Research rarely rests. All year long, Illinois State University student and faculty researchers alike delve into their research with passion. Despite many Redbirds being away from campus over the summer, research at Illinois State continues to thrive—even during the pandemic.
This summer, 27 students received the new Undergraduate Research Support Program grant provided by the Office of Student Research. “Essentially, this is a grant program that encourages undergraduate student researchers to propose a research project under the supervision of a faculty mentor,” said Dr. Gina Hunter, director of the Office of Student Research. “It allows students to use the grant to fund their hourly wage, for research supplies or research incentives, and for travel to do research.”
This is the first year that the grant has been offered over the summer. As many research plans were in place before coronavirus (COVID-19), students and faculty have gotten creative this summer in order to continue their research.
“This summer has been very unusual,” Hunter said. “In many cases, we’ve had to make and allow for adjustments.” The accommodations have included remote research, special approval to travel, and delaying research until Illinois reopened and students could return to a laboratory while physical distancing.
Hunter said summer provides unique advantages for many student researchers. “A lot of students don’t have time in the academic year to really immerse themselves in a research project that might be very time consuming,” Hunter said. “Summer can give them an opportunity to work more intensely on a project. Their faculty mentor may have more time for them in the summer; it’s a time when faculty themselves are often working more intensely on their own research projects, and they can involve students in that process.”
Read on to learn more about five of these student researchers and their projects.
Inspired by her father’s work with the Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District, Anastasia Ervin spent her summer researching sewer districts and their local landscapes. “I’m analyzing the topography and location of the sewage districts in Central Illinois and determining factors such as urban growth and how they use the landscape to sway public opinion,” said Ervin, a junior from Bloomington majoring in anthropology. Ervin’s research primarily focuses on Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana.
With her grant, Ervin conducted her research over a 12-week period under the guidance of Associate Professor Dr. Kathryn Sampeck. Much of Ervin’s research relied on archival documents, and due to COVID-19, she struggled to access physical archives. However, she found online sources to help her analyze factors such as income value. For example, Ervin compared areas to discover whether sewage districts had an impact on income value.
“What I found so far in both Bloomington and Urbana is that the low-economic status neighborhoods are situated on the industrial side of town, while the higher economic status neighborhoods are located away from the industrial side,” said Ervin.
Another major focus of Ervin’s research was the local power that sewage districts hold. “I found that the districts use their power over the landscape as power to sway public opinion,” said Ervin. “They spend a lot of money and effort into sculpting the landscape of the district grounds in order to make it appear more attractive to the public.”
As Ervin plans to attain postgraduate degrees in anthropology, this research experience has set her up for success. “The experience has helped me tremendously,” said Ervin. “It helps jump-start my bachelor’s degree thesis. From there, that provides me experience in the background research associated with what might be my topic for future papers.”
After having his first research paper published this past April, Juan Canchola went right back to work this summer with his mentor, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Jonathan Mills.
“I’ve been working in Dr. Mills’ lab for a year now,” said Canchola, a senior biology major and chemistry minor from Bloomington. “We worked on the paper that we published for five months. We’re working on the second one now, and it’ll be ready around winter.”
This summer, Canchola and Mills shifted their focus to natural products and antimicrobial research. Natural products are chemical compounds that are found in nature. The researchers are observing these products for the purpose of drug discovery. “We are designing better routes to drug synthesis and finding interesting structures that are potent,” said Canchola.
Canchola’s tasks in the lab alternate daily. “My responsibility is running the reactions and then working them up, which means purifying and concentrating,” said Canchola. “We established the rhythm so that one day we start a reaction, and the next day we work it up.”
His experience in Mills’ lab has been pivotal in launching his career in science. “I’m getting important experience, and I’m learning how to work in this setting,” Canchola said.
Throughout her research, Audrey McNamara has fused her areas of study together to build off of previous findings. “Previous research literature has shown that developing art skills significantly improves social-emotional development,” said McNamara, a sophomore majoring in psychology and criminal justice studies and minoring in sociology. “We are currently studying the inverse: whether development of social-emotional skills produces improvement in art skills, particularly in preschool-aged children.”
McNamara has conducted her research with students Taylor Ullrich and Kianna Klendworth under the guidance of Dr. Julie Campbell. Their study began in the fall of 2019 and is expected to continue until spring 2021. “We began by attending Illinois Art Station classes at local Bloomington-Normal schools, where we monitored students for various behaviors, particularly in reference to how students interacted with themselves, peers, and teachers,” said McNamara. “We also took pictures of each student’s completed art project each week, which we later scored according to a modified formal elements therapy scale. This scale is used to grade each project according to the use of color, space, and detail, resulting in an overall art score for each project.”
After gathering data, the group has focused on analyzing their data to determine whether students’ behavior scores correlate to an improvement in art ability. “Though we have not yet completed our data analysis, our prediction is that improvement of social-emotional skills in preschoolers will be correlated to an improvement in art ability,” said McNamara. “We are excited to validate this hypothesis and share our findings.”
Although typically uncommon for an undergraduate chemistry student, Evan Strandquist has his very own research project that he has worked on over the summer. “I’m essentially studying the fundamental chemistry behind the immobilization of antibodies onto the surface of gold nanoparticles,” said Strandquist, a senior chemistry major from Bloomington. “These conjugates are used in drug delivery for pesky drugs that the body doesn’t want to take up and can be used for photothermal therapy for cancer.”
Strandquist’s goal is to optimize the conjugates so that they can be applied to other projects from his lab, such as maximizing the efficiency of conjugates in immunoassay and phototherapy. He works under the guidance of Associate Professor Dr. Jeremy Driskell and often collaborates with the five graduate students in the lab. Strandquist notes that Driskell’s guidance has been an invaluable resource throughout his research.
“I work directly with Dr. Driskell, and he’s the one who keeps me on track,” said Strandquist. “I bounce ideas off of him, and he lets me know when I’m making an erroneous assumption.”
Since starting his project in January 2019, Strandquist has logged over 750 hours in the lab. Though his work was funded by the Office of Student Research grant this summer, he has also received funding from the National Science Foundation.
With his sights set on medical school, Strandquist is grateful for the laboratory experience he has received at Illinois State. “My biggest takeaway is simply the confidence that I’ve gained for operating on this level in a research setting,” said Strandquist. “This research experience is of the utmost importance because so much of my career is going to be involved with research and innovating in the medical field.”
A member of the self-described “wren crew,” Ashley Tauber has spent her summer going out at the crack of dawn to observe nestlings. “This summer, I am exploring the effect of antioxidants on nestling growth rate,” said Tauber, a senior physiology, neuroscience, and behavior biology major from Naperville. “I’m a huge ‘bird nerd,’ so my supervisor reached out to me in January about the Undergraduate Research Support Program and then helped me focus on a thesis.”
Tauber’s supervisor is Dr. Charles Thompson, a research professor who has been conducting wren studies at Illinois State for decades. There are five other students currently in the lab, and their projects are often connected. The group meets at the lab before 6 a.m. each day, and each member has particular roles and responsibilities. “I have to go to certain nest boxes, and based on the age of the babies that are in the nest, I get to feed them anywhere from three microliters of solution to 15 microliters,” said Tauber. “Because my project is supplementing the birds, I use a pipette and supplement them with that.”
Additionally, Tauber is given regular “wren crew” tasks such as catching birds and checking if babies hatched. “There’s always something that needs to be done,” said Tauber. “It’s fantastic because you’re never bored.”
As she wraps up her project, she is thankful for her experience with the lab. “I’m just very grateful to have such a small group of people doing so many cool things,” said Tauber. “Dr. Thompson has been running this since the ’80s, and it’s such a wonderful lab; you’re a part of something so positive.”
Find out more about student research opportunities and grant funding by visiting the Office of Student Research’s website.