In keeping with the high impact practice of engaging students with undergraduate research across many disciplines, Centre College is hosting over forty faculty/student research pairs on campus this summer. Four of the pairs (pictured above) are funded through the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program which is supported by the National Science Foundation. 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.
In September of 2013, the College learned of its $140,430 sub-award from award HRD-1305039 managed by the Kentucky-West Virginia LSAMP Alliance based at the University of Kentucky. Centre’s funding will be used each summer through August of 2018 to support student and faculty stipends, research supplies and student travel to conferences. This year, two rising juniors, Evander Harris and Spencer Overstreet, as well as two incoming first years, Taylor Walker-Smith and J.D. Dotson, are working with faculty mentors on four different research projects .
Harris and Assistant Professor of Physics Jim Kelly are using computer modeling to study crystal growth at the molecular level, specializing in snow crystals. Harris says he has gained a wealth of new knowledge from his participation in the project.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience with computer modeling before, so I had the challenge of working with different computer codes,” Harris explains. “It was like learning a whole different language.”
Kelly has been impressed with Harris’ progress in an area of study that is new to him.
“Evander has been a good sport and has learned so much, so fast about programming he knew nothing about,” he says.
Overstreet (pictured right) has also found her research experience to be immensely instructive. She and Stephen Asmus, professor and chair of the biochemistry and molecular biology program, are comparing the way ultraviolet light induces programmed cell death in tumor and primary cell cultures.
“You never know how much you don’t know until you do something like this,” says Overstreet. “It’s been amazing learning from Dr. Asmus.”
Though the faculty members oversee the research, the students are highly involved. Walker-Smith notes that she has been pleasantly surprised by the active role she is playing in her research with Melissa Burns-Cusato, associate professor and chair of the behavioral neuroscience program. They are investigating the biological basis of pair bonds in ring-necked doves by testing the role of dopamine in mediating the attraction between males and females.
“It’s been a really eye-opening experience,” says Walker-Smith. “I thought maybe I’d be a helper—I’m just 18 years old, I’m not even really here yet—but I’ve been doing just as much as the other student researchers. It’s really awesome getting to learn stuff like this.”
Often a key component of this deeply engaging research is peer mentorship. Many of the students receive guidance not only from their faculty mentor but also from an older student who has prior research experience.
“In my lab, one of the things I focus on is building a research community,” explains Burns-Cusato. “So I have several students that form a chain of mentorship. I have a senior student that’s been doing the research for a while, and in order to augment her experience in the lab as well as Taylor’s, she serves as a peer mentor to Taylor.
“I like this approach because I think it fosters more collaboration amongst peers and between all of us,” adds Burns-Cusato.
For Dotson (pictured right with Demoranville), the opportunity to participate in summer research funded by the LSAMP program was a critical factor in his decision to attend Centre. He and Walker-Smith have also appreciated the early welcome to the Centre community. They have been a part of weekly lunch gatherings of all Division III science and math student-researchers and have heard about the exciting work being done in other labs on campus.
“Coming straight in, I wouldn’t have known as many people,” says Dotson. “I’ve been able to do things I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do.”
Dotson is participating in research with Leonard Demoranville, assistant professor of chemistry, as they try to detect small amounts of illicit drugs on surfaces, with the hope of one day contributing to meth lab remediation.
Demoranville has observed both initiative and self-sufficiency on Dotson’s part. When Dotson and his peer mentor Alex Combs ’16 encountered a roadblock in their research and Demoranville was unavailable, the two sought out Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kerry Paumi for advice.
“I found them picking Dr. Paumi’s brain and because of that we made some pretty sizable breakthroughs on issues we had been fighting with all summer long,” Demoranville says. “Seeing them cooperatively solve problems on their own is a lot of fun.”
Asmus notes that one benefit of research is the opportunity for the students to gain confidence.
“Whether you do well in class or not, research is totally different,” he explains. “You don’t get a grade. You practice lab skills and become really good at them. It’s a great confidence-builder.”
Students can also benefit from presenting their research at professional meetings of scientists and researchers in a given field.
Perhaps, most importantly, the LSAMP program is providing these students with the knowledge and experience that will open doors for them now and in the future. While Walker-Smith and Dotson report that this research experience has influenced their decision to take more science classes at Centre, Harris and Overstreet believe it will positively impact their future careers.
Harris believes this experience will help him achieve his goal of becoming a physics teacher and Overstreet plans to pursue pharmacy school, though she has also become interested in cancer research through her current work with programmed cell death.
“The research I’m doing now is related to cancer research, so that’s a possible future for me, too,” says Overstreet.
To learn more about the LSAMP program, visit the National Science Foundation website.
by Caitlan Cole
Group photo: Back row, from left to right: Stephen Asmus, Jim Kelly, Melissa Burns-Cusato and Lenny Demoranville.
Front row, from left to right: Spencer Overstreet ’16, Evander Harris ’16, Taylor Walker Smith ’18 and J.D. Dotson ’18.