Barry McNamara  |  Published November 09, 2022

Three Conferences, Three States

Monmouth students present their undergraduate research at conferences in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa.

CHEMISTRY IN IOWA: Professor Brad Sturgeon (right) led a group of students to a regional conferen... CHEMISTRY IN IOWA: Professor Brad Sturgeon (right) led a group of students to a regional conference in Davenport. Attending were Yasaer Moore, Natalie King, Alondra Leon, Joseph Sampson, Dylan Prentiss, Alex Boswell, Derick Lavan and Isaac Asplund.MONMOUTH, Ill. – October was a month for Monmouth College students and their research to shine.

Nearly two dozen Monmouth students and their professors traveled last month to three states in the Midwest to participate in and present at regional undergraduate research conferences. The students presented on a broad range of topics that included neurological degenerative diseases, queer life on a college campus and a chemical history of cannons.

“We know from Association of American College and Universities studies that undergraduate research is a ‘high-impact practice’ which helps make students’ studies concrete for them, and leads to even better outcomes academically and in their careers,” said Monmouth Vice President for Academic Affairs Mark Willhardt. “That we’re able to support students presenting at academic conferences – including some new ones and some we’ve not attended in years – means that we’re broadening how they see themselves as students and as developing professionals.”

Biology professor Janet Ugolino took two students to the Midwestern Undergraduate Neuroscience Conference – also known as MidBrains – in Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and nine students participated in the Midwestern Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Asexual College Conference in Columbus, Ohio, accompanied by psychology professor Sydney Greenwalt and by Trudi Peterson, who coordinates the College’s women’s studies program.

Led by chemistry professor Brad Sturgeon, eight students attended the Illinois-Iowa American Chemical Society Undergraduate Research Conference, hosted by St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.

Historic neuroscience participation

In Wisconsin, lab partners Bella Peetz ’23 of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Luis Castillo ’24 of Chicago presented their research, which involves using the organism C. elegans to help study degenerative diseases, a project upon which they worked extensively on campus during the summer through the College’s Doc Kieft Summer Research Program.

NEUROSCIENCE IN WISCONSIN: Accompanied by professor Janet Ugolino, Bella Peetz and Luis Castillo ... NEUROSCIENCE IN WISCONSIN: Accompanied by professor Janet Ugolino, Bella Peetz and Luis Castillo attended the Midwestern Undergraduate Neuroscience Conference in Eau Claire.Ugolino said it was the first group of Monmouth neuroscience students who presented their work outside of the College.

“We’ve been studying the Atypical Parkinson’s disease gene ATP13A2 by studying its ortholog gene in C. elegans,” said Peetz. “Not a lot is known about this gene or its mechanism, so our goal was to study its expression when responding to oxidative stress. The whole purpose of this project was to see if different stressors would cause the gene to turn ‘off’ or ‘on.’”

The MidBrains Conference is a joint effort of the MidBrains Neuroscience Consortium – a network of faculty from undergraduate neuroscience programs in the upper Midwest.

“Listening to undergrads, grad students and Ph.D. professors talk about their research made me realize how new of a field neuroscience is and how we are just barely scratching the surface of findings,” said Castillo.

Peetz, who plans to pursue a terminal degree in neuroscience to further research neurodegenerative diseases, said she appreciated the “fascinating” opportunity to see what other schools’ neuroscience programs were like.

“Listening to undergrads, grad students and Ph.D. professors talk about their research made me realize how new of a field neuroscience is and how we are just barely scratching the surface of findings.” Luis Castillo


“It was especially a privilege to get to know how other students use model organisms other than C. elegans,” she said. “I even got some tips from other schools’ faculty about research, including someone telling me about a new housekeeping gene to use in the future.”

Peetz said she is pleased by what she’s learned in Monmouth labs, and outside them.

“I am so incredibly grateful for my time at Monmouth,” she said. “All of my professors have helped me tremendously with not only gaining the knowledge I need but inspiring me and fueling my passion for science. The time I spent at the conference – and the six-hour car rides there and back with Dr. U – gave me more confidence I needed to pursue my future journey and plans.”

Castillo agreed.

“The conference, as well as our Doc Kieft summer research, has prepared me to become a very competitive candidate in the workforce, as I will already have experience,” he said. “Then, after a gap year or two, I plan on going back to school in hopes of obtaining a master’s degree or Ph.D. in neuroscience.”


IN OHIO: Accompanied by faculty members Sydney Greenwalt and Trudi Peterson, students who attende... IN OHIO: Accompanied by faculty members Sydney Greenwalt and Trudi Peterson, students who attended the Midwestern Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Asexual College Conference in Columbus included Emily Canterbury, Bek Croasdale, Ivy Hawkins, Z Kendall, Ivair Pacheco, Sreya Roy, Morgan Thompson, Marie Vega and Lisette Zaragoza.‘Free to be whoever we are’

In Ohio, Ivair Pacheco ’23 led a session titled “The Fight for Gender Neutral Bathrooms on Small College Campuses,” and Pacheco and Morgan Thompson ’24 of Sandwich, Illinois, led a session on “Cultivating Queer Resilience and Community.”

About 200 students attended the conference and around 50 attended each session.

“Queer people tend to separate themselves into cliques that go against what we’re trying to achieve,” said Pacheco. “We can be marginalized within our marginalized community. What we wanted to stress to the other students is that ‘your freedom is everyone else’s freedom.’”

Another point that the two Monmouth students wanted to make was that “your identity, no matter the way you express it, is still valid.”

Part of Pacheco’s identity is “the queer elder,” said the psychology and Spanish double major. “I want every queer person to have something I didn’t have – a freedom to be whoever they are.”

“There was a sense of community immediately when you walked in. … It was weird in the best of ways. We’re so used to being the ‘other’ or putting on a different persona. We were free to be queer – free to be whoever we are.” Ivair Pacheco


Leading sessions was a highlight, but so was simply attending such an event, said Pacheco, who is considering pursuing a graduate degree in counseling to perhaps fill a niche of counselors who focus on queer issues.

“There was a sense of community immediately when you walked in,” said Pacheco. “Many of us had never been in a room where there were more than five or 10 queer people. It was weird in the best of ways. We’re so used to being the ‘other’ or putting on a different persona. We were free to be queer – free to be whoever we are.”


The chemistry of cannons

In Iowa, Monmouth’s chemistry students explored a variety of posters related to undergraduate research, and Dylan Prentiss was one of three students from the bi-state region to make a presentation. Titled “Firing the Cannon: A History of Artillery and the Chemical Propellants,” his talk focused on “the historical progression of cannons and explosives.”

“I touched on my recreation of historical explosives, and I did a demonstration with some guncotton that I produced during my research,” said Prentiss.

Other students who joined Prentiss on St. Ambrose’s campus were Isaac Asplund, Alex Boswell, Natalie King, Derick Lavan, Alondra Leon, Yasaer Moore and Joseph Sampson.

“A highlight for me was just seeing the projects that were being done at other schools,” said Prentiss, a chemistry major also majoring in history and minoring in classics.

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