Ideas @ Work: #30 The Office of Academic Research

33 ideas big and small from Norwich students, faculty, staff, and alumni that are transforming campus and the world.
The Norwich Record

Spring 2016

Charles A. Dana Professor of Geology David Westerman joined the Norwich faculty in 1982 and currently serves as associate vice president for research in the Office of Academic Research. From that perch, he has worked tirelessly to promote faculty and student scholarship at Norwich. Among the office’s achievements are the entirely self-funded Summer Research Fellow program for Norwich undergraduates and the university’s growing and glowing reputation for research. “Our faculty increasingly identify themselves as scholars and mentors,” Westerman writes, “with their own expectations to stay engaged and share their work at the peer-reviewed level.”

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Undergraduate Research: A Summer-Long Immersion in Molecular Biology

Senior biology major Maciel Porto was one of 28 Norwich University undergraduates awarded Summer Research Fellowships to explore diverse topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Developed by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

September 17, 2015

This summer, rising senior Maciel Porto spent 10 weeks in the lab investigating leptin receptors in the avian hypothalamus and their potential role in regulating appetite.

The hypothalamus is a small area of the brain that plays a big role regulating energy balance, body temperature, satiety, heart rhythm, sleep patterns and other essential body functions.

Activated by the hormone leptin, leptin receptors are gene-encoded proteins connected to fat metabolism.

Did decreasing food supplies influence the genetic expression of leptin receptors over time in chicken embryos? That was a question the biology major from San Antonio, Tex., wanted to explore.

Porto focused his summer research project on measuring leptin and leptin receptors in the hypothalamuses of embryonic chickens between 8 and 14 days old.

“In avian models leptin and its receptor, theoretically, have the same functions as those within mammals,” Porto notes. “The mystery to the receptors presence within the chicken genome presents many questions.”

Porto worked in the lab of his faculty advisor, Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Doczi, a neuroscientist who also studies avian hypothalamus tissue to investigate the developmental regulation of potassium ion channels in neurons.

Porto’s own research employed state-of-the-art procedures used in molecular biology labs around the world.

Starting with micro-dissection of embryonic chicken brains to extract the hypothalamus, Porto isolated RNA from the tissue samples. He then synthesized what’s known as copy, or C-DNA, to determine if genes for leptin receptors were expressed.

Porto then tested c-DNA primers, the “short segments of base pairs of nucleotides that kind of align with a specific section of a gene,” Porto says.

Using a procedure called agarose gel electrophoresis, Porto then separated the genetic material by molecular size.

Adding ethidium bromide enabled Porto to tag DNA fragments and fluoresce them under UV light, creating a visual bar code for the genes expressed in the sample cell tissue.

While Porto initially identified a difference in the abundance of leptin receptors in chicken embryos that were 8 and 14 days old, he found no statistically significant change in gene expression between younger and old embryos overall.

“This proposes a more in depth study of relative change of LEPR gene expression, which would include more samples for each time period,” Porto concluded in a final research paper on his study.

Porto says his summer research fellow experience taught him the value of even the smallest data discovery and the volume of contributions required to solve big research questions.

“I also realized that although my findings were astronomical in my eyes, this was only a ten-week timeline, in which is a fraction compared to other researchers,” he says.

“It put things into perspective on how much work and dedication it really takes to provide a contribution within the research profession.”

Porto says he plans to enter a research or graduate program to study immunology when he graduates from Norwich this spring.

Related Articles on Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows:

Undergraduate Research: A History Sleuth’s Eureka Moment

Senior Abigail Seaberg was one of 28 Norwich University undergraduates awarded Summer Research Fellowships to explore diverse topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Developed by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

September 10, 2015

For years, they sat in a box under a bed in New Jersey. But in 2014, the collection of 100-plus watercolors, sketches, and oil paintings by 19th century Norwich alum William Brenton Boggs was donated to the university’s Sullivan Museum and History Center.

Abigail Seaberg, a rising senior history major and undergraduate Summer Research Fellow, set out to learn more about the paintings and the artist behind them.

Boggs was an early Norwich cadet who joined the Rodgers-Ringgold Expedition of 1853-1856. The four-year U.S. naval expedition sailed from Hampton Roads, Va., around the Horn of Africa on a Star Trek-like mission to boldly explore new civilizations and natural wonders of the Pacific.

Visiting Polynesia, Australia, Japan, China, and beyond, Boggs painted much of what he saw to capture a visual record of the expedition. Little is known about the expedition today or Boggs, it’s official painter.

Urged on by her faculty advisor, Dana Professor of History Gary Lord, Seaberg endeavored to see what she could uncover during a 10-week summer research fellowship.

The Air Force veteran and budding historian combed related archives and collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; a “Raiders of the Ark” like Smithsonian warehouse in Virginia; and the Swem Library at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va. But material on Boggs was scant.

Visiting her grandmother, who lived in Williamsburg, Seaberg pondered her next steps. It was there that her grandmother invited Seaberg to the Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg, suggesting she investigate its large collection of documents belonging to the Carter family.

A member of the prominent Virginia clan, Robert Randolph Carter, had sailed on the Rodgers-Ringgold Expedition. Seaberg doubted anything would come of it, but went anyway to humor her grandmother, who volunteers at the library.

Seaberg started with a collection of 20 letters Carter penned to his wife in minute script on tissue-thin paper. Scanning microfiche copies for a reference to Boggs, Seaberg froze on the very first page of the very first letter.

Near the bottom, Seaberg saw the name Boggs. “It’s not really so bad,” the letter read. “For we all manage to laugh, joke, quiz and argue and Boggs to pun very much as men do when at their ease.”

Seaberg says she then erupted in a series of exclamations and fist pumps worthy of a touchdown celebration. She hadn’t found Boggs. But she had found the next best thing: His best friend on the expedition, a prodigious letter writer to boot.

“Boggs pops up in every single letter from that point forward,” all 20 of them, Seaberg says. Through Carter’s correspondence, Seaberg pieces together a portrait of Boggs.

“All of a sudden the man has a personality,” she says. “He tells horrible jokes, and we have horrible jokes written down for the rest of the world to see for all time. He’s a great artist.”

“It’s a huge discovery because nobody has looked at these [letters] in God knows how long. They were photographed and put on microfilm and then forgotten.”

Seaberg has written a lengthy research paper on her findings and notes wryly that her scholarship owes a huge debt of thanks to her grandmother. “It’s just a huge thing and it was shear dumb luck. Because my grandmother made me go to this [archive]. And now I have to thank her in whatever … I do.”

Of Seaberg’s scholarship, history professor and faculty advisor Gary Lord says, “It could be a lifelong endeavor.”

Related Articles on Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows:

Undergraduate Research: A Glove That Helps Teach Sign Language

Senior Maggie Cross was one of 28 Norwich University undergraduates awarded Summer Research Fellowships to explore diverse topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Developed by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

August 31, 2015

Overlapping worlds often spark innovation. Engineering major Maggie Cross knew she wanted to pursue an NU Summer Research Fellowship. Her advisor Prof. Michael Prairie suggested she explore haptics, the use of tactile feedback to speed learning.

Cross proposed that she develop a glove that could help wearers learn the sign language alphabet more quickly. Her inspiration: a sign language interpreter she observed while volunteering at a Vermont state LEGO robotics competition last fall.

Ideally, the glove would analyze and respond to the hand movements of wearers, activating embedded buzzers when students bent individual fingers incorrectly.

Such haptic feedback has been used to cue surgeons when they slice the wrong tissue during surgeries with obstructed views. More recently, engineers at Georgia Tech developed a “piano glove” that helps wearers learn the first 45 notes of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” more quickly.

Cross emailed the PhD student involved in that project to float ideas about her own project.

In June Cross began work in the lab. Early experiments involved attaching bend resistors, accelerometers and gyroscopes to a white cotton glove to track hand motions.

She soon abandoned that approach after discovering the Leap motion controller, an off-the-shelf device that senses and plots natural hand motions in real time. Think Wii game station controller or the Matrix sci-fi film.

Cross then moved on to increasingly complex challenges of programming, wireless integration, database comparison, and sensor feedback.

For each sign letter attempt, her glove needed to capture the wearer’s gestures; compare them against a database of proper letter signs; and send, receive and activate the correct tactile feedback between the computer-based database and the glove.

Never a strong coder, Cross says the project forced her to dive deep into a number of programming languages, including C++, Objective C, JavaScript and Xcode, the coding language behind Apple iPhone aps.

The rising senior observes that there are nearly 70 million deaf people in the world and that sign language is important not only to the heard of hearing, but to their friends and family.

“Mastering sign language takes dedication and, above all, time. Using haptic feedback to learn sign language would reduce the amount of time required,” Cross notes.

“It could make bridging the gap between the hearing and hearing impaired communities more accessible.”

Cross says she was inspired to apply for her 10-week summer research fellowship by a friend, Ryan Fecteau ’15, who conducted social science research on binge drinking at military colleges as a Norwich University undergraduate summer research fellow last year.

“He said it was a good experience and he learned a lot—not just learned technically, but learned how to do research,” Cross says.

Cross has had a similar experience this summer. “I’ve worked all weekend before on a lab project. But at the end of the weekend, it’s always finished,” Cross says.

“Whereas with this, you’ll work five [or] six … seven or eight hour days and then get nothing. So you have to take a step back and realize that you’re learning how not to do it. So you are still learning, even though you don’t have anything to show for it.”

Cross had made significant progress on her glove over the course of her fellowship.

“In a way our engineers are working with the languages of machines—but many machines, many languages,” says Norwich University Professor of Electrical Engineering Ronald Lessard. “They’re trying to find out [how] to communicate with these machines so that they can get them, the machines, to work together to do what they need.”

Cross says she may continue her work as a senior thesis project, expanding the scope of her initial summer research fellowship. “Instead of just being the hands and the alphabet, you could make a sleeve out of it [to promote haptic learning of the] full sign language alphabet with all the gestures.”

Related Articles on Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows:

Undergraduate Research: Digging into Geology Fieldwork to Learn Science

This summer, geology major Christopher Eddy (pictured center) spent 10 weeks as a Norwich University Summer Research Fellow investigating the boundary between two ancient mountain formations. He describes it as a “non-stop learning experience.”
Norwich University Office of Communications

August 26, 2015

Where some see ordinary rock or stone, geology major Christopher Eddy sees clues. Clues that reveal titanic clashes of the earth’s crust or date bedrock to eras long before the dinosaurs.

This summer, the rising junior spent 10 weeks in the field and lab investigating the boundary between two ancient mountain building events in central Vermont.

Known as the Richardson Memorial Contact, the region separates the 480 million-year-old Taconic mountain building event, or formation, from the younger 320-million-old to 330 million-year-old Acadian mountain building event.

Geologists have puzzled over this complex boundary for nearly a century, trying to understand its geologic backstory.

Seeking to add more data to the science debate, Eddy and his faculty advisor, Assistant Professor of Geology G. Christopher Koteas, performed detailed geologic mapping and lab-based microstructural studies of rocks along the boundary structure.

“My research project really stemmed from an urge to do science and really dive into the field,” Eddy says.

He applied to the NU Undergraduate Research Program to become a Summer Research Fellow. Administered by the Office of Academic Research, the program awarded 38 Norwich undergraduates stipends up to $4,000 to cover six- and ten-week research projects across the arts, sciences and professional fields this year.

Fellows are paired with faculty advisors and meet regularly over the course of the summer with fellow student researchers to share findings and the highs and lows of their research experience.

The program is entirely funded by university endowments from alumni dedicated to supporting academic student investigation.

Over the summer, Eddy and Koteas visited 86 field sites along transects of the boundary in central Vermont to gather map data and field samples. Rock samples in hand, they returned to the lab to analyze and interpret their data.

“Geology is pretty great in that everything that happens on a grand scale also happens down to the grain scale, and you’re going to see every mineral preserving those motions,” Eddy says.

Preliminary data revealed the presence of rocks under very high strain, indicating a shear zone, Eddy says.

The rising junior arrived at Norwich after spending six years in the Air Force, where he served as an inflight cryptologic Arabic linguist largely based at Offutt AFB near Omaha, Neb.

At Norwich, he’s been passionate about geology ever since his first intro class. Faculty describe him as a mature, driven and highly capable student

Eddy says the summer has been a nonstop learning experience. His biggest insight: “Sometimes you just don’t know. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t contributed something useful. Just that there is more work to do.”

He adds that working with Prof. Koteas has been an honor, describing him as a excellent scientist, mentor and friend.

Eddy says his project is in the final stages of initial research. Together with Prof. Koteas, he has submitted a poster to the Geological Society of America. If accepted, it would be presented at the Society’s national meeting in Baltimore this coming November.

Related Articles on Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows:

Undergraduate Summer Research: Museums, Brains, Proteins and Murder

Norwich University undergraduates are hard at work this summer investigating diverse research topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Their competitive, six- and ten-week paid summer research fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
By David Westerman, PhD
Norwich University Office of Academic Research

 
June 30, 2015

Editor’s note: Charles A. Dana Professor of Geology and Associate Vice President for Research David Westerman is blogging about Norwich undergraduate student research projects underway this summer in field sites, labs and libraries on campus and around the globe.

This week’s lunchtime research presentations on campus featured Undergraduate Research Fellows and faculty from multiple disciplines, inviting lively discussion on museum design, chicken brains, pilot response times, proteins, and serial murder.

Fellow Sarah Bedard ‘17 (Architecture) kicked off Tuesday’s discussion, explaining the code of ethics for adding architectural additions onto an existing art museum. This summer, she will evaluate two museums in Toronto and one in Massachusetts built by well-known architects. She plans to assess the circulation paths, overlapping spaces, and private vs. public usages. She will present her work as a series of case studies and a final poster.

Stacia Melick (Biology) described her work on voltage-gated potassium ion channel expression in the embryonic chicken hypothalamus. She is testing the hypothesis that the specific Kv1.3 gene is expressed in a similar fashion as the Insulin Receptor gene, due to a known interaction of these proteins elsewhere in the nervous system. The interaction of the Kv1.3 and Insulin Receptor proteins has been known to alter neuronal excitability in the olfactory bulb, and she is testing the hypothesis that this interaction may also play a role in the hypothalamic regulation of food intake and energy homeostasis.

Next up was Tim Smeddal (Mechanical Engineering), who is investigating how pilots are able to perceive and interact with aircraft instruments. For this project, Tim will survey approximately 100 aircraft pilots to determine which gauge is more accurate for certain altitudes by testing them on fixed points as well as trends in altitude. He is currently working out of Burlington International Airport, but also hopes to incorporate military pilots into his survey.

Thursday’s Brown Bag discussion featured Fellow Devon Lindner (Molecular Biology) and faculty member Assistant Professor Elizabeth Gurian (Criminal Justice). Devon is investigating a novel protein binding relationship between Fyn, a Src family kinase, and MCM6, a protein involved in cell division. To test the hypothesis that there is a relationship between Fyn and MCM6, Devon is conducting literature reviews and running laboratory experiments under the mentorship of Associate Professor Karen Hinkle (Biology) to understand their interactions. Devon hopes that her findings can eventually lead to contributions in cancer research.

Finally, Prof. Elizabeth Gurian provided a glimpse into her ongoing work on serial murder. She explained how the lack of scientific papers on female perpetrated homicide and serial murder is attributable, in part, to the rarity of these incidents, which does not permit ordinary research methods to be easily employed. The examination of these offenses is further limited due to definitional issues, complex rationales for committing criminal homicide, and gendered perceptions of homicide and serial murder, or inclusion under generalized findings on male homicide offenders. Prof. Gurian talked about her methods and approach to her project and explained that by dispelling stereotypes and gendered perceptions we may achieve a better understanding of female homicide offending.

About the Author: David S. Westerman, PhD, is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Geology at Norwich University and the Associate Vice President for Research in the university’s Office of Academic Research.

Photograph by Keith Stipe

NU Wins Grant for Interdisciplinary, Environmental Service-Learning Projects

By David Westerman, PhD
Norwich University Office of Academic Research

 
May 28, 2015

Norwich University has been selected to receive a sub-grant of up to $4,000 from a four-state Campus Compact consortium and the Davis Educational Foundation to create institutional change by embedding environmental service-learning projects into courses, thereby strengthening teaching and curriculum, student learning outcomes, and interdisciplinary approaches to education.

Management of the grant program in Vermont is by the Vermont Campus Compact.

The approved proposal, submitted by Profs. Tara Kulkarni, Matthew Lutz, Tom Roberge and Dave Westerman, calls for offering an “integrated, interdisciplinary set of curriculum modifications built around geology, environmental engineering, sustainable architecture, and outdoor education, all in collaboration with the Town of Northfield and its many partners.”

Northfield zoning administrator Michele Braun will manage the project, which aims to develop an education park about flood zones along the banks of the Dog River. Sited near Northfield’s village green, the park will also include a community garden and a playground.

In their proposal, the four Norwich faculty stated: “We do this because one of the founding principles almost 200 years ago [of Norwich] was to promote experiential learning, cast in the framework of ‘service before self.’ The University’s original concept of developing the citizen soldier has evolved to match the changing nature of our nation, now striving to develop leaders to implement change for the good, from the global stage to the local neighborhood.”

The overarching issue being addressed in this integrated project was presented as follows:

“The largest overriding issue regarding the future of Earth’s habitability is climate change, with the myriad repercussions that stem from the current warming trend. We want to focus on this tremendous issue, while carrying out a project that highlights the need for interdisciplinary solutions. Our specific project addresses living with flooding, and we seek to use this as a means of helping our students, members of the local community, and ultimately the world at large as they face the process of designing solutions to global environmental change.”

Members of the grant team will receive training in June in Portland, Me., as well as ongoing support in the development and delivery of courses that will partner with community organizations to address environmental challenges.

About the Author: David S. Westerman, PhD, is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Geology at Norwich University and the Associate Vice President for Research in the university’s Office of Academic Research.

Norwich Professor Examines Botswana’s Nation-Building Success

By David S. Westerman, PhD
Office of Academic Research

April 8, 2015

History Professor Rowly Brucken will present his findings on nation-building at the 13th International Conference on African and Latin American Studies in Lisbon, Portugal on April 16-17.

His paper, entitled “Botswana and Nation-Building Theory,” discusses which of the major theories of nation-building explains the post-independence evolution of Botswana into a multi-party democracy with a stable, prosperous capitalist economy.

The key finding of the work is that the establishment of democratic and transparent governance before the discovery of diamonds and other mineral wealth laid the basis for responsible, sustainable, and participatory economic development.

Professor Brucken’s research has been supported by a Charles A. Dana Research Fellowship and a Chase International Travel Grant. His paper will be published in the peer-reviewed conference proceedings.

About the Author: David S. Westerman, PhD, is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Geology at Norwich University and the Associate Vice President for Research in the university’s Office of Academic Research.