Paul Davis’ tightly corded forearm is bisected by a rubbery yellow wristband with the word LIVESTRONG embossed on it.
Students spend 40 hours per week during the summer on their faculty-led research projects. In the natural sciences division, research ranges from fertility in rats to microbial analysis of tree-canopy soil.
The bands have become ubiquitous, but the trend started with the Lance Armstrong Foundation as a sign of unity in the fight against cancer. Since then, its founder has faced charges that doping was a factor in his seven Tour de France championships.
Davis, an assistant professor of chemistry, doesn’t take a position on Armstrong’s guilt or innocence. But he and three students spent the summer researching new ways to detect performance-enhancing drugs in athletes.
Athletes use elevated levels of the body’s natural chemicals to boost performance because it’s hard for existing tests to definitively detect this type of doping. Davis’ team used gold nanoparticles to detect elevated levels of naturally occurring chemicals. It is an approach on the cutting edge in the field.
It was one of six projects pursued by student-faculty teams in the natural sciences division this summer. Students were chosen for the intense, 40-hour-per-week program through a competitive process. What they gained for their effort can scarcely be measured.
For starters, they got paid: Grants fund hourly wages paid to students. But more importantly, students racked up hundreds of hours of “real” research quite different from the lab exercises they perform during the academic year.
Typically, undergraduates perform experiments designed by other researchers. Their goal is to replicate the results.
This summer’s work was a whole new ball game. The results often yielded more questions than they answered. The outcomes were ambiguous. There was no template for what they would find.
In other words, it was exactly like being a real scientist.
“We get grant money to conduct the research, and they wouldn’t give you money if the answer was known,” said Myriam Cotten, an assistant chemistry professor.
Ann Auman, an assistant professor of biology, said she loves the chance to spend so much time shoulder-to-shoulder with students, forming lasting connections. Past student researchers have invited her to weddings and graduation parties, and the experience of meeting their parents and being a real part of their lives is gratifying, she said.
“It’s just nice for students to understand we’re real human beings,” Auman said. “Students say ‘Oh, she has a Ph.D., she’s written these papers,’ and it’s good for them to know that I still have to deal with my kid, I have bad hair days. It’s fun to get to know them where they’re at.”
Bad hair days aside, the students agreed that the rapport with their professors greatly enhances their educational experience.
“It’s really nice to have someone who will equate the levels between faculty and student,” said Zach DeBoard, a senior biology major. “Dr. (Matt) Smith really tries to make things fun and develop more of a mentor relationship with us.”
Davis’ group broke from lab work once a week to present recently published academic papers to each other. The sessions kept them informed and provided an opportunity to spend quality time with their professor.
“This is what makes A and B flow together,” senior Chris Bingham said of the exchange.
The opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate is not unique to PLU. But the quality of the experience here is something special. Students use equipment they’d never get to touch at most large universities.
Senior Megan Bourassa said a friend doing research at a large school doesn’t even know the professor in charge of her project. “She said she just sits in a lab and pipettes all day and it’s really monotonous, and I’m like, ‘You should come to PLU.’”
Chemistry Professor Dean Waldow and his team traveled to a national laboratory outside Washington, D.C., at the end of July to use a Small Angle Neutron Scattering – powered by a 20-megawatt nuclear reactor – in research on polymers. Time in the national lab is hard to come by, but a proposal written by Waldow gave the students access to some of the most sophisticated equipment in the field. Similarly, Cotten’s group went to Tallahassee, Fla., to use a National Science Foundation lab. A well received paper she and her 2005 research students wrote got them in the door.
Published work in scientific journals is another huge advantage for students on the research teams. And that, coupled with the other benefits of doing research at PLU, equates an informed, engaged corps of future scientists.
“I really like science and service to others, and these go hand-in-hand in the medical field,” said senior Sarah Burke. “Research is a good way to get started in that field.”
Student-faculty research projects in the natural sciences
Who: Assistant Chemistry Professor Myriam Cotten, seniors Randy Saager, Breanna Vollmar and Christine Gordon, and sophomore Eric Gordon
What: The team researched antimicrobial peptides found on the skin of fish to determine how antimicrobial and antiviral agents can be used by people.
Who: Assistant Biology Professor Matt Smith, senior Zach DeBoard, junior Blake Hovde and sophomore Alicia Che
What: Smith’s team studied how brain chemicals control ovulation in female rats.
Who: Assistant Chemistry Professor Paul Davis and seniors Cody Morrisey, Chris Bingham and Megan Bourassa
What: Gold nanoparticles were studied for use in detecting performance-enhancing drugs in athletes.
Who: Assistant Biology Professor Ann Auman, seniors Sarah Burke and Elizabeth Sloan and junior Kimberly Cotton
What: Microbes present in tree-canopy soil were analyzed for possible commercial applications.
Who: Chemistry Professor Dean Waldow and seniors Chris Hamre and Brandon Stickelmeyer
What: The team studied additives that could be used to blend different kinds of polymers together.
Who: Assistant Chemistry Professor Neal Yaklis and seniors Justin Carlson, Keane Lindblad and Daniel Jacobson
What: Yaklis and his fellow researchers worked to synthesize a variety of organic compounds that may have medicinal or biological implications.