At Gustavus, the classroom provides a valuable and rigorous learning environment, but to expand knowledge itself requires imagination, dedication, and risk. In many academic fields, this means conducting research. The summer months provide an opportune time for Gustavus students and faculty to collaborate on real investigations into real questions and problems.
“Student-faculty collaborative research, often referred to as “undergraduate research” has been identified as a high-impact educational practice. It has been shown to enhance many of the student learning outcomes that are hallmarks of the liberal arts, such as critical and integrative thinking and skillful communication,” said Gustavus Provost and Dean of the College Mark Braun. “While it demands a considerable investment in terms of time and effort, the rewards for the students involved can be life-changing. Gustavus is proud of its long history of engaging students from across the College in high-level research and we intend to continue to make this a priority into the future.”
Below you will read about the experiences of some of the Gustavus students who spent the summer conducting research alongside a Gustavus faculty member.
Invasive Species in Rivers
Sophomore Russell Krueger ’17 and junior Rachel Mohr ’16 spent the summer working with geology professor Laura Triplett on her continuing research focused on silica in rivers, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Rivers transport silica to oceans, where it is a limiting nutrient for coastal phytoplankton such as diatoms that can be the base of marine food chains.
“Our research focused on the effect that an invasive species of grass, Phragmites australis, has on the silica cycle in western rivers of the United States,” Krueger said.
Krueger wanted to work this summer with Triplett to help him decide whether he wanted to major in geology or chemistry. After this summer’s experience with Triplett, he plans to declare a geology major this fall.
“Our working relationship with Professor Triplett was surprisingly hands-off. She was always available to answer questions and outline the tasks that were most important,” Krueger said. “As the summer progressed, the amount of trust she had in us grew. This trust increased my confidence, allowing me to grow as both a scientist and a student.”
Identifying Cancer Genes
This summer senior Shelby Roles ’15 conducted research in the field of bioinformatics, using a method called data mining. Roles has been working with biology professor Sanjive Qazi for the past year as the pair has been utilizing various genetic databases and software to conduct extensive analysis on specific genes. Their goal is to identify genes that potentially play a major role in cancer development and progression, specifically leukemias and lymphomas.
“This summer I focused on the MYC gene, as well as several genes that interact with it,” Roles said. “My analysis included looking at interaction pathways, interrogating probesets, and examining the gene expression data in several different leukemia and lymphoma studies.”
During the fall semester, Roles and Qazi intend to make connections between the human cancer genes and the data for a transgenic mouse model, and then tie it with the effects of potential cancer treatment drugs.
“With all the recent technology developments in the world, the future of medical research could lie in fields such as bioinformatics and gene therapy,” Roles said. “As an aspiring doctor, I feel that experience in such a growing area of medical research will give me a head start in any future research endeavors that I might partake in.”
Roles also knows that having a mentor like Qazi will also help her down the road after she graduates from Gustavus.
“It has been great working with Sanjive. When I started working with him last fall, I thought I was in over my head, but his guidance helped me understand the concepts and resources I have been working with,” Roles said. “During the school year we work with several other students, but this summer was a good opportunity for us to focus on developing my aspects of the project.”
Exploring Geologic Materials on Mars
Senior Serenity Mahoney ’15 spent the summer working with geology professor Julie Bartley exploring the origin of geologic materials on Mars, specifically breccias, which are rocks made of collections of broken rock. Using digital images from the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, Mahoney compared breccias on Mars to breccias on Earth.
“I worked on identifying important characteristics of Martian breccias and how these materials might have formed,” Mahoney said. “Ultimately we want to distinguish breccias related to water movement from those created during meteor impact. Identifying areas of past water activity and meteor impacts will give insight into the evolutionary history of Mars, including areas on the Martian surface that might have been habitable in the distant past.”
Because Mars has only been imaged through either large-scale satellite imagery or through the eyes of the Mars rovers, Mahoney’s research experience was a unique one.
“Interpreting Mars through these mediums has proved difficult, provoking me to expand both my imagination and patience,” Mahoney said. “Working with Julie has only supported my decision to continue on with planetary geology, and her constant wisdom and recommendations allowed this research to become a reality. Julie’s vast knowledge and contacts were essential to developing both my thesis and research; I desperately hope to work with her again in the future.”
Assessing the Outcomes of Public Discourse
Senior Mariah Wika ’15 and Professor of Communication Studies Leila Brammer collaborated this summer by studying and analyzing the longitudinal outcomes of Public Discourse as a course in public advocacy and civic engagement. Public Discourse—which replaced Public Speaking as a Communication Studies Department class offering in 2007—teaches argument, public advocacy, and speaking through a semester long civic engagement project in which students identify and address an issue in their community.
This summer, Wika and Brammer used data from the College’s Senior Survey and the National Survey of Student Engagement to determine if students who took Public Discourse respond differently to questions about their college experience and future plans. The two also developed a survey for alumni who took either Public Speaking or Public Discourse that asks about their perceptions of civic engagement and their community involvement in their life beyond Gustavus. Wika and Brammer then compared the results of alumni who took Public Discourse to those who did not.
“Collaborating with Professor Brammer on her research has been one of the most meaningful components of my Gustavus experience,” Wika said. “I hope to pursue my PhD and become a professor of communication studies in the future, so the opportunity to be part of the development of a textbook, view a course from so many different perspectives, and learn from Professor Brammer both in the classroom and as a trusted partner in research has been invaluable.”
Thin Polymer Film Formation
Thanks to a First-Year Research Experience Grant, sophomore Nathan Huber ’17 spent the summer working with physics professor Chuck Niederriter studying thin polymer film formation.
“I am very grateful for this experience. Our 10-week project centered on the deposition of polymer films in a DC plasma,” Huber explained. “One application of this technique is corrosion prevention. The goal of this project is to better understand how the polymer films form on aluminum slide samples, how to analyze the polymer surface, and how to create the films in a consistent manner.”
Huber said that the experience was beneficial to because it showed him new applications and perspectives toward classroom physics studies. Professor Niederriter also introduced him to vacuum systems, a scanning tunneling microscope, interferometry, Arduino coding, creating plasma, and astrophotography.
“Professor Niederriter was a great mentor throughout the research project,” Huber said. “When I had questions or challenges, he was always present for help. His research techniques helped me improve my critical thinking techniques and gave me a broader understanding of what it’s like to do physics research.”
Sophomores Anna Krieger ’17 and Kristin Podratz ’17 spent the summer working with chemistry professor Brandy Russell on her ongoing protein unfolding experiments. The trio conducted fluorescence experiments on the unfolding process of the metalloprotein Myohemerythrin, a simple oxygen transport protein with a diiron center. Fluorescence data was taken for both the oxidized and reduced forms of the protein to determine the role of the diiron site in the unfolding process.
The research team did additional work optimizing the purification process of the protein and in the setup and maintenance of the oxygen-free glove box. Further experiments involving NMR and mutagenesis have begun to confirm unfolding structures.
“This experience allowed me to widen my experience working in a lab, as well as diversify and strengthen my lab skills and techniques,” Krieger said. “It also exposed me to a branch of chemistry and biochemistry that I had not been exposed to in the classroom.”
Krieger and Podratz plan to continue to work with Russell on the protein unfolding project this coming semester.
“Brandy is very friendly and approachable. She mentored Kristin and I during the first few weeks on techniques until we were able to independently conduct protocol and experiments,” Krieger said. “She thoroughly explained concepts and worked to incorporate both Kristin’s and my own interests into the work we were doing.”
What Other Students Are Saying
“I am not yet sure what I would like to do after my time at Gustavus, so participating in research was a great way to be fully immersed into the type of environment that, in a future career, I could potentially be working in. I also learned and improved upon skills that I will use in other research and coursework—some more technical, like microscopy and writing scientifically, and others more cognition-focused, like problem solving and critical thinking.”
-Sophomore Bailey Hilgren ’17, who worked with geology professor Julie Bartley
“I hope to go to graduate school after Gustavus, and having prior research experience helps when applying to grad schools. I also hope to go into biomedical engineering, which is largely a research and design dominated field, so I wanted to gain some experience conducting research to help prepare myself for that. Overall, it was a great experience that taught me a lot and strengthened the relationship between me and my advisor.”
-Senior Patrick Ernst ’15, who worked with physics professor Jessie Petricka
“This was my second year doing research over the summer and both times that I have been involved with it I learn so much about what it takes to really develop a question and take time to answer it. I learn the right skills to do field work, whether it’s going out and collecting data, fixing equipment, or listening to what the environment is saying. Research has also helped me sort out what I like and do not like, which has helped me decide what I would like to pursue in the future.”
-Senior Emily Ford ’15, who worked with professor Laura Triplett
“This summer I worked on a continuation of research I began last summer as a freshman. I was able to continue developing the research project and try to polish off any experiments that needed shoring up as well as develop my skills in scientific research. These skills include gleaning information from articles related to the research, developing experiments as well as the analysis of the data collected.”
-Sophomore John Danforth ’17, who worked with chemistry professor Dwight Stoll
“Spending the summer researching has provided me an opportunity that many undergraduates are unable to experience. It gave me the opportunity to help advance knowledge in this scientific field and to gain personal knowledge of the researching world that will be beneficial when I apply to graduate school or for future jobs.”
-Junior Rachel Weitz ’16, who worked with chemistry and environmental studies professor Jeff Jeremiason
“The difference between course work and research is much greater than I anticipated. Course work focuses on the development of mathematical tools that can be applied to problem solving, whereas research requires these tools to be utilized in new, not necessarily obvious ways at the same time they are being developed. Becoming familiar with this process has increased my mathematical intuition and helped problem solving become more natural for me. Dr. LoFaro was very supportive and made himself easily available throughout the summer. He was very patient in answering the questions I had and helped point me in the right direction.”
-Junior Eric Hanson ’16, who worked with mathematics professor Tom LoFaro
“Not many students begin their sophomore year with a summer of research under their belt, and I feel confident that the knowledge and experience I gained this summer will be valuable in both my second year of physics study and future research positions.”
-Sophomore Mikaela Algren ’17, who worked with physics professor Jessie Petricka
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