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Student Summer Research Opportunities in the Sciences

Over 20 science research opportunities are available at Beloit College for summer 2018! 

Opportunities are available in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, computer science, environmental science, geology, and mathematics. Many projects will accept more than one student, so you will work on a team of researchers. In addition to conducting research with a faculty mentor, you will also participate in activities with other student researchers that aim to strengthen your professional skills as a scientist.

Most of the opportunities are 8-week experiences (but some are shorter). Successful applicants will receive a stipend of $4,500 for an 8-week experience, must enroll in one unit of Special Project (BIOL, CHEM, CSCI, GEOL, or MATH), and pay summer tuition for this course. Students must live on campus and contract with the college for room and board. The stipend has been calculated to cover these costs. Priority will be given to continuing students.

Applying for Summer 2018

Applications are due on March 26th, 2018. Awards will be made within 2-3 weeks of the application due date.

Descriptions of the available projects are given below. If you are interested in a project:

  1. Talk to the faculty mentor for the project to learn more about it.
  2. Apply for the project online.
  3. Request two reference reports from Beloit College faculty members.
  4. Send an unofficial transcript to Taylor Ajamian, ajamiant@beloit.edu.

If you have questions, please contact Sue Swanson, swansons@beloit.edu (Geology) or Rachel Bergstrom, bergstromr@beloit.edu (Biology). Alternatively, contact the faculty member associated with the project that you would like to work on.


2018 Projects

Anti-predator Behavior of Nestling Red-winged Blackbirds

  • Principal Investigator: Ken Yasukawa, yasukawa@beloit.edu
  • Focus Areas: Biology
  • Project Duration: 8 weeks (June 4-July 27)
  • Prerequisite Courses: Any introductory biology course and BIOL 247: Biometrics.
  • Preferred Courses: BIOL 217: Evolution and BIOL 343: Animal Behavior would be helpful, but are not required.
  • Number of Student Positions: 2

Adult red-winged blackbirds have many adaptations to reduce nest predation, but nest predators still account for the vast majority of nest failures in this species. For the past two breeding seasons, my students and I have used broadcasts of recorded calls of American crows (a nest predator), Cooper’s hawks (a predator of adults), and northern flickers (a nonpredator) to examine responses of nestling red-winged blackbirds when one or both parents were present. I now propose to use these same playbacks to investigate nestling behavior in the absence of their parents.

We will study whether nestling red-winged blackbirds become silent when they hear the calls of a nest predator by moving nestlings temporarily from their nests to a nearby location where we will broadcast the three kinds of calls using a portable speaker. We will measure whether nestlings respond to these playbacks with vocal begging of two kinds: “inappropriate” begging (in the absence of an adult with food) and “spontaneous” begging (making begging calls without other, typical begging behavior such as stretching up with an open mouth). Either form of vocal begging could help a predator to find the nest.

Effect of Agricultural Run-off on Amphibian Immune Response

  • Principal Investigator: Tawnya Cary, caryt@beloit.edu (Project #1)
  • Focus Areas: Biology
  • Project Duration: 8 weeks (June 4-July 27)
  • Prerequisite Courses: Any introductory biology course (100-level) and Chemistry 117
  • Preferred Courses: BIOL 247 (Biometrics)
  • Number of Student Positions: 2

One of the leading hypotheses in global amphibian declines proposes that exposure to environmental pollutants leads to suppressed immune responses. Therefore, when immunosuppressed individuals are exposed to a pathogen, the individual is unable to fight off the pathogen, leading to illness. Previous research has shown that one line of defense, antimicrobial skin peptides (AMPs), are important in protecting frogs against pathogens, and that exposure to some environmental pollutants lowers the amount of secreted AMPs. In the Midwest, agricultural run-off is a major route of pollutant deposition into surface waters and includes inorganics like nitrogen and phosphorous, as well as, pesticides (e.g., glyphosate and atrazine).

In order to investigate whether these pollutants contribute to amphibian declines, we will conduct a laboratory exposure of Xenopus laevis frogs, and non-invasively, sample them for AMP levels following exposure. In addition, a complementary AMP sampling of field-collected, green frogs (Rana clamitans) from areas with a known gradient of pollutant concentrations (e.g., waters adjacent to an agricultural field) might be conducted. These frogs would be visually screened for any indication of viral infection, and any correlations between the concentration of pollutants, the AMP levels in frogs, and/or appearance of viral infection in frogs could be determined.

Amphibian Disease Susceptibility Following Exposure to a Pollutant

  • Principal Investigator: Tawnya Cary, caryt@beloit.edu (Project #2)
  • Focus Areas: Biology
  • Project Duration: 8 weeks (June 4-July 27)
  • Prerequisite Courses: Any introductory biology course (100-level) and Chemistry 117
  • Preferred Courses: BIOL 247 (Biometrics)
  • Number of Student Positions: 1

One of the leading hypotheses in global amphibian declines proposes that exposure to environmental pollutants leads to suppressed immune responses. Therefore, when immunosuppressed individuals are exposed to a pathogen, the individual is unable to fight off the pathogen, leading to illness. Previous research has shown that polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB-126) suppressed immune responses in northern leopard frogs. To test whether or not this immune suppression would result in increased susceptibility to pathogens, I conducted a bioassay experiment in which some tadpoles were exposed to both PCB-126 and then challenged by a ranavirus, frog virus 3 (FV3), while a control group had no such exposure.

Whole animal samples have been collected from this study, but have not been processed. A variety of laboratory procedures including whole organism measures of susceptibility (e.g., growth, development, survival), and in vitro immune measures using spectrophotometry (e.g., antibody responses, hemolysis assay) and polymerase-chain reaction (e.g., cytokine expression, viral presence) could be conducted to characterize how the tadpoles responded to the pathogen following exposure to PCB-126.

Graphs from the Sum of Divisors Function

  • Principal Investigator: Darrah Chavey, chavey@beloit.edu (Project #1)
  • Focus Area: Computer Science
  • Project Duration: 8 weeks (June 4-July 27)
  • Prerequisite Courses: CSCI 204: Data Structures.
  • Preferred Courses: None.
  • Number of Student Positions: 2 computer science students

This project looks at what graphs can be constructed by connecting a number N to the "aliquot of N": the sum of the proper divisors of N. For example, with the numbers from 18 to 91 and edges from each number to its aliquot, the resulting graph separates into components, one of which consists of three vertices (18, 51, and 91) all pointing to one common aliquot value (21). In fact, *every* tree graph of 4 or fewer edges can be found *somewhere* in the infinite aliquot graph in this way.

For millenia, mathematicians have studied such graphs that form loops (called "perfect", "amicable", and "sociable" numbers). These loops have been studied intensively, but little attention has been given to these other sub-graphs. This project focuses on aliquot tree graphs, especially whether we can show that every graph of ≤ 6 edges occurs. Calculating aliquot values is completed. Researchers will focus on the data structures issues of locating such tree graphs and comparing them against the list of known graphs.

All Numbers are Interesting

  • Principal Investigator: Darrah Chavey, chavey@beloit.edu (Project #2)
  • Focus Area: Computer Science and Mathematics
  • Project Duration: 8 weeks (June 4-July 27)
  • Prerequisite Courses: CSCI 204: Data Structures for computer science majors; CSCI 111: Intro to Object-Oriented Programming and 1-2 math courses beyond Math 110: Calculus I for math majors.
  • Preferred Courses: None.
  • Number of Student Positions: 2 computer science students, 1 math student

Which is true if you're willing to be flexible about what makes a number interesting. The project's existing code takes any number within the range of Java's "long" and tells you at least one "interesting fact" about that number; usually several such facts. The principal goal of this project is to extend that code to work with Java's BigInteger class so it works with numbers of any size (although very large numbers may be quite slow).

A secondary goal is to make the program multi-threaded so that facts that could be discovered quickly aren't held back by slow procedures, such as factoring. Additional project goals include incorporating public fast factoring code, and to check for additional "interesting" facts that could be included in what we report.

Characterization of Fatty Acids in Dietary Oils by Vibrational Spectroscopic Analysis

  • Principal Investigator: Rongping Deng, dengr@beloit.edu
  • Focus Area: Biochemistry, Chemistry
  • Project Duration: 8 weeks (June 4-July 27)
  • Prerequisite Courses: MATH 110: Calculus I and at least one chemistry course at the 200 level or equivalent.
  • Preferred Courses: None.
  • Number of Student Positions: 2

Infrared spectroscopy is a conventional analytical method for molecular characterization. This method has the advantages of non-destructive sample test, low waste production, low cost and convenience in operation. However, due to its spectral resolution limit, it is difficult to identify certain chemical groups in samples with mixed components. The two-dimensional correlation analysis can be used to enhance the spectral resolution. On the other hand, the molecular structure and the vibrational mode calculations can provide additional evidence to interpret the characteristic bands in the infrared spectra.

In this project, students will develop a method by combining the infrared spectroscopy, two-dimensional correlation analysis and vibrational mode calculation for chemical analysis. The method would be applied to characterize unsaturated fatty acids in the commercial fish oil supplements and other chemicals.

Hydrologic Response of a Kettle Lake to Extreme Precipitation Events

  • Principal Investigator: Sue Swanson, swansons@beloit.edu
  • Focus Area: Geology
  • Project Duration: 4 weeks (June 4-June 29)
  • Prerequisite Courses: GEOL 110: Environmental Geology or GEOL 100: Earth: Exploring a Dynamic Planet, and GEOL 240: Hydrogeology.
  • Preferred Courses: None.
  • Number of Student Positions: 2

Ten years ago (in June 2008), record precipitation contributed to widespread flooding across southern Wisconsin. Clear Lake, one of the thousands of groundwater-fed kettle lakes in the glaciated Upper Midwest, was unique in its response to the extreme precipitation events in summer 2008. The lake level did not begin to rise until spring 2009, and then the lake remained in flood conditions for two full years. This lagged response is known as groundwater flooding. Lake levels finally dropped during summer 2012, when southern Wisconsin experienced severe drought conditions. It then resumed average lake levels in 2013. Because groundwater-fed lakes like Clear Lake respond slowly to changes in hydrologic conditions, long term measurements are necessary to fully understand the the lake's water budget and its potential future response to extreme hydrologic events. Two students will work together on this effort to update measurements collected in 2012 and 2013 and to extend the record of hydrologic conditions for Clear Lake.

Students applying for this project should enjoy working outside in the water and in muddy shoreline areas. They should also be comfortable in canoes.

Mass Transport in the Whiterock Pluton Contact Metamorphism Aureole

  • Principal Investigator: Jim Rougvie, rougviej@beloit.edu
  • Focus Area: Geology
  • Project Duration: 4 weeks (July 16-August 10)
  • Prerequisite Courses: None.
  • Preferred Courses: Preference will be given to students with two or more of GEOL 200: Mineralogy, GEOL 205: Petrology, and GEOL 215: Field Geology.
  • Number of Student Positions: 2

Igneous intrusions result in contact metamorphism that changes rock mineralogy, texture, and composition. Metasomatism, a process during which the compositions of rocks are changed by the addition or removal of chemical components by fluids, can mobilize and deposit valuable elements, affect rheological properties that control rock deformation, and play a major role in the formation and ongoing evolution of the crust.

This project will focus on understanding the sources, pathways, and effects of fluid flow during alkali metasomatism surrounding the Whiterock Pluton, one of several intrusions emplaced in the Elk Mountains of Colorado during the Tertiary Period. Contingent on U.S. Forest Service approval, this project will entail geologic mapping of mineral assemblages, veins, alteration zones, and faults in the contact aureole. The field-focused project is well-suited for students seeking to continue the research with geochemical analyses in the fall.

Students applying for this project should have a high degree of comfort in rugged outdoor settings, and be able to hike several miles at high elevation.

The “Missing Chapter”--How Plants Grow

  • Principal Investigator: Yaffa Grossman, grossman@beloit.edu
  • Focus Areas: Biology
  • Project Duration: 8 weeks (June 4-July 27)
  • Prerequisite Courses: None.
  • Preferred Courses: At least one introductory biology or chemistry course.
  • Number of Student Positions: 2

Botany textbooks address many topics related to plant growth: the acquisition of energy and carbon through photosynthesis and the addition of new plant parts through cell division, but they rarely focus on how plants are built and how they grow. This research project will use the theory of carbon economics as the organizing principle for developing information on plant growth.

Students will combine literature research on this topic with laboratory experiments to measure carbon gain and loss through photosynthesis and respiration, and the use of carbon for plant growth. Students may develop a model of plant growth based on the data they gather on rapidly growing plants such as Wisconsin Fast Plants (Brassica rapa), radishes (Raphanus raphanistrum), or beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). The goal of the project is the development of data to support the construction of the “missing chapter” on plant growth. Students who work on this project may also have the opportunity to work in the greenhouse and on the native species plantings on campus.

The Role of Hormones and Obesity in Horse Lameness

  • Principal Investigator: Katie Johnson, johnsonkms@beloit.edu
  • Focus Areas: Biology
  • Project Duration: 8 weeks (June 4-July 27)
  • Prerequisite Courses: None.
  • Preferred Courses: Experience with Excel, R, and/or JMP is preferred, but not required.
  • Number of Student Positions: 2

Horses are popular pets, but unfortunately, many owners are forced to euthanize their horses when they develop painful chronic lameness. One of the most severe types of lameness in horses is laminitis, which occurs when blood vessels are damaged within the hoof. As opposed to lameness caused by a traumatic injury, hoof damage associated with laminitis is linked to obesity and changes in blood hormone levels, such as insulin.

The Johnson laboratory is working to determine if particular hormone levels could serve as early indicators of elevated risk for laminitis, which could then be used to initiate preventative measures to avoid lameness. During the summer of 2018, student researchers in the lab will collaborate to organize, analyze, and present a large dataset collected by previous research students. Therefore, it is likely that the majority of the work conducted this summer will be statistical analysis and graphing. Experience with Excel, R, and/or JMP is preferred, but not required.

Transcriptional Control of Innate Immunity in Plants

  • Principal Investigator: Amy Briggs, briggsa@beloit.edu
  • Focus Area: Biology
  • Project Duration: 8 weeks (June 4-July 27)
  • Prerequisite Courses: None.
  • Preferred Courses: BIOL 289: Genetics and BIOL 247: Biometrics strongly recommended but not required.
  • Number of Student Positions: 2

As sessile organisms without circulating cells, plants must equip every cell with the ability to respond to infection by pathogenic microbes. My lab mainly uses the model organism, Arabidopsis thaliana, to study how plants protect themselves from such infection. Summer research projects may include: using bioinformatics to analyze Arabidopsis' transcriptional responses to pathogen infection, and using quantitative real-time PCR (qPCR) to answer questions about gene expression regulation in plants.

Potential projects may also focus on a second research topic: food microbiology. Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are responsible for much of the food that we preserve by means of fermentation. Students projects include: identifying the genetic identity of LAB isolated from different foods fermented under different conditions, or using qPCR to track changes in LAB metabolic gene expression under different food preservation conditions.