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Monmouth science students benefit from eight-week summer research program

Barry McNamara
Monmouth College chemistry professors Laura Moore, Michael Prinsell, Audra Sostarecz and Brad Sturgeon and physics professor Ashwani Kumar supervised nine students during this year’s Kieft Summer Research Program. Pictured in front are, from left, Sostarecz, sophomore Kate Saulcy of Bloomington, Ill., junior Amy Wollenburg of Aledo, senior Nadia Ayala of Chicago, junior Brittney Book of Byron, Ill., and sophomore Bridgette Davey of Eureka, Ill. In back are, from left, senior Ian Salveson of St. Charles, Ill., junior Ben Stillwell of Johnsburg, Ill., Sturgeon, Prinsell, junior Broddie Davis of Milan, Ill., Kumar and senior Khdr Eskandar.
Monmouth College students who conducted research on campus this summer didn’t discover a cure for cancer or diabetes, or identify a new comet.

But the experience gained by the nine students in this year’s eight-week Kieft Summer Research Program gave them intensive hands-on experience with the type of instrumentation and research methods they will need to master should they continue on paths toward related fields of study.

The nine students worked closely with five Monmouth faculty: chemistry professors Brad Sturgeon, Laura Moore, Michael Prinsell and Audra Sostarecz, as well as assistant professor of physics Ashwani Kumar.

"It is amazing how students grow academically, both in knowledge and outlook, when doing research,” Sostarecz said. “This is magnified when we have an entire summer to work together. The concentrated time allows them to explore their own curiosities.”

Prinsell, who just completed his first year of teaching at Monmouth, said, “It would have been very difficult to train students and make research progress during the semester. I was very thankful for this opportunity to interact with students for several weeks in a row outside of the classroom and help them develop skills in the research laboratory.”

“Analytical methods development” was one of the stated goals of three students – Nadia Ayala ’17 of Chicago, Ian Salveson ’17 of St. Charles, Ill., and Ben Stillwell ’18 of Johnsburg, Ill. – who focused their summer research on the oxidation of biophenols. They conducted the research, in part, to get a better understanding of the phenol acetaminophen, the top-prescribed pain reliever over the past five years.

“Acetaminophen is a superdrug,” Salveson said in explaining the group’s interest in doing the research. “It’s everywhere, and it brought in $500 million in revenue last year ... but, it can cause liver damage for people who take too much of it. Their liver can’t handle it.”

Another group project was conducted by Broddie Davis ’18 of Milan, Ill., and Amy Wollenburg ’18 of Aledo, Ill., who studied the formation of nitrogen-nitrogen bonds as a tool for syntheses and drug development. They sought to develop a method for creating the N-N bonds, which would be used to synthesize natural products and derivatives with potential biological activity.

Sostarecz’s two students – Kate Saulcy ’19 of Bloomington, Ill., and Brittney Book ’18 of Byron, Ill. – gained valuable experience with the Langmuir monolayer technique, which allowed them to simulate model cell membranes.

From there, Saulcy studied the structure, function and interaction of insulin to gain a better of understanding of treating diabetes, which affects more than 400 million people around the world. Book examined the effects of propolis – a resinous substance collected by honeybees from tree buds – on cancer cell membranes.

“My students designed and developed sophisticated research projects and then collected data and fully analyzed it,” Sostarecz said.

Monmouth’s chemistry department recently acquired an atomic force microscope, and one of the first students to become a campus expert on the instrument was Khdr Eskandar ’17 of Al-Jabriyah, Kuwait. Eskandar’s summer project involved using the microscope to measure the binding force between a receptor protein and DNA. He called his frequent training sessions with force spectroscopy “a great experience.”

Bridgette Davey ’19 of Eureka, Ill., had a different perspective with her scope, scanning the night sky with the College’s Trubeck Telescope, housed in the Adolphson Observatory atop the Center for Science and Business. In addition to imaging deep-space objects such as the trillion-star Andromeda Galaxy, she also learned how to track asteroids and comets, which are commonly known as “minor planets.”

“To ensure that they are not on a collision course with Earth, it is very important to track these minor planets,” she wrote in her project abstract.

Many of the students utilized the College’s new flash chromatography equipment, acquired since last summer’s research projects, as well as nuclear magnetic resonance equipment, housed at nearby Knox College and obtained through a grant that included Monmouth.

“There is no rivalry in science,” Sturgeon said.

Indeed, one of the ongoing research projects is a collaborative effort with Colorado State University, and Monmouth contributed the Langmuir element of the research.

“I truly enjoy summer research because I am able to focus solely on my research students, which allows me to engage in extremely fruitful conversations,” Sostarecz said. “I was very impressed with all of the research talks from this summer's program, which are a product of Doc's generosity to our department. We are forever grateful.”

The undergraduate research program is named in memory of the late Richard “Doc” Kieft. A 30-year chemistry professor who was beloved by Monmouth students, Kieft left his $2.3 million estate to the chemistry department. He also created the research program, which allows science students an opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research under close faculty supervision. The students work 40-hour weeks, receive free housing and a small stipend. Since its inception in 2010, the program has grown steadily in scope and complexity of research.

“Doc’s license plate on his car read ‘121,’ which meant ‘one-to-one teaching,” Sturgeon said. “The endowment has provided us the opportunity to work one to one over a full eight-week period, giving the students a very unique learning environment.”