|Magazine of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls
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When UW-River Falls sophomore Amy Robak researched soil nutrient management while in her high school FFA club, she never imagined it would provide fodder for an undergraduate research career. In fact, her research on nutrient management without commercial fertilizer has been so productive that she’s presented it on campus, at regional and national conferences, and to high school and college students interested in research.
The most recent opportunity to share the fruits of her labor was at the ninth annual UW System Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, held at UWRF in April. More than 300 students, faculty, staff, coinvestigators and mentors from across the UW System, as well as industry leaders and guests, convened to share applaud, question, and critique each other’s work.
Robak, a conservation major from Oak Park, Minn., also presented her research to legislators and others at the state Capitol rotunda in March, along with three other UWRF students and a recent graduate.
“I’ve never had as many opportunities to share my research as I do now,” says Robak, who is president of the UWRF Society for Undergraduate Research, Creative and Scholarly Activities (SURSCA), a student group encouraging undergraduate research. “When I started it in high school, I really didn’t know what to do with it. It’s really made me who I am today, and it’s helped me refine my communication, research and leadership skills.”
Robak says SURSCA is instrumental in helping students of all disciplines—from sciences, agriculture and business to education, arts and humanities—get started in a research project, find funding, present and share their work, receive feedback, and connect and collaborate with faculty, staff and students from UWRF and other schools and organizations. SURSCA also administers the Falcon Grants program, supported by differential tuition fees, to provide peer-reviewed competitive funding for projects and individual and group travel to professional and undergraduate research conferences.
The payoff is definitely professional, Robak says. With several years of research in soil nutrient management under her nails, she has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service
Robak has embarked on a new research project with Kelly Cain, an environmental science and management professor who is also director of the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, and David Trechter, an agricultural economics professor and director of the Survey Research Center on campus. Robak, Cain, Trechter, and undergraduate scholar Amanda (Mandy) Liesch, a senior international studies major from Kaukauna, Wis., are comparing grassy biomass energy yield potential and market value for switch-grass and native poly-culture grass mixtures, with yields of corn, soybean, wheat, and oats. This comparison is based on land capability classes across all arable land in Wisconsin, as well as land in the USDA’s NRCS Conservation Reserve Program.
“In simple terms, working with students like Amy and Mandy is what the best of a college education is all about for both the student and the faculty, who are students themselves,” says Cain. “The four of us make a great research team, each with our own strengths and weaknesses. Amy and Mandy bring very strong experience, knowledge and skills that David and I are limited in. They teach me as much as I teach them. The final product of our work will be of not only great value to them professionally but to the state in its pursuit of sustainability-based energy independence and economic security.”
A WORLD OF INQUIRY While research may once have been the domain of graduate school, today’s undergraduates find an abundance of research collaborations with faculty, staff and other students on campus and beyond—from work exploring the universe at a world-class neutrino observatory in Antarctica to leading-edge stem cell research in UWRF’s Tissue and Cellular Innovation (TCI) Center.
The opportunities for students are astounding, says Bill Campbell, director of grants and research, who helped get UWRF’s undergraduate research program started in the early 1990s. “By presenting to local, regional and national audiences of their peers, faculty from other universities, and industry, our students learn that their research is at the cutting edge of their fields and competes with the research being produced at much larger universities.”
Students have worked on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory Project under construction at the Amundsen- Scott South Pole Station as well its predecessor, the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array Project, both of which plunge deep into the Antarctic ice by deploying thousands of spherical optical sensors.
That opportunity arose from the involvement of UWRF physics professors Rellen Hardtke, Jim Madsen, and Glenn Spiczak, who are among the global scientists mapping the universe using neutrinos and exploring phenomena like gamma ray bursts and Active Galactic Nuclei that produce neutrinos with up to a billion times more energy than those produced in the sun, nuclear power plants, or by radioactive decay.
Since Madsen has been involved in the project, two students have made three trips to Antarctica, or Terra Australis, the continent with no government and belonging to no country but home to 60 international research stations housing up to 4,000 scientists, depending on the season.
“Science is a continual journey to the unknown, and it is exciting to involve UWRF students, staff and community people, as the members of the international IceCube project open a new path to explore the universe,” says Madsen. Other international research opportunities span from art, agriculture, community and cultural sustainability internships and research projects in the Southern Tibetan Plateau, in partnership with the China Exploration and Research Society, founded by UWRF alumnus and renowned explorer Wong How Man, to individual research projects designed for study abroad opportunities such as the International Traveling Classroom, in which students embark on a learning journey in overseas cities led by faculty.
Several student researchers and lab assistants work in biology Professor Tim Lyden’s TCI Center on stem cell research that may one day have tremendous therapeutic potential in pharmaceutical, cancer therapy and artificial tissue applications. The center works in partnership with numerous organizations, including the Marshfield Clinic’s Center for Human Genetics and the Integrated Solutions Consortium with UW-Stout.
Institutions of higher education as well as industry, government and nongovernmental organizations are recognizing that undergraduate research plays a vital role, bridging a perceived gap between teaching and research. “The reason for the movement in undergraduate research is essentially an economic one,” says Lyden. “The reality is that students with real-world experience are more competitive in the pool—for graduate schools and in the workplace, such as the biomedical and biotechnology sectors.”
And that experience paid off. Travis Cordie, who graduated from UWRF in December and was a TCI Center researcher, accepted a position with WiCell, the National Institutes of Health-supported national stem cell bank in Madison.
“This is something of a coup to place one of our students at that level straight out of our biotech program,” says Lyden. “I have been told that they were very impressed with his background and experience. I am very proud of this excellent student and look forward to his future successes as he begins his career in professional science with a bang.”
THE FOREFRONT OF UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH National organizations like the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) and the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and have heralded undergraduate research as one of the most important components for 21st century higher education.
“The basic principles of research are not just discovering new things, but also sharing it with the world,” says Campbell, who started an undergraduate research program at the University of Minnesota, Morris in the 1980s. “When one student at Morris said he had learned more in an undergraduate research experience than all the classes he had, I knew we were on to something.”
Setting up a strong undergraduate research program at UWRF was one of Campbell’s first endeavors when he arrived at UWRF in 1990. In 1992, the first RSCA Day featured faculty and student research in the classic poster presentation format used at international professional and collegiate conferences. “We were probably the first university in the UW System to set up such an event,” says Campbell. “RSCA day now shows 70 to 80 posters depicting the work of students, student-faculty teams, faculty and staff.”
That good idea caught on, and this year the keynote speaker at the ninth annual UW System Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity was UWRFalumna Patricia Skinkis. Currently a viticulture extension specialist from the Oregon State University’s department of horticulture, Skinkis recalled her research experiences on campus and in the field and reflected on how the experiences impacted her professional path as a researcher and faculty mentor in a speech titled, “A Journey of Passion: The Science and Art of Wine.” Skinkis, who holds a Ph.D. from Purdue University, started her research career at UWRF as a participant in the federally funded McNair Scholars program, which includes undergraduate research as a major component in order to prepare its scholars for entrance into doctoral programs.
A CULTURE OF CUTTING-EDGE Through Campbell’s office, the SURSCA group and individual faculty mentors, students have numerous opportunities to find out about the culture of undergraduate research on campus. Highlights include an annual research gala, faculty/staff RSCA days throughout the year in which students are co-presenters, and travel opportunities to share work at regional events and national conferences.
This year 15 students presented their research at the NCUR conference at Salisbury University in Maryland. And what’s more impressive, says Campbell, is that two UWRF students— Amanda Liesch and Matt Blodgett—were among 60 of 233 applicants selected to present their research in Washington, D.C., at the national Posters on the Hill event, sponsored by CUR, in April.
This is the second time students have had their research presented in our nation’s capitol. “It is rare that a university is invited to display the research work of two students in the same year,” said Chancellor Don Betz. “In doing so they will focus Congressional attention on their research and UW-River Falls as well. This demonstration of excellence in undergraduate education relates directly to our University Strategic Plan, ‘Living the Promise,’ and its intention to build a culture of learning.”
Liesch presented, “Visual Structure, Vane Shear Strength and Dry Aggregate Distribution in Three Different Organic Matter Treatments,” in which she worked with a soil scientist from the Scottish Agricultural College while in residential study at the Wisconsin in Scotland program. Plant and Earth Science Professor Bill Anderson is her project advisor.
Blodgett, a senior physics major from Boyceville, worked with Madsen on a project, “Calibrating South Pole Ice Top Detectors Using Tagged Cosmic Rays,” resulting from time spent in Antarctica at the IceCube Project.
In addition to these external opportunities like Posters in the Rotunda in Madison or Posters on the Hill in Washington, D.C., each fall students showcase their undergraduate research activities on campus at an annual “Gala Evening of RSCA,” sponsored by SURSCA. They also participate in faculty/staff RSCA days.
“The gala focuses the university’s attention on the solid research of our students and the important mentoring relationships they enjoy with members of the faculty,” says Betz. “These relationships produce unique learning opportunities and prepare the involved student for graduate study and the responsibilities for their first positions in their respective fields.”
Funding for student and student/faculty research can range from the Faculty/Academic Staff Development Board Collaborative RSCA Funds, UWRF Faculty Research grants, UWRF Foundation Summer Research Stipends, and SURSCA grants, to external funding sources, such as a grant from Merck & Co. that provided support over the summer for four students to research the analgesic effects of hot peppers, says Campbell.
“Many departments, especially in the sciences, have found ways to encourage and support their students’ research projects,” says Campbell. “Nonetheless we continually struggle to find the financial resources to pay for these activities.”
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