From Hands up to Hands-on
Bucknell students no longer just raise their hands to ask questions — they answer them through research projects.
By Gigi Marino and Barbara Maynard ’88
Central Pennsylvania in midsummer: A crescendo of color slips into the horizon, and the indigo sky darkens to a grainy dusk. A breeze rustles the cornfields. Little brown bats sleeping in the eaves of a large barn begin to awaken, and their twittering punctuates the descending night. Assistant Professor of Biology DeeAnn Reeder and a group of students have assembled harp traps — large aluminum frames strung with line that confounds the bats’ flight and abets their capture — and set up a staging area for taking blood samples and recording data. The air is filled with the distinct and fetid smell of guano, but this team has long gotten used to it. They’ve spent most of their summer nights capturing and releasing bats.
The little browns begin to swoop out of the barn, a few at first, but within minutes the entire colony is fast departing. The harp traps do their job. The bats get caught in the line and fall into plastic sheeting rigged beneath the traps. The purpose of this night’s work is to determine how pregnant females respond to stress. The team members — Sara Alfano ’10, Kaitlyn Piatt ’09, Kim Weaver ’10, Megan Vodzak ’09 and Roymon Jacob MS’09 — scoop up the tiny mammals with no hesitation and determine with a gentle press to a female’s belly if she is pregnant or lactating. Holding the bats for an extended time to induce stress, the students take blood samples at specific intervals. Back in the lab, they will look for stress hormones, specifically cortisol and corticosterone.
“We catch bats all the time for different studies, but we don’t have a handle on the physiological effects,” says Reeder. “We expect to find that in pregnancy we won’t see the response to stress we do at other times. We think pregnant mammals tend to be resistant because you can’t afford to stress out the fetus. The data will have implications for wildlife management, conservation and bat research.” Reeder will present this work at a conference or submit it to a peer-reviewed journal, and her name will appear last in the list of contributors, as it usually does. In the competitive world of academic research, Reeder not only considers her undergraduates full research partners, she gives them first credit. And she is not alone at Bucknell, where professors routinely engage their students in major research projects, which they present together as peers, not teacher and student.
Later this month, Reeder and students, including all those listed above, plus John Kobilis ’09 and Amanda Kronquist ’10, will present at the North American Symposium on Bat Research on topics such as hibernation patterns, immune responses and wound-healing rates, as well as a preliminary survey of bats in southern Sudan. In July, neuroscience major Vodzak joined Reeder in the Sudanese bush, helping to assess the local bat population and educating villagers about conservation.
“I feel lucky I have found a research adviser who’s not only interested in what she’s doing but also is interested in having undergraduates help her,” says Vodzak. “I never thought I would be able to say, ‘I’m going to Sudan to do field research.’ I am definitely unique in my group of friends at other schools.”
Today’s Bucknell students live in an increasingly complex and technological world. Leadership demands that they are not just consumers of the benefits and by-products of science but purveyors of them. A 2007 report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise provides the underpinning for Bucknell’s academic vision and educational goals. According to the report, “The world is being dramatically reshaped by scientific and technological innovations, global interdependence, cross-cultural encounters and changes in the balance of economic and political power.”
Says Provost Mick Smyer, “One of the hallmarks of success in the liberal arts university in the 21st century is the integration of faculty scholarship and student learning. It’s not so much that we just want our students to learn facts and information, but we also want them to learn how to develop an understanding in a specific discipline or a field.”
It’s not unusual for Bucknell students to begin research projects in their sophomore year, or even earlier. Joey McMullen ’09 began research in his first year with a term paper for a seminar on early Irish myth and legend. Impressed with the paper, English professor Alf Siewers suggested McMullen rework it for a conference. McMullen has since presented his work at several national and international conferences, including the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and the Old Irish Seminar at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies School of Celtic Studies.
A distinctive National Science Foundation-funded program in the Department of Physics and Astronomy — Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) — involves not just physics and astronomy but also chemical engineering, math and biology, among others. The goal, Associate Professor of Physics Marty Ligare says, is to create a research culture, a graduate-school-like environment for undergraduates from Bucknell and other institutions who learn not only to develop their ideas and topics but also how to present those ideas at conferences and publish in peer-reviewed journals. Since 2002, physics and astronomy students have co-authored 18 papers in scientific journals and presented 60 conference papers.
“Research,” says Ligare, “is one of the best ways to produce scholars.”
Associate Professor of Physics Ben Vollmayr-Lee tells this anecdote about Melinda Gildner ’06, a 2004 REU participant. “As a junior, Lindy gave an impressive talk — a theoretical calculation for the process of forming metal alloys — at the Rutgers Statistical Mechanics Conference. Afterwards, many of my colleagues commented how much they liked it. The best comment was, ‘I didn't know Bucknell had a graduate program.’ In physics graduate programs, theoretical physics students typically don’t even begin their research until their third year. Since Lindy was presenting research, this person was assuming she was about a fourth-year grad student.”
The Bucknell Program for Undergraduate Research (PUR) provides stipends and housing to 40-50 students who work with faculty members over the summer. Timothy McLees ’10 spent his summer developing a sort of high-tech rubber stamp. The idea behind the project was to get nanoparticles — in this case, tiny specks of gold about the size of an individual virus — arranged in straight, thin lines.
“These patterned surfaces will have unique properties that can be exploited for a number of applications, from biologically relevant conductive pathways to unique coatings,” says Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Erin Jablonski. For instance, the nanoparticles could simulate nerve cells.
McLees found the challenge of working through his own research problems to be rewarding. “Somebody could tell you what it means to work on research, but actually doing it is much more valuable,” he says.
Jason Wong ’10 also worked on nanoparticles called quantum dots with Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Brandon Vogel. The dots’ small size and their capacity to fluoresce when exposed to light make them prime candidates for biological imaging. Vogel and Jablonski hope to use quantum dots to visualize blood flow through tumors and eventually to develop drugs targeted specifically to cancerous growths.
Leo Zacks ’09 worked in the field — or rather, in the stream. Pennsylvania receives some of the most acidic rainfall in the country, thanks to wind-blown emissions from vehicles and coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley. The result is hundreds of miles of acidified streams, often with a pH low enough to dissolve metals such as aluminum, which is toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms.
“These are some of our most beautiful streams,” says Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Matt McTammany ’95. “Most of them are in state forests, so they are protected — but not against acid from the atmosphere.”
Local geology affects how strongly a given stream is affected. Streams surrounded by limestone, which contains minerals that neutralize acid, are less affected, while streams situated in Tuscarora sandstone are not so lucky. The headwaters of Buffalo Creek fall into the sandstone category.
“Buffalo Creek used to be a highly rated brook trout stream,” says Zacks, who worked with McTammany this summer. “Now, the only place you find fish is farther downstream.”
A group of concerned citizens called the Buffalo Creek Watershed Alliance, of which McTammany is a part, have decided to treat the symptoms, even if they can’t cure the disease. This fall, they installed an artificial wetland that uses limestone to neutralize the headwaters, bringing the creek back to a healthier condition.
For Sam Clark ’10 and Laura Chernak ’09, also funded this summer by PUR, six months of work paid off in one split second — and one split chicken bone. The two worked with Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Eric Kennedy to develop a device to better understand how and why so many people tear their anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL.
Every year, over 80,000 people in the United States tear their ACL, which sits behind the kneecap and connects the thighbone to the shinbone. Better understanding of how much torque, or load, it takes to tear the ACL in knees of different shapes and sizes could lead to training programs designed to prevent injury. “Eventually, this research could give athletic trainers the information they need to selectively develop training programs for different athletes,” Kennedy says.
As Clark knows from first-hand experience — she tore her ACL doing gymnastics in eighth grade — most ACL injuries happen fast and they happen when the knee is twisted. However, twisting at high speed isn’t an easy situation to simulate. Other researchers have pulled on knees or twisted them slowly, but so far, nobody has simulated realistic injury conditions.
“We’re hoping to mimic the actual injury mechanics by twisting the knee really fast,” Clark said. To do that, the team had to create a new apparatus. Chernak, a mechanical engineering major, focused on the design of the device while Clark, a biomedical engineering major, figured out how to wire the instrumentation, the data acquisition system, the high-speed video camera and the device itself so that they all work together.
Their effort paid off on the last day of the summer research session, when they completed the assembly of their prototype and tested it — unceremoniously, with a chicken bone bought that morning at Wal-Mart. Within one split second, they could see that the device delivered the fast, forceful twist, the data acquisition system recorded the amount of load on the bone, and the video cameras recorded it all.
“I’ve taken design classes, but I had yet to draw something and actually pick out the screw sizes and buy them online and then build the device,” Chernak says, “Being able to go through the whole process has been eye-opening for me.”
Clark is a Presidential Fellow, and Chernak earned independent study credits toward her biomedical engineering minor. The Presidential Fellow program provides funding to students who work one-on-one with professors during their entire undergraduate career. Fellow Matt Feder ’10 is building an electric truck project with Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Peter Stryker. Last year, in collaboration with Associate Professor of Psychology Arthur Shapiro, Emily Knight ’08 created illusions that placed third in an international contest hosted by the Neural Correlate Society. Ben Reiter ’06 worked at Fermilab with Associate Professor of Physics Sally Koutsoliotas to investigate neutrinos. The Bucknell Bug, the University’s weather station, was built in part by then-Presidential Fellow Philip Marquis ’07, in conjunction with Associate Professor of Geology Duane Griffin.
All engineering students must complete a senior design project, which, says Associate Professor of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering Dan Cavanagh, may contain components of both research and product development, especially in biomedical engineering. Bucknell students and faculty advisors have been working closely with doctors at the Geisinger Medical Center to design and prototype devices to address common clinical problems. Thus far, this collaborative effort has resulted in multiple patent disclosures for medical devices they created, a tangible result of lab work.
The palette of research offerings is impressive and available to students in all majors. The Department of Chemistry has a long and strong tradition of research, which was begun by Professor Emeritus Harold Heine half a century ago. Says Assistant Professor of Chemistry Molly McGuire, “Bucknell was several decades ahead of our peers in this regard.” The Kalman Symposium highlights a poster session and talks each spring. The Bucknell University Environmental Center’s Cultures at the Confluence project, which is funded by the Ben Stow Trust and the Degenstein Foundation, provides numerous interdisciplinary opportunities for students. Assistant Professors of Mathematics Peter Brooksbank and Nathan Ryan recently established a research group in computational algebra, combinatorics and number theory. Seniors can choose to write an honors thesis, which involves original research. Individual professors receive NSF funding, and many, like Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Tom Distefano, whose students are working to improve a local sewage treatment plant, involve the community. Cavanagh says such opportunities appeal to applicants. “Bucknell’s strong support of the research interactions between faculty and students is an important reason that many students and faculty choose to come here,” he says. “The valuable contributions that students make to faculty research projects play a big role in the success of both the students and the faculty.”
Vodzak agrees: "”Being able to apply what I’m learning and looking at how to approach scientific questions is not only a valuable and rewarding experience but also the best experience I've had at Bucknell.”