Juniors Louesa Akin, Zach Sweeney and Jerry Yang; sophomore Jennifer O’Brien; and senior Ryan Will all took top honors against stiff competition at The Kentucky Academy of Science (KAS) Annual Meeting, held at Western Kentucky University on Nov. 12 and 13.
The KAS meeting advances the organization’s commitment to encouraging scientific research and bringing together the best minds in the Commonwealth to share scientific knowledge and interests. Other undergraduate programs represented at the annual meeting included Western Kentucky University, Berea, Morehead State University and Asbury University.
Sweeney, of Ft. Mitchell, Ky., took first place in the chemistry paper presentation division for research work he conducted with professor of chemistry Dr. Jennifer Muzyka called “Virtual Screening of MurA: Elucidation of Potential Inhibitors.”
The project involves exploration of the MurA enzyme’s active site using a computer. In the next step, a number of compounds are examined to determine how well they fit into the active site. Substances that fit into the active site will be studied to determine how well they inhibit the enzyme. These experiments may lead to the discovery of new antibiotics, which are drugs used to combat bacteria.
“Working with Dr. Muzyka was an absolute privilege, and I regard her as a friend as well as a mentor and professor,” Sweeney says. “I’d highly encourage any underclassman thinking of pursuing a career in the sciences to participate in research, particularly over the summer, as this gave me invaluable insight into the nature of the work of a scientist.
“I’m certain research will go down as one of my greatest experiences at Centre,” Sweeney continues. “Winning first place at KAS was enjoyable, but in perspective it was just icing on the cake.
“At first [the research] was indescribably frustrating, as some problems would persist for weeks on end and would seem insignificant,” Sweeney continues. “However, as I made progress, I began to understand the nature of scientific research and the level of commitment and dedication it requires. When I achieved success and finally obtained viable data at the end of the summer, I was ecstatic because I’d finally solved a problem that had persisted in various forms for three months.
“My efforts this summer were a rather small fraction of the over all pool of effort,” Sweeney says. “Louesa Akin ’12, Jordan Feigerle ’10 and several other Centre students who preceded me laid the groundwork for this research.
“Presenting this data at KAS was great pleasure, but I can say without any pretense or falsehood that the award belongs to all of the research collaborators without whom no progress could have even possibly been made,” he concludes.
Yang, of Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, earned second place in the physics and astronomy paper presentation division for “Optical Characterization of Phase Shifted Grating Waveguide Structures.” (To see an in-depth story about Yang’s research, click here). His faculty collaborator is physics professor Dr. Jason Neiser.
“I gave a talk on this research for the Centre Society of Physics Students earlier this semester,” Yang says. “But at that time, I had as much time as I wanted to explain all the details of the research. In the KAS presentation however, we only had 12 minutes plus three minutes of questions (quite like our RICE Symposium). I had to cut down many details we spent a lot of time on during the summer, which was a little frustrating to me.
(The annual RICE Symposium serves as a venue for Centre students to present the results of their research, internship experiences and creative activity. The symposium is set up like a typical academic conference—with registration, abstract submission, concurrent paper sessions, and a poster session.)
“I spent a lot time preparing, since Dr. Neiser isn’t here on campus helping me,” Yang explains. “Luckily, we could talk over the phone or even Skype, and he encouraged me to work hard on this and said I’d feel good when I gave a successful presentation and had some good questions to answer. And I found this was exactly the case!
“Interestingly, when I got on the stage, a huge delegation of people walked into the room,” Yang remembers. “They came from nowhere and I was panicked for a moment, but after the first slide I settled down and continued my talk just like I’d practiced.”
Akin, of Paducah, Ky., earned top honors in the cellular and molecular biology undergraduate paper presentation competition for research work she did at Vanderbilt University last summer. The presentation was titled “Scoring with NOE Restraints Improves Protein Structure Results.”
“I did research at Vandy in Dr. Jens Meiler’s lab,” Akin says. “He’s designing a program to determine protein structure. My part in this research involved incorporating a way to use experimental data to help in determining a protein’s structure into his program.”
O’Brein placed second in the Physiology and Biochemistry poster competition.
Will, of Lexington, Ky., was awarded first place in the psychology paper presentation division for “Non-Pharmaceutical Fertility Enhancement in Captive Birds Through Sexual Conditioning.” His faculty research collaborator is associate professor of psychology Dr. Brian Cusato.
“We used sexual conditioning to enhance fertility in captive birds, specifically Japanese quail,” Will says. “The implications of this research are quite far-reaching. Captive breeding programs that employ artificial techniques may lead to loss of natural reproductive behavior, so it’s important to investigate methods of fertility enhancement that are less invasive.”