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Summer research

Not everyone spends the lazy, crazy days at the beach

By Chris Jenkins

Dr. Ed Blumenthal studies a gene in fruit flies that, when absent, causes the fruit fly to have a fatal deficiency in developing certain body tissues and structures. It’s called the “drop dead” gene. His summer research student is examining results of experiments the associate professor of biological sciences conducted to figure out how the mutation affects other genes. Across campus, in the College of Nursing, Dr. Ruth Ann Belknap is researching a human toll on immigrants who cross the border without permission, while another summer research project, this one undertaken by Dr. John Borg in the College of Engineering, is revisiting some original experiments in fluid dynamics.

Sure, school is out and the weather may be more conducive to lying on a beach or attending a festival than sitting at a lab bench, but for many students and faculty, the work continues.

Here is a snapshot of some of the projects Marquette researchers are leading in libraries and labs across campus. Summer, they say, is a prime time to involve undergraduate students in research that will broaden their skills and hopefully whet their appetites for advanced scholarship.

0Fruit flies, worms and bacteria

Blumenthal directs the summer research program for the Department of Biological Sciences in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences.

Fourteen students, including six from Marquette and eight from other institutions, are on campus working with biological sciences faculty on research, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. Each student is assigned to a different faculty lab where they will spend weeks gaining firsthand experience with research. For students who came to Marquette from other institutions as part of the federal grant, the summer program may encourage them to pursue graduate studies here.

Blumenthal welcomed a student from the Milwaukee School of Engineering to assist in his research of the drop dead gene in fruit flies. Another MSOE student is working with assistant professor Dr. Lisa Petrella to study how microscopic worms respond to temperature changes. The species studied becomes sterile at higher temperatures. A “forced evolution” experiment raises the temperature just short of sterility to see how the worms evolve over several generations to compensate and become more fertile.

“So, when you’re looking at things like climate change  how animals are going to respond to changing temperatures  this is really important,” Blumenthal says.

Another student joined assistant professor Dr. Martin St. Maurice on a study designed to determine whether proteins in a particular type of bacteria combine to make it more infectious and harmful.


Bringing classic experiments to life

Dr. John Borg wants to show students that you don’t always need high-tech gadgets to demonstrate the fundamentals of engineering. The associate professor of mechanical engineering designed a project for students to revisit classic engineering experiments using original documents as a guide to recreate them.

This summer’s projects center around the study of fluid dynamics and recreating five classic experiments  some of them as simple as injecting ink and water into a pipe to detect patterns of turbulence.

“The original experiments that were done in the 1800s are kind of lost in the sense that people don’t do those experiments any more,” explains Borg.

He sees the projects as part of a “first source” movement in education in which students draw knowledge from an original manuscript rather than a contemporary textbook.

“In some ways, they’re easier to read than current textbooks because they didn’t understand these concepts, so they talked through it at great length,” Borg says. “I think it’s pretty accessible for students to read these things.”

But not everything in the summer research program is old school. Students also are learning how to use the College of Engineering’s high-speed camera and wind tunnel. The college is funding the summer program but plans to apply for NSF funding and draw students from other institutions.

“I want to create a culture of research within the college among students,” Borg says.

Immigration stories

As the U.S. government and the American people wrestle with immigration law, Belknap, an associate professor of nursing, and nursing junior Christian Villanueva teamed up to study the trauma suffered by women who are apprehended in the Arizona desert while attempting to cross the U.S.  Mexico border without proper documents.

Villanueva experienced the difficulties of cultural assimilation when his family moved from a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Chicago to the suburbs. “I find a passion in social justice, and it’s a very important topic,” he says.

During the past year, Belknap took four trips to Nogales, Mexico, to visit Nazareth House  a shelter for deported women operating in conjunction with the Jesuit Refugee Service’s Kino Border Initiative. She interviewed women who were caught crossing the border, hoping to discover and document their experiences.

“Many of these women have had some other pretty serious traumas in their lives, physical and sexual trauma,” Belknap says. “And, yet, the thing they consistently say is most traumatic is separation from their families.”

The summer research is a continuation of a successful academic year for Villanueva, a McNair Scholar who was named Marquette’s Outstanding Sophomore of the Year. He helps Belknap by recording and assisting with analyzing data collected with the Life Stressor Inventory Revised screen. The LSCR captures each woman’s life history of trauma. Dr. Robert Topp, associate dean for research in the College of Nursing, is collaborating on the project. They will produce a paper and present their findings at an upcoming conference.

Villenueva hopes the research will relate the human side of a contentious political issue. “The difficulties that these people actually endure  not many people know or see or put a face to them,” he says.

Belknap says understanding such issues is important for people working in health care. “I want to help people to understand the person sitting in front of them, to describe the life trauma that women in migration often experience,” she says.

Game on: hitting the reset button

Dr. Shaun Longstreet believes specially designed video games can help teach just about anything, from basic math and reading to the nuances of life as a software engineer. This summer, a Marquette-based team is helping to bring one such game, SimSYS, closer to the classroom.

Longstreet, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, started on SimSYS when he was at the University of Texas at Dallas. There, he met Dr. Kendra Cooper, who today leads development of the game with funding from Microsoft and collaborative work with teams of students in Texas, Pennsylvania and now Marquette.

0Longstreet believes educational games are essential to the next generation of e-learning tools; they can be integrated into classrooms or training in a wide variety of ways. For example, games can be used as part of classroom instruction (a fun, quiz-based challenge), outside the lecture in a tutorial or lab session (either individually or in study groups), or as part of an e-learning course.

“This is gamer nation,” he says.

While serious educational games are immersive, requiring deep thinking and complex problem solving, game development is a lengthy, expensive endeavor and SimSYS is designed to solve that. SimSYS is a game that semi-automatically creates educational simulations for just about any topic.

By bringing the SimSYS project to Marquette, Longstreet is able to work with Dr. Dennis Brylow, an associate professor in the Klingler College Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science.

With funding from an NSF grant secured by Dr. Brylow, one Marquette computer science major, Kaleb Breault, is leading one of the SimSYS student research teams to develop a fuzzy logic algorithm for the game. This will allow the SimSYS game engine to create adaptable learning scenarios for instructors and their students.


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