August 11, 2020

STEM Students Probe World Problems

Weather patterns. Climate change. Cell death. These are among more than a dozen STEM-based topics tackled by University of Mary Washington students during this year’s Summer Science Institute, an intensive, fully funded 10-week research opportunity that culminates this week. Working with professors in their field of study, 20 undergraduates took the reins on projects that […]

Abbie Tomba: Scientifically Speaking

As a child, Abbie Tomba studied the narrow science volumes published by Time Life that lined her parents’ bookshelves. She poured over field guides and spent as much time as she could outdoors, examining the things she’d read about.

Her early love of all things living stayed with Tomba all the way through graduate school and beyond.  An associate professor of biology, she’s been on the UMW faculty since 2006. This is Tomba’s third year overseeing UMW’s Summer Science Institute (SSI), which she co-chairs with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Davis Oldham.

Associate Professor of Biology Abbie Tomba co-chairs the Summer Science Institute with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Davis Oldham.

Associate Professor of Biology Abbie Tomba co-chairs the Summer Science Institute with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Davis Oldham.

The unique program is specifically designed for UMW students, who get room, board and a stipend while working on promising research.

Ten faculty members mentor 20 students through SSI, which includes workshops, team-building activities and weekly progress meetings.

“Science tends to be time-intensive,” Tomba said. For 10 weeks in summer, students in the fields of earth and environmental science, biology, chemistry, physics, math and computer science can focus exclusively on their research.

It ends in a daylong public symposium, where students present what they’ve learned.

Q: How did you end up at UMW?

A: I was a teaching assistant during graduate school. I taught high school for a year. Teaching was my thing. UMW was a great fit – small class sizes, strong emphasis on undergraduate research and a beautiful campus.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

A: Interacting with students. The greatest moments are when a student first understands something or exposing them to things they’ve never seen before. I love watching them progress. They start off nervous and uncertain. Two years later, they’re presenting a poster at a national conference.

Q: What’s the most challenging part?

A: Having time to do it all and not being able to do it all at the same time. I get to do so many great things – teaching, conducting research with students. It’s hard to pack it all in.

Q:  Why is it important for UMW students to have a summer science research opportunity?

A: During the school year, it can take two weeks to do what these students can get done in a day. They can learn techniques so much more efficiently. When you’re doing it once every two weeks, you will learn it, eventually. When you’re doing it twice every day, you get proficient quickly. These students often go off and present their research at conferences. The institute also provides money for supplies. Molecular biology and chemistry in particular can be expensive. The extra time is important but, without additional funds a lot of the work couldn’t be done.  Q: Any interesting research projects this summer?

A: One student is studying the effects of pesticides on crayfish behavior. Another is identifying genes in yeast involved in repairing DNA. A computer science student is mining information in text and graphics to predict social networks. Every year, there’s such a wide variety.

Q: What’s something most people don’t know about SSI?

A: Most scientists are good at explaining what they do to someone who does the exact same thing. We have weekly meetings that encourage math students to talk with biology students and biology students talk to computer science students. It really fosters scientific communication across disciplines. If you’re doing the coolest thing in the world, but you can’t communicate it, sometimes it gets lost. After weeks of talking about their project, they get really good at explaining it.

Q: Do you have a favorite saying?

A: you never walk in the same river twice. It’s very, very true – in streams and in life. Our world and science are always changing. You have to be able to adapt.