Centre science and math students engage in summer research on campus
By Leigh Ivey
DANVILLE, KY—For many students and faculty members in the Centre College math and science departments, this summer was full of discoveries.
From June through August, 24 students and 14 professors were on campus doing research on an array of vastly different subjects.
"The students doing summer research at Centre get a true taste of what it would be like to do research as a career," says Dr. John Wilson, Centre professor of mathematics and organizer of this summer's research seminars. "Doing research here makes these students more competitive for REUs—Research Experiences for Undergraduates—later in their college careers."
This summer, seven students worked one-on-one with a professor mentor, while the others worked in small teams, each of which was led by one professor.
"The students get together with their mentors to discuss ongoing results and to figure out what they hope to accomplish that day or week," Wilson says. "The meetings are exactly like those held by lab research groups at large institutions."
A few of the groups, such as the chemistry and BMB (biochemistry and molecular biology) research teams led by Dr. Peggy Richey, Dr. Jennifer Muzyka and Dr. January Haile, were individual components of a collaborative project.
"I loved collaborating with the Muzyka and Haile labs," Richey says. "It was great to bounce ideas off of each other in our lab group meetings. The addition to Young Hall, which will bring the synthetic chemists into the building, will help foster these productive collaborations."
(Young Hall, Centre's main science building, is currently undergoing a renovation and expansion. A new two-story addition to Young Hall, to be completed in 2010, will add 40,000 square feet of space to this campus facility dedicated to instruction and research in the sciences.)
The distinctive research topics studied on campus this summer ranged from "game acquisition numbers for a class of graphs" to "antibacterial activity of MurA-binding Ligands" to "retinol esterification in Crayfish Hepatopancreas" to "astronomical masers."
Focusing on research presentation skills
"Because scientists are sometimes pretty weak at presenting their results," Wilson says, "we put a real focus this year on the students' oral presentation skills. The mentors really tried to stress the importance of delivering impressive talks."
The presentation sessions, which were held from June 30 through August 11, were attended by an average of 30 people—and not everyone in the audience was participating in summer research.
"Several professors from the math and science departments who weren't involved in research this summer attended the sessions," Wilson says. "And even some new faculty members who haven't even taught a class at Centre yet came to show support. All the math and science faculty were very supportive and interested in hearing the students' presentations."
The two group picnics weren't the only opportunities students had to interact with their professors in a relaxed, non-academic environment. Most frequently visited their mentors' homes for casual meals and conversation that wasn't centered on their work.
Dr. Melissa Burns-Cusato and Dr. Brian Cusato, for example, not only provided snacks for their students during lab meetings but also invited their research teams to their home for several meals.
"I really enjoyed the atmosphere the Cusatos created," says Amanda Glueck '10. "From the open forum discussions during our weekly lab meetings—where they always provided us with doughnuts from Burke's Bakery—to inviting us all over to their house for kabobs and ice cream, we got hands-on experience conducting our own research, an opportunity that many undergraduate students don't get a chance to experience."
Taking student research to the next level
"Some of their work may be publishable," Wilson says, "and some of the students can continue with their research during the year."
Many of the students have plans to present their findings at various conferences this fall. In November, several will attend the Kentucky Academy of Science meeting, and many of the math students will travel to Ohio's Miami University in September to speak at the school's annual math conference.
Those who have composed papers based on their summer work will see them published in the 2010 Centre Science Journal, which will also contain the work of the Centre students who participated in REUs this summer.
Whether they publish their work or not, the Centre students have much to show for their summer projects.
Louesa Akin '12, a member of the team doing chemistry research with Dr. Jennifer Muzyka, says that "even though our team wasn't the first to start working on this research project, and it took us a long time to get everything to work properly, I feel like we helped to pave the way for those who do this research with Dr. Muzyka in the future."
For Glueck, spending eight weeks exploring mate preferences in male Japanese quail "combined with previous research experience and the psychobiology and psychology classes I've taken at Centre, confirmed my desire to pursue a career in animal behavior research with an emphasis in reproductive mechanisms."
The 2009 summer research projects were, Wilson says, quite a success. "The students certainly learned a lot about lab techniques and how to present their results," he notes. "And I'd say they all had a good time doing it."
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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