Today, three decades after it began, UD’s nationally recognized Undergraduate Research Program engages about 700
undergraduate students each year at the frontiers of discovery. They work
closely with faculty advisers across all disciplines on research and creative
activities ranging from cancer studies to literary compositions.
“Thirty years after its inception, the Undergraduate Research Program continues to provide intentional opportunities for students to deepen their knowledge and discover answers to many important societal and disciplinary questions. With the mentoring of outstanding faculty, the walls dividing student from professor begin to evaporate and colleagues in pursuit of knowledge emerge,” says Lynnette Overby, professor and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning.
With a background in both the arts and sciences, Overby has had a multi-faceted
career as an administrator, educator, researcher and choreographer. Since she
joined the UD faculty in 2008, her goal has been to build on “the wonderful program of undergraduate research that has been in place, and also
to become involved with societal and community concerns, many of which overlap
with academic pursuits.”
With the support of the Office of the Provost, she plans to create additional opportunities for undergraduate students to conduct research and creative activities, including interdisciplinary and global projects.
In compiling a history of UD’s Undergraduate Research Program working with program coordinator Meg Meiman and Prof. Joan Bennett, who retired as the program’s director in 2007, Overby found that UD’s program is one of the first — if not the first — in the nation.
“The first manifestations of undergraduate research at UD were undergraduate
student theses, the first written in 1897 by a student in mechanical
engineering,” she says.
Then in 1936, the University awarded the first Degrees with Distinction. To obtain this honor, undergraduates were expected to become involved with both creating original knowledge and documenting this knowledge in a thesis. Students in chemistry, English, mathematics, biology and physiology were the first recipients.
By the late 1970s, the University was awarding increasing numbers of Degrees with Distinction and thus decided to expand the idea of involving undergraduates in the creation of new knowledge. Instead of just having a few highly motivated students work in the lab with individual professors, why not make research part of the larger education available at the University of Delaware? Thus, the University Honors Program and, shortly thereafter, the Undergraduate Research Program, were born.
At the 30th anniversary celebration in May, Overby and her colleagues welcomed students, program alumni, faculty and friends to a weekend of events, including a special symposium.
The three keynote speakers were all program alumni. Chiara Sabina graduated from UD in 2000 with an Honors degree in psychology and Spanish studies and is now an assistant professor of social sciences at Pennsylvania State University.
Joseph Salvatore, who received an Honors degree in history from UD in 1995, is now a playwright and director based in Manhattan and also the artistic/education director for Learning Stages, an award-winning, nonprofit theater company in New Jersey dedicated to providing artistic opportunities for children and young adults.
And Charles Bergquist, who received an Honors degree in chemistry from UD in
1996, is the director and contributing producer of National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday.
The focus of Sabina’s talk was how undergraduate researchers can use science to work on social problems. “While I came to college knowing that I wanted to do good, it was here at UD where I first started really understanding some of these problems and how we can use the tools of science to address them,” Sabina said.
Although he had always loved chemistry, Matt Oleksiak wanted to enter a more specialized field of study. When applying to colleges, he saw that fewer schools offered a chemical engineering major and decided to take a risk, hoping this major would prove to be the right choice. Drawn to the University’s superior program, Oleksiak enrolled as a chemical engineering major at UD. Now approaching his senior year, Oleksiak’s choice was clearly the right one.
Through UD’s Undergraduate Research Program, Oleksiak is exploring techniques to assist in the world’s never-ending quest for shrinking technology. Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Nanotechnology Undergraduate Education (NUE) Program, Oleksiak is one of a three-person team researching the synthesis and characterization of iron platinum nanoparticles in a boron nitride matrix. Under the advisement of Prof. S. Ismat Shah, Oleksiak and UD graduate student G. Hassnain Jaffari are investigating the use of iron platinum particles with the potential for application in hard drives.
All the information stored on your computer, cell phone, iPod, etc., is saved to a hard drive. Therefore, it only makes sense that smaller hard drives must first be created in order to produce smaller technological devices. Hard drives are made up of magnetic particles that act as storage units called “bits.” Each bit has a magnetic spin arranging it in an up or down direction. The compilation of numerous bits makes up each file of data stored.
To successfully construct a smaller hard drive, Oleksiak must shrink particle sizes to the nanoscale while maintaining separate magnetic regions (up and down spins). This task may sound simple, but it is difficult when “you are forcing something to bypass what would be more favorable naturally and kind of make it do what you want,” Oleksiak says. Often when particle sizes are reduced to the nanoscale, normal ambient temperatures are enough to cause fluctuations in the magnetic spins. These fluctuations randomize the magnetic spins of the particles, ruining data stored on the hard drive.
To achieve the size and stability he is looking for, Oleksiak turned to iron
platinum particles. Iron platinum has a high anisotropy constant, meaning that
the energy required to change the magnetic spin of the particles is very high.
Iron platinum particles are more stable and thus less likely to be affected by
surrounding thermal energy. The stability of iron platinum particles will
hopefully allow Oleksiak to decrease their size significantly and maintain
their magnetic spins, enabling efficient smaller technological devices.
A major resource used by many, if not all, people and important industries such as health care, defense, education and more, computers have become an essential part of everyday life.
“We live in the age of technology with so many different applications that require computers, hard drives and information storage,” says Oleksiak. And in a field where smaller is better, his research is extremely important.
Nearing the end of his undergraduate studies, Oleksiak plans to attend graduate school to pursue his doctorate in chemical engineering.
Unafraid to experiment in the lab and in life, Oleksiak offers words to live by, saying, “Even bad results can be successful. If you think something’s going to work and you prove that it doesn’t, that is also good.”
When Matt Kinservik looked at the common perception of humanities research, he says he saw a fairly dull picture of a scholar toiling alone in a library for years, poring over materials and eventually producing a book.
By contrast, when the professor and chairperson of English at UD looked at accounts of scientific research, he often saw pairs or groups of people working together, actively engaged in their laboratory and discussing their findings. Even the photos that accompanied these accounts were different, he noticed. Test tubes and beakers in the lab contained colorful liquids, while the dust jacket of the humanities professor’s book often seemed muted.
Kinservik decided something should change, starting with the way undergraduates learn about research.
“Our department discussed this, and we asked: How can humanities scholars mentor
undergraduates and involve them in the way we do research?” he says. “It seems that all people usually see is the result of our research — a book or article. The whole process of how we did the research mystifies
people, especially undergraduates, because we don’t share enough of that.”
With the support of a Transforming Undergraduate Education grant from the College of Arts and Sciences, some English department faculty members tried a new approach, taking their cue from the physical sciences. They set up some projects through the University’s longstanding tradition of undergraduate research and modeled them on a team-based and laboratory-based method.
Teams of students, some also including graduate students, were formed under the faculty member’s direction. Then, the faculty leader divided the research among the team’s members, with each student taking a particular book or aspect of the subject matter to examine. The team members, including the faculty researcher, met regularly, shared ideas, focused and re-focused their research topics and sometimes did fieldwork together.
“It was a much less solitary way to do research, and the collaborations were very effective,” Kinservik says of his own two projects that used this new model. His research involved book history, while other faculty members worked on topics involving journalism, composition and English education.
The first of Kinservik’s projects concerned a group of Irish radicals around 1800, with the research focused on learning details of the time the men spent in exile in the United States. One of the radicals, Archibald Hamilton Rowan, ended up in Delaware, and while conducting research at the Historical Society of Delaware, the UD students discovered boxes of letters Hamilton Rowan had written that had never before been published.
“There was so much material that we decided to focus just on him,” Kinservik says. “There was plenty to keep the students busy.”
The project went on to include a trip to Ireland for further research by Kinservik and then-undergraduate English majors Brion Abel and Alice Lippincott. The three have written an article about their findings, to be published in the magazine History Ireland.
“This research project was a great experience, a life-changing experience for me,” says Abel, who graduated in 2010 and is working for a year while exploring
graduate programs. “It really changed my view of research and made me want to go to grad school.”
With the team members dividing up the boxes of documents and then sharing their findings, everyone benefited from hearing other perspectives and insights, Abel says, describing their meetings as “massive brainstorming sessions.” The experience of talking to one another also “helped us learn to write for a wider audience,” he says.
Kinservik’s second research project using the team model involved the common 18th-century practice of abridging books. The students in that team looked at different works, or different categories of books, and spent a week in Los Angeles working in rare-book libraries.
Undergraduate Sarah Gelotte took part in the research, looking specifically at abridgments of Bibles and other sacred texts. She says she joined the project, not only because she wanted to learn to conduct in-depth research but also because of its collaborative nature.
“I think this was the most appealing aspect for me — that I’d be able to explore these questions with a very small group of undergraduate
and graduate students,” Gelotte says. “When you’re working with peers, and in my case with individuals who have had experience
with research before, it was easy to keep interested, inspired and really hone
in on the questions that I wanted to research personally.”
Kinservik says he and other faculty members consider the experiment with the team-based model a success and are seeking additional grant funds so that future projects can also include travel if needed. “Part of what made the experience so special for students was the fieldwork,” he says. “Working in a group, in a library surrounded by other researchers, really gives students a new view of the humanities.”
Amanda Lee Welch is one of four UD undergrads in 2010 to receive the Goldwater Scholarship recognizing exceptional students pursuing careers in science, mathematics, and engineering.
She also continues to excel as an Undergraduate Research Program scholar. With funding from the program and from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Welch is conducting research on laminitis and sole ulceration in the bovine claw.
As a young girl, Welch always dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, and while most
childhood dreams change with age, Welch’s never did. Currently an animal and food sciences major, Welch chose the
program at the University of Delaware because, she says, “it is more directly focused on animals, providing the hands-on experience I was
Working at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., starting at the age of 15, Welch was introduced to Dr. Jim Orsini, an associate professor studying laminitis in horses. An avid horseback rider with her eye on becoming a veterinarian, Welch was very interested in his research.
“I had seen cases of laminitis in horses before, and it is tragic. I wanted to help find a solution to the problem. That is when Dr. Orsini introduced me to Dr. Dyer, who was conducting similar research with dairy cattle. I began working in his lab at UD,” says Welch.
Under the advisement of Dyer, Welch is working with fellow undergrad Caitlin Gromley and grad student Trista Reeder researching sole ulceration in the bovine claw. Her study focuses on the distribution of involucrin, a structural protein of the cytoskeleton and cornified envelope, and proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA), a protein expressed in the cell nucleus during the synthesis phase of the cell cycle, in normal and ulcerated bovine sole regions. An increase in PCNA expression appears to be associated with marked changes in the intensity and pattern of involucrin staining across the suprabasal layers of keratinocytes of ulcerated epidermis. Lameness from claw horn lesions is the second most important health problem prevalent in dairy cows behind mastitis, an infection in the udders.
Ulcerated soles are a direct result of hemorrhagic trauma to the cow’s hoof, a disease that Welch and many others believe may be related to the cow’s diet. Previously grass-grazing animals, dairy cattle now receive rations of grains and corn, which can severely disturb their digestive systems. Similar to diabetic foot ulcers in humans, dairy cows are developing painful ulcers as a result of this new diet high in sugars and carbohydrates. Sole ulcers greatly decrease the welfare of the animal, and if left untreated, result in afflicted animals being separated from the herd and sent to slaughter.
The number of dairy cattle affected by sole ulcers has caused great economic
losses for dairy farmers; on average, each case will cost a dairy producer
$627. Welch’s study of the bovine sole aims to characterize the changes that occur in hoof
ulcers in dairy cows that may lead to further understanding the disease,
opening doors to establish treatments to help improve the life of the animals
and the U.S. dairy industry.
As a senior nearing the end of her undergraduate work, Welch plans to attend a research-based veterinary school to study disease pathogenesis for biomedical applications in pursuit of a combined Ph.D. and doctorate in veterinary medicine.