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Summer research participants help break in new building

Barry McNamara
08/07/2013
Participants in the 2013 summer research program included (clockwise, from top left): Nick Olson, Ashwani Kumar (faculty), Steve Distin (faculty), Mitch Heuermann, Alex Peacock, Eric Todd (faculty), Kaitlyn Miller, Audra Sostarecz (faculty) Alanna Trettin, Samantha Oaks, Lindsay Ditzler, Heather Malone, Jacob Hutton, James Godde (faculty), Max Holle and Brad Sturgeon (faculty).
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Projects under the umbrella of the Kieft Summer Research Endowment at Monmouth College have been conducted for the past several years, following the death of beloved MC chemistry professor Richard “Doc” Kieft. But there has never been a summer of research quite like this one.
 
Nine Monmouth students were able to work on Kieft projects in the college’s brand new Center for Science and Business, making them the first students on campus to conduct research in the facility.
 
Predictably, the students were thrilled to help break in the new building while strengthening their knowledge of the sciences.
 
“The building was fantastic,” said Nick Olson of Genoa, who worked with assistant professor of physics Ashwani Kumar on scaling analyses of superconductor to insulator transitions. “The nuclear lab is very cool, and I’m excited to hopefully begin using it sometime during this year. The professors’ offices are a huge improvement.  With their larger size, it was very easy and convenient to discuss, in comfort, the research or just about any question that I had. The addition of the ‘snorkels’ and the improved fume-hoods in the chemistry labs really make it seem like you are in a facility at a huge university.”
 
“The new building was full of positive aspects,” added Max Holle of Oskaloosa, Iowa, who worked with Jacob Hutton of Sherrard on projects dealing with how different substances interact with humans’ cellular membranes. “A specific that comes to mind is the access to highly purified water, which allowed for greater control in my work.” 
 
“During the semester, extensive data analysis is often difficult to do due to limited time in the research lab,” explained associate professor of chemistry Audra Sostarecz, who worked with Holle and Hutton. “But this summer, my students and I had the amazing opportunity to not only collect data for our research projects but to also take time to search the literature and to really delve into data analysis.”
 
Holle and Hutton also had the opportunity to attend a regional American Chemical Society conference with faculty member Eric Todd during the summer, and Hutton placed first in oral presentation.
 
“My summer research experience really taught me how to troubleshoot and become self-motivated with my work,” said Holle. “There were many times when I would be faced with a problem or issue and I wouldn’t always have someone else around to rely on.  It became necessary to problem solve on the fly, which helped me become more self-sufficient and gather more in-depth knowledge on specific instruments.”
 
He added, “My research this summer became heavily reliant on how much I wanted to get done.  I became engrossed with becoming more knowledgeable in my research, which in turn fueled my passion for my work.”
 
While several individuals can be credited for substantial gifts or significant involvement in the planning of the new facility, the credit for the summer research opportunity rests solely with Kieft, who began a three-decade teaching career at Monmouth in 1975. When he passed away in 2009, he left $2.3 million to the chemistry department to be used in the areas of scholarships, national meetings and summer research.
 
“The idea behind the program is what Doc envisioned,” said assistant professor of chemistry Brad Sturgeon, who worked with Samantha Oaks of Cameron and Alex Peacock of Peoria. “Most liberal arts colleges are going to present the same basic information on chemistry in terms of exercises where we, as professors, know what the answer is. But what makes the difference and helps set Monmouth apart is engaging in open-ended questions. In other words, ‘research’ is engaging in projects where you don’t know what the answer is going into it.”
 
Sturgeon’s group “investigated the oxidation on lignin monomers. We were trying to understand fundamental chemical reactions with the lignin monomers and how we can use strategies to form better bioactive compounds.”
 
He added, “The summer research program really allows students time to expand their interest and their expertise about what they’re researching.”
 
“Seeing a glimpse of what research actually is helped to paint a more complete picture of what being a science student is,” agreed Olson, who also found an out-of-classroom experience beneficial.
 
“The whole experience was enhanced by living in Founders Village with two roommates who were also doing research,” he said. “Without the cafeteria to feed us, the preparation and consumption of our meals became a big part of our evening once we finished research for the day. It was really satisfying to take another step toward independence that was a lot different than living in a dorm.”
 
The nine students who participated this year worked eight 40-hour weeks, receiving free housing and a small stipend. The five faculty, which also included Lindsey Ditzler and James Godde, also received a stipend for their work. Ditzler led Mitch Heuermann of Peoria and Heather Malone of Princeton, while Godde worked with Kaitlyn Miller of Hobart, Ind., and Alanna Trettin of Manito.
 
Through a National Science Foundation grant, Cyrus Turner of Reynolds and Rik Williams of Greenview built lightning detectors on campus with physics professor Chris Fasano.
 
In addition to the research on campus, several Monmouth students were accepted for Research Experience for the Undergraduate (REU) projects across the U.S. Among that group are Stephanie Lankford of Effingham at the University of Illinois; Brett Dunn of Brookfield at the University of Chicago; Jake Owens of Naperville at Purdue University; Kelsey Barnes of Canton at the Medical College of Wisconsin; Megan Lyle of Monmouth at the University of North Texas; and Mercedes Streeter of Luther, Mich., at the University of Notre Dame.