songs and stories to cover topics such as nutrition while improving children’s cognitive, social, and physical development. It is created by UNICEF and Rwanda Broadcasting Agency.

Khanduja’s team was testing the use of games to evaluate whether knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors change after children listen to the program.

“One of my favorite moments was when we were in a rural district about three hours from Kigali playing a game that evaluated children’s perception on gender roles, and a three-year-old girl responded that only girls can be in the police and fly airplanes, because they are strong,” Khanduja said. “I wish one day I can go back to see if her thought process or personality changed as she grew up.” —HS

Rachel Klein, A20

When Rachel Klein, A20, heard about the nonprofit EcoPeace Middle East, which brings Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian environmentalists together to work on issues of water pollution and water scarcity, she had sudden inspiration for a way to combine her two majors, environmental studies and religion.

This summer Klein made that idea reality, working on a research project called “Building Peace through Environmental Theology in Israel” as a Laidlaw Scholar, a program that funds Tufts undergraduates to do hands-on research projects over two summers.

“Environmental theology encompasses a religion’s beliefs, ethics, and practices regarding the natural world,” Klein said. “My project aims to identify the environmental themes that are present in both Judaism and Islam, and then explore whether that theological overlap can help foster peace and community among Jewish and Muslim environmentalists in Israel.”

She spent this summer in Boston researching environmental themes through academic literature review and text study—reading the Torah and the Qur’an, for example. She is planning on studying abroad in Jerusalem for the spring semester 2019, and will extend her stay in Israel that summer to finish her Laidlaw project, interviewing Jewish and Muslim environmentalists and observing the work of environmental interfaith organizations.

Klein has been excited about her work. “Getting to conceptualize and conduct a research project solely on my own has been an amazing process of self and academic discovery,” she said. —TM

Kevin Naranjo, E20

On a typical day this summer, Kevin Naranjo, E20, was on his computer in Halligan Hall, researching different types of facial recognition algorithms and writing code as part of his Summer Scholars program research project, working with Professor Karen Panetta. His task: study the accuracy of modern facial recognition algorithms on alternative image types such as thermal images, night vision, and police sketches.

“I wanted to see what modifications I could make to the facial recognition architecture to improve its performance on these image types, working with deep learning neural networks on my computer,” he said.

He also helped with other projects in Panetta’s imaging lab, such as eye tracking technology for the psychology department and helping annotate deer images to train and test a neural network recognize deer for the wildlife groups in Boston.

“Ever since I was young I remember being fascinated by all the innovation in technology,” Naranjo said. “I’m excited by the thought that every day I work on my research brings me one tiny step closer toward a future with the technology that appears in science fiction novels and films.”

He was especially happy with the independence he had running his own project. “It was a nice change of pace to be able to discover things on my own and learn from my mistakes,” he said. That was balanced with “the overwhelming amount of support and encouragement I received.” —TM

Sarah Oliver, A20

Sarah Oliver in IcelandFor Sarah Oliver, A20, settling on a single topic to major in wasn’t quite enough. Instead, she’s doing an interdisciplinary studies major, involving three academic departments, on sustainable nutrition and kinesiology. “It’s allowing me to pursue my passions,” she said.

In keeping with those interests, she spent the summer as a fitness trainer at Tufts, a coach at the running camp Going the Distance in Peabody, as well as doing small group and personal training in Cambridge and Beverly. “Some of my clients have little experience in the weight room, so I teach them proper movement patterns and exercises to strengthen and challenge their bodies,” she said. “There’s no better feeling than hearing from my clients that they feel more comfortable in their daily lives lifting and moving because of our training.”

At Going the Distance, which she attended during her high school years, she is in her second year as a coach. “I coach athletes ranging from elementary school through college in their running workouts, hurdle mobility drills, resistance band and med ball work, and core,” she said.

She discovered weightlifting her senior year of high school, “but since then it has become a passion of mine,” she said. “I find that lifting can be a fun and empowering workout with visible and relatively fast improvements.” She imparts that enthusiasm to her individual and group clients.

It’s not been all workout and no play. She took off a few weeks, including visiting her artist sister, who was doing a residency program in Blonduos, Iceland, in July. “The mountains, waterfalls, and hot springs felt like something from a King Arthur story,” Oliver said. —TM

Chanel Richardson, E20

What she did on her summer vacation: Had an internship with Raytheon in Winchester, Massachusetts.

On the job: I worked on automating the testing process for the interaction between various pieces of hardware. The team I worked on made the “brains” of an interface controller, a piece of hardware that is connected to other pieces of hardware by network connections. Because the firmware that runs these pieces of hardware is constantly being updated, it was important to make a fast system of regression checks to check that newly added code didn't break old functionality. I used C to create software to test these connections and make a status report based on the findings.

What drove her interest in this kind of work: As a computer engineering student, I really wanted to find a job that was related to the things I would be doing later on rather than a software engineering position. When I got the offer from Raytheon, I knew that it would involve lab work and firmware development. 

The best thing about the internship: My favorite part was learning the basics of network communication. This is a topic I was interested in before, and I got paid to learn more about it on the job; it was a win-win.

Off the job: I took a short trip to New York with some friends and went to a music festival in Canada. And for the last two weeks of August, I spent some time at the beach with my family, and at home as well. —TM

Josue Llamas Rodriguez, A20

A cognitive and brain sciences student, Josue Llamas Rodriguez, A20, worked as a research assistant in Professor Michele Jacob’s neuroscience lab at the Sackler School, alongside post-docs and lab technicians, as a Laidlaw Scholar. It was a perfect fit, he said, because he’s long been interested in the brain, psychology, and behavior, as well as clinical and experimental psychology.

“The lab basically studies models of intellectual disabilities using mouse lines that are knockouts for specific proteins essential at the synapse for communication within neurons,” he explained. He worked on beta-catenin, a protein that is critical for both pre-synaptic and post-synaptic functions, helping determine which other proteins are affected when beta-catenin is not working. 

Llamas Rodriguez performed a number of western blots, a method of measuring the amount of protein in a sample. “One of my most significant discoveries was a successful replication of an experiment that found that p120 catenin, a protein responsible for proper dendritic development, is affected when beta-catenin is down,” he said. “It’s nice to know I’m contributing to real research that will be published and hopefully lead to the treatment of intellectual disabilities.” 

The best thing about the experience, he said, “has been working literally side-by-side with post-docs with a wide array of skills and knowledge. It’s very encouraging knowing that even as an undergrad I’m listened to and my opinions are taken into consideration when it comes to the big decisions around the lab.” —TM

Alex Smith, M21

School of Medicine students Rachel Reindorf and Alex Smith on a walking tour of the tea plantations in Coonoor, India. What he did this summer: Participated in the School of Medicine’s eight-week Global Health Program at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India.

The work experience: Rachel Reindorf, M21, and I stayed at Christian Medical College in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, while we pursued separate experiences at the hospital. She took a class and participated in research; I rotated between different departments as an observer. I started in the Community Health and Development hospital and the Low Cost-Effective Care Units, responsible for providing affordable care to low-income rural and urban populations, respectively. I participated in outreach trips to villages surrounding Vellore and to the inner city to assist in screening medicine disbursement.

I also rotated through the neonatology, medical oncology, cardiology, pulmonology, and infectious disease units at the main hospital. There, my days would vary with inpatient and outpatient clinic days. I found my time spent with the neonatal and infectious disease units the most rewarding due to the severity and diversity of cases, and the way that the residents welcomed me into their daily routines.

On his own: My favorite trips were to Coonoor and Delhi/Agra. Coonoor is in the hill region of Tamil Nadu and is stunningly beautiful. The hills are covered with tea plantations that appear manicured at a distance, interwoven with trees to help maintain soil hydration/retention. Cities and villages sit right on the sides of the hills, and smaller villages are tucked between summits. Delhi and Agra were fun to visit for the cultural and architectural sites: many temples, forts, palaces, and of course, the Taj Mahal. This was the standard touristy trip, but it was amazing.

Final thoughts: For me, traveling abroad offers the chance to immerse myself in other cultures—to push myself out of my comfort zone. It’s also an opportunity to reset and ground myself, to pop the “bubble” in which I’d otherwise continue to live. —CH

Anne-Marie Vu, A15, D19

Dental students are expected to complete a five-week community service externship during their third or fourth years of school. Anne-Marie Vu, A15, D19, spent part of the summer at her externship, providing care for patients at the nonprofit Tampa Family Health Centers in Florida, which provide a broad range of medical, mental health, and dental services.

Vu worked forty hours a week, doing general dentistry—mostly exams, fillings, and extractions. The majority of patients were on Medicaid, and, Vu said, “I got to see the direct connection between public health and insurance.” Because the scope of adult dental benefits in Florida is limited, many patients had had little preventive care, and believed the only solution to dental problems was having a tooth extracted.

Vu also attended the annual conference of the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD) in Seattle. The AADMD focuses on health care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; Vu is a member of the student chapter at Tufts. During her third year in dental school, she was awarded an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship to teach children on the autism spectrum at a Boston elementary school about oral health. —HR

John Zeleznak, F19

John Zeleznak, F19, analyzed health care inequities in Tripoli, Lebanon, as part of the Fletcher School’s Tripoli Project this summer. But he also fit another initiative into his two months in the country—he volunteered at one of the Tuyoor Al-Amal Schools, which serve Syrian refugee children who don’t have access to the Lebanese school system.

When he was a Peace Corps volunteer in China, Zeleznak helped to organize teacher trainings for professors. He later taught beginner English classes for resettled refugee children in Texas. He put both those experiences to use helping to coordinate teacher training at the school in Lebanon. “It was an unexpected opportunity, but one that made my summer all the more rewarding,” he said.

The effort had two goals: to increase the confidence of the Syrian teachers in their English abilities and to introduce new, more interactive activities into their lesson plans. “My colleagues and I were able to notice how much more comfortable teachers felt speaking English by the end of the trainings,” he said. Many teachers also told him that they were excited to use the new activities in their classrooms this fall.

Zeleznak will continue his research on health care in Tripoli and hopes to create an ongoing teacher-training curriculum for the school “so that teachers have a space where they can practice their English and continue to introduce new activities that will make their classrooms more engaging.” —HS

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