Faculty, student researchers collaborate with incoming freshmen for first year of Summer Undergraduate Research Program

J.P. Gannon (right), WCU assistant professor of geology, and junior geology major Joshua Tatum install a groundwater well at the Western Carolina Hydrologic Research Station on WCU’s campus as a part of their project “How Groundwater Chemistry Can Establish Important Connections Between Ephemeral Channels and Higher-Order Streams.”

J.P. Gannon (right), WCU assistant professor of geology, and junior geology major Joshua Tatum install a groundwater well at the Western Carolina Hydrologic Research Station on WCU’s campus as a part of their project “How Groundwater Chemistry Can Establish Important Connections Between Ephemeral Channels and Higher-Order Streams.”

Western Carolina University’s tradition of hosting vibrant undergraduate research went a step further this year as a select group of current students joined faculty members and academically gifted incoming freshmen for the launch of WCU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program.

Teams composed of faculty members and current students spent eight weeks on campus conducting intensive research into topics ranging from the details of an obscure early 19th-century land war between North Carolina and Georgia to improvements in the forensic evidence swabs used by investigators in the analysis of human bodily fluids. Those student and faculty participants arrived on campus May 29 and worked together on their projects through Friday, July 22.

For two of the eight weeks, the teams were joined in their field, laboratory and library work by Research Scholars – new freshman students who will be enrolling in WCU’s Honors College this fall semester. They arrived on campus Monday, June 20, and worked with the teams through Friday, July 1.

Discussions began about instituting a summer research program on the WCU campus last September when Jill Granger, dean of the Honors College, took the idea to WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar. Funding was secured through the office of WCU Chancellor David O. BelcherBill Kwochka, associate professor and associate head of WCU’s Department of Chemistry and Physics, was tapped as the program’s first director.

Information about the new program was emailed to all WCU undergraduate students, and those interested in participating first had to identify a faculty mentor with whom to collaborate. Students then submitted proposals describing the nature of their research work and goals of the project. Two proposal-writing workshops were held to support students in their planning and writing, and a campuswide committee picked nine student-faculty teams to participate based on the strength and feasibility of the proposals, Granger said.

The inclusion of rising freshmen in the summer research is “a truly unique aspect of the program,” she said. A group of incoming Honors College freshmen with stellar academic profiles were invited to apply. They submitted a set of short essays, and the 10 selected were matched with student-faculty teams based on their academic interests and preferences.

All the participants – current students, faculty mentors and freshmen – received stipends for their research work, and academic credit was available to the students.

“The intensive research opportunity we created here will provide these students with a new perspective on independent research,” Granger said. “It will be transformative for some of them and will redirect others, while giving many of them a solid foundation needed for future work. Likewise, it is an incredible opportunity for the faculty who are afforded some infrastructure during the summer to support their research efforts.

“WCU has a very strong track record of supporting undergraduate research, as is evidenced by our annual high rate of acceptance and participation in the National Conference on Undergraduate Research and our robust spring exhibition of students’ creative and scholarly work,” she said. “This program allows us to take the next step in fostering a year-round culture of student and faculty teamwork in support of scholarly and academic pursuits.”

The summer program is a university-wide initiative that encompasses all undergraduate majors, Kwochka said. In the context of the program, the word “research” applies to scholarly and creative activities throughout the university, ranging from history and biology to English, engineering and geology, he said. The program was designed to emphasize the cross-disciplinary effects of bringing the faculty and student scholars together from a wide range of disciplines, and students met regularly to share their experiences so that all of them would develop an appreciation of what it means to be a scholar across the academic spectrum. Several weeks into the program, Kwochka said he was impressed by how articulately the current WCU students shared ideas.

“It’s fascinating getting to know this small group of exceptional students and learning about their research projects,” he said. “As a chemist, I don’t frequently get the opportunity to talk with students about their engineering or history or English research projects. Being a part of this program is invigorating.”

In addition to conducting research, the current WCU students acted as mentors for the Research Scholars and assisted the faculty members in planning the freshmen’s work, he said.

Paul Worley, WCU assistant professor of English, spent the first three weeks of the program working with a current student, Alli Rios, to research weaving and storytelling traditions of Maya women. Worley said he is excited that Rios had a chance to play a major role in how the project took shape.

“I had the opportunity to work with a professor in a program like this when I was an undergraduate, so I’m proof positive of the life-changing impact programs like this can have,” he said. “Now that I’m a professor, I’m committed to participating in high-impact practices like this, and it’s a real honor to have been selected.”

Nine research projects are were undertaken. Project titles are listed along with the team members (faculty mentor, current student and Research Scholar) and a summary of the project:

“The Walton War” – Robert Ferguson, assistant professor of history; William McDaris, a senior history major from Brevard; and Carrie Louk, a Tuscola High School graduate from Waynesville. The project examined the “Walton War,” an early 19th-century land war between North Carolina and Georgia that ended in bloodshed.

“Correlation of Myoelectric Nerve Signals and Hand Gestures” – Scott Pierce, assistant professor of engineering; Kyle Johnson, a junior from Lenoir majoring in electrical engineering; and Hannah Grace LeMacks, a resident of Fletcher and graduate of West Henderson High School. The project analyzed myoelectric signals produced in the arm when a person uses different hand gestures to look for a correlation that might have the potential to improve the usability of myoelectric prosthetics.

“How Groundwater Chemistry Can Establish Important Connections Between Ephemeral Channels and Higher-Order Streams” – J.P. Gannon, assistant professor of geology; Joshua Tatum, a junior geology major from Winterville; and John Morgan, an East Forsyth High School graduate from Kernersville. The goal of the project was to determine if groundwater chemistry varies throughout a small headwater watershed and, if so, whether those variations explain the differences in water chemistry that have been observed throughout the stream network. Conclusions are expected to be relevant to land and water management in the region.

“Optimization of the Fabrication Parameters for SERS-Active Forensic Evidence Swabs Used in the Serological Screening of Human Bodily Fluid” – David Evanoff, head of the Department of Chemistry and Physics and associate professor of nanomaterials chemistry; Katarina Ruehl, a senior chemistry major from Barnardsville; and Jacy Kent, a resident of Tampa, Florida, and graduate of Berkeley Preparatory School. The project goal was to develop more efficient forensic evidence swabs for use by investigators during the collection and analysis of human bodily fluids.

“Preparation of Zinc Oxide Nanoparticles Possessing Antimicrobial Activity and Development of an Adhesive Cotton Textile for Potential Prevention of Health Care-Associated Infections” – Channa DeSilva, assistant professor of bioinorganic chemistry; Monica Reece, a junior biology major from Canton; and Hannah Kline, a Clayton resident and graduate of Johnston County Early College. The goal of the project was to prepare zinc metal-based nanoparticles possessing antimicrobial properties and to design a textile product for clinical applications to prevent health care-associated bacterial infections.

“Comparison of Four Common Ankle-Taping Techniques to Determine Which Best Limits Ankle Plantarflexion and Inversion” – Melissa Snyder, associate professor of athletic training; Lauren Harris, a senior from Dillard, Georgia, majoring in athletic training; and Hannah Cothren, a resident of Pleasant Garden and graduate of Southeast Guilford High School. The purpose of the study was to determine which of four common ankle-taping procedures best limits inversion (turning the foot in) and plantarflexion (pointing the toes downward) to provide athletic trainers with guidelines for which procedure to use based on desired effects on range of motion.

“Maya Arts as Maya Literature: Maya Textiles and Storytelling Traditions in Mexico and Western North Carolina” – Paul Worley, assistant professor of English; Alli Rios, a junior English major from Cornelius; and Jennifer Kirby, a resident of Central, South Carolina, who graduated from Daniel High School. The project was designed to produce original research on Maya women, weaving and storytelling traditions in Mexico and Western North Carolina, with goals including conference presentations, publications and an exhibit at WCU’s Fine Arts Museum.

“Proposal for Landscape Analysis of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) in Rural and Urban Populations” – Jeremy Hyman, associate professor of biology; Kaley Wisher, a senior biology major from Fort Myers, Florida; and Zane Billings, a resident of Mount Holly and graduate of East Gaston High School. The research analyzed the specific alterations in the landscape that cause changes in the behavior of song sparrows.

“Soil Respiration Change as a Function of Forest Harvest Size” – co-faculty mentors Beverly Collins, associate professor of biology, and Laura DeWald, director of the Environmental Science Program; Deborah Vlach, a junior environmental science major from Monroe; and Wesley Rogers, a Youngsville resident and graduate of Franklinton High School. The summer project was part of a larger experiment being conducted on national forest land to determine if there is an optimum harvest size for restoring young forests to the landscape. The faculty members and students tried to determine to what degree soil respiration changes in small harvests, compared to the adjacent forest.

Near the conclusion of WCU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program, the nine current students presented a symposium for a campus audience to talk about their projects and findings.

For more information about the program, contact Bill Kwochka at 828-227-3673 or kwochka@wcu.edu.