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New Eyes on Science

A fresh pair of eyes can often bring a different or new perspective, especially when it comes to science and research.

by Wake Forest University
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That thought led Sam Cho, assistant professor of computer science and physics at Wake Forest University, to ask four additional pairs of eyes from outstanding undergraduate research students to participate in writing a review paper. But it wasn’t an ordinary review article.

As a leading scientist in the field, Cho was invited to submit a review summarizing recent developments in the field of molecular dynamics computer simulations, the subject of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for a commemorative issue from the Israel Journal of Chemistry.

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“In retrospect, I’m glad I made the decision to bring them on but for sure it was more than a little bit ambitious,” Cho said of the students. “The Nobel Prize winning work started in the early ‘60s so it’s very difficult to come up with something new in such an active field. However, I had faith in their abilities and hard work to meet the challenge. In the end, I was very pleased that the reviewers commented on how there was a fresh perspective which is because of their contribution.”

The students were all in Cho’s research group and working on different projects related to molecular dynamics. Two are still at Wake Forest – senior Cecilia Rambarat, a chemistry major, and junior Julian Gilyard, a computer science major. The other two have gone on to greener pastures – lead author Jessica Leuchter (’14), a chemistry major who is now performing research at the Weizmann Institute in Israel; and Adam Green (’14), who is pursuing his doctoral degree at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Review articles are an attempt to summarize the current state of understanding on a topic and they typically analyze or discuss research previously published by others, rather than reporting new experimental results. To meet their deadline, Cho and the students met several times a week for an entire semester on top of their usual research commitments and also worked on the paper over the winter break last year using Google Hangouts.

Rambarat said the experience opened her eyes to the importance of research. “The analytical and group work skills that I have obtained in this research group are incomparable to any other experiences I’ve had at Wake Forest. Not only has research given me these skills, but doing research with Dr. Cho has allowed me the opportunity to obtain a mentor who I can gain great insight and advice from.”

Cho viewed this as an opportunity for these students to gain real-world experience. They were able to “make an actual contribution to science and to make a real connection to what’s going on in the classroom and in real life,” because in research you have to figure out the answers to open-ended problems, he added.

“Performing research is very different from learning in the classroom. Here, we have to write the answers in the back of the book to problems that may not even exist yet,” Cho said.

Gilyard agreed the experience expanded his “intellectual horizons” and allowed him to engage with disciplines varying from physics to biological processes. “Doing research with Dr. Cho has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life,” he said. “I would love to continue to find new discoveries throughout my life.”