Summer Research Offers Opportunities, Mentorship

SHREVEPORT, La.—For many college students, summer is a time for relaxation, working a summer job, hanging out at the pool or beach, or just lounging around.

But for Marco Rajo, a neuroscience major here, it meant sometimes arriving at the lab at 3 o'clock in the morning to obtain samples for an experiment he is conducting on the sleep/wake cycle. Andy Osborn, another neuroscience major, was looking to find new techniques to make certain bonds in chemicals, especially in pharmaceuticals, that are faster, less expensive, and more environmentally friendly. And Matt Blanchard, a chemistry and physics major, spent his summer working alongside his mentor trying to figure the best conditions for carbon nanotubes to grow in and how to optimize their growth.

"This has been a great experience," said Osborn, a junior from Ponchatoula, La. "I wouldn't have had this opportunity at a larger school. You can do undergrad research at other schools, but it would be less hands on. Here, I have been able to work close with my mentor, something that wouldn't happen at a larger institution."

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Osborn was among 19 students participating in the summer research program. The program allows students to join with faculty members in powerful learning experiences through research. Students have the opportunity to apply their classroom knowledge to a specific project, while faculty benefit from the assistance of capable, motivated students.

According to Dr. Troy Messina, assistant professor of physics, the summer research projects actually help professors learn more about their students and give them real-world research experience. Just as in research outside of a school setting, he said, there are many obstacles to overcome and work through.

"One of the big things they learn is that science doesn't come in three-hour blocks," said Messina. "Many of these students are conducting PhD level research in their sophomore and junior year and have to deal with obstacles that they would face in a research setting. The students are getting the chance to see what really happens in research; you just don't go in and it works and you go have to troubleshoot, adapt and try to figure out how to make something happen."

Professors also have to act as mentors, Messina said. "As a mentor, I have to remember where they are in their academic career and remind myself as a mentor I have to put myself in their shoes and help them in their learning process. They are learning things that even I don't know, so we are learning from each other."

Assistant professor of chemistry, Dr. Mary Robert Garrett agrees with Messina and is amazed at how far her students have come during the short 10-week research project.

"I have been very impressed at how quickly they are solving problems on their own," she said. "I am impressed with their drive even though things may not have worked out as we thought. They are learning to think through problems, and not only experience true lab techniques, but experience a higher level of thinking that you develop as a graduate student."

Among the many projects researched include:

  • Matt Blanchard worked alongside Dr. Thomas Ticich, professor of chemistry, in finding news ways to grow carbon nanotubes in a simpler fashion. Nanotubes are 1/50,000 the size of a human hair follicle, and useful in many applications in nanotechnology, electronics, optics, and possibly the treatment of some forms of cancer.
  • Bradlee Robertson worked on programming Artificial Intelligence with Dr. Mark Goadrich, assistant professor of computational mathematics, for a controller for a rescue robot. Eventually, the robot could be used to assist in disaster relief rescue operations.
  • Julia Cornelius, a biophysics major from Weatherford, Texas, plans to attend medical school after graduation. Working with Dr. Juan Rodriguez, Chair of the Physics Department, her research focused on how to detect the presence of Nitric Oxide in biological samples. Nitric Oxide is an important signaling molecule in biological samples and has been found to be important in signaling muscle relaxation, especially in the heart. The research has pharmaceutical implications in that some day a drug could be developed using this research that could help those with heart disease.

The goal of this summer's research, according to Garrett, is for the student to acquire more experience, especially since some are still undecided about what they what to do after graduation. "I can't think of a better way to figure it out then doing research like this."

Students involved in this summer's research program included:

  • Jessica Miller, junior, Biology major
  • Rebecca McMahen, junior, biochemistry major
  • Danielle Crouthers, senior, chemistry major
  • Donald Julien, sophomore, biochemistry major
  • Ashley Rawson, junior, chemistry major
  • Cara Miccoli, junior, biochemistry major
  • Deana Apple, senior, neuroscience major
  • Marco Rajo, junior, chemistry major
  • Marco Reyes, sophomore, physics major
  • Jessica Garza, senior, biophysics major
  • Bradlee Robertson, junior
  • Nolan Baker, sophomore, math and physics major
  • Jordan Day, junior
  • Andy Osborn, junior
  • Tuan Tran, junior, biology major
  • Julia Cornelius, senior, biophysics major
  • George Tiller, senior, biology major
  • Matt Blanchard, sophomore