Undergraduate students seize creative learning opportunities at Yale’s West Campus

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Yale undergraduates and a steady stream of trainees are experiencing the arts, sciences, and humanities all under one roof – and all in the creative space of tailored summer research projects - at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH).

Based at the university’s West Campus, the Institute has emerged as a destination for a growing number of scholars to perform ‘real-time forensics’ on Yale’s collections – catapulting cultural heritage research to a new scale and dimension in the process. 

“Students are bringing such great energy and focus to our work here,” said Paul Messier, Chair of the IPCH, as the latest group of interns shared their summer experiences at a recent lunchtime seminar.

Hands on experience

Leveraging the tactile experience of working with real objects through a Hume Summer Internship, Ivy Vuong’s collaboration with the IPCH Technical Studies Lab and the adjacent Furniture Study Center utilized analytical chemistry techniques – specifically Pyrolysis-Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry - to ‘unmask mahogany’ in the Yale Art Gallery’s collections. The valued dark wood has been widely mimicked over time by skilled furniture makers. Working to distinguish the materials provided a tailor-made opportunity for History of Art and Psychology double major Vuong, satisfying both her career interest in museum curation and a love of chemistry.

Clues for the humanities

Thais Shepard pursued her own cross-cutting interests at the intersection of art and technical art history. Learning to use X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy, the Morse College sophomore examined the elements in the glazes of over a hundred Celadon ceramics. The resulting data are being used to explore whether groupings of glaze materials mirror a corresponding map of the different regions of China, stimulating further studies for scholars in the humanities.

“The experience at IPCH lines up perfectly with my classes at Yale,” said Shepard. The Art and History of Art double major will continue to engage with her IPCH mentors Aniko Bezur, Marcie Wiggins and Richard Hark in technical classes at Yale this fall.

Technology solutions

Connecting to IPCH’s Lens Media Lab from the West Coast, recent Western Washington University graduate Leah Lackey focused her summer work on the development of a machine learning model to visualize and rank similar texture images. Codifying and sorting the immense global canon of images has emerged as a grand challenge for photography historians. Lackey utilized triplet loss network functionality and a pre-trained neural network to make a web-based texture matching system, opening the door to analysis on a vast scale for researchers anywhere in the world. This fall, Lackey will oversee next steps as a postgraduate associate in the Lens Media Lab.

Museum application

Engaging every corner of IPCH lab space and mentor guidance, two additional interns - Yale College physics major Vanessa Lamar and Arizona high school student Ella Wang – undertook projects with Alison Gilchrest and Kate Schilling in the Institute’s Applied Research and Outreach group. Both projects focused on applying current data science techniques to microfade testing data. The minimally invasive diagnostic method is used to predict the light sensitivity of museum objects, facilitating important curatorial and conservation decision-making about an object’s suitability for display. Wang’s project was facilitated by Vincent Wilczynski, Deputy Dean, Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science.

“Our student interns are making such a great contribution, forging new questions for academia to answer,” concluded Messier. “Their analyses are knitting information together across Yale’s collections but also exposing new opportunities for exploration by the broadest possible audiences.”


“We are delighted to celebrate the accomplishments of our students and their mentors at IPCH and look forward to contributing new and creative learning opportunities in the coming year.”

By Jon Atherton