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Undergraduate Summer Research Highlights – Newsroom | University of St. Thomas – University of St. Thomas Newsroom

For more than 50 St. Thomas undergraduate students, this summer was spent conducting research on a wide range of topics through St. Thomas’ Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).
The program’s grant funding means that students get paid for their work and research. Forty-two Young Scholars, 10 Ignite Research Scholars and one Community-Based Researcher participated this summer.
The Newsroom connected with some of the student scholars to find out more about what they studied, what it’s like to work with a faculty mentor and how their research benefits their academic careers.
Name: Colin Nilsen
Year: Sophomore
Major: Computer engineering
Research Title: “Effect of Recycled Concrete Aggregate on Concrete Properties”
Faculty Mentor: Rita Lederle, Engineering
Grant: Ignite Research Scholars
Describe what you’re researching this summer.
The research consists of testing concrete with varying levels of recycled concrete aggregate, or RCA. Testing includes compressive strength, flexural strength, electrical resistance, shrinkage, and freeze thaw stability testing.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve found so far in your research?
The electrical resistivity of concrete. Through this research I have found concrete can act as an insulator when dry and therefore high resistance, or can be conductive when wet with a lower electrical resistance.
What has been the most valuable part of having funded research be part of your undergraduate experience at St. Thomas?
I get to learn something new and outside of my comfort zone while still having a connection to the engineering field, which allowed me to find my interest in the electrical resistivity test.
What have been the biggest benefits of working with an academic adviser like you have this summer?
The greatest benefit of working with Dr. Lederle is learning about all the different connections other fields have to civil engineering and just how important it is to be able to work with others of a different field. Dr. Lederle also gave me many opportunities to find my own interests in this research and explore that, making this a valuable experience.
Name: Maggie Erpelding
Year: Senior
Majors: Biology and Spanish
Research Title: “Dopamine-Related Gene Expression in the Social Decision-Making Network in Response to an Infidelity Challenge in the Monogamous Zebra Finch”
Faculty Mentor: Sarah Heimovics, Biology
Grant: Young Scholars
Describe what you’re researching this summer.
I am conducting research on gene expression in the brain of zebra finches in relation to their pair bond status and maintenance. Zebra finches are socially monogamous birds who pair bond with a single mate. I am measuring relative amounts of gene expression using a technology called RT-qPCR. This technology allows us to use mRNA from the brain regions of interest. We are interested in characterizing the role of dopamine in fidelity and pair bond maintenance. Therefore, I use brain regions in the social decision-making network and look at genes that are related to dopamine.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve found so far in your research?
I have found that a brain region called the nucleus accumbens has a significant role in the maintenance of relationships in relation to dopamine. We found that the gene expression of an enzyme that makes dopamine is higher in males who do not participate in extra-pair courtship.
What has been the most valuable part of having funded research be part of your undergraduate experience at St. Thomas?
This experience has taught me valuable new technical skills, but additionally skills such as troubleshooting and science communication. I have also created important relationships with my peers and mentors. Undergraduate research opportunities were a large reason I chose to attend St. Thomas, so having my own project funded has been a priceless experience for me. I hope to continue research after graduation and feel that UROP has helped me prepare for my future.
What have been the biggest benefits of working with an academic adviser like you have this summer?
Dr. Heimovics is an incredible mentor who really encourages independence in relation to my research but also provides the support I need. She trusts me to perform much of my work on my own and allows me to follow my interests within neuroscience. She has provided me opportunities that felt impossible at the undergraduate level like writing my own manuscript and presenting at large conferences. Additionally, she helps me network with other faulty to advance my research and scientific knowledge. Dr. Jenne Westberry also plays an important role in our lab and in my research. I have the ability to strengthen my scientific skills through the partnerships of different specialties. Both professors enhance my research experience and are role models to me in and outside of my research.
Name: Owen Mische
Year: Senior
Major: History
Research Title: “The Dakota Conflicts and the Union Soldier”
Faculty Mentor: David Williard, History
Grant: Young Scholars
Describe what you’re researching this summer.
I am researching soldiers from Minnesota who fought in the U.S.-Dakota War from 1862-65. Many of these soldiers joined the military to fight the Civil War but found themselves stationed on the Minnesota frontier. The research focuses on examining how these men viewed their service, themselves and the conflict in which they were participating in light of the larger Civil War.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve found so far in your research?
Seeing how the soldiers who were stationed on the frontier in Minnesota thought about the Civil War. Even though these soldiers were stationed just about as far from the Civil War as they could be, the central questions of the war were frequently on their minds. Issues like the preservation of the Union, supremacy of the federal government, and the abolition of slavery are frequently mentioned in the letters and diaries of these soldiers and were important to them.
What has been the most valuable part of having funded research be part of your undergraduate experience at St. Thomas?
Getting the experience of real historical research. I have been able to practice archival research and have been exposed to many different types of primary and secondary sources. Overall, this experience and the skills I have learned are great building blocks to be able to continue the study of history.
What have been the biggest benefits of working with an academic adviser like you have this summer?
Working with Dr. Williard has been a great experience! The biggest benefits of working with him is the depth of his knowledge on and passion for this subject and his experience with this sort of research. His advice on how to approach archival research was especially helpful. Meeting with Dr. Williard regularly throughout the summer has really helped me stay on track and explore some interesting directions to take this project.
Name: Madeleine Moeller
Year: Junior
Major: Computer science
Research Title: “Wearable Driver Monitoring System”
Faculty Mentor: Cheol-Hong Min, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Grant: Young Scholars
Describe what you’re researching this summer.
I have been researching the development of a machine learning algorithm for a noninvasive, wearable system using electroencephalography to automatically detect and monitor drowsiness in drivers on the road. The goal is to create a warning system to alert the user of periods of inattentiveness to increase awareness and prevent accidents that are a result of distracted and drowsy driving.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve found so far in your research?
How to take large amounts of data that at first glance have seemingly no meaning to it and extract valuable insights to be analyzed and applied elsewhere.
What has been the most valuable part of having funded research be part of your undergraduate experience at St. Thomas?
Having the opportunity to gain hands-on experience and develop critical thinking skills while applying them to find solutions for relevant problems in the world.
What have been the biggest benefits of working with an academic adviser like you have this summer?
One of the biggest benefits has been having a source of professional guidance, motivation and expertise to aid in learning and understanding the essential skills necessary to conduct successful academic research.
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