College of Science Student Research Exposition
On Oct. 31, 2019, the College of Science hosted its 15th annual Student Research Expo.
“The Student Research Exposition provides a great opportunity for us to show off something we are very proud of as a college – namely, the superb research experiences we offer to our students. Our students accomplish some remarkably impressive things in their research, and this event is our biggest platform to show off their accomplishments,” said Associate Dean Mark Nielsen.
Nielsen has organized the Expo since 2008. “We started fairly small, with just a handful of students displaying posters of their research projects,” he said. “We’ve grown continually to where we had 48 participating students this year.”
According to Nielsen, the fastest growing part of the expo is participation by undergraduate students. In the early years, the vast majority of posters were from graduate students.
“This year we actually had an equal number of graduate and undergraduate students participating – that is a first for the event that we’re very excited about,” said Nielsen.
Attending the Expo and watching the students present their work is one of Nielsen’s favorite parts of the school year, as it allows him to see how far students have come.
“It’s very fun to look back at programs from the Expo in those early years, because I’m aware of what several of those student participants have done in the years since then. I just looked at one of the old programs and noted how impressive the lineup of graduate student participants is, especially in retrospect. I also saw a few names of undergraduates participating that year who I know have gone on to earn doctoral degrees and are now establishing themselves in science careers."
Gel Capsules Clean Up Groundwater
“Trichloroethylene (TCE), a commonly used industrial solvent, is a widespread, persistent, and carcinogenic groundwater pollutant,” said Laura Nutter, a senior microbiology major. “I’m working on encapsulating a certain type of bacteria in hydrogels so the bacteria will be better at breaking down the contaminants.”
“The main problem with TCE,” said Nutter, “is that it is really dense, and it sinks into the bedrock and slowly dissolves into the groundwater. Bacteria can break it down, but the process can create an acid, or the bacteria can be destroyed by other bacteria before breaking down the TCE.”
This is where the hydrogels come into play.
“The gel capsule gives the bacteria an outer layer that both slows down the breaking-down process, which lowers acid formation, and also gives the bacteria a layer of protection from other bacteria,” said Nutter.
Nutter conducts her research from both the Waynant Lab in the Department of Chemistry and the Moberly Lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering.
“The process is very interdisciplinary,” she said.
After graduating, Nutter would like to continue her research as a graduate student in the Rowley Lab in the Department of Biological Sciences where Assistant Professor Paul Rowley works with different strains of yeast.
“For my Ph.D., I want to try encapsulating yeast in a hydrogel,” said Nutter. “I want to see if this can be used as a better way to preserve fruits and other harvested crops.”
Nutter shared her research at the annual College of Science Student Research Expo.
This is a t-tube with a large gel capsule inserted in the right side. We use this to measure how long it takes the bacteria to defuse through the capsule.
From Kangaroo Rats to Robotics
Senior medical sciences major Kade Wagers has known since high school that he wanted to attend medical school and specialize in orthopedics. However, he never thought studying kangaroo rats would help get him there.
The Boise native chose the University of Idaho specifically for its undergraduate research opportunities. “When I arrived, I asked my advisor about conducting research. She gave me a list of labs and I saw that the McGowan Lab worked with movement and biomechanics. I applied and have been working with them, and the kangaroo rats, ever since.
“Kangaroo rats are a bipedal hopper,” said Wagers. “This is a unique form of locomotion and because of that, it actually has a lot of applications, including for human movement.”
According to Wagers, scientists know kangaroo rats use their tails for balance in steady states, but no one knows the extent or the mechanics of how the rats use their tails.
To help figure this out, Wagers puts small weights on different parts of the rat’s body-like their tails or toes-and then films them. This allows him to analyze how the tail changes according to the weight placement and how the rat readjusts to maintain its balance while hopping.
“What I love about this line of movement study is that it has applications in robotics, orthopedics, and building more efficient prosthetics", said Wagers.
Wagers, who is in the process of having his findings published, also presented them at the College of Science Student Research Expo.
Look for more on Wagers’ research in an upcoming episode of “The Lab Report.”
Undergraduate Researches Ways to Prevent Blindness
“Blinding diseases, such as age-muscular degeneration and glaucoma, are common causes of vision loss,” said senior molecular biology and biotechnology major Ren Dimico. “This study is intended to guide clinicians seeking interventions for people with similar disorders.”
Dimico, a native of Spokane, Washington, has always been interested in biotechnology. She participated in a biomedical science program during high school and came to the University of Idaho specifically because of the research opportunities.
“My top three schools I wanted to attend were Gonzaga, WSU and U of I,” she said, “but WSU and Gonzaga wouldn’t have given me as many undergraduate research opportunities. Here, undergraduates are given more opportunities to lead projects and not be stuck always doing the grunt work.”
Dimico’s research at the U of I started after her sophomore year when she received a summer REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) internship in the lab of Professor Fuerst. She began then working on a project to track expression of the Dscaml1 gene throughout the brain. Now she is working on a project to study synaptic formation in the rod pathway of the visual system.
“Right now,” she said, “I am looking at stationary night blindness because genetic blinding diseases help us to understand visual system organization and diseases.”
According to Dimico, a mutation in the Dscaml1 gene, which plays a role in spatial organization of neurons, can play a role in stationary night blindness.
“We are specifically looking at rod photoreceptors and how the body adjusts if there is a break in the pathway,” said Dimico.
After graduation, Dimico would like to continue her research in clinical oncology by entering an M.D./Ph.D. program.
Dimico presented her findings at the College of Science Student Research Expo.
“It is a good experience, getting to present to a wide variety of people,” said Dimico, “and getting to share what I’m doing with people is a really great experience as well.”
For a more in-depth look at Dimico’s research, make sure to read her feature in the upcoming Vandals in Focus.