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The Science of Research: Students Put Classroom Learning into Laboratory Practice

Loyola press release - July 15, 2011

While the typical undergraduate student has the opportunity to achieve many great things during his or her academic career, stating on your resume that you assisted in the recovery of an endangered species, contributed to an article published in a peer-reviewed journal, or performed a theoretical investigation into general relativity and cosmology is anything but typical. Yet, Loyola University New Orleans students have been doing just that, as well as performing many other impressive feats thanks to the undergraduate research opportunities offered to them through the Departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, and Physics in the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences. And not only are they making headlines as students, but Loyola graduates are going on to impressive careers in the sciences as well.

The Department of Biological Sciences

The Department of Biological Sciences provides students with a wide choice of experiences and opportunities in the life sciences—from medicine, to the environment, to basic and applied research in botany, ecology and evolutionary biology, marine biology, microbiology, and molecular biology.

A central focus of the department is to engage students in the study of life through active learning in the classroom and through collaborative research in the laboratory and field. The department states that “perhaps the most necessary skills of a biologist are an inquisitive outlook and enthusiastic curiosity,” and those skills are indeed utilized by the students when they decide to pursue research opportunities with the faculty.

Creating Outstanding Faculty/Student Partnerships

Biological sciences faculty’s research programs address basic and applied questions and range from understanding the molecular basis of disease to detecting effects of climate change on entire ecosystems. While faculty often collaborate with scientists at other universities and in other disciplines, one of their most important research collaborations is between students and themselves, which has been ongoing since the 1950s. Faculty members have long been committed to engaging undergraduate students in conducting original, independent research.

“All faculty members are research active,” says Department of Biological Sciences Chair Craig Hood, Ph.D. “Our primary mission is teaching, but the benefits of undergraduate research are that it provides incredible learning experiences for the students and allows them to develop skills about research as a process and become engaged in it. This what we mean by ‘learning by doing.’”

Working for academic credit, and sometimes a stipend obtained through faculty grants, students are able to pursue a variety of interests and obtain impressive credentials for their future careers. Undergraduate research has flourished after Hurricane Katrina in part because of the Summer Collaborative Outreach and Research Experience (SCORE) directed by Frank Jordan, Ph.D., and the Public Health Scholars Program directed by Patricia Dorn, Ph.D. Both of these programs are supported by the Louisiana Board of Regents.

“Undergraduate research has opened up a wide range of opportunities for me,” says biological sciences major Jihan Shami, who performed research with Patricia Dorn, Ph.D., studying Chagas disease. Chagas disease is endemic to rural areas in Latin America, where it remains a leading cause of heart disease and the most serious parasitic disease, surpassing even that of malaria. “I was given the opportunity to do field work in Guatemala, which provided me with a far greater understanding of the diseases endemic to rural, impoverished areas in Latin America. Research has not only allowed me to ascertain my interests in research and public health, but it has helped me grow as a student by allowing me to work on my own independent research project and answer my own research inquiries.”

This fall, Shami will be pursuing a master of public health degree in epidemiology.

Performing research can lead to some amazing results, as biological sciences major David Reeves discovered from working with Frank Jordan, Ph.D., monitoring the response of imperiled Okaloosa darters (Etheostoma okaloosae) to restoration of stream habitat.

“The best part of this particular project has been the opportunity to be involved with the downlisting of an endangered species,” Reeves explains. “Species downlisting is one of the few things that is rarer than a wild salmon in its natural habitat, so I consider myself as being extremely fortunate to have been given this opportunity to work with such a special fish. Overall, this has been an extremely uplifting project, and it has driven my passion for conservation along with my respect for the natural world.”

After graduation, Reeves plans on attending graduate school to further his studies in stream fish conservation.

Promoting Research Findings

Promoting one’s research is almost as important as doing the research itself. The students’ research culminates with the Annual Biological Sciences Undergraduate Symposium, the biggest event of the year for the department. Faculty, staff, alumni, and current and prospective students are invited to the symposium, where students present their research. In true New Orleans fashion, the event concludes with a crawfish boil.

Students’ research covers a wide variety of topics, and this year’s participants included: Mariana Zapata, “Characterization of Fibroblast Growth Factors in the Embryonic Chicken: A Path to Regeneration?”; Milad El Hajj, “Identification and Characterization of Neurosensory Structures in Intact and Regenerating Sea Urchins”; Jihan Shami, “Taxonomic Subdivision of a Chagas Disease Insect Vector Inferred by Ribosomal DNA”; Sarah Burst, “Effect of Solar UV-B on Standing Dead Litter Decomposition in Southern Marshes”; and David Reeves, “Response of Endangered Okaloosa Darters to Restoration of Stream Habitat.”

Often, students who present at the symposium go on to gain recognition on a national scale. Milad El Hajj’s research paper, Identification and Characterization of Neurosensory Structures in Intact and Regenerating Sea Urchins, was selected to compete in a student award program at Experimental Biology 2011, one of the world’s largest and most important biological science research conferences, held in Washington, D.C.

Enjoying Success after Graduation

Many alumni credit their undergraduate research with aiding them in their current job success. “My undergraduate research project was instrumental in preparing me for graduate school and for a career in the biological sciences,” notes biological sciences alumna Melissa Kaintz ’03, who works for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries as the inland fisheries operations manager.

“As an undergraduate research student, I was given the opportunity to design and conduct biological research, perform statistical analyses on my data, and write an undergraduate thesis. I was able to learn from these experiences, and it gave me an advantage while I was designing and conducting my research and analyzing and writing my master’s thesis. Currently, I use the skills that I developed at Loyola on a daily basis. Experimental design, project implementation, and written communication play an integral role in my daily activities.”

For more information on the Department of Biological Sciences and the faculty’s research, visit chn.loyno.edu/biology

The Department of Chemistry

The Department of Chemistry offers degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, and forensic chemistry, with faculty and staff dedicated to the mission of providing both a nationally competitive curriculum and a variety of exciting undergraduate research opportunities.

The department prides itself on its commitment to its students and their success, and undergraduate research plays a vital role in the chemistry curriculum. All majors are encouraged to join a research group early in their academic studies—it is in the research lab where they have the opportunity to apply ideas learned in the classroom to real-world problems for which there are no solutions in the back of a book.

Hiring Expert Faculty

Providing great research opportunities begins with great faculty members.

“We try to hire faculty members who are research active,” says Department of Chemistry Chair Thomas Spence, Ph.D. “All of our faculty members have research labs, and together, the department has raised one million dollars for instruments since Hurricane Katrina.”

Since there is little use in having labs and equipment if students aren’t allowed to use them, every instrument in the department is utilized by the students, according to Spence.

Spence also points out that “our country needs scientists, so we prepare our students to go out into the world and accomplish great things. Research allows students to engage in the creative process of science.”

Harnessing that creativity, throughout the year, the department hosts seminars in which both Loyola faculty and faculty from other universities are invited to present their research. Students are also encouraged to present their research, and throughout the years, many have presented at American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meetings.

Though they may focus on different areas of research, the entire chemistry faculty agrees that any research experience students undertake, regardless of their course of study, can play a vital role in their future success.

“Performing research allows students to develop their problem-solving skills and examine the big questions,” says Joelle Underwood, Ph.D. “My goal is for students to function as chemists in any environment. The skills they learn are applicable to any field of study or career path they choose.”

Because projects can often take two or three years to complete, faculty members stress the importance of performing research to the students early on. But students usually recognize the skills and the valuable experience they can gain by doing research and are eager to get started.

“The best part about doing research is that I can actually get a hands-on experience of real-life chemistry research, and it’s not just all theory-based like what we have in lecture classes,” says chemistry major Paula Dizon. “Doing research gives me a greater understanding of what we are actually studying in class.”

Working with Kurt Birdwhistell, Ph.D., last summer for SCORE, Dizon performed research that involved the greener synthesis of metal carbonyl complexes from Group VI metals with the use of a microwave that uses less voltage than your average household microwave. She synthesized compounds using Molybdenum and Tungsten before moving on to working on Chromium complexes.

Dizon does not have a definite plan after graduation, but she hopes to eventually enter graduate school for forensics or work in a crime lab.

Publishing Success

Often, the research students do with faculty results in publication in peer-reviewed journals, which is quite an achievement for undergraduates.

“The most rewarding part of the research experience was in knowing the data gathered by the instruments that I constructed and maintained would be included in an article in a peer-reviewed journal,” says chemistry alumnus Alexander L. Girau ’10, who currently is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Tulane University.

“As an undergraduate, my adviser, Dr. Joelle Underwood, and I investigated the physical chemistry of atmospheric aerosols phenomena using analytical chemistry. Specifically, we attempted to elucidate the water uptake process of different molecules such as salts and acids through computer analysis. These processes are very relevant in phenomena such as cloud formation and air pollution travel. Dr. Underwood designed the experiments and the apparatus, and I was responsible for constructing and repairing the instruments and running the experiments. Running the experiments included computer programming, data analysis, and computer-instrument communication technologies.”

Girau’s research experience not only got his name out into the scientific world, but it also prepared him for graduate school.

“My research experience was invaluable in understanding what it was like to perform research under the direction of a supervisor. Graduate school has many requirements, but the one requirement that can make you stand out in the application pool is research experience and papers; top graduate programs like to see research experience in an applicant to judge if they can produce research in a lab setting. Luckily, I was able to leave Loyola with an Honor’s thesis, three poster presentations, and three great recommendations.”

For more information on the Department of Chemistry and the faculty’s research, visit chn.loyno.edu/chemistry

The Department of Physics

The Department of Physics has a twofold mission: to increase understanding of the physical universe through fundamental research involving faculty and students, and to offer students insights into their understanding of, and modes of thought about, the physical universe by offering a challenging curriculum taught in small classes by a dedicated faculty readily accessible to students and interested in their scholarly welfare.

Establishing the Research/Teaching Balance

Though experts in their respective fields of research, physics faculty members must also be able to mentor students in order to bring them on board with their research.

“We look for the right balance of teaching and research,” says Department of Physics Chair Armin Kargol, Ph.D. “Research is part of the teaching process.”

That process is aided in part by Loyola’s smaller class sizes, giving faculty members the opportunity to get to know their students.

“At Loyola, personal contact with students is very important. We are able to get the students involved because we know them, giving the students a fundamental understanding of science and helping them overcome their fear of science,” notes Kargol.

As with the other departments, teaching students how to analyze and solve problems is crucial for their future success, and performing research allows students to do just that.

“Through research, students are taught to think and analyze problems. They define the problem, look for the solution, and execute the solution,” explains Kargol.

Researching Across Department Lines

Often, the science departments work together, especially when students express an interest in several fields of study.

Physics major Michael Kammer worked on four different research projects, beginning with a class project for his Chemistry of Global Climate Change course. Each student was asked to make a presentation or demonstration of some type of renewable energy. Many students in the class made a poster or a PowerPoint presentation, but Kammer and his classmate decided to make a working model of a solar cell. Their class instructor, Lynn Koplitz, Ph.D., allowed them to use her laboratory to construct the cell. After successfully making a working model of a Graetzel cell, Koplitz encouraged them to continue, so they did additional experiments with the Graetzel cell, trying various dyes and electrolyte concentrations, with her guidance. During the next academic year, Koplitz implemented a Graetzel Cell Construction lab into the general chemistry curriculum, and Kammer was involved in the preparations for that experiment.

Subsequently, Koplitz asked Kammer and his research partner to join her in one of her research projects involving the synthesis and crystal structure determinations of several isomeric forms of cyano-N-methylpyridinium halides.

Kammer also worked with Armin Kargol, Ph.D., doing research in the area of biophysics. They cultured cells in a magnetic field to determine its effects on cell growth and development. They used the Patch-Clamp technique to study voltage-gated ion channels.

Lastly, Kammer worked on an independent research project, also overseen by Kargol, to study graviosmosis and to apply the gravitational potential energy created by this phenomenon to create a double membrane system that turns Brownian motion into work.

“The best part to me is the freedom in the creative process,” says Kammer. “When I ask questions or need help, my advisers have always been available, but for the most part they let me figure things out on my own, acting as a mentor more than a boss. This really allows me to own my research experience—I feel like I am an integral part of the research, not simply a lab assistant present only to do the dirty work. Because of this, I feel that my successes are very much my own, but more importantly, my failures are as well. I have failed in a few major ways, and doing this has taught me more than succeeding ever could.”

Thanks to his involvement in undergraduate research, Kammer plans on earning a Ph.D. and continuing into research.

“The research that I have done has given me invaluable tools to succeed in the next level, in terms of experience with many laboratory techniques and equipment, as well as problem-solving skills. Participating in research at Loyola has not only inspired me to a future in research, but given me the tools I need to accomplish it.”

Holly Gardner, a physics major, also crossed over departmental lines, having done research in both the mathematics and chemistry departments. She started doing research in mathematics with her adviser, Maria Calzada, Ph.D., in the 2009 SCORE at Loyola. They conducted a simulation study to compare the students’ confidence interval to three different bootstrap confidence intervals. From this research, Gardner and Calzada went on to develop the Bootstrap Ratio Test for Normality, and the project became her Honors thesis.

In addition, Gardner worked with Thomas Spence, Ph.D., and a first-year chemistry major, Lukas Gilevicius, on two different projects—a simulation study comparing the precision and accuracy of different forms of analyzing cavity ring-down spectroscopy data, and improving a peak finding method for analyzing fourier transform infrared spectroscopy data.

“The best part about doing research is the independence offered,” notes Gardner. “The professor and I develop the ideas together, and I implement the programming of the methods on my own. Research has increased my confidence in my programming knowledge and abilities. While completing these projects, I continued to take a full class schedule and learned the importance of time management and organization.”

This fall, Gardner will begin a computational science and informatics Ph.D. at George Mason University, for which she has been prepared thanks to her research experiences.

“My undergraduate research has ensured that I have the programming skills necessary to remain competitive in such a program,” she says. “It also allows me to know that I can balance the rigorous course load and research schedule of a graduate student.”

Implementing Skills

As with the other departments, physics alumni credit much of their success to their Loyola research experience.

Physics alumna Emily Drabek ’09 is a Ph.D. student at the University of Exeter in the School of Physics (Exeter, England) studying observational astrophysics. Her research is in early star formation, specifically low-mass and isolated star formation.

“Personally, my undergraduate research helped me to decide that graduate study was right for me,” explains Drabek. “I enjoy asking questions and solving problems, and I learned very quickly as an undergraduate that research allows me to do this as a career. Also, on a more practical note, undergraduate research gave me the necessary tools I would need for graduate study, like understanding how to write a research or scientific paper, how to manage my time, and independently focus on my studies.”

As an undergraduate, Drabek worked with Carl Brans, Ph.D., looking at Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Brans helped lead Drabek’s independent study to look more in depth at the subject. This work ended up leading to her senior thesis, which was a theoretical investigation into general relativity and cosmology. Specifically, she was looking at the predictions from general relativity on the shape and size of the universe.

“What can I say, I thought research with Dr. Brans was fun!,” says Drabek. “He always encouraged me to ask questions and express my research ideas. Due to his encouragement, I became more confident in my abilities as a student, and I began to focus my research in the direction that I wanted to go.”

For Drabek, the faculty at Loyola will always stand out.

“The great thing about the professors in the physics department is that they really listen to the students, and they want us to do well.”

For more information on the Department of Physics and the faculty’s research, visit chn.loyno.edu/physics

Continuing the Success of the Sciences

Though the Loyola science departments in the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences are doing an outstanding job with undergraduate research, plans are underway to do even more, especially with the proposed future renovation of Monroe Hall. Plans are being discussed to completely renovate the building, which was originally constructed as a state-of-the-art science complex in the 1960s, and outfit it with new labs and equipment.

But in the meantime, the science departments, through their dedicated faculty and hands-on research opportunities, will continue to provide students with the solid foundation needed to achieve success in the vast world of science.