University of Vermont

University Communications

Pottery to Protein, Plants to Polarity

Release Date: 04-22-2009

Author: Jeffrey R. Wakefield
Phone: 802/656-2005 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Student Grace Cameron

"The take-home message for me was these pots were looked at in a certain way," says student Grace Cameron, whose research on 13th century Pueblo pottery revealed wear marks in the pots that told a story about their use. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Last Thursday's second annual Student Research Conference attracted plenty of faculty, in addition to the student participants, so it wasn't surprising to see chemistry professor Willem Leenstra chatting amiably with a budding scientist stationed in front of her poster.

The student turned out to be one Leenstra was especially invested in, his daughter Paige, a senior bio-chemisry major and Honors College student. Leenstra said he could no longer be of much scientific help to his daughter, given how specialized she was becoming — "that's for the biochemists," he said — but he did have something to say about the research conference itself.

Leenstra sits on the American Chemical Society committee that supervises national meetings. "There are oral talks and there are poster sessions just like here," he says. "And the posters are exactly like this, this quality. And they're next to each other just like this in a room. Everything is just like the real professional world."

That's the point for the 75 undergraduate and 100 graduate student participants, many of whom intend to pursue graduate work and may one day be presenting their research at professional associations of their own.

A quick survey of poster titles revealed both the diversity of topics covered and the sophistication of student researchers: Effects of Obesity on Acute Lung Injury (Lauren Gauthier); Exploration of Spin-Polarized Electrons in Nitride Semiconductors (Lane Manning); Evidence for Deficits in Reward Responsibility in Youth with Callous-Unemotional Traits (Victoria Marini); and Measurement of Agricultural Field Emissions — Real World Herbicides in Vapor and Particle Phases (John Kasumba).

While many of the posters and presentations, at least for undergraduates, grew out of senior theses, says Abu Rizvi, dean of the Honors College, which co-sponsored the event with the Graduate College and the Office of the Vice President for Research, the student work was spurred by additional sources: URECA grants, McNair Scholarships, the HELiX program, and research programs in the academic units, like APLE in Arts and Sciences, most of which require students to present at the conference.

The net effect of the consolidation and growing awareness of the conference was that participation was up significantly over last year's inaugural.

That's a good thing, says Rizvi. "(Research projects) encourage a very active style of learning. It's not simply content-based education, which is then repeated back to the professor by the student. The students themselves figure out what's important, how to create knowledge, how to pursue it, how to validate it."

Beseeching passers-by

The fair's verisimilitude extended well beyond appearance. Like their professional counterparts, students stood ready to deliver a spiel about their work and eyed passers-by beseechingly, the better to launch in.

Senior anthropology major Grace Cameron had a compelling story to tell about "use-wear" patterns in 13th century Pueblo pottery from the little-studied Four Mile Ruin in central Arizona. She and her professor, Scott Van Keuran, were the first to observe a recently donated collection of the pottery at Brigham Young University.

Based on a wear patch that appeared on the side of many of the pots, Van Keuran hypothesized — and Cameron helped him confirm through further study — that they had been propped on a shelf with the interior, where abstract designs had been painted, facing out. The wear would then have been a scrape mark left when the pot was removed and placed back on the the shelf. The position of the mark indicated how the abstract imagery was meant to be oriented which, in turn, will enable scholars to better divine its meaning.

"The take-home message for me was these pots were looked at in a certain way, and we are better able to understand the way they're looked at (because of the research)," says Camerson.

The success of failure

The work of natural resources majors Katie Kain and Gwen Kozlowski illustrates a point about scientific research that Leenstra says is one of the most important lessons students can learn: it frequently goes awry.

"There's a lot of failure in experiments, and then you go back and change them, and then something works and something else doesn't work," he says. "You learn about the real world, which textbooks can't tell you about."

Kain's and Kozlowski's well-laid plans called for them to study ways in which reed canary grass, an aggressive invasive, might be managed to keep it from enveloping and suffocating a rare native flower, Jacob's Ladder. But last summer's heavy rains flooded the area they planned to study, killing all the Jacob's Ladder plants. The reed canary grass survived quite well, though, and charting the impressive adaptability of the increasingly ubiquitous species became the new focus of the study.

"It's a force to be reckoned with," says Kain.

In one respect, the student fair does differ from professional versions, one would assume: in the scientific literacy of some who wander by the posters.

After her father weighed in on the student conference for a reporter, it was Paige Leenstra's turn. She brightened, took a deep breath, and delivered an impressively fluent overview of her poster, "Protein Engineering and Mechanistic Studies on Histidyl-tRNA Synthetase from Escherichia coli."

Much of what she said after her opening question — "Do you have a background in biology?" — was lost.