Centre students, faculty participate in summer collaborative research

In keeping with Centre College’s guarantee of engaging students with undergraduate research across many disciplines through its Centre Commitment, the College is hosting faculty and student collaborative research both on campus and remotely this summer. The research is funded by the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP), a program supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The program focuses on a variety of recruitment and retention activities related to the sciences. Centre chose to focus its efforts on undergraduate research experiences for underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“As an alliance, we seek to create, enhance, and expand programs designed to broaden participation and increase the quality and quantity of students from underrepresented populations who receive degrees in STEM,” said Lenny Demoranville, associate professor of chemistry, who is also serving his first year as campus coordinator for LSAMP. “At Centre, the main way we accomplish this goal is by providing funding for summer research, although we are looking at ways to expand our program in the near future.”

Due to the global pandemic, this year’s program looks a little different from previous summers. Demoranville said there are fewer students participating in undergraduate research with Centre faculty. In general, many summer research and internship plans were cancelled. He is grateful to Centre’s administration and the faculty mentors that stepped up to find a way to make this experience happen.

This year’s LSAMP faculty mentors are Jeff Heath, associate professor of mathematics; Lucas Hoots, visiting assistant professor of mathematics; Bruce Rodenborn, assistant professor of physics; Daniel Scott, assistant professor of chemistry; Vanessa Song, visiting assistant professor of chemistry; Erin Wachter, assistant professor of chemistry; and Lesley Wiglesworth, associate professor of mathematics.

There are seven LSAMP scholars participating either on campus or remotely. Ella Aponte ‘22, Tanner May ‘22, and Marielena Villeran ’22 are participating on campus. Micai Benford ‘22, Will Britt ‘21, Arianna Robbins ’22 and Natalie Cha Olguin ‘22 are all participating remotely.

“There is a lot of good research demonstrating that undergraduate research is important students develop a sense of identity as a scientist and to persist in science fields,” Demoranville added. “Many of these benefits are particularly significant for underrepresented groups. If we are serious about improving the diversity of STEM fields, this program is one small step in that direction.”

Benford and his mentor Song are working on computation modeling of organic semiconductors.

“Micai has been working on build conjugated organic molecules that are then submitting jobs to the UKY supercomputer cluster for structural geometry optimization and relaxation,” Song said. “He then has been writing a computer script to layer these organic molecules to study their electronic behaviors in a crystal packing. In addition to working with me, Micai has also been working with visiting researcher Dr. Karl Thorley and associate professor Dr. Chad Risko at the UK Center for Applied Energy (CAER). Dr. Thorley has been primarily assisting with various scripts to alter the packing of the molecules in order to determine the charge destruction and conducting efficiency.”

Aponte has had the opportunity to work with Wachter investigating DNA metal complex interactions using absorbance/fluorescence spectroscopy and gel electrophoresis.

“Ella is doing some microbiology then will transition to developing assays and subsequently screening a series of ruthenium(II) and iron(II) polypyridyl complexes to determine the DNA binding mode,” Wachter said. “We will also spend some time reading current literature in this field to inform the types of assays we’ll focus on developing and use to compare her results.”

Aponte said she was interested in participating in LSAMP, because she had heard about the unique opportunities it presented students from minority groups.

“I, of course, wanted to participate in a summer research experience, but LSAMP provides much more than that,” she added. “It allows us to form a community within the STEM majors on campus, as well as connect us with professionals across the country and provide opportunities for growth and advancement in our academic and professional careers we would not have had otherwise.”

Aponte said working with Wachter has been a rewarding experience for her.

“She has allowed me to learn and grow as a student in ways I could never imagine,” Aponte said. “I am so thankful for her guidance and mentorship as I learn new techniques and ways of thinking.”

This summer, Rodenborn and May are studying the physics of how being near a boundary affects the motility of microscopic cells.

“Not only do these cells experience water very differently than we do due to the difference in scale/speed, the presence of a boundary affects their behavior even more,” May said. “Dr. Rodenborn and I are running experiments with a model flagellum to understand the physics and functional form of the forces and torques that these cells experience as a function of distance from a boundary. We hypothesize that cells spend most of their time near boundaries, because it actually makes travel more efficient for these organisms.”

May believes his experience with LSAMP will provide him with many opportunities to further his education in graduate school, as well as teach him valuable networking and professional skills.

“I have learned a lot,” he said. “Not only have I learned more about fluid dynamics, but I have strengthened my relationship with my mentor and learned more about what it is like to be a scientist.”

“Coming from an area where most people never get to fully experience college, let alone scientific research, I feel that working with LSAMP has given me opportunities and experiences that few others have been able to have,” he concluded. “Hopefully I can use what I have learned to empower others and do good in my community.”

by Kerry Steinhofer
July 21, 2020

Header image: Ella Aponte ‘22 participates in LSAMP collaborative research with Erin Wachter, assistant professor of chemistry.