Summer Research Opportunities Enhance Academic Experience

Posted on August 15th, 2013 by

When the end of May arrives and all finals for Spring Semester have been taken, a majority of the 2,500 students at Gustavus Adolphus College scatter across the country to where they call home for the summer.

But a growing trend over the last decade has seen more and more Gustavus students remain on campus for the summer months to conduct research alongside various faculty members. The stories below are a just a sampling of the research projects taking place on campus this summer.

In The Prairie

Reina Nielsen '16

Reina Nielsen ’16

Sophomore biology major Reina Nielsen ’16 has spent her summer conducting research at a 25-acre experimental prairie near the towns of Kensington and Hoffman in Western Minnesota, with biology and environmental studies professor Pam Kittelson. Her research project involves comparing photosynthetic rates, transpiration rates, and herbivory between three different genetic crosses of Echinacea angustifolia.

“The purpose of this research is to understand how fragmentation of prairies, on which Echinacea reside, affect their offspring survival rates and the future of Echinacea on the prairies,” Nielsen said.

A typical day for Nielsen can range from entering data on a computer to taking a machine that measures photosynthetic rates outside to an experimental garden.

“I have various tasks that range from organizing supplies for the day to actually using the machine to take photosynthetic rates,” Nielsen said. “This experience has been extremely beneficial for me because it has given me hands on experience in the field and has confirmed for me my career goals. I have also been able to apply what I have learned in the classroom to the field as well as dig deeper into these subjects.”

The opportunity to work closely with a Gustavus faculty member is one that Nielsen says every Gustie should experience.

“I have developed a great relationship with Professor Kittelson. She has been extremely helpful in guiding me through this research,” Nielsen said. “She is always willing to take the time to explain the answer to any question I may have whether it be biology or career related. I believe this to be important because having a professor you can trust who knows you can be one of the greatest resources that one can have both on campus and after graduation.”

Herbicides and the Environment

Chemistry professor Amanda Nienow received a grant from the National Science Foundation last year that included funding for two summer student research positions.

Sophomore Alexa Peterson ’16 and junior Amy Christiansen ’15 were chosen to work with Nienow this summer. They are analyzing how imidazolinone herbicides degrade in aqueous solution, on wax surfaces, and in the future, on plants in order to see what affects herbicides might impose to the environment.

Junior Amy Christiansen '15, sophomore Alexa Peterson '16 and professor Amanda Nienow analyze data in one of the College's chemistry labs (Photo by Matt Thomas '00).

Junior Amy Christiansen ’15, sophomore Alexa Peterson ’16 and professor Amanda Nienow analyze data in one of the College’s chemistry labs (Photo by Matt Thomas ’00).

“Degradation is studied under various conditions such as wavelengths of light and different pH values,” Peterson said. “We first have been studying the degradation rates in aqueous solution and then comparing the results to the wax surfaces of corn and soybeans. Over time, analysis of various growing conditions for the corn and soybean plants and degradation of the herbicides when directly applied to the plant will be studied. After analyzing the rate constants for the herbicides photodegradation, the photoproducts and possible degradation pathways will be identified.”

On a typical day, Peterson and Christiansen prepare various solutions of the herbicides to be tested at 254nm and 310nm wavelengths. After collecting the samples from various time points, they are analyzed on a high performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) to determine a rate constant. From there, they are able to identify which herbicide degrades most quickly and at which conditions. They also test the herbicides on the wax surfaces and again analyze the samples to determine a rate constant and compare results.

“Having this research opportunity has been an amazing experience,” Peterson said. “I have been able to meet many of the upper level chemistry professors, learn first hand what doing research is all about, and see science in a very applicable manner. It has been beneficial to my academic career to see how science is applied outside of the classroom. I am so thankful for all the experiences Gustavus has to offer.”

Along with honing her skills in the laboratory, Peterson knows that developing a relationship with a professor like Nienow is equally as important.

“Working for Dr. Nienow seems like anything but work. She is passionate about what she does, creates a fun environment, and has been an influential advisor this summer,” Peterson said. “Having the opportunity to make a connection with her as a first-year student has opened the door for future collaboration. It is great to know that as a student at Gustavus you have professors who are eager to help students learn and succeed.”

Chronic Ear Ringing

Ever heard of Tinnitus? It’s the phantom perception of chronic ear ringing, which is produced internally within the brain and can be debilitating for millions of people. It’s the focus of an ongoing research project for sophomore Travis Sigafoos ’16.

“With the knowledge that symptoms worsen at night for tinnitus patients, our goal is to utilize a model system to investigate a possible relationship between chronic ear ringing and the mammalian body clock,” Sigafoos said. “We would like to ultimately gain better understanding of the neural networks involved in tinnitus and how the brain reorganizes. More specifically, our research aims to investigate the relationship between salicylate-induced tinnitus and circadian rhythmicity by means of the acoustic startle paradigm.”

Travis Sigafoos '16

Travis Sigafoos ’16

Sigafoos has been working on the project since he arrived at Gustavus in the fall of 2012 under the supervision of biology professor Michael Ferragamo and psychological science professor Janine Wotton. This summer is serving as a phase of data collection where Sigafoos is mainly responsible for running two experiments daily at two differently scheduled times.

“Our research has often involved working at very odd hours of the night, so this summer has proven to be particularly useful opposed to during the academic year,” Sigafoos said.

Sigafoos, who plans to double-major in biology and psychological science, minor in neuroscience, and eventually attend graduate school for behavioral neuroscience, has found his unique research experience to be extremely beneficial.

“The opportunity to collaborate with two professors from two different departments continues to be very rewarding,” Sigafoos said. “Professors Ferragamo and Wotton provide two unique perspectives on our scientific questions in neuroscience. I believe that my research experience continues to be a superb example of the unparalleled student-faculty relationship that a liberal arts college like Gustavus is able to offer. I am working directly with two very dedicated and outstanding professors on publishable research, which is an invaluable experience for an undergraduate student.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


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