Our Stories

Garrett Potter ’11 in the labGarrett Potter ’11 in the lab

Mayachela Velez ’10 and Abe Moland ’11 work with Professor Junggi HongMayachela Velez ’10 and Abe Moland ’11 work with Professor Junggi Hong

Professor Michaela Kleinert and Marc Whitehead ’10 in the labProfessor Michaela Kleinert and Marc Whitehead ’10 in the lab

Faculty and students reflect on their SCRP experiencesFaculty and students reflect on their SCRP experiences

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Students and Faculty Collaborate on Science Quandaries

Does vibration exercise really work? How do grocery stores define "local" food? How do you trap and slow down the movement of an atom?

Instead of lounging by the pool this summer, 21 Willamette students and nine professors dedicated their weeks to answering these questions and others. They conducted interviews, traveled to farms and meadows, and spent hours inside labs to satisfy their curiosity and gain experience through the Science Collaborative Research Program (SCRP).

For nine weeks, students work side-by-side with an experienced professor and other students on complex science research, and they get paid to do it. At the end, they write papers on their findings - some of which are published in established scientific journals - and make presentations on campus. Sometimes they take their work to national and international conferences.

"The collaboration part of the program means that students are involved in every step of the process. They are designing, modifying and developing their own experiments, with the guidance of each other and the faculty member," says biology Professor Susan Kephart, who leads SCRP projects on the pollination of camas flowers.

Kephart has been participating in SCRP for more than a decade, and she has seen her students go on to prestigious PhD programs and careers in a variety of fields, including osteopathic medicine, journalism and teaching.

"What we're doing here is pretty much graduate student work," says Abe Moland '11, an exercise science major who participated this summer. "When it comes time for us to apply for grad school and we have this published paper on our résumé, that is going to make us stand out from the crowd. I'm learning so much about how to do research, how to prepare a proposal, how to run the equipment we're using. It's really good experience."

Moland and Mayachela Velez '10 worked with Junggi Hong, assistant professor of exercise science, to study the acute effect of whole body vibration exercise on the shoulder. "Whole body vibration has been used in athletic training and in physical therapy clinics for rehabilitation purposes, such as when someone dislocates their shoulder," Hong says. "But there has been no study in the exercise science field regarding the effects of vibration training on the shoulder neuromuscular function."

In other words, athletes say anecdotally that vibration seems to improve their shoulder function, but science hasn't proved it. Hong and his students brought 20 athletic and 20 non-athletic people into the lab, where they used specialized machines to test their shoulder strength and ability to sense the position of their joints before and after using vibration exercise. The scholars plan to submit an article with their results to the International Journal of Sports Medicine.

In a much darker, much colder lab across campus, Michaela Kleinert, assistant professor of physics, guided two students in building a device that cools and traps atoms. The painstaking process of creating the MOT, or magneto optical trap, involved setting up mirrors, optical isolators and fiber optic cables in precise positions and directing lasers in the proper direction to be able to trap the atoms and slow their movements, allowing scientists to study them further. Temperature and light also affected their results - hence the dark, cold conditions in the lab.

"This project has taught me patience," Garrett Potter '11 says. "We're talking about distances on the nano scale, which is a billionth of a meter. Everything is so small and precise and it has to be just perfect. This research also helped my confidence - it turns out I know more than I had given myself credit for, and it's been good to be able to use that knowledge."

"I almost feel like if I was given the money, I could now set up a trap from scratch by myself, because Professor Kleinert gave us such a deep understanding of the project," says Marc Whitehead '10, Potter's partner in the lab. "I've also learned how to find information if I don't have it already, without just walking into the professor's office and saying, ‘I'm stuck. Help me.' That not only applies to this specific area of research, but it applies to my life in general."

Kleinert says the MOT the students built will continue to be used for future research projects on the collisions of different types of atoms. "When you come into graduate school with no experience in research, it's like jumping into ice cold water, and all of a sudden you need to swim and people expect you to pick up these tips and tricks in the lab very quickly," Kleinert says.

The students appreciate the step up for graduate school, but they also are drawn to the chance to work so closely with an experienced professor who can share his or her knowledge. Jonnie Dunne '10 tapped the know-how of Kimberlee Chambers, assistant professor of environmental science, as their group examined the local food movement in the Willamette Valley.

"We've been given an idea of the field that Professor Chambers specializes in," says Dunne, who interviewed area grocers to determine how they define local food. "But she's not telling us exactly how to do everything - she lets us make our own mistakes and helps us along the way. She has told us time and again that we are collaborators.

"I asked local grocers for a general estimate of how many transactions are going on per week at their stores, and I found that there are about 130,000. So I'm studying something at least 130,000 people a week are being affected by. That's much more applicable in day-to-day life than just looking at data points on a screen. I enjoy seeing the human side to the research I'm doing."



08-05-2009