Weber State University Magazine Spring 2012 : Page 15
For undergraduate researchers at Weber State University, an unanswered question can be the start of a tremendous journey ... an adventure that takes students and teachers beyond the classroom. Together, they have studied underwater habitats, phenomena from outer space, DNA, dinosaurs, songbirds, stepfamilies, and much more. Through National Science Foundation grants or the backing of private donors, they have tackled research as far-ranging as coal liquefaction and pharmacy fatigue. The biology of the Great Salt Lake has and continues to be the source of many scholarly studies. This journey often leads to published papers, prestigious presentations, distinguished graduate programs and outstanding careers. Original research results from students who think critically and creatively for a better understanding and deeper appreciation of their fields of study. For all of these reasons and more … Undergraduate Research is a Pinnacle of Learning at Weber State allison barlow hess , university communications F PICTURES estooned with banners and filled with enthusiasm, Weber State University welcomed the 26 th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research, March 29-31. With more than 3,000 students and their faculty mentors from around the country, the conference celebrated scholarship; it also underscored WSU’s significant commitment to undergraduate research. Weber State has always been known as an outstanding teaching university, but over the Paul Alan Cox, director of the Institute of Ethnomedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyo., spoke at NCUR. Click the icon to watch his presentation. years, many on campus have used undergraduate research to enhance the classroom. “As I think of Weber State over its 100+ years of history, the underlying theme has been enriching students’ lives, helping them make better lives for themselves, their families and their communities,” said Kathleen Lukken , former associate provost, retired faculty member and proponent for engaged learning. “Undergraduate research is another tool to help students prepare for a fairly chaotic, increasingly complicated world where the answers aren’t clear or simple.” weber.edu/wsumagazine VIDEO 15
Undergraduate Research is a Pinnacle of Learning at Weber State
Allison Barlow Hess, University Communications
<i>For undergraduate researchers at Weber State University, an unanswered question can be the start of a tremendous journey ... an adventure that takes students and teachers beyond the classroom. Together, they have studied underwater habitats, phenomena from outer space, DNA, dinosaurs, songbirds, stepfamilies, and much more. Through National Science Foundation grants or the backing of private donors, they have tackled research as far-ranging as coal liquefaction and pharmacy fatigue. The biology of the Great Salt Lake has and continues to be the source of many scholarly studies.
This journey often leads to published papers, prestigious presentations, distinguished graduate programs and outstanding careers. Original research results from students who think critically and creatively for a better understanding and deeper appreciation of their fields of study.</i>
Festooned with banners and filled with enthusiasm, Weber State University welcomed the 26th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research, March 29-31.
With more than 3,000 students and their faculty mentors from around the country, the conference celebrated scholarship; it also underscored WSU’s significant commitment to undergraduate research.
Weber State has always been known as an outstanding teaching university, but over the years, many on campus have used undergraduate research to enhance the classroom.
“As I think of Weber State over its 100+ years of history, the underlying theme has been enriching students’ lives, helping them make better lives for themselves, their families and their communities,” said <b>Kathleen Lukken</b>, former associate provost, retired faculty member and proponent for engaged learning. “Undergraduate research is another tool to help students prepare for a fairly chaotic, increasingly complicated world where the answers aren’t clear or simple.”
<b>From Weber State to Space to the Smithsonian</b>
During the satellite program of the 1980s, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) asked Weber State to build a satellite that could receive signals from FAA radar at airports. The resulting Northern Utah Satellite (NUSAT) launched from the space shuttle Challenger in March 1989. It operated for 20 months and then deorbited as planned.
“To accomplish what the FAA wanted, we had to make something that we ejected out of a can,” remembered <b>Bob Twiggs</b>, who oversaw the project as a professor in electronics. “NASA had not allowed this before, so part of the project was not only to develop the satellite but also to develop the launcher system. We liked to tell people that ‘We didn’t realize the complexity, so we went ahead and completed the project.’”
The project brought together faculty, industry professionals and students.
The resulting satellite turned out to be a very significant event in the space program, bringing a resurgence of interest in launching small versus very large satellites. The research continued, and a second satellite called WeberSat was launched in 1990. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum now houses a replica of the NUSAT in its collection.
“Helping organizations, such as the FAA, businesses and individuals in the community is common,” said zoology professor <b>John Cavitt</b>, who helped established WSU's Office of Undergraduate Research and is now the director. “Our students are not just doing lab work with limited practical application. We have many interested partners who say they are eager for students to work on a project for them, so the students are doing projects needed by the community.”
<b>Creative Undergraduate Scholarship Shapes Writers' Lives</b>
Acclaimed authors <b>Mario Chard</b> and <b>Bret Anthony Johnston</b> have never met — they live and work on opposite coasts — but they share professional gratitude, both crediting WSU’s National Undergraduate Literature Conference (NULC) for opening their eyes to the possibility of writing professionally.
And that has made all the difference.
In 2011, Chard captured a prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowship in fiction and poetry from Stanford University. Highly competitive, 2,000 individuals apply for the honor each year. Ten are chosen. An alumnus of Weber State University and Purdue University, his works have been published in Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century and Third Coast magazine.
Johnston is the creative writing director at Harvard University. He is a National Book Award winner for writers under 35. His debut piece, Corpus Christi: Stories, won multiple awards.
Chard remembers the moment of epiphany that changed his professional life. “I had been writing poetry since I was 8. Most of it was awful, maybe all of it was, but in that workshop, I wrote something, and for the first time I could say, ‘This is a poem.’ NULC allowed me to read and study with some of the best writers in the country and instilled in me the confidence that I could write even if I was a small-town kid from Morgan, Utah.”
Johnston learned about NULC from a flier hanging on his favorite professor’s door at Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi in 1995.
Johnston submitted two pieces of work for consideration — a literary critique and a short story. Both were accepted.
“I know this sounds strange, but growing up in South Texas, the idea of being a writer wasn’t really anything I knew,” Johnston said. “Once I went to the conference, it felt as if this world of possibility had opened. I had never been around that number of people who cared about language, about story and about poetry in the way everyone there did. I suddenly understood this was possible, and I knew it was what I wanted to spend my life trying to do.”
Just completing its 27th year, NULC is the only undergraduate literature conference in the nation. WSU English professor <b>Mikel Vause</b> launched the conference because he saw a need for students to gain confidence researching, writing and presenting their work to peers from other institutions.
He planned to name it the Utah Undergraduate Literature Conference and took a stack of homemade, mimeographed fliers to a professional language association meeting.
“Immediately someone from Ricks College [in Idaho] asked to participate, so we crossed off the name Utah and put Western States Undergraduate Literature Conference,” Vause remembered fondly. “Then a professor from Florida asked if her students could submit. We said, ‘Sure, why not,’ so we crossed out Western States, and within an hour it became the National Undergraduate Literature Conference.”
About 25 Weber State students attend each year. Another 150 come from institutions around the country. This year, 71 different schools were represented. NULC accepts approximately 50 percent of its submissions.
“It’s a chance for students to present their wares in a professional setting where they can be asked legitimate questions and have the opportunity to shine in the spotlight for a few minutes,” Vause said.
Mike Shea, chair of the English department at Southern Connecticut State University, said his students left NULC empowered and serious about their work.
“It’s invaluable to a student’s intellectual growth, not just as a thinker, but as a person who’s a part of a community,” Shea said. “It’s wonderful. It’s just magical.”
<b>Undergraduates Attract Authors</b>
The fresh perspective and enthusiasm of undergraduates has attracted many distinguished authors who headline the annual event, including Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, E.L. Doctorow and Larry McMurtry.
“We’ve had students research which author is coming, and then prepare a paper on that author to present at the conference, and sometimes the author has attended the session,” NULC co-director <b>Carl Porter</b> said. “Undergraduates have a certain naïve hutzpah. They think, ‘Well, that author might learn something from me.’ Noted authors seem to love the undergraduates because they come with that naïve confidence.”
The confidence is not misplaced. Vause said many times he has been startled by the originality of the thinking and writing. He and many other faculty members mentor students beforehand to polish their work. For Chard, NULC was the confidence builder required to apply to graduate school.
“I’ve met with students who come from highly ranked private universities, and I was able to feel secure in my preparation,” Chard said. “A lot of the confidence comes from having to work hard on my own end, and a lot of if comes from luck, but I think I was very well prepared at Weber State and am very grateful for that experience."
The National Undergraduate Literature Conference is like opening the jacket of a powerful new book: Unimaginable adventures await, and it’s an experience that makes a difference.
“I find myself on a regular basis trying to figure out ways to give back to the conference,” Johnston said. “For as long as I have been teaching, I have sent my students from Harvard. I also have been invited back to read and teach. I expect that’s the way it will continue for the rest of my life; I will send students. It just feels necessary to me.”
<b>Undergraduate Research Propels WSU Alum From Softball To Surgery</b>
When pediatric neurosurgeon and Weber State College alumna <b>Jodi Smith</b> was 8 years old, her dad asked if she wanted to participate in a free-throw shooting contest. A born competitor who loved basketball, Smith did not hesitate.
The next week, when she and her dad walked into the National Guard Armory, “You could have heard a pin drop,” she remembered. “It was all boys and their dads. We walked up to the desk, and the organizers got out the rulebook and thumbed through and couldn’t find anywhere girls couldn’t enter.” Smith made out of free throws and won the contest.
“And you know what, the next year I went back, and they had a contest for girls,” she said laughing.
Smith was good enough that, at 4 feet 11 inches, she competed in both high school basketball and volleyball. Eventually a softball scholarship to play left field paid her way through college. In 1979, she was recruited by many schools, but at Weber State she found a welcoming coach, beautiful mountains and great opportunities.
<b>Softball and Studies</b>
“Weber State prepared me for life,” Smith said. “Softball wasn’t easy; we spent a lot of time in the gym or traveling. I had to figure out how to get everything done.” Somehow Smith struck a balance between athletics, academics and her sometimes noisy roommates; she maintained a perfect grade point average with an eye toward medical school.
“When it would get too loud in my apartment, I’d get in my car and go find a light shining on campus and study in my car,” Smith remembered. “That’s when I discovered the science department was open until 11 p. m. I then went to the Science Lab to study.”
In that building, she also found faculty who were willing to engage her in their research. In 1982, zoology professor <b>Gloria Wurst</b> invited Smith to participate in a senior research project on pituitary gland development.
“It was amazing just to watch how Gloria could think so critically about a problem,” Smith said. “Her ability to write was also just amazing. I was kind of in awe. She helped teach me those things through our association in the lab doing undergraduate research, and it changed my life.”
Now retired, Wurst said she conducted research because she enjoyed it, and introducing undergraduates to research was “always a blast.” She also appreciated their labor and fresh perspective.
“Students didn’t know what was supposed to happen because they were not immersed in the research, so sometimes they came up with a novel approach and new ideas,” Wurst remembered.
“When the students and I would leave the lab late at night all covered in chemicals from the electrophoresis experiments, none of us was looking particularly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” Wurst recalled. “But, I think it helps students understand faculty members as people, not just talking heads. This is an actual person with a sense of humor — or perhaps not,” she said laughing.
The research propelled Smith to apply to graduate school. She earned a Ph.D. in anatomy, with an emphasis on nervous system development.
A neurosurgeon recognized her talent and encouraged her also to study medicine. She eventually graduated first in her class at the University of Utah and completed advanced training in pediatric neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital Boston, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital.
Smith now heads pediatric neurosurgery at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health and is an assistant professor of neurological surgery at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
Smith’s young patients call her “Dr. Jodi.” They come to her when they have severe seizures, sometimes up to 1,000 a day, and medication isn’t working. She helps children with spina bifida or who have suffered a stroke or whose skulls have fused prematurely, constraining brain development.
“I don’t really have a life. I basically spend all my time at the hospital,” Smith said. “These kids are my kids. I cry with their families. I laugh with their families. I go to graduations.
I send graduation presents. I know that when a family hands a child to me, they’ve given me their most-valued possession in this whole world, and I never take that lightly.”
At the end of a long day of surgery, Smith’s athletic training and stamina combine for a final act of kindness.
“Even if I’ve operated for 22 hours, I’ll still take that extra half hour to wash the child’s hair, comb it, braid it, do whatever I need to do to make the child presentable to the
As a surgeon, Smith helps children individually; as a researcher, she hopes to help all children who have epileptic seizures. During surgery Smith removes a tiny sample of brain tissue and rushes it to the lab where she and a research assistant study the tissue at a cellular level to discover why seizures occur and how to prevent them.
To meet the extraordinary demands on her time as an administrator, teacher, surgeon and researcher, Smith schedules as many as 15 of her monthly meetings before 7 a.m.
<b>Guiding Young Researchers</b>
And yet she opened her schedule recently for a two-day job shadow with WSU senior <b>Amanda Truong</b>. A zoology major, Truong has done groundbreaking genetics research on brine flies. She wants to follow in Smith’s academic footsteps.
“Job shadowing Jodi was awesome,” Truong exclaimed. “The first day she removed a brain tumor from a 15-year-old boy. The surgery was about nine hours long. Jodi stood up the entire time. She did not take a break at all, and I got to watch the whole thing.”
During the visit, Truong witnessed the same attributes at play that Smith displayed in that free-throw contest from childhood: a steady hand, confident performance and a positive attitude. Her abilities still amaze and inspire.
“She is so great. I love her so much,” Truong said. “Jodi is just a cheery person who loves her patients and her profession. She is definitely my idol, and I want a career just like hers.”
2004: WSU's Office of Undergraduate Research was established to provide research funding, guidance and standards.
2007: Ergo , WSU’s undergraduate research journal, began publication.
2011: $12.5 million in funded research and external projects was available for undergraduate students and faculty. The money comes from federal, state and private sources and has doubled since 2004.
<b>Chemistry Bonds Unite Generations Of Faculty And Students</b>
In the summer of 1954, three undergraduate chemistry students helped move the Weber College chemistry department from the school’s original downtown location to the current campus. At the time, no one had an inkling of the long-lasting bonds that would be discovered in that department — and not just between chemicals.
It seemed destiny that one of those young men, <b>Spencer Seager</b>, would continue his chemistry education and in 1961 return to Weber State as a professor. He remembers the early days when teachers and students ran between their classes and the lab to conduct experiments.
One of the first big purchases for the lab was a gas chromatograph, an instrument that measures the content of various components in a sample. Seager and his student <b>Lee Stone</b> decided to put it to use analyzing dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). They had to insert DMSO through long lengths of copper pipe, which they rigged from refrigeration tubing.
“To get enough length we had guys get on the fourth floor of the Science Lab to run the tubing out the window to the first floor,” Seager reminisced.
As with many experiments, success finally came after long hours, many trials and a little luck.
“It was serendipitous. We were heating our column, and somehow Lee got distracted. The column got hot — quite hot, a lot hotter than it should have,” Seager recalled. “When that happened, I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to build another column right now. Go ahead and inject a few samples through it.’”
Stone did, and it worked. They separated DMSO from water and in 1970 co-authored a paper published in the Journal of Chromatographic Science.
Turns out unlocking the secret of DMSO wasn’t the greatest discovery made that day. The more significant revelation was the potential for knowledge and success when faculty and students collaborate in research. The excitement was contagious.
As chairman of the chemistry department, Seager hired a number of other enthusiastic, inquisitive teachers who engaged in research with students. <b>Robert Beishline</b> was one.
<b>National Science Foundation</b>
In 1974, Beishline received a $50,000 National Science Foundation grant that he renewed several times. With the money and a question about coal liquefaction, or turning coal into fuel, he gathered a team of students to put samples through the gas chromatograph.
After approximately 18 months of testing, the substance they were seeking finally emerged. Beishline, now retired, remembers with fondness the moment of success.
“I couldn’t have done it without my students; it was simply too time consuming,” Beishline said. “The project allowed the students to see that if they had a plan and the educational background to understand the principles they could make unknown discoveries.”
They shared their findings in a number of presentations and papers published in works such as The Journal of Organic Chemistry.
One of the students on Beishline’s team was <b>Edward Walker</b>, who after burning coal all day, went home so stinky his wife made him leave his clothes outside. He still brims with excitement remembering the fun they had on the research and with the brilliant professor who could offer such an unexpected variety of help.
“Bob would teach class, but he’d come right back to the lab to show us how to do things. At that time, many instruments weren’t available commercially, so he’d help us make them,” Walker said. “He was quite the glass blower and machinist, and he would bend glass to various shapes.
If we needed something to connect A to B, he’d make it at his shop at home. I had no idea you could be so personally involved in a project. He loved everything he did.”
Walker wanted to continue learning in the Weber State lab, so he earned his Ph.D. and returned as a professor who then gathered his own team of undergraduate researchers for various projects, including a study of cranberries in the early 1990s. They set out to discover the chemical compound effective in preventing urinary tract infections.
“I didn’t realize how young Dr. Walker was,” recalled former student <b>Jennifer Nielsen</b>. “At that time, I thought he was an old guy,” she laughed. “He really wasn’t, and he was having so much fun. What I loved about him and the chemistry professors at Weber State was they went way beyond their duty to help us learn.”
Students and teachers together in the department have conducted groundbreaking research on many subjects, including polymers, goldplating and copper analytics. Like the cranberry research team, many have worked together night and day to run thousands of tests.
“We were testing tablets, so the capsules in the machines were swooshing up and down, and breaking into pieces,” said <b>Rich Mickelsen</b>, another student on the cranberry project.
“The lab was just like your stereotypical ‘Nutty Professor’ lab. It literally looked like that. We had all different kinds of glassware. Things were brewing, and hotplates were bubbling.”
The research eventually produced six patents and a new family: Jennifer and Rich married and now run their own lab, RJ Analytical in Plain City, Utah. They primarily focus on testing herbal supplements. When they get a new idea or get stuck on an idea, they contact their former professors.
“I called Ed the other day and said, ‘Everybody in industry conducts one process a certain way, which takes a huge amount of resources and effort,’” Rich recalled. “I told him, ‘I’m doing it the way we pioneered, and it works,’ and asked, ‘Why don’t we write a paper on it?’”
Walker still listens to his students and helps them investigate scientific questions. Now his young researchers can perform a lab test in one afternoon that would have taken Walker all summer long when he was an undergraduate. What remains unchanged, however, are the human bonds forged during research. They remain as strong as they were 50+ years ago when the Department of Chemistry found its new home.