Story by Erin Luhmann ’08
Intensive lab work by day, culinary explorations by night – this sums up the week Alexa Peterson ‘16 and Amy Christiansen ‘15 spent in France to assist Associate Professor of Chemistry Amanda Nienow in a foreign lab.
The trio recently traversed the Atlantic to collaborate with their French counterparts on an herbicide photochemistry research project that cuts across borders. Professor Nienow secured funding through the National Science Foundation in 2012 and elected to bring both Christiansen and Peterson abroad this summer from June 15 to 22. While the research is ongoing, this leg of the collaborative experience yielded some unique opportunities for professional and personal development.
“Going to work in another lab, especially one abroad, is a unique and eye-opening opportunity for students,” said Professor Nienow. “They have the chance to connect with other scientists, see how science is done in other labs, and to explore slightly different research questions. This exploration can have a profound impact on a student discerning their career aspirations and short-term goals.”
Opportunities like this start from a place of passion. For Professor Nienow, her focus has always been on environmental chemistry issues. At Gustavus, she has concentrated on the degradation of imidazolinone herbicides, which are commonly used in U.S. farming. Initially, her research centered on how various herbicides degrade in water when introduced to sunlight or lamps in the lab. Now, she has scaled-up her research project to explore the photodegradation of imazethapyr on soy and corn waxes.
“Our projects provide a more realistic picture of the fate of herbicides in the environment by examining their chemistry when sorbed to cuticular waxes and plant foliage,” she explained. “The research has implications for environmental modeling and pesticide regulation and our methods can be extended to other environmentally relevant organic molecules and surfaces.”
Beyond the research, Professor Nienow holds a strong appreciation for her two lab assistants. Through the course of their partnership – more than a year – she has come to know both students well, and recognized their potential for growth through an international lab collaboration experience.
Peterson, a biology major who plans to pursue a career in medicine and health care, said the invitation to travel abroad to study the photoproducts and the photodegradation mechanism of these herbicides in France seemed like a “no brainer.”
“Personally, I think it gave me a lot more confidence in the lab – being able to know that I can conduct myself in a professional way,” she said.
She was impressed with the English language skills of their French colleagues and was energized from engaging in a week of cross-cultural communication and collaboration. This experience has left her eager to pack her suitcase again.
“I think health care work or medical work abroad would be an amazing experience,” she said. “It’s something that I’m looking forward to.”
Christiansen, an environmental studies and chemistry double major, also saw it as an asset to her future ambitions – to pursue a PhD in chemistry, followed by a career in industrial research and development.
“I think being able to collaborate with people in different countries and having that experience will set me apart from other students applying for graduate school, or in my career, because I’ll have that experience of being able to deal with other researchers in a professional way,” she said.
From a cross-cultural standpoint, both students were intrigued by the fact that their counterparts used similar lab equipment at the University of Blaise-Pascal, but followed different procedures when it came to conducting research. For instance, they logged roughly 10-hour days.
“I think their actual work ethic and practices are pretty similar to us. The timing was just very different,” said Christiansen.
Everyone put in long days – jet lagged or not – but they still found time to enjoy the local sites and culture. Professor Nienow enjoyed dining at a couple of French homes and exploring the countryside surrounding Clermont-Ferrand, where she hiked among a chain of 80 active volcanoes.
For all three Gusties, learning to communicate in an environment where English isn’t the default language posed a welcome challenge.
“It was interesting to experience a new culture and to have that language barrier and have to work through that,” said Christiansen.
Language issues aside, this research team – comprised of partners at Gustavus, in France and others in Minnesota – has collected high-quality data that’s being used to write a co-authored paper. This paper will be sent out for peer review in the fall of 2014.
“We learned many lab techniques, saw how other researchers are approaching similar research questions, and were inspired by the intense periods of work,” said Professor Nienow. “We returned home with a long list of research ideas and things to do!”
About the Author
Erin Luhmann graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 2008 with a major in English and a minor in peace studies. She then taught English in Kyrgyzstan as a Peace Corps Volunteer (’08-’10) and completed a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. As a graduate student, she won a New York Times contest to travel and report alongside columnist Nicholas Kristof in West Africa. She now works as a freelance reporter in Minnesota.
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