Undergrads get involved with research and creative opportunities

Each year, The Undergraduate Research division of the USU Office of Research and Graduate studies offers numerous grant, scholarship, and fellowship opportunities each summer to students of all disciplines. Summer research programs are an exciting way to gain valuable experience and knowledge while engaging in something they are passionate about. While research funding is typically seen as being for students in science-heavy fields, the Summer Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities Program (SURCO), among others, has been expanded to make funds for research and creative opportunities more easily available to students in every college and department (including arts, humanities, education, and business) at Utah State University. These two students had the opportunity to utilize their grants in their respective fields. To find out more about research opportunities, please attend the Summer Research Orientation on Wednesday, Feb. 5 from 11:30am-12:45pm in Old Main 115.

Tara Roche

For plant science student Tara Roche, her field research takes her—quite literally—into fields. Roche used a grant from SURCO this past summer to study the effects of freeze-drying versus oven-drying samples of potential cattle feed.

Roche found out about SURCO after working with Dr. Jennifer MacAdam on a previous project.

Roche studies a plant metabolite called tannin found in moderate amounts in the birdsfoot trefoil species (BFT). Legumes that contain tannin in their structure prevent bloat in cattle, make protein more available to the animal, reduce methane output, and increase weight gain and milk production. To study tannin content with these grains, samples must be taken in the field and preserved for later study.

“After we take the samples with dry ice, we have to freeze-dry the samples, which is time-consuming and requires specialized equipment,” Roche said.

Roche’s research is to find out if oven-drying the samples—a process she said is easier because it requires less specialized equipment and is similar to field curing hay—is a process that could produce samples equally as usable as freeze-drying. She said her research could be invaluable to ruminant nutritionists and ranchers.

“I’m hopeful my results will help BFT to become a viable option for ranchers,” Roche said. “It is of interest to understand the relative quantity of tannin that is available to ruminants consuming BFT hay as opposed to grazing it. It will also be extremely useful to demonstrate whether differences can still be detected in heat-dried versus freeze-dried forages, because it is not feasible to freeze-dry large numbers of samples.”
However, her study hasn’t been without snags, none of which Roche has let get her down.

“The freeze dryer we use to prepare our samples broke down and needed some specialized repair,” Roche said. “I had to apply for an extension, which was very helpful, as it made me reassess my project and how it would go once the equipment was in working order again.”
She said this is all part of the adventure of undergraduate research.

“I was just told that every budding scientist has gone through their own version of the ‘freeze drier pump motor failure,’” Roche said. “I was just told to keep up the hard work, which was very encouraging.”

Importantly, Roche hopes her SURCO experience translates into a future career working in the USDA Poisonous Plants Lab.
“I was eager to apply for this grant and excited to get involved in it,” Roche said. “This study will be excellent training for my future work.”

Marilize Van der Walt

Cellular and molecular biology undergraduate student Marilize Van der Walt wants to be a veterinarian—but not just for any typical, household animals.

“I want to work with exotic animals,” Van der Walt said. “I looked around and several research projects on campus focused on cattle, but it just didn’t interest me.”

So when a friend suggested Van der Walt, also an animal caretaker at the Willow Park Zoo, get involved with a reptiles lab in the biology department, she jumped on the opportunity.

Van der Walt is a recipient of a SURCO grant in addition to being an Undergraduate Research Fellow. Her research focuses on how stressors from humans and human environments affect the health of garter snakes and side-blotched lizards.

“When the reptiles are stressed, the pituitary gland releases hormones that help with fight-or-flight response, but it also releases corticosterones, which are good short-term, but in long-term release they can damage immune and reproductive health,” Van der Walt said.

Van der Walt noted that such stressors can cause the short-lifespan creatures to reproduce at a rapid rate, which can have an effect on how zookeepers and others manage such animals. Van der Walt in particular is observing how noise pollution affects them as a physiological stressor.

“We go down to St. George right after finals are over and spend a week camping and collecting the reptiles,” Van der Walt said. “We also collect decibel readings and then come back and expose them to sounds they might typically hear in a human environment—traffic, airplanes, kids screaming and running around.”

The implications of such research could inform decisions on how to appropriately house reptiles in a captive environment while having it mimic a natural environment as closely as possible. Van der Walt noted that lizards and snakes are solitary creatures that seeking hiding places.

“I’m interested in how effective it is to have ‘hides’ in their cages versus not having them, and how their stress levels are effected when they are caged with other lizards or snakes,” Van der Walt said.

Van der Walt said doing research through the SURCO and URF programs has made her USU experience.

“I don’t think my experience at USU would have been the same without research,” she said. “I get to thoroughly understand it because I’m doing it. You have to think of potential problems. It’s not just in a textbook somewhere—you are actually doing it.”

Van der Walt also was grateful that she was able to earn some stipend and make valuable connections during her research this summer.

“The great thing about SURCO as that you get paid for the work you do in the summer, and you get to interact with professors and grad students, so it’s a really good resource to have,” Van der Walt said.

And even with a project full of scientific procedures and lab work, Van der Walt said there are plenty of opportunities to have fun…or a little bit of danger.

“In St. George, after we are done with our work, we will go looking for rattlesnakes for fun,” Van der Walt said with a laugh.

-Seth Merrill, RGS Communications