SURE Science students spend summer researching oceans, new planets and human health

2017 SURE Science Scholars spent their summers actively engaged in research with the guidance of faculty experts. The College of Science’s SURE Science program, which is 100% funded by generous alumni and friends, provides financial support of $5,500 to each student so they can focus on science without getting a part-time job or tow to cover living expenses. This support enabled 31 undergraduate scholars to immerse themselves in the beauty and drama of science, pursuing research across the areas of astrophysics, analytical chemistry of organic pollutants, the biochemistry of aging and pharmaceutical drug development. Here are some of their stories from a summer of research!

Marine biology student researches solutions to coral bleaching

When Sonora Meiling watched the movie Jaws for the first time as a 10-year-old, she instantly fell in love with sharks, which ignited her passion in marine biology.

“I was obsessed with anatomy models and aquariums after that,” said Meiling, now a senior zoology major.

Senior marine biology student Sonora Meiling prepares a buffer solution to use in her research of the coral microbiome.

Sonora, who grew up in Beaverton, Oregon, was drawn to Oregon State University because of its strong dedication to marine sciences, including their hands-on classes at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

But what drives Sonora’s interest in marine biology these days?

“I’m really passionate about maintaining our ability to breathe,” says Meiling. She is referring to the research she does in the Vega-Thurber Lab in OSU’s Department of Microbiology studying phytoplankton, microscopic ocean organisms that produce 50-80% of the oxygen in our atmosphere.

Meiling’s participation in the OSU STEM Leaders, a program designed to increase diversity and undergraduate success in STEM fields, inspired her to become involved in undergraduate research during her freshman year. She worked in Dr. Eli Meyer’s Lab in the Department of Integrative Biology for two years extracting, isolating, and characterizing green fluorescent proteins from three local anemone species.

When the lab ran out of funding to buy materials for her research, Meiling moved to her current position in the Vega-Thurber Lab where she researches the effects of nutrient density on the microbiome of coral reefs before, during and after mass bleaching events.

Coral reefs are diverse and delicate ecosystems that host a plethora of bacteria and fungi species that make up the reef’s microbiome. When a type of photosynthetic (oxygen-producing) plankton called zooxanthellae leaves the coral host for a significant amount of time, this is called coral bleaching. If bleaching persists for a significant amount of time, the coral, which relies on the microscopic plankton for nutrients, will die.

Right now, Meiling is working on extracting and sequencing the DNA of three coral species that have undergone a mass bleaching event off the coast of Mo’orea, a small island in French Polynesia. Her work will help elucidate the changes in microbiome composition during bleaching events and discover if the application of nutrients could help mitigate the detrimental effects of coral bleaching.

In the last couple of years, Meiling has attained six levels of ocean dive certification through her academic option in marine biology, presented posters on her research at two OSU undergraduate research conferences, and helped to develop a novel research project in a class she took at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center on the coast. The original week-long assignment turned into a long-term investigation with Sarah Henkel, a senior researcher at Hatfield Marine Science Center, into the potential for zinc anodes to affect the crab yields of Oregon coast fishermen.

Meiling’s unique experience of doing independent research projects in three different OSU labs has allowed her to build more professional connections, expand her repertoire of laboratory and field research skills, and further define her career interests. This summer, she received a SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience) scholarship from the College of Science that allowed her to become more deeply involved in research by working full-time on her project. The funding enabled her to go to the island of Mo’orea for a month with Dr. Thurber to dive and collect coral samples herself. She recently received an internship from the University of Paris to spend three more months at their research station in Mo’orea.

In addition to her research, Meiling finds time to play on OSU’s varsity rugby team and is a mentor for the OSU STEM leaders program, a NSF-funded project that promotes the success and diversity of undergraduates in STEM through workshops, peer mentoring, and faculty-mentored undergraduate research experiences.

Meiling plans to attend graduate school to continue studying the marine environment.

“I want to do something that gets me out in the water, for sure, doing research that will help us save the ocean. Educating the public about climate change and its impact on ocean ecosystems is also very important to me.”

Chemistry student pursues antibacterial research to cure chronic disease

Kathryn (Katie) Chen is a senior chemistry student who is passionate about medical care and medical research. She received a SURE Science scholarship to isolate anti-tuberculosis metabolites from microbes under the guidance of Dr. Sandra Loesgen in the Department of Chemistry.

Chemistry student Katie Chen filtering a microbial culture that she will screen for anti-tubercular compounds.

Chen first became involved in research to fulfill her thesis requirement for graduation from the Honors College. She was drawn to the Loesgen Lab, which pursues chemical drug discovery from microbial sources, after developing a connection with her advisor, Dr. Loesgen, her first year at OSU.

“Dr. Loesgen is so great and focused on encouraging women in science, and I really like working in the Loesgen lab because everyone is so helpful and supportive,” Chen remarked.

In the last three years, Chen has learned how to grow and isolate bacteria and use chemical solvents to extract metabolites, which are small molecules produced by the microbes. Each strain of bacteria may produce unique metabolites that can be useful to humans. The Loesgen Lab screens these metabolites for antiviral, antibiotic, and anticancer activity. Chen has contributed to and refined a protocol for an assay that tests metabolites for antituberculosis activity. Tuberculosis remains one of the most deadly infectious diseases: there were 10.4 million new cases of tuberculosis worldwide in 2015 alone, ensuring that the disease remains a priority in biomedical research.

Chen will continue this project by finalizing the protocol for this anti-tubercular assay and using it to screen the Loesgen Lab’s microbial strains for bioactive compounds. She has already isolated four microbial extracts that show anti-tubercular activity, and she will next use spectrometry and chromatography techniques to analyze the potentially anti-tubercular compounds within.

Chen appreciates being able to relate concepts learned in chemistry class to real, innovative research in the lab. She has already presented posters on her research results at undergraduate research symposiums at OSU.

“It is great to have the opportunity from SURE Science to experience full-time research. I can be more efficient, not distracted by homework, and able to engage more deeply with my project,” she added.

Chen plans to attend medical school and become a general practitioner and providing compassionate medical care to patients and their families. Katie’s conviction to become a doctor was partially inspired by her experience teaching English in Taiwan before college.

“Living in Taiwan made me realize what a huge difference can be made to help people flourish and reach their full potential if their burden of chronic illness is cared for,” Chen explained.

She currently works part-time as a resident assistant at the Corvallis Caring Place, an assisted living residence. Chen enjoys having the opportunity to practice providing supportive and empathetic care there, a practice that she intends to implement as a physician.

Chen is also a member of Sigma Delta Omega, a sorority for OSU science majors that strives to support women in science and promote science outreach to young women. As the sorority’s co-philanthropy chair, Chen led a fundraising campaign to support the OSU STEM Academy, a program that hosts summer camps for school-aged kids and encourages participation in STEM fields through mentoring. She has also volunteered at OSU Discovery Days, a science outreach program for elementary school children that fosters interest in the sciences.

Physics student explores the mysteries behind the birth of planets

Growing up inspired by publically prominent astrophysicists such as Neil Degrasse Tyson, 4th-year OSU physics student Attila Varga has always been interested in learning about the nature of the physical world. Attila received a SURE grant from the College of Science this summer to research how Jupiter-like planets called gas giants form around new stars. His independent research project is conducted under the direction of Physics Professor Kathryn Hadley.

Physics student Attila Varga using mathematical software to analyze the results of the new model of gas formation.

“It is an exciting area of study because this type of planetary formation isn’t really something you can visualize in detail through a telescope—we are only now starting to get rough images,” remarked Attila.

A solar system begins as a collapsed ball of gas surrounded by a disk of more gas and dust. Planets begin to form in the disk around the new star when gravity and thermodynamic forces cause dust and gas to aggregate. There are currently two competing theories of planet formation in the field of astrophysics: core accretion, in which particles collide to form a rocky core around which gas can accumulate, and disk instability, in which the disk around a star fragments into independent, self-gravitating balls of gas.

Attila learned how to write code to edit and add new features to an existing virtual model of this type of planetary birthplace, called a hydrodynamic protostellar star-disk system. The new model was designed to be more physically accurate than previous models, principally by representing the star realistically as an object that takes up space rather than an infinitesimally small point of mass.

Once Attila had finished programming the model, he was able to manipulate the physical parameters of the system and use mathematical modeling tools to graphically interpret the results of his simulations. So far, Attila has identified two modes of oscillation in this new model that support the disk instability theory while confirming the integrity of his model. The data from this project, once compared to other models in the literature as well as observational data, promises to shed light on the two current competing theories of gas planet formation.

Attila has found the last year of research to be both fun and challenging. “My research experience has solidified for me that I want to do physics research, and the SURE award allowed me to really get into it this summer.”

He presented preliminary data from his model in a poster at the American Physical Society conference in June, where he was able to network with astrophysics experts from across the nation and learn more about research interests within the field. He is in the process of applying to astrophysics Ph.D. programs to attend next fall to work toward his research career as a professor or a NASA scientist.

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