Harvesting Opportunity: Undergraduates, Professors See More Chances for Research

Note: This article was originally published in the fall 2010 issue of Focus, Columbus State's twice-a-year magazine.

By Greg Muraski

Studying animal specimens in a LeNoir Hall lab has frequently connected Akeeta Harris to her earliest memories of growing up on Chicago’s south side.

Her science teacher-grandfather’s “quirky activities,” such as freezing dead pet birds and fish and keeping small animals in jars, fascinated and inspired her. “By age 6, I was conducting science experiments and presenting them on tri-fold boards,” said the senior biology major.

Though a high-achiever in science through middle grades and high school, Harris said her college choice had little to do with academics. “I chose CSU simply for a change of scenery, along with persuasion from a friend from home who was here as a criminal justice major.”

Four years later, Harris is now reaping the benefits of that decision. After an admittedly slow start, she has excelled in taking advantage of high-level opportunities resulting from Columbus State’s growing commitment to stronger undergraduate research across disciplines.

Students, as well as professors, are mining external funding sources and newly conceived internal opportunities. Chemistry professor Joseph Rugutt has acquired National Science Foundation grants to support multiple projects, including a spring 2010 organic chemistry study through which Harris synthesized chalcones, an agent regarded as a potential breakthrough source in cancer research and the treatment of chronic illnesses.

Rugutt leveraged the project into an NSF-funded summer 2010 internship at the University of Illinois, where Harris studied gold nanoparticles as a means to detect mercury in drinking water.

Such lab experiences whetted Harris’ hunger for graduate study

in either of two fields. “As a biochemist, I want to continue experimenting with biosensors toward better detecting and treating environmental toxins and diseases like diabetes and HIV,” she said. “In public health, I want to improve my community by developing programs to promote health awareness and encourage minority youth to go to college.”

Harris’ aspiration reflects a recent statement on the national Council on Undergraduate Research website: “Shifting the current structure of the undergraduate experience could not only alter traditional ways of doing research, but also could help resolve the broken pipeline of scientists, promote the next generation of entrepreneurs and support a science-literate society.”

That shift is transpiring across CSU, thanks in part to the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity Grant Program

initiated in fall 2009 by CSU’s Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. In its initial year, the program yielded 42 grants of up to $300 each, which subsidized material and travel expenses.

Tower Day

Grant recipients also presented their faculty-supervised work among 177 undergrads and 87 projects presented as part of CSU’s inaugural Tower Day last April.

Faculty judges cited top entries ranging from physics to film history and English literature, demonstrating quality across disciplines.

Computer science professor Shamim Khan, who chairs CSU’s undergraduate research grant program, said momentum from Tower Day 2010 has increased the demand for, and availability of, awards being distributed this year.

Subsequently, math education professor Cindy Henning, who directs CSU’s Honors Program and Tower Day, plans to accommodate 250

participants for the second event,

set for April 12. She said the event — encompassing service learning project displays, musical performances, chemistry demonstrations and interactive art displays — proved to be a catalyst for students. “They worked very hard on their projects throughout the semester and took pride in the opportunity to display their results.”

Such pride tends to translate to academic self-confidence, said mathematics professor and former Provost Inessa Levi, who initiated the research grant program. “According to recent research, students who complete undergraduate research and creative activity projects with faculty are more likely to attend graduate or professional school and develop new, increased personal expectations about getting doctoral degrees,” she said. “This data is supportive of enhancing our student retention and graduation rates and empowering individual

students with marketable skills that are impressive to top employers and graduate schools.”

‘Faces of Andros’

The enterprising spirit among students played out in a spring 2010 study abroad trip to the Bahamas, where undergrads parlayed the trip’s base a study of diabetes on Andros Island to concurrent projects of personal interest.

Theatre major Melora Slotnik interviewed diabetes patients and recreated their stories in monologues, recorded by other CSU theatre students and presented as “Faces of Andros” at Tower Day with a slide show of images from the weeklong island study.

Meanwhile, chemistry/pre-dental major Eunhye “Claire” Cho, who participated in the monologue project, also conducted a parallel study on dental care. She documented a system in which island inhabitants typically have three opportunities per year to endure long lines to see a dentist, either visiting from Nassau or as part of a mission from the United States.

Biology professor Katey Hughes, who directed the trip, said Cho efficiently and resourcefully paralleled the main study, through which the group experienced a health care system based on nurse-operated clinics with scant resources. “They witnessed how incredibly resourceful, knowledgeable and proactive these nurses have to be in order to provide adequate care for a society whose only exposure to physicians is limited to visits from U.S.-based medical missions and periodic doctor visits from Nassau.”

Cho said the trip provided new insight in approaching, and communicating with people of different lifestyles and beliefs. “The projects transformed me as a scholar,” she said. “Despite the size of Andros, I experienced different cultures with varied histories and beliefs concerning medicine, based primarily on brewing bush teas from various local plants.”

New Urbanism

During a recent geography field study, Meredith Duke collected data at Seaside, Fla., for an independent undergraduate research project on “new urbanism” — a landscape architectural movement originating at Seaside, established about 30 years ago, and best-known as the setting for the 1998 film The Truman Show.

“Meredith is analyzing the changes in resort new urbanism over the last 30 years by looking at the way space has been used in three Florida panhandle communities: Seaside (1980s), Rosemary Beach (1990s), and Alys Beach (2000s),” said geography professor Amanda Rees, who organized the Florida trip with colleague Tim Hawthorne. “She’ll be asking what each development can tell us about the shifts in new urban thinking. This is something that I don’t think anyone else has explored, and I’m very excited to read her findings.”

Rees also said Duke will be applying for an internal grant to present her work this spring at the Association of American Geographers International Conference in Seattle. “We also are considering expanding her work for publication in a geography journal,” Rees said.

Capitalizing on the upswing of research activity, Columbus State is developing an undergraduate research journal with a faculty editorial board that will help attract an interdisciplinary readership.

Though Akeeta Harris will have moved on before she gets an opportunity to have her work published as a student here, she credits the university for setting her foundation for future success.

“The influence of my professors, like Dr. Rugutt and Dr. (Monica) Frazier, has shown me the true meaning of dedication and hard work — that patience, persistence and motivation are the key factors to seeing any project through, whether related to science research or any challenge in life.”