Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

Willamette students and faculty work to unravel scientific mysteries

Alex Lantz '13 freezes moss specimens in liquid nitrogen to extract the enzyme she's studying.Alex Lantz '13 freezes moss specimens in liquid nitrogen to extract the enzyme she's studying.

Geri Laudenbach '13 and professor Alison Fisher examine mutated versions of a plant before freezing them in liquid nitrogen.Geri Laudenbach '13 and professor Alison Fisher examine mutated versions of a plant before freezing them in liquid nitrogen.

Through the research skills gained through SCRP, students say they become prepared for graduate school.Through the research skills gained through SCRP, students say they become prepared for graduate school.

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Bacteria are everywhere. Dirt. Water. Even clouds. Melissa Marks, an assistant biology professor at Willamette, asserts there are more bacteria in the human body than there are human cells.

But despite their abundance, little is known about bacteria. That’s why Marks is devoted to studying them, and by doing so, gaining a better understanding of the world.

Through Willamette University’s Science Collaborative Research Program (SCRP), 11 students and eight professors spent the summer attempting to unravel mysteries that challenge the scientific community.

Marks and her students studied how bacteria survive in their natural environments, while assistant chemistry professor Alison Fisher and her students studied how and why plants exchange gases with the air around them.

Both professors say SCRP helps them make headway in their work and forge stronger ties with their colleagues. But just as importantly, they say the program exposes students to the rigors of real research.

“They learn how to draw conclusions, how to troubleshoot, and they get one-on-one time with a faculty member,” Fisher says. “It helps them transform into scientists.”

New Discoveries

During the nine-week internships, students are paid to conduct interviews, gather specimens and form and test hypothesis in the lab.

Once classes resume in the fall, they give presentations and write papers on their findings. Some publish their discoveries in established scientific journals. Occasionally, students are invited to share their work at national and international conferences.

“SCRP is so great because it allows students to work on the same problem for the whole summer and into the school year,” Marks says, adding that research opportunities like SCRP are most commonly found at liberal art colleges. “This is so much more like grad school than anything.”

This past summer, more than 20 Willamette students worked on scientific research — either through SCRP or separate projects funded by the National Science Foundation.

Hired to help assistant physics professor David Altman, Jay Howard ’14 studied a protein called myosin and how varied forces regulate its function. Howard says he was attracted to the SCRP position because of the responsibilities it gave him.  

“I didn’t want to apply for an internship where I would end up washing glassware all day,” says Howard, a physics major who aspires to attend graduate school. “I wanted to be able to participate in the research process and solve problems. SCRP provided that for me.”

During her internship, Emily Harvey ’14 helped Marks examine aquatic bacteria called Caulobacter crescentus. She researched both the survival capabilities of the bacteria and the role of a protective capsule that surrounds the cells.

With her newfound knowledge and lab experience, Harvey believes she’ll have a leg up when applying for medical school.

“Professor Marks is amazing. She is the best teacher,” says Harvey, who is majoring in chemistry. “She explained what I needed to do and why I needed to do it. Then I did it, on my own.”

Preparing for the Future

As soon as they were hired to help Fisher, Alex Lantz ’13 and Geri Laudenbach ’13 say they became invested in their work.

Lantz collected moss from a riverbank and grew it — later freezing the specimens in liquid nitrogen to extract the enzyme she was studying. Laudenbach, meanwhile, grew mutated versions of a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, also freezing them in liquid nitrogen to extract and study molecules called messenger RNAs.

“Increasingly, grad schools are looking for internships, and as internships go, this is as fun as you could get,” says Lantz, a biology and chemistry major. “The professors are all really enthusiastic and highly trained. I will have my name on a paper eventually, which is really cool. We are doing real research.”

Hayley Serres, a biology major who’s graduating this year, says working with Marks through SCRP confirmed what she has long suspected. She is meant to be a scientist.

“This gave me confirmation that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she says. “Every day when I went to work, I wanted to be there.”

Become Involved

The purpose of the Science Collaborative Research Program is to provide selected undergraduate students with the opportunity to work directly with faculty in the natural sciences on a nine-week summer research project. A stipend, food allowance and housing expenses are provided to participating students.

An informational session for the 2013 SCRP is scheduled for Dec. 6 from 7-8 p.m. in Collins 205. During the session, participating faculty will present their research agenda for next summer.