A new building’s resources and the decision to tap a funding source in a new way led to a research-filled summer for undergraduate students at Shenandoah University.
“There is great value in learning the skills associated with scientific research, no matter the discipline,” Assistant Professor of Biology Michael Zimmermann, Ph.D. said. “The faculty here at Shenandoah understand this and are encouraging students to pursue these opportunities. When I was an undergraduate, conducting research was one of the most valuable experiences I had while getting my degree, and giving these opportunities to students at Shenandoah is equally rewarding.”
This summer, money from the university’s Warrington Science Fund was officially set aside for the first time to fund two research projects, according to Assistant Professor of Biology Laurel Rodgers, Ph.D. The Virginia Federation for Independent Colleges (VFIC), which has been the more typical source of money for summer research at Shenandoah, provided funds for three additional fellowships. Every grant provided students with $2,000 for eight weeks of summer research, Dr. Rodgers said. It was also the first year to see both biology participation in summer research and the creation of an official “research fellowship,” called the Warrington Fellowship.
Dr. Zimmermann noted that while the stipends encouraged students to stay for the summer, another driving force behind the research was access to facilities at the Health & Life Sciences Building (HLSB), which opened in fall 2014. “The department and our research interests outgrew the space in Gregory Hall and the new facilities and equipment that we now have at our disposal make research much more realistic and feasible.”
“HLSB was critical for research in the biology department,” Rodgers said. “The building provided us with both space and equipment, such as the cell culture room and the microscopy room, that allowed us to complete our research projects.”
During the summer, Rodgers advised Warrington Fellowship recipient Christopher Ciszek ’16, of Waynesboro, Virginia, who is double majoring in chemistry and biology, as he researched fungi within chestnut trees (American chestnuts were decimated by an early 20th-century blight and now exist mainly in a stunted form and rarely reach maturity.)
“By having all of this information, we’ll be able to understand how each fungus starts to interact with each other. And [we’ll] see what we can do to make the community less hospitable for this fungal parasite, eventually bringing back the pure American chestnut tree,” said Ciszek, who noted that multiple professors helped and moved along his research.
Zimmermann, who advised research conducted by biology/chemistry student and Warrington Fellowship recipient Craig Hollander ’16 on parasites living in bluegill sunfish in the ponds at Shenandoah University’s River Campus at Cool Spring Battlefield, agreed with Rodgers regarding the Health & Life Sciences Building’s benefits. Its facilities are “extremely important for conducting scientific research,” he said. “My research is more field-based than other people in the biology department, but samples collected in the field could be brought back to the lab for storage in our -20 C and -80 C freezers to wait for processing. After processing, we took advantage of the great microscopy and imaging facility we have in HLSB to identify and image parasites for publication.”
“We found at least 10 different species [of parasites] – sometimes, in one fish,” said Hollander, of Alexandria, Virginia, who added that he was honored to receive the fellowship. He loves being in the field, doing microbiology work and fishing. He’s also making a difference, via all those passions. “We’re trying to do the ecology of the lakes,” he said while at Cool Spring. “Finding out a lot about the parasitology in these particular ponds will give us an idea of what kinds of natural species we have here, what we can expect to find, tell us how healthy these ponds are, and offer an insight on ways to fix [them], possibly, or work on conserving [them].”
While the facilities at the HLSB proved very helpful for several projects, they weren’t used by Sydney Vonada ’16, an environmental studies major from Richmond, Virginia, as she conducted research on natural communities at Cool Spring, with Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology Woodward Bousquet, Ph.D., as her advisor and with the help of a VFIC/MeadWestvaco Fellowship. Dr. Bousquet said the research he’s associated with utilizes labs at Gregory Hall.
“I wanted to trailblaze a new project for future classes and students who are just as in love with the area,” Vonada said of Cool Spring, where her studies focused on describing existing natural communities and understanding how to connect broken ecosystems.
Bousquet noted that in each of his 22 years at Shenandoah, one or two science students have conducted (usually VFIC-funded) science research. (Bousquet also teaches an environmental studies research course every other summer, involving six to 10 students.) The summer of 2015 was special, because of the number of students involved and the funding sources, he said.
Two other students used VFIC fellowships for summer research. Chad Smith ’15 (Biology/Chemistry) received the VFIC/Carilion Program Fellowship to study “The Effects of Glutamate Treatment on Protein Expression in a Suprachiasmatic Nucleus Model System” with Assistant Professor of Biology Beth Cantwell, Ph.D. In addition, Kathleen Lasick ’16 (Biology/Chemistry) examined the “Expression of Proteins Involved in Synchronization of the Biological Clock” under the direction of Dr. Cantwell with a VFIC General Program Fellowship.
While summer research gained steam this year, research opportunities abound for students studying at Shenandoah University’s College of Arts & Sciences students, according to Rodgers, Zimmermann and Bousquet.
“Most professors in the sciences are looking for students to conduct research, not only in their fields of interest, but starting new lines of research as well,” said Zimmermann. For example, environmental studies utilizes Abrams Creek, Cedar Creek, the Shenandoah River and Cool Spring, while biology “has several lines of research being conducted, including projects in physiology, genetics, cell biology, developmental biology and ecology,” Zimmermann said. The goal is always to ask a student about their interests and then tailor a scientifically important project to suit. “I know other members of the biology, chemistry and environmental science departments [feel] the same way, because if we can get the students excited about their projects, the outcomes will be better.”
Students in the sciences can do mini research projects within courses or semester-long research projects for credit, Rodgers said. And from here forward, the plan is to regularly offer summer research fellowships. Research has truly gained traction. “We have also had a steady number of students completing research projects during the semester since last year. We are in the process of setting up a biotechnology course for freshmen and sophomores that will provide them with training for future research courses,” Rodgers said. “We anticipate research becoming a regular part of the science experience at Shenandoah.”
Bousquet said environmental studies provides research opportunities for all of its students. “For me, this is part of the ‘Shenandoah difference’ — that every student majoring in environmental studies has had the chance to take part in research that addresses the environmental quality and the protection of our natural heritage here in the Shenandoah Valley.”