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Summer Research Fellows Seize Opportunity Outside Classroom

Summer Research Fellows Seize Opportunity Outside Classroom


For much of the summer, SUNY Cortland senior Allison Schumann spent her afternoons paying close attention to computer screens in an exercise physiology research lab at the College. They revealed crucial real-time data on the oxygen consumption of the runner she was testing on a nearby treadmill.

Schumann, an exercise science major with aspirations to pursue physical therapy, would request temperature readings from fellow students assisting her. She’d also give orders to Jim Hokanson, a professor of kinesiology who served as the faculty mentor for her summer work.

“Where else will you hear students telling their professors what to do?” Hokanson said.

It’s a given that SUNY Cortland’s undergraduate researchers take ownership of their projects. They’re leaders and doers, not merely passive observers who are content watching from the sidelines. Unquestionably, their faculty mentors offer crucial advice and assistance. But for the most part, the student researchers rely on their own self-motivation.

Eleven students were presented 2016 undergraduate research summer fellowship awards, which provide a $2,750 stipend and eight weeks of campus housing if needed. Project topics represented a range of different academic majors and topics — from psychological resilience to stem cell research to an examination of the wage gap between genders. All of them will be on display next spring semester at Transformations, the College’s celebration of student research and creative work.

Students conduct original research in their discipline through the summer fellowship program, acquiring and creating knowledge beyond what can be achieved in the classroom.

“This year’s summer fellowship competition was the most competitive we’ve seen since the inception of the program in 2006,” said Christopher McRoberts, the director of SUNY Cortland’s undergraduate research program and distinguished professor of geology. “It has allowed us to fund some really interesting projects with real-world applications.”

Schumann served as the conductor of a project testing a runner’s efficiency on the College’s Alter G treadmill, a valuable piece of equipment that can decrease body weight below the waist and aid rehabilitation from lower body injuries, chronic pain or neurological conditions. It’s an incredibly valuable tool for research related to physical therapy.

“Working with the Alter G gave me even more experience with important rehab equipment,” said Schumann, who also competes on SUNY Cortland’s cross country and track and field teams.

Fortunately, she did not detect a significant change in run economy — essentially a runner’s efficiency — at 85 percent of a person’s actual body weight. But she did notice changes after lowering gravity to 60 percent of a runner’s weight. That’s enough to inspire future research on exactly when the change occurs.

“This is the type of hands-on experience that’s going to help Allison as a physical therapist,” Hokanson said. “She saw firsthand that she can lower someone down to 85 percent (of their body weight) and their run economy won’t change.”

Quintin Casella, a senior conservation biology major, and Angela Pagano, an associate professor of biology, developed a similar bond through field research more than a year ago, working together on a project that could benefit one of SUNY Cortland’s most precious resources: the William H. Parks Family Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education at Raquette Lake.

They’re building on work Pagano started in graduate school, which seeks to better understand the link between aquatic plant communities and lake health. Part of it means learning to manage variable-leaf milfoil, an invasive lake species that threatens native species and negatively impacts recreational activities such as swimming and boating. Herbicides can be effective as treatment but they poison the lake. A plastic tarp also could work, but it’s dangerous to lay down and harmful to the lake as well.

That’s what led the research team to try different types of biodegradable jute matting as a viable way to shade out the aquatic plant on the lake floor surface. They hope to determine the best type of pattern to control the invasive species and also preserve the environment longterm.

“I’m a conservation biology major, so this is totally what I’m into: being out in the field, doing research, in the Adirondacks of all places,” said Casella, who earned the inaugural David F. Berger Summer Research Fellowship for the top overall student proposal. “You’re working with a relevant issue and doing work that could potentially change how people manage resources, so it’s very exciting.”

Pagano said Casella’s field research talents came naturally. The project meant suiting up in diving gear, working in tandem off a boat.

“I remember coming up from the water and needing something, and then there being a hand giving it to me before I even said what I needed,” Pagano said. “Being able to anticipate needs and being able to work independently are two areas where Quintin really excels.”

They built an even larger collaborative research network with Kenneth Hawks, the president of the Raquette Lake Preservation Foundation, and colleagues from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. Hawks provided boat access, additional funding support and local expertise setting up and preserving long-term monitoring sites.

“The College has this really great field station, and here we’ve built this little research community to better understand the lake system as a whole,” Pagano said. “It’s been great in so many different ways.”

For Caitlin Rasefske, a senior exercise science major, summer research meant venturing outside of her major to conduct meaningful research. Her work as a resident assistant introduced her to Jena Nicols Curtis, an associate professor of health who each semester trains countless SUNY Cortland students on safe sex habits.

The pair has set out on a pioneering project to analyze different institutional policies related to emergency contraception (EC), or safe means of birth control such as the Plan B pill. Rasefske pointed out that nearly 80 percent of pregnancies in 18- and 19-year-olds are unintended, so they’re also working to determine when students are most likely to request EC from their college’s health services office.

“I’m always excited when students ask questions that I can’t answer,” Curtis said.

An aspiring nurse, Rasefske said she wanted to explore a “hot topic” in the healthcare field.

“Dr. Curtis and I both had similar questions and ideas, and so we just ran with them,” Rasefske said. “If there’s anything we can do to prevent an unplanned pregnancy, we absolutely want to do it.”

That started with Rasefske spending a week on campus in mid-July to analyze policies and data from four campuses, compile graphs and note trends. There’s still more work to do, but she and Curtis have observed that students tend to request EC more at the beginning and end of each week.

“What we’re doing is especially interesting because no one has done this before,” Rasefske said. “We’re doing something brand new and it’s incredibly exciting.”

2016 Undergraduate Research Summer Fellows

Select a student’s name below to read more about his or her summer research project.

Stefania Buta, psychology

Faculty mentor: Leslie Eaton, psychology

Project title: “Profiles of psychological resilience: Electroencephalography of fixation, emotional challenge and recovery”

In her own words: “My research program focuses on intra-individual resilience. Using specific patterns of electroencephalography (EEG) and electrodermal activity (EDA), our study measures psychological qualities of emotion, attention and homeostatic regulation. I am examining the time course of emotional responding to negatively-loaded images with an emphasis on the fixation points that appear to the participant just before the picture. Right now, using the EEGLAB module of MatLab, Dr. Eaton and I are quantifying features of neural activity during the presentation of the fixation points, photographs, and during inter-trial periods. The hypothesis is that the fixation point itself will become a conditioned emotional elicitor once the first negative emotion picture has been presented. These data might lead to some important clues about how resilient people regulate their physiological responses to negative life events. We hope that this research leads to improved interventions for individuals diagnosed with PTSD and mood-related psychological disorders.”

Quintin Casella, conservation biology

Faculty mentor: Angela Pagano, biological sciences

Project title: “Examination of biodegradable jute matting as a management option for the invasive aquatic plant, variable-leaf milfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum)”

In his own words: “(Variable-leaf milfoil) ends up affecting the lake system as a whole because it changes how plants and organisms interact. So we’re working with an invasive species management technique with different grades of jute matting, where you shade out the aquatic plant on the surface of the lake floor. And we’re doing it in a new way because we’re using biodegradable material.”

Anna Gorall, international studies and archaeology

Faculty mentor: Sharon Steadman, sociology/anthropology

Project title: “Çadir Höyük: Stability or change in the shadow of a failing empire?”

In her own words: “I’ve been conducting research at the archaeological site of Çadir Höyük in Central Turkey. My research goal is to investigate the impact the fall of the Hittite Empire had on the villages surrounding it through ceramic analysis. Changes in the style of pottery found at the site at different time periods will give me insight on how the people of Çadir Höyük handled the collapse.”

Joseph Hannett, biomedical science

Faculty mentor: Theresa Curtis, biological sciences

Project title: “Neuroprotective effect of stem cells”

In his own words: “I use stem cell secretions to protect neurons from oxidative stress … I’ve always been intrigued by neurons, and the effects neurodegenerative diseases have on the body. Conducting full-time research has provided me with an opportunity to further my understanding of this topic and become a more knowledgeable biologist.”

Adam Hocking, conservation biology

Faculty mentor: Timothy Baroni, biological sciences

Project title: “Bryophytes of Hoxie Gorge: Ecology, diversity, online field guide”

In his own words: “The purpose is to identify the biodiversity of bryophytes present at Hoxie Gorge and to gain a greater understanding of the property. Identifying the bryophytes is essentially putting together a hard puzzle over and over again with just a few of the pieces changing just a little bit each time.”

Kelly McKenna, art history

Faculty mentor: Jeremiah Donovan, art and art history

Project title: “Examining the Maya Blue: An investigative study on its historic, artistic and chemical properties”

In her own words: “I’m conducting research on the mysterious Maya Blue pigment whose permanent, weather resistant properties have lasted hundreds of years in harsh burial conditions. It is a bright sky blue color that the Maya applied to ceramics and temple walls to represent the color of water. Additionally, it was used in honor of the rain god Chaak during rituals and ceremonies … the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative group from Belize will be visiting our campus in the fall. The information I find will allow them to regain a lost technique of their culture and to incorporate it in their own ceramic work.”

Caitlin Rasefske, exercise science

Faculty mentor: Jena Nicols Curtis, health

Project title: “Emergency contraceptive (EC) dispensation in college health centers”

In her own words: “I’m researching when students are most likely to receive EC from their college health services and the policies related to EC dispensation in colleges in New York state. With this information, I’m hoping to find patterns in when students are receiving EC the most. Once this is determined, the participating colleges can initiate targeted health interventions prior to these times to reduce sexual risk behaviors.”

Cassidy Sauer, biology

Faculty mentor: Christa Chatfield, biological sciences

Project title: “Biochemical analysis of Legionella pneumophila attachment to biofilms of other bacterial species”

In her own words: “I’m analyzing the specific interactions of Legionella pneumophila (Lpn), the bacteria that causes the well-known infection Legionnaires disease. More specifically, I’m investigating the attachment mechanism of Lpn to other species within biofilms with an ultimate goal of discovering a universal attachment mechanism behind these harmful pathogens.”

Allison Schumann, exercise science

Faculty mentor: James Hokanson, kinesiology

Project title: “Running economy of endurance trained athletes on an Alter G treadmill”

In her own words: “My project involves testing how running economy — basically how efficient you are — is affected at a reduced body weight on the Alter G treadmill. By collecting oxygen consumption — how much oxygen is inspired and expired each breath — I will be able to determine if running on the Alter G treadmill, also called lower body positive pressure treadmill, will benefit someone who might be trying to use it as part of their endurance training.”

Alyssa Smeding, business economics and finance

Faculty mentor: Kathleen Burke, economics

Project title: “Examining the gender wage gap”

In her own words: “Using two separate databases, I’ll be able to get a comprehensive understanding of what factors lead to different wages in the U.S., such as gender, marital status and household income. I’ll also be able to determine how much of an effect each of these factors has on wages … After taking several classes that informed me about the gender inequalities in the U.S., it became a real interest of mine. My summer research has not only given me the opportunity to learn and grow as a student, but also explore a topic I feel passionately about.”

Patrick Viscome, business economics and finance

Faculty mentor: Timothy Phillips, economics

Project title: “Intrinsic valuation model”

In his own words: “Let’s say you were interested in purchasing a share of Google stock but weren’t sure if it’s a good or bad decision at the current market price. What long-term investors like Warren Buffett try to do is find the true value of the company and compare it to its market price. If the true value is higher than what the stock currently trades at, it would signal a good purchase. But finding that intrinsic value is difficult for most people because of the complex financial analysis involved. What I’m doing over the summer is making this financial analysis accessible to the novice investor so better investment decisions can be made. Through a series of toggles in an Excel spreadsheet, a user simply selects a series of assumptions that correspond to various viewpoints of the company's future. After selecting qualitative scenarios from the toggle list, the model will then update to reflect all of the different assumptions and provide a quantitative value that an investor should be willing to pay for the stock. The aim of this research is to ultimately aid investors in making better investment decisions.”