Published July 27, 2015

Ten students benefit from Kieft Summer Research Program

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With a student-to-faculty ratio of 11:1, Monmouth College provides an excellent opportunity for students to work under the personal guidance of professors whose careers are devoted to undergraduate teaching.

But there is a time of year when that ratio is even more favorable – during the Kieft Summer Research Program. For 10 weeks this summer, 10 students worked closely with three chemistry professors – Laura Moore, Audra Sostarecz and Brad Sturgeon.

Richard “Doc” Kieft, a bachelor who considered the college community his true family, became legendary over his 30-year career at Monmouth for his personal style of teaching. When he left his $2.3 million estate to the chemistry department, he also created the research program, allowing science students an opportunity to conduct intensive cutting-edge research under close faculty supervision. Since its inception in 2010, the program has grown steadily in scope and complexity of research.

“Science majors have an opportunity to earn a competitive spot in a Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) Program at a larger research university as an upcoming senior,” explained Sostarecz of the exclusive program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. “Our summer research program gives students the experience they need to decide on whether or not graduate school is the next step in their academic career, while also allowing them to form connections with faculty at R1 schools.”

As these programs are becoming increasingly competitive, said Sostarecz, the reviewers for REU programs specifically look for previous research experience.

“While it is true that our students conduct research during the semester, the summer research experience is more intense and comprehensive, as they are working eight-hour days and dedicating all their energy to research,” she said. “In some cases, much of the summer may be dedicated to designing a project or to becoming an expert on a piece of instrumentation. The summer schedule allows the students to get extra attention from their professors.”

The students work 40 hours per week and receive free housing and a small stipend.

One of the students who participated this summer was Annie Axup, a sophomore from Rock Island, who worked in Sostarecz’s lab. She conducted research on essential oils, which are used externally to heal chronic wounds. They work – at least in theory – by disrupting the cell membrane layer, preventing it from growing. During her undergraduate research talk at the close of the program, she explained why she chose her topic and what she learned.

“I wanted to see if the hype is real about oils being able to serve as antibiotics,” she said. “It’s found a lot in the news, but is there fact behind the fiction?”

Axup’s research required modeling membrane systems and experimenting with different solutions of the oils in high-purity water. She finally settled on using three drops of oil per 100 milliliters of water. The experiments were conducted at 37 degrees Celsius to simulate the body’s temperature.

Axup discovered a difference in collapse pressure – indicating change in membrane stability – depending on which type of model membrane she used. She would like to continue the experiments, changing from the orange oil she used to others, such as peppermint and lavender.

“Hopefully, some of the other oils will show no difference in their results, meaning that some oils work better than others,” she said.

“There’s really not much research on the oils that Annie was working with or with our particular model membrane system,” noted Sostarecz, who said Axup’s research could potentially lead to her publishing a paper or presenting her research at a conference.

Collaboration is planned with Moore’s group of research students, who will test the essential oils Axup is using on actual bacterial systems.

“We would then compare the results with our model bacterial membrane to get a more complete picture of the possible antibacterial properties of these oils,” said Sostarecz. “I think it is too early to say Annie proved the antibiotic properties of the oils she investigated, but we are on our way to determining a mechanism for how they may act as antibiotics.”

Brandi Yoder, a sophomore from Freeport, also conducted research pertaining to the skin, investigating the effect of substances such as beauty products and sunscreen that contain nanoparticles. Her research also featured designing a model membrane and experimenting with the effects of different solutions on different membranes. Her experiments were a continuation of research by previous students.

“Summer is a great time to develop new research projects, in that the students have time to extensively research the literature and to work one-on-one with their professor,” said Sostarecz. “But it is also a perfect time to delve deeper into a project that was previously worked on by a graduating Monmouth student or to finish a project that was in progress.”

Sostarecz said students could also use the summer program to write a paper for publication.

“There are many demands on our students during the academic year that prevent them from attempting to prepare a publication because they are working on collecting and analyzing data,” she said. “This program provides an opportunity to try to finish a long-term research project.”

Some of the other Kieft summer research projects included “A Model System to Investigate if Fufural Affects Bacterial Growth” by Yejun Park of Seoul, South Korea; “Testing the Antimicrobial Properties of Monolignols” by Ashley Winters of Galesburg; and “The Chemical Oxidation of Biophenols” by Ahmad “Matt” Pauzi of Durul Ehsan, Malaysia. Also conducting research this summer were Kayla Cherry of Oswego, Mohanad Ahmad of Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., Khdr Eskandar of Al-Jabri, Kuwait, Ian Salveson of St. Charles and Al Walker of Osco.

“Our summer program, generously endowed by Doc Kieft, gives our students the comprehensive research experience that professors involved in REU programs are looking for,” concluded Sostarecz. “And in the spirit of Doc, we also have lots of fun while working.”
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