Redefining the Classroom

Student chemistry, biology studies funded by undergraduate research grant

Posted: May 27th, 2013

BIODIVERSITY, CUBED – How much life fits into one cubic foot? National Geographic photographer David Liittschwager uses time-lapse photography to document all of the organisms that pass through a cubic foot in 24 hours. Lake Superior State University student researcher Harry Dittrich will apply this one-cubic-foot approach to a biodiversity study he's conducting this summer of the Duck Lake Fire area in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. His work is among six other projects being funded by an undergraduate research grant program now in its third year. (Courtesy David Liittschwager)

A print-resolution photo that runs with the caption above can be found by clicking here.

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – Seven students have received cash grants to support six research projects that range from exploring an organic method to break up petroleum byproducts in soil, to a novel use of photography that documents the biodiversity found in one cubic foot of space.

Researcher Garrett Price
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An anonymous benefactor started the undergraduate research grant program with a substantial gift in 2007. As the initiative grows, so does financial support from alumni and friends through the LSSU Foundation Office.

“There are many opportunities for students to collaborate with faculty on research, however it has always been a challenge to help fund such collaborations,” says LSSU Foundation Executive Director Tom Coates. "The benefactor determined an area they wanted to support and made these opportunities possible. As support for this undergraduate research programs grows, we see a great opportunity to expand the students' educational experience within their chosen field of study."

Undergraduate research is a vital part of the student experience at LSSU. In fact, the University mission and vision statements emphasize its role in helping students develop their full potential, as well as contributing to the growth, dissemination and application of knowledge beyond campus.

"An area of pride for our university is the incorporation of student research into the academic programs," says Dr. Barb Keller, Dean of the College of Natural, Mathematical and Health Sciences and also the chair of the committee that awards the undergraduate research grants. "The availability of the undergraduate research funding has given students access to funding for research projects that otherwise may not have been possible."

Students who graduate from Lake State must first demonstrate and apply their knowledge in the form of a senior project that is evaluated by fellow students and faculty. Many of these projects become posters and papers presented at professional conferences. Open sessions held on campus each semester share research results with the public as well.

Researcher Harry Dittrich
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"For many students, a senior thesis project is their first pass through rigorous university-level research," says Keller. "Now we add another first-time opportunity by making an undergraduate research grant available. The selection process itself provides our students with skills that may not only fund, but steer the research they go on to conduct as post-graduates."

Christopher Gravatt is exploring a method of scrubbing petroleum hydrocarbons from soil and groundwater. Volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) associated with petroleum become trapped in soil due to their insoluble nature. These contaminants slowly leach out of soil to contaminate groundwater. One common method of removing these contaminates is by pumping out the groundwater, treating it at the surface, and then returning it via a spray application. This is a long, repetitive process. Gravatt's study proposes the synthesis and deployment of novel biodegradable organic surfactants that would isolate insoluble soil contaminants near the groundwater layer for rapid and safe removal. Gravatt is a senior in environmental chemistry from Escanaba, Mich.

Daniel Mockler is investigating how three streams that flow into Whitefish Bay provide energy and nutrients to near-shore food webs. Part of his study identifies pathways of energy and nutrients from streams into the bay. He collects algae, aquatic insect, zooplankton, and fish samples at each site and measures for the presence of carbon and nitrogen isotopes. Carbon isotopes trace sources of energy, such as carbohydrates, while nitrogen flags nutrient sources. Comparing isotope readings along Whitefish Bay sites will determine where energy or nutrient sources originate and how they move through the food web. Mockler is a junior in conservation biology from La Porte, Ind.

Researcher Brian Curell
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Garrett Price's project is trying to figure out whether migrating salmon are bringing PCBs into wildlife living near streams. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are manmade chemicals that were used in a variety of industrial applications for 40 years. Production of PCBs was banned in 1979 due to their negative environmental and human health impacts. However, a legacy of PCB contamination exists in aquatic ecosystems that may threaten wildlife. Price will collect animal remains along streams that do and don’t host salmon, and analyze carcasses for levels of PCBs and changes in internal organ condition (e.g., liver color). Price is a senior from Luzerne, Mich., majoring in fisheries and wildlife management with a minor in general business.

Harry Dittrich's study documents any early recovery of biodiversity in the Duck Lake wildfire area scorched by a wildfire in May 2012. He will use time-lapse photography to record all of the organisms that pass through a cubic foot in 24 hours to see how different ecosystems are recovering. His comparison of burned and unburned regions will provide a window into how fire disturbances affect ecosystems and their recovery. Dittrich used this technique last April with National Geographic photographer David Liittschwager and Christopher Meyer of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History to document biodiversity in the San Francisco Bay area. Dittrich is a senior in conservation biology from Cheboygan, Mich.

Researcher Ryan Baldwin
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Ryan Baldwin and Brian Curell's project investigates the effects of freighters on wetlands along the St. Mary's river, which is a major international shipping corridor. The two students will compare and contrast the health of aquatic insects in wetlands that are exposed to the effects of the freighters with those that are protected from freighters. The study also assesses the insects' ability to resist future disturbances in both types of environments. Baldwin is from Blanchard, Mich., while Curell hails from Clifford, Mich. Both are juniors majoring in fisheries and wildlife management.

Researcher William Bernier
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William Bernier's project evaluates current levels and trends of mercury contamination in lake whitefish. Whitefish is an important commercial and subsistence fishery in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and is one of many fishes that have tested positive for mercury contamination within the area. Mercury is a heavy metal that is introduced into the environment through emissions from coal-fueled power plants and metal production facilities. Fish store and accumulate mercury in their tissues and transfer it to people who consume them. Although recent mercury levels of lake whitefish are not alarming, Bernier's project seeks better understand mercury concentration numbers and trends. Bernier is a senior from Brimley, Mich., working on a baccalaureate in fisheries and wildlife management along with an associate's in natural resources technology.

Anyone who wishes to support the undergraduate research fund can contact the LSSU Foundation office at (906) 635-2665 or make a contribution through the LSSU Foundation online giving form.


CONTACTS: John Shibley, e-mail, 906-635-2314; Tom Pink, e-mail, 635-2315; Dr. Barb Keller e-mail, 635-2185 ; Sharon Dorrity, LSSU Foundation, e-mail, 635-2665.