Conducting Independent Research Develops Skills for Future Careers
Detecting bacteria 36 kilometers above the Earth. Modeling the response of genetic networks due to changes in the randomness of protein production. Mapping the Alaskan subsurface.
These are all projects that undergraduate students from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) participated in as part of the University of Houston’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. A total of 21 NSM students conducted summer research in this program, with 18 NSM faculty serving as mentors.
The common theme between all these students is that the SURF program helped them develop skills that they will carry with them into their careers.
The SURF program, which is open to students from all disciplines, offers students the opportunity to engage in an independent research project under the guidance of a UH faculty mentor. The program runs for 10 weeks and offers a stipend of $3,500. In October, students will present research posters during Undergraduate Research Day.
Samuel Morelos: Detecting Bacteria in the Upper Atmosphere
Samuel Morelos is a physics major and a teachHOUSTON fellow entering his senior year. This summer, he conducted a research project under the guidance of Andrew Renshaw, assistant professor of physics.
For his summer project, Morelos and his team designed a piece of equipment that will be used to detect the presence of bacteria 36 kilometers above Earth. Within recent years, scientists have discovered the presence of bacteria in the upper atmosphere. Not much is known about these bacteria, which are known as extremophiles for their ability to tolerate extreme environments.
Morelos and his team, which included undergraduate students Fre’etta Brooks, Steven Oliver and Dorian De La Peña had a goal of designing a piece of equipment that could detect the presence of bacteria at very high altitudes.
“For this project, I had to learn about lasers and microfluidics,” Morelos said. Part of the summer’s challenge was learning how to use simulation software in order to model how different configurations would perform.
“Performing simulations meant that I could test out and improve the design before building the equipment,” Morelos said.
Morelos and his team will be applying to launch this equipment as part of the High Altitude Student Platform (HASP) Program, which is administered by NASA. For the HASP Program, students apply to have equipment placed into a balloon that is designed to carry these projects on a 15- to 20- hour flight to an altitude of about 36 kilometers.
Morelos anticipates taking this experience into the classroom with him for his semester-long student teaching experience.
“I have a log recording all of my failed attempts, followed by the successful attempts,” Morelos said. “This experience has taught me what it means to learn by doing.”
Karissa Pepin: Mapping the Alaskan Subsurface
Karissa Pepin, a geophysics major scheduled to graduate in May 2017, plans to head to graduate school.
For her project, she was mentored by Aibing Li, professor of geophysics in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
“For my project, I worked on imaging the shallow subsurface of southern Alaska using ambient-noise tomography,” Pepin said. “In that region, the Pacific plate is sliding under and colliding with the North American plate, resulting in a lot of earthquake and volcanic activity.”
Traditionally, information about the subsurface is collected from seismic waves that are produced from major events, such as earthquakes or large explosions. Earthquakes produce waves that travel through the ground. Depending on how these waves travel through the ground, scientists can predict properties about the underlying ground.
“Ambient noise tomography uses the noise (weak signals) produced by waves, wind, or even vehicles that stations record all the time,” Pepin said. “What sets my project apart from previous studies is the addition of information from the USArray-Transportable Array, which are traveling stations that pick up seismic information.”
Pepin submitted an abstract of her research to the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, which will be held in December in San Francisco.
Jared Turner: Modeling the Response of Genetic Networks
This summer, Jared Turner worked with faculty mentor William Ott, associate professor of mathematics.
“The question that I am trying to answer is ‘When and how and why does randomness act constructively in the context of genetic networks?’” said Turner, a mathematics major who is scheduled to graduate in Fall 2016.
“I learned how to pace myself,” Turner said. “To learn the background material for this project, I had to learn how to study on my own.”
Turner was modeling how the acceleration of protein assembly due to increased randomness of production varies depending on the number of the available ribosomes, which are the cellular machinery responsible for protein production.
To model this, he took advantage of queuing theory, which is the mathematical study of waiting lines, or queues. Depending on the availability of ribosomes and the number of proteins that needed to be assembled, how the rate of protein assembly responds to increased randomness can vary in ways that are hard to predict.
“What we found is that there are times when randomness acts constructively, and there are times when it doesn’t,” Turner said.
Looking to the Future: Teaching, Graduate School and Industry
Morelos, Pepin and Turner are all close to graduation. The future is very much on their minds. After graduation, they will have a number of available options for their knowledge and skills – teaching, research and industry are three of many different careers they could pursue.
From learning background information to designing the project to figuring out how to deal with unexpected complications, SURF students learned that conducting research means learning how to work independently and to adjust to unexpected problems.
“I feel much more confident now in my abilities to do research,” Pepin said. “The SURF program was incredibly supportive. They want to see you succeed.”
- Rachel Fairbank, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics