UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 2004
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Young Minds. Fresh Research.
Student Wellness Team’s Daunting Charge

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Photo: Mark Mulville

Robert Spengler Pollen Researcher
Robert Spengler
Senior, Anthropology

Palynographic Analysis of Archaeological Sites from Western New York and Northern Denmark

Spengler, of Lancaster, New York, analyzed soil at sites in the U.S. and Denmark, using an acid technique to help dissolve everything but the pollen shell in his samples.

Photo: KC Kratt, MFA ’84

Stefan Vujcic Heart Monitoring Researcher
Stefan Vujcic
Senior, Chemistry

Nanoscopically Tailored Sensors for Ischemia Monitoring

Vujcic, of Amherst, New York, helped develop chemical sensors to detect, identify and quantify molecules that are present during irregular heart functions.

Photo: KC Kratt, MFA ’84

Audra Foote Alcohol Use Researcher
Audra Foote
Senior, Psychology

Activation of Implicit Alcohol Associations in a College Sample

Foote, of Massena, New York, helped interview 160 subjects for a study of college drinking—specifically to determine how unconscious attitudes about alcohol affect drinking habits.

Photo: Douglas Levere, BA ’89

Isidore Dinga Madou Cellular Voltage Researcher
Isidore Dinga Madou
BS ’05, Computer Engineering

Quantitative and Qualitative Analyses of the Voltage-gated Herg Potassium Channel Models

Madou, of Congo, analyzed the differences among three models of a potassium ion channel, a specialized protein molecule that permits specific ions to enter or leave cells.

Photo: KC Kratt, MFA ’84

Karen Beljan Water Quality Researcher
Karen Beljan
BS ’05, Environmental Engineering

A Lake Divided: Modeling DO in Onondaga Lake

Beljan, of Eden, New York, evaluated remediation alternatives to improve the water quality of Onondaga Lake, ultimately helping to develop a method to aerate the lake that would improve the water and ecosystem.

Photo: KC Kratt, MFA ’84

Michael Licitra, Stefan Zickler Robotics Researchers
Michael Licitra, BS ’05, Electrical Engineering
Stefan Zickler, BA ’05, Interdisciplinary Social Sciences

Advanced Mobility Platforms

Licitra, of Buffalo, and Zickler, of Germany, built and designed software for five artificially intelligent athletes. In 2004 and 2005, the UB goal-scoring machines won the national title at RoboCup, a robot soccer match that pits teams from universities around the country against each other.

Young Minds. Fresh Research.

For an increasing number of UB undergraduates, research ignites the intellect, enlivens the book-work and offers an edge for the future

Story by Nicole Peradotto

Growing up, Robert Spengler developed a profound appreciation for nature as he logged countless miles on hiking trails with his family. In high school, he took his passion for plants a step further, with a job tending greenery at a nursery.

Then, two years ago, while reading an anthropology textbook at UB, Spengler was introduced to palynology, the study of pollen. Fascinated, he decided to dig deeper—literally.

At two archaeological sites in Western New York, Spengler sifted through the dirt, using an acid technique created in the 1960s to help dissolve everything from his soil samples but the pollen shell. Over this past summer, he spent a month collecting samples at a Viking-era site in Denmark, fieldwork he anticipates will shed light on the agriculture of that period.

“By doing this research, I know the major people in the field,” explains the senior honors anthropology major, who plans to write a thesis on his findings. “My mentor [anthropology professor Ezra Zubrow] gave me a list of names, and they were literally the founding fathers. I e-mailed them, and they all wrote back extensive letters. Now, I have a head start for grad school, so this research basically got my foot in the door.”

Spengler is far from alone in that regard. Once the near-exclusive domain of master’s and PhD candidates, research is increasingly incorporating itself into the undergraduate curriculum. Whether they pursue it as an independent study project or a class requirement, UB undergrads from across the disciplines are discovering that such serious scholarly endeavors ignite their intellect, refine their academic focus and, not least of all, give them an edge in postgraduate pursuits.

“Undergraduate students are more savvy, more motivated than ever. They’re demanding these research opportunities,” notes Timothy A. Tryjankowski, EdM ’95, program coordinator for UB’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, which opened last December.

“This isn’t the generation of ‘I need to go to college,’ but rather one of ‘I need to go to college, I need to go to graduate school and I need a way to distinguish myself from the crowd every step of the way.’ It’s not enough for them to get a degree,”Tryjankowski says. “They want to know, ‘What else can I do with my time here?’”

Inside the laboratory and outside the box

Stefan Vujcic asked that question several times. The answer came from UB Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Frank Bright, holder of the endowed A. Conger Goodyear Chair in the chemistry department.

Vujcic, a UB senior, knew Bright before he enrolled at UB—Bright is the uncle of one of Vujcic’s best friends—so he felt comfortable approaching the professor about his undergraduate studies. Whenever they chatted, Bright encouraged him to get involved in research.

“During the second semester of my sophomore year, he gave me a chemistry department research brochure,” recalls Vujcic. “I went through it and thought the most interesting stuff that anybody was doing was what Dr. Bright was doing.”

As a junior, Vujcic began working in Bright’s lab, helping develop chemical sensors to detect, identify and quantify molecules that are present during irregular heart functions. He has immersed himself in the research ever since, collaborating with a team of graduate students, scientists from the Los Alamos and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and Bright, a professor with 18 years’ experience in the field. In the process, Vujcic has gone from grappling with basic concepts to preparing compounds, measuring signals, operating sophisticated instruments and constructing complete sensor devices. What’s more, the manuscript, of which he is a coauthor, has been submitted to Analytical Chemistry for review.

“It’s a pretty complex project, and I’m glad that I can be a part of it,” says Vujcic. “It’s not just that I learned about this part of analytical chemistry, but I also learned to work with people. You share instruments, you have to communicate and you have to keep organized notebooks.”

At the same time, he points out, he has proved he can navigate independent research and think outside the box. “When you take classes and go to [an undergrad] lab, people are telling you what to do. But in Dr. Bright’s lab you have freedom. I’m by myself, conducting all these experiments. And that can go on my résumé.”

It’s the rare student who arrives at UB with an established connection to a professor in his major, as Vujcic did. To help link undergraduates with faculty mentors, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships serves as a nexus for undergraduate research, publicizing available positions at its office and on its Web site.

“My office is a first step for students to learn about and understand research opportunities on campus,” Tryjankowski says. Moreover, “it will give faculty an opportunity to further explore additional funding opportunities and to engage more undergraduates in their research. A listing of fellowship and scholarship opportunities will also be maintained for students and faculty mentors.” He explains that money will be earmarked to assist students and faculty with research costs, though details remain to be worked out. For example, students might be given a small stipend for their research work, or faculty might be given a small allowance to cover equipment used or costs incurred while engaging undergraduates in research projects. As well, most grant proposals have additional awards for faculty who engage undergraduate students in their research.

The center’s first major event took place in April, at the university’s first Celebration of Academic Excellence. During the ceremony, dozens of UB students from undergraduate disciplines across campus were honored for their research and creative endeavors.

“Everyone I spoke with regarding their undergraduate research experience had this positive outlook, this gleam in their eye,” says Tryjankowski. “They love the field they’re working in and they can’t believe they have had the opportunity to work on these projects while still undergrads.”

That sounds a lot like Audra Foote, a UB senior. During the spring semester, Foote, along with two other research assistants, helped interview 160 subjects for a study of college drinking—specifically, they were trying to determine how unconscious attitudes about alcohol affect drinking habits.

“I can’t even explain how awesome it was to be involved in a [psychology] lab like that,” says Foote, who worked under Craig Colder, assistant professor of psychology. “You’re in school for four years and you think you know enough, but nothing prepares you for what you learn in a lab,” she explains. “There is no book that teaches you how to do research, or how to run a lab, or how to talk to participants. You may have this pretty little concept of what research is in your mind, but it’s not like that at all.”

Hands-on tasks and a jolt of self-esteem

When Foote considers how far the research has taken her, she’s amazed that it started with an e-mail query to a professor she didn’t even know.

“If it wasn’t for getting involved in that study, I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing now,” says the psychology and community mental health major, referring to a summer job she landed at UB’s Research Institute on Addictions. “Dr. Colder always made us active participants,” she continues. “He would ask our opinions and encourage us to speak. He took time out of his day to teach us computer programs about statistics, which are invaluable for grad school.”

For his part, Colder welcomes qualified undergraduates to his research team, and he expects their active input. “They’re not coming in to do office tasks,” he stresses. “They get hands-on tasks—how to treat human subjects, and the importance of data collection.”

Colder meticulously screens undergraduate research candidates, making sure they have the requisite motivation and time to tackle the work. This arrangement, mirrored in various departments, creates a mutually beneficial partnership: The professor receives a valuable supplement to his or her team of postdoctoral fellows and graduate associates, while the undergraduates are rewarded with various perks, from jolts of self-esteem to job offers.

Isidore Dinga Madou, BS ’05, added research to his regular course load each semester he was at UB. The last project he undertook before graduating with a degree in computer engineering involved analyzing the differences among three models of a potassium ion channel, a specialized protein molecule that permits specific ions to enter or leave cells.

“I just wanted to see if I have the personality of a researcher, and this confirmed that I really enjoy working in a lab,” says Madou, a native of Congo.

Beyond honing his fields of interest, the research benefited the prospective medical student in ways he hadn’t anticipated. “Reading all the literature and doing the presentations on my research helped with my English,” says Madou, whose first language is French.

“Research provides a much greater opportunity for a broader and deeper engagement for the faculty mentor and the student,” observes Michael E. Ryan, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. “It’s not impossible to get that from a course instructor, but in research the faculty mentor is not only a teacher but is more concerned holistically about that student. They relate on a variety of levels, professionally and personally, and it’s a very powerful experience.”

A former associate dean in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Ryan speaks from experience on both sides of the equation. In the engineering school he mentored dozens of undergraduates just as, years before, his mentor guided him in polymer research when he was an undergraduate at McGill University.

“It was almost a transformative experience,” he recalls. “I had planned to continue with graduate work, but my research had such a profound impact on me that I decided to stay at that institution [for graduate school] and have maintained a lifelong professional and personal relationship with my advisor.”

Today, one of Ryan’s chief responsibilities is ensuring that undergraduates who want to study outside the classroom are given every occasion to do so. In this capacity, he joins a growing number of university administrators around the country who are promoting a culture of undergraduate research.

The movement has been gaining momentum since 1998, when the Boyer Commission, a panel funded by the Carnegie Foundation, published a report calling for a dramatic reconstruction of the baccalaureate education at research universities. One of the commission’s key recommendations: get more undergraduates involved in research. The reason: students learn more when they’re active participants.

No one had to convert Kate Rittenhouse-Olson, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, to that philosophy. “Doing research really gives students a leg up on students from other schools,” says the director of UB’s biotechnology program, which places undergraduates in research internships at biotech companies and government agencies.

“When they apply for a job they actually know how to do it. These students have worked independently in a lab. They have learned to troubleshoot and really be a contributor to a working situation.

“It also helps them navigate their career,” she adds. “Do they like the hands-on at the laboratory, or do they want to go higher? Or do they want to try something else?”

By the time Danielle Wilbur, BS ’05, had started researching breast cancer treatment with Rittenhouse-Olson, she had made up her mind to apply to medical school. Now, with two years of research under her belt, she’s considering adding a PhD to that MD. “Every school I applied to told me I was a perfect candidate for it because of my research experience,” says Wilbur, who graduated in June with a degree in biotechnology. “It was probably the best experience I had academically at UB.”

Wilbur spent two years investigating ways to make chemotherapy drugs more effective with fewer side effects. Her research involved testing whether certain carbohydrates would stick only to the receptors of cancerous cells while steering clear of healthy cells to aid in targeting the drug. Three students had started the frustrating experiment before her, and each contributed significantly. However, she was the one who successfully determined the form of the carbohydrate, the incubation time and other crucial parameters.

“I feel that I have a better grasp of the core classes of medical school because of the time I spent in a laboratory setting,” says Wilbur, who wrote a 60-page advanced honors thesis about her findings. “It boosted my confidence that I could solve problems that I hadn’t encountered before.”

Not only that, she received a glowing letter of recommendation from Rittenhouse-Olson. This fall she starts classes at Syracuse’s Upstate Medical University—the same school, incidentally, where Rittenhouse-Olson conducted research as a volunteer when she was an undergraduate at a nearby institution.

From water quality to robotics

Undergraduate research at UB is as diverse as the student body, and it originates from a variety of sources. Some students alight on a topic they’d like to study further; others collaborate with a professor who’s already engaged in a line of inquiry.

For still others, research is a requirement.

Last spring, Joseph Atkinson, director of the Great Lakes Program, challenged the 12 students in his environmental engineering design class to apply their classroom knowledge to a practical crisis—namely, the poor water quality in Syracuse’s Onondaga Lake. During the semester, they evaluated the impact of several remediation alternatives, ultimately developing a method to aerate the lake that would improve its water and ecosystem.

“There were a lot of frustrating hours trying to work out all the bugs in the model,” recalls Colleen Bronner, BS ’05. “However, we learned many lessons as well, such as that the most simplified model that can be used should be used. And, more detail is not always a good thing. Also, data does not always behave in the perfect patterns we often see in textbooks. In the real world, data can look very ugly.”

Another student, Karen Beljan, BS ’05, enjoyed the chance to work in a group with her classmates, saying they “felt like a family” after spending so much time together. “It was good to get this experience in college rather than being thrown into the workforce and having no idea what to do.”

Michael Licitra, BS ’05 and Stefan Zickler, BA ’05, shouldn’t have that problem. As part of an ambitious research project for UB’s Robotics Club, they built five robots that look like paint cans, but with a significant distinction from those in Home Depot: These bots can bend it like Beckham. In fact, in 2004 and 2005, the UB goal-scoring machines won the national title at RoboCup, a robot soccer match that pits teams from universities around the country against each other.

“They’re completely controlled by the computer,” says Zickler, who developed software for the artificially intelligent athletes. “It’s really cool to make machines that can interact with the real world without any human intervention.”

Licitra, who designed and built the robots, says one of the most valuable lessons he learned from the project was how to make things “small, fast and efficient.” He explains, “In classes you really don’t get the whole picture. When you get to apply what you learn in class, you’re much better off. It’s a great way to learn.”

For both UB graduates, it has also proved a great way to network. Zickler was accepted to Carnegie Mellon University’s PhD program in computer science, an accomplishment he credits in large part to his robotics research. “I don’t think I would have gotten into the program without going to the [RoboCup] competition,” he says. “I got to know people there, and they wanted me to go there for their research. They invited me for an internship, and that’s how I got to know them.”

Meanwhile, Licitra’s six job interviews all came about from contacts he had made at RoboCup. Of the three offers he received, he accepted a position as a research engineer—at none other than Carnegie Mellon. That means, come fall, there’s a very good chance Zickler and Licitra will collaborate on yet another dream team of their own invention.

A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer/editor.

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