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Students take advantage of academic, professional development through summer research

Students who conduct summer research at Doane won’t find much in the way of limitations.

The resources and lab spaces in the Lied Science and Mathematics Building are there for students who want them, but more importantly, there are no limits on ideas or opportunities.

If a student has a question, they can experiment to find the answer.

As Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Ramesh Laungani sees it, the only real hurdles students face are the ones in their own mind—and that’s just part of the scientific process.

“These sort of research experiences provide sort of a safe opportunity to stumble and get back up,” Laungani said.

And students are taking advantage of the opportunity.

For Cole Morgan ’15, he simply had to raise his hand to get involved in summer research. At the end of his sophomore year, Morgan’s microbiology professor—Dr. Barb Clement—simply mentioned the need for another student researcher for the summer. Morgan jumped on the chance, and it grew from working for a professor to the beginnings of his senior research project, a required process for all students majoring in a science at Doane.

"At the end of my sophomore year, I was beginning the research of my research,” said Morgan, whose project involves quorum sensing (the way bacteria communicate) and finding ways to disrupt that communication to ultimately make bacterias easier to treat with antibiotics.

Colin Laurenroth '16 explains his summer research to a group of Crete children at the Admission Office's Community BBQ Aug. 8.

It was the same for Colin Laurenroth ’16, who is working with Dr. Laungani on an examination of how competition between trees and grasses affect tree growth. It has real-world impact—the species of grass and tree he’s using are invasive in Nebraska.

But he’s not spending time in the lab to get a jump on his senior research. It’s because he was interested in more learning. And that’s always possible, regardless of discipline, at Doane.

“He came to me, saying, ‘Hey I want to get involved in research.’ So it was all self-motivated,” Laungani said. “The great thing about that is when we’re able to give younger students a project or set them up with a project, they still are taking away lessons. ... That’s really the advantage of the Doane summer research program.”

Riley Miller ’15 and Corinne Fuoco ’15 are working on a “climate change in a jar” experiment, testing the use of plants in making water less acidified. It’s taken a lot of time to get going, which is part of why spending a summer in the lab is crucial. Students who are practical about completing their required senior research project take advantage of the months off from classes, instead of being forced to juggle it with the normal grind of the fall and spring semesters.

“All of that (preparation) is some of the most important data you have for your research,” Miller said. “Without it, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Laungani, Miller’s faculty advisor, and science faculty members are there as mentors—overseers of “good science”—but not hand-holders. They give students working on senior research projects the freedom to run their projects with a little more assistance to those who are not.

“The goal of any research we do with the students is to make them independent thinkers,” Laungani said. “Without that, science becomes a list of steps that they go through. Most schools where you do science, you don’t have the opportunity to actually do science. You have the opportunity to follow a set of steps that is prescribed in some lab packet to discover something we already know.”

Not at Doane. In labs during the academic year as well as the summer, students are researching unknowns—even to the professors—and making novel discoveries.

That’s not easy at first, said Dr. Tessa Durham Brooks, also an assistant professor of biology. But through curriculum and lab practice, students learn the best approach to science through the hands-on experiences.

“A lot of our students, especially when they're coming in, they’re uncomfortable not knowing (the answers). We want to get them to the point where they realize that’s actually the opportunity; that’s when they're doing things that are actually worthwhile,” Durham Brooks said.

That’s how she steered two of her students toward their joint summer research project. She supplied the idea and Taylor Ziegler ’15 and Jessica Swanger ’16 ran with it. Together, they are experimenting on biofilms, antimicrobial formations with special properties, through seedlings. Their studies are a “test bed,” Durham Brooks said, to see how chemicals affect their development.

“Tessa let us build the project where we wanted to go,” Swanger said.

Based on what Ziegler said she knew of other college science departments, that’s not par for the course for undergraduates.

“Research, in general here, is unique to Doane,” Ziegler said, “especially, getting the chance to tell your professor, ‘This is what I want to do, this is what I’ve found, this is the direction I want to go with it.’”

The benefits of learning side-by-side with top-shelf faculty pays dividends down the road. Students develop career skills by working through research partnerships with other colleges, the process of daily work in the lab environment and preparing presentations for senior research.

“It’s all that professional behavior,” Durham Brooks said.

And at the end of the day, it serves as both academic and professional development.

“Sometimes, summer research can be thought of as simply just a bullet on the resume,” Laungani said. “Oftentimes, students initially think about it like that. By the end of the process, they realize how much they have gained in terms of intellectual organization, how to get up when science knocks them down.”

Riley Miller '15 explains his "climate change in a jar" research during the Admission Office's Community BBQ event Aug. 8 in the Lied Science and Mathematics Building.