Student research takes center stage on Student Scholars Day
After months of conducting research, undergraduate students presented their findings to peers, mentors and faculty members during Grand Valley’s annual Student Scholars Day on April 13.
“It’s amazing the high quality research that undergraduate students do at this university,” said Chris Reed, associate professor in biomedical sciences. “This is a perfect showcase demonstrating exactly what they are doing, and where they are going.”
The annual event was moved to virtual presentations for two years in response to the university’s COVID-19 protocol. Presenting and discussing their topics in-person is a key element to the event, said Susan Mendoza, director for the Center of Undergraduate Scholar Engagement.
“Being part of a scholarly community is about the discussion and the dialogue, and it’s really hard to replicate that in a Zoom room,” said Mendoza. “You can do it, but it doesn’t have the same palpable energy as something like this.
“For students who are presenting, it forces them to think about how they visually want to display what they are doing, how they want to communicate one-on-one, they have to talk a bit on the fly and maybe experience some discomfort and say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Along with students’ presentations at the Kirkhof Center and Henry Hall, the event also features exhibitions by students in the fine arts department. Their pieces are on display in the Mary Idema Pew Library Exhibition Space and the Calder Art Center.
Since October 2020, Sands, a junior majoring in chemistry, has been in the laboratory working with lanthanide metals and their luminescent properties.
Sands said she wasn’t sure what to expect when her faculty mentor Shannon Biros, associate professor of chemistry, approached her with research options. Since then, she’s presented her findings at the Student Summer Showcase and, most recently, an academic conference in San Diego.
“Research is a lot of problem solving, and trial and error,” she said. “It really puts into perspective the advances you hear in class, and the effort that has gone into those advances.”
Sands is working with organic molecules called ligands, which transfer energy to the lanthanide so it can emit light efficiently. By studying different groups of ligands, she can see how and why they impact lanthanide luminescence.
“One fun application is on euros,” said Sands. “You can shine a UV light on them, and they have these red stars that show up which is europium, a lanthanide metal, which shows that the bill isn’t counterfeit.”
Another application of lanthanides’ luminescence is through bioprobes, said Sands. Lizzy Sielaff, another student working with Birros, is studying how bioprobes can illuminate cancer cells for easier detection.
“It’s really cool to experience being the first person to do something,” said Sands. “I’m the first person to make some of the ligands. That’s an experience you can’t get in a lot of other places.”
Working on her Student Scholars Day research was an enlightening experience for Clark, a biomedical sciences major.
Clark partnered with her faculty mentor, Assistant Professor of Sociology Anna Hammersmith, to study if and how COVID-19 disrupted older adults’ social networks, amplifying their feelings of loneliness and affecting their health and well-being.
Clark’s sample size aimed for 100 older adults by connecting with organizations like AARP and senior neighborhood associations in West Michigan. She also sent surveys to nonprofit organizations working with the homeless or addressing mental health issues.
“Especially when you’ve been studying and reading journal articles, I didn’t realize how much ground work goes into developing a sample size,” she said. “I have complete respect for people who survey thousands of people because that’s truly a feat of hard work.”
There were other aspects of her study that surprised her too.
“I really enjoyed working on my research,” said Clark. “There are so many of these small details you don’t think of. You’re always learning, but what I really enjoyed about this project is that the research is constantly evolving. You’re also learning so much about yourself as well.”
For Bair and other students studying fine arts, Student Scholars Day is an opportunity to exhibit their projects in jewelry and metalwork, ceramics, photography and drawing.
Bair, a jewelry and metalwork major, graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in geology. He returned to Grand Valley to study illustration, but an introduction to jewelry class changed everything, he said.
“I fell in love with it instantly,” said Bair. “I feel like I’m finally in the right place. I always loved illustration, but this just felt right to me.”
Bair describes his piece on display at the Mary Idema Pew Library Exhibition Place as an interlocking necklace.
“There are two pieces set on top of one another and twist into place,” he said. “There’s a mechanical aspect as well as an electronic aspect to it. There’s a glowing centerpiece that actually has water contained in the middle.”
Bair said he finished the piece at the start of the fall term, but he’s rarely seen it since because it’s been traveling in exhibitions around the state.
The inspiration for the necklace came from the Disney movie, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” he said. Working with copper and bronze, he utilized different treating techniques to develop the necklace’s patina and colors.
“It was a little difficult to figure out, but it got me into this mood to make an artifact that looked ancient or lost,” said Bair. “That was the idea behind it.”
During her first year at Grand Valley, Sielaff said she was enthralled by Student Scholars Day.
“I remember going around and seeing everyone’s posters and all their work, and it was the coolest thing,” said Sielaff. “It’s really great to be on the other side of that now.”
Now, a senior majoring in biochemistry, Sielaff was the one presenting her project. Her research focuses on the luminescence of lanthanide metals and utilizing that property via a bioprobe to help doctors and surgeons locate cancerous cells.
“The goal of the probe would be to target the surface of cancer cells,” said Sielaff. “Because the probe would be luminescent, it could illuminate the border of those cells and tissues, so a surgeon could go in and cut out around the border.”
Sielaff said the project, guided by faculty mentor Shannon Biros, had some growing pains. After presenting a theory of one of the reactions in Birros’ class, Sielaff tested it in the lab, and while the outcome wasn’t what she expected, she said that’s what drew her to science.
“We found out the reaction was actually very different in reality versus what’s on paper,” she said. “We had to troubleshoot and go back through the literature and see what other people had done.
“Those points where you have to try a bunch of stuff are the coolest for me to do, and the coolest for me to share with people. In my opinion, that’s what science is: getting to try a bunch of stuff and see what sticks. It’s about figuring out that puzzle.”
Ockerman, a computer science major, worked closely with his faculty mentor, Erin Carrier, assistant professor of computer science, in developing a convolutional neural network (CNN) in the hopes of predicting pandemic hotspots.
The idea was to build a CNN which would scan social media images, specifically images of people wearing masks, to target where COVID-19 would pop up.
“Whatever I work on, I want my technology to have an impact on people,” said Ockerman. “There was a lot of covid stuff going on, and I thought this is maybe one way that we can help out with it. It aligned well with our skill sets so Dr. Carrier agreed to mentor me.”
Under Carrier’s guidance, Ockerman built a data set using social media images of mask wearers. This data set was used to train his network which scanned the input and determined similarities or differences between the images. The research is ongoing, but it’s been able to correctly predict masks in images at a 94 percent success rate, he said.
“What we tell people are the success stories, but not the times where I stayed up until 2 a.m. because I couldn’t get something to work,” said Ockerman. “Dr. Carrier has been great, she’s really helped me grow and learn what it means to fail, but that’s not the endpoint. It’s just the starting point of trying something new.”
The process has also given Ockerman a greater appreciation for academic research.
“Dr. Carrier was really able to counsel me through it,” he said. “One of the biggest things you need as a researcher is to be persistent. You need to treasure those high moments enough that you’re willing to push through the low moments to get there.”