Faculty Mentor Young Researchers In Their Quest For Knowledge

First-year student Mayisha Nakib had been at SMU only a week last fall when she achieved one of her goals: to participate in research as an undergraduate. Upon learning of Nakib’s interest, Assistant Professor of Physics Jodi Cooley suggested that she apply for a Hamilton Scholars Undergraduate Research grant. Nakib, a Dedman College Scholar, received the grant and now works with Cooley on dark matter research in the cleanroom laboratory in Fondren Science Building.

Jodi Cooley (left) and Mayisha Nakib

Nakib is one of nearly 130 undergraduates who are conducting research with faculty across the University, from anthropology to engineering to statistics. Many are supported by SMU’s Undergraduate Research Assistantship program, created in 2005 to provide funds to encourage undergraduate research.

Other students receive funding from the Hamilton Scholars Program or Richter Fellowships, awarded to Honors Program students to conduct research either in the United States or internationally. Still other undergraduates who have impressed their teachers by excelling in their classes are asked to work on research projects.

“There are many benefits for undergraduate students who engage in research projects,” says James E. Quick, associate vice president for research and dean of graduate studies. “One broadens the scope of study beyond what can be obtained strictly in the classroom. And the opportunity to pursue a topic or idea in an independent way with faculty involvement or supervision provides an important path to intellectual growth.”

Working closely with a faculty mentor on research and discovery is a key component of SMU’s recently created Engaged Learning program, which provides undergraduates the opportunity to complement their classroom education through engagement in research, service, internships or other activities with the Dallas-Fort Worth community and beyond.

Monnie McGee (left) and Michael McCarthy

Associate Professor of Statistical Science Monnie McGee has mentored senior Michael McCarthy, one of the first recipients of an Engaged Learning grant. McCarthy, a double major in statistics and mathematics, is analyzing data that evaluates home care support provided to veterans with spinal cord injuries for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Dallas. The home care program for veterans attempts to reduce the need for veterans’ visits for medical appointments and emergencies to the medical center.

McCarthy, who had taken three classes from McGee, asked her to mentor his project. The two meet weekly to go over assignments and to review the data that McCarthy is gathering from patients. “Understanding how data are gathered and entered is very important to any research,” McGee says. “When you ask questions about the quality of life of the participants, you realize you have to be particular and methodical to obtain reliable information. I think Michael is beginning to grasp concepts that he may not have understood before taking on this project. He is a really good student and has made it easy for me to be a mentor,” she adds.

Pursuing an undergraduate research project not only “reinforces material gleaned from coursework, it can provide valuable feedback on the kind of career a student chooses,” Quick says. Following are examples of research that undergraduates are conducting under the guidance of SMU faculty. And while each relationship is different, depending on the academic level of the student and the nature of the research, one thing is the same: the shared passion of student and faculty for exploring the unknown together.

Physicist Jodi Cooley leads SMU students as part of a global team searching for elusive dark matter – the “glue” that represents 85 percent of the matter in our universe, but which has never been observed. Cooley is a member of the scientific consortium called SuperCryogenic Dark Matter Search (SuperCDMS), which operates a particle detector located deep in an underground abandoned mine in Minnesota. The detector is focused on detecting WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), which some physicists theorize comprise dark matter. WIMPS are particles of such low mass that they rarely interact with ordinary matter, making them extremely difficult to detect.

To assess background interference that could affect their research, Cooley and her team rely on the high-tech XIA Alpha Particle Counter, housed in a cleanroom operated by the Department of Physics. SMU is one of only five institutions in the world to house the XIA. As part of the team, student Mayisha Nakib is investigating the history of various detectors to calculate their exposure to radon or radioactivity, which can produce background interference. Less background interference improves the chances of observing WIMPS.

Nakib, who is majoring in biological sciences and physics, says she already has learned new computer skills and how to operate the particle counter. “The faster I get involved with research, the easier it will be to pick it up.”

Cooley adds that the Physics Department has more students who are eager to conduct research than it has faculty who can mentor them.

Larry Ruben (right) and Nick Burns

For 30 years, Biological Sciences Professor Larry Ruben has worked on decoding the genetic traits of a parasite that causes the lethal disease commonly known as sleeping sickness, infecting humans and livestock and potentially more than 60 million people in 36 countries. His most recent work focuses on proteins required for late stages of cell division and on the pathways that regulate cell division and cell death. He is searching for unique processes in the trypanosome parasite that can be used to design new therapies that may prevent infected cells from successfully dividing and reproducing.

“Better understanding of these proteins could lead to development of new drugs to treat sleeping sickness,” Ruben says.

In his lab, Ruben oversees senior and President’s Scholar Nick Burns, who is majoring in biological sciences and French with a chemistry minor and also received a Hamilton Scholars Undergraduate Research grant. For the past year, Burns has been working on his own project, which “doesn’t often happen with undergraduates in the lab,” Ruben says.

Burns is looking at how suppression of a signal or production of an inappropriate signal in cell division can be lethal to the trypanosome organisms. Specifically, he is investigating a gene that tells the trypanosome where to place some of its specialized structures, like its flagellum (tail), nucleus and skeletal components. If the structures do not align properly, then cell division may be inhibited; this could be further explored as a new target for therapies against sleeping sickness, he says.

Through his research experience, Burns says he has gained a “passion” for the study of molecular parasitology, which he hopes to continue in medical school, as well as “an appreciation for science itself. You learn a lot of analytical skills and realize what a time-consuming experience and intellectual game the whole process is. It takes patience and a lot more patience.”

Maria Minniti (left) and Kalinda Dinoffer

The ongoing economic crisis has underlined the importance of female entrepreneurship, which historically has been a significant defense against economic distress for many families. First-year B.B.A. Scholar Kalindi Dinoffer is searching through historical records and data to learn what conditions best promote this activity in both good and bad economic times, and eventually may search as far back as the Colonial era. The information will support research conducted by Maria Minniti, Bobby B. Lyle Chair of Entrepreneurship at Cox School of Business, who plans to expand her study of female entrepreneurship into a book. Minniti says she recognized resourceful and detail-oriented qualities in Dinoffer, who took a business decision-making class from her last fall, which would make for a reliable research assistant.

The two meet weekly to go over the data that Dinoffer has found. “Learning more about female entrepreneurship and its historical evolution will teach us a lot about how individuals (both men and women) respond to incentives, to uncertainty, and how employment choices are made,” Minniti says. “We also will learn what policies and institutional systems are more conducive to women’s participation in the labor force and how the legal and regulatory systems molded the socioeconomic dynamics of the U.S. labor market.”

Dinoffer, who is also considering studies in the social sciences and economics, thought she would conduct the research for a semester, but “now I’ve gotten invested in this and can’t just hand off the data to someone else! And I’ve learned that interacting with faculty is what you make of it, that they respond if you show you’re interested. Dr. Minniti has gone above and beyond in making herself accessible to her students.”

A Meadows Exploration Grant enabled senior and President’s Scholar Charlton Roberts to undertake a project last fall that combined computer programming and live theatre. The theatre and computer science major wanted to explore how computation could be a part of a theatrical performance, not just facilitate it, and enlisted the aid of student actors and engineers to help create the project.

Ira Greenberg (left) and Charlton Roberts

“My idea was to use computation as a fundamental facet of the storytelling on stage – a form versus content approach,” Roberts says. During the performance, audience members sat in chairs on the stage of the Hope Theatre with the curtain closed. Six actors and a dancer, who received their lines and direction from a computer program, improvised their scenes in front of a giant white sheet with video projectors placed in the front and back. The Meadows grant provided funding for the connections, Apple TVs, cords, cables and hardware needed to create the production.

Roberts worked on the project through the Center of Creative Computation, a new area of study in Meadows School of the Arts that also requires coursework in the Lyle School of Engineering. At the philosophical core of the major is the integration of creative and analytical study and practice – championing a “whole brain” approach, says Associate Professor and center director Ira Greenberg, who teaches in both schools. Although Greenberg did not work with Roberts on the project in the fall, he has worked with him on an independent study this spring.

“We’re asking students to become proficient computer programmers who must deal with math and computer science, but we also expect them to be good artists, and that’s what Charlton did,” Greenberg says.

Roberts adds that the project “far exceeded my expectations to the point that I have completely changed my mind about being an actor. I get more creative fulfillment out of projects like this than acting now. And this would not have been possible without the creative environment SMU provides.”

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