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David Stock helped in the analysis of skeletons from three Lutheran parish cemeteries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Photo by Troye Fox)
Too early to research? ‘Not so,’ say undergrads

David Stock explored the bones from abandoned cemeteries, looking for clues to life and death in rural Wisconsin.

Dylan Wilmeth turned a longtime fascination with geology into research on rare geologic formations more than a billion years old.

Florine Ndakuya immersed herself in studying the health needs of African immigrant and African American women in Racine and Kenosha.

These three students are among the many UWM undergraduate researchers who are getting hands-on experience in their majors through the university’s Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), which matches interested students with a faculty mentor who guides the research experience.

In recent weeks, these undergraduate researchers had a chance to show off their work. Fifty UWM students took part in the National Conference on Undergraduate Research held April 11-13 in La Crosse. Another six students shared their work as part of the annual Posters in the Rotunda event on April 17 in the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Finally, on April 19, UWM hosted the Fifth Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Union Wisconsin Room, where 229 students shared poster and oral presentations about their faculty-advised research work.

Four awards were handed out at the conclusion of Friday’s symposium:

First Place

Gabrielle DuCharme, L&S senior
“Wikiproject Public Art Milwaukee”
Mentored by Marc Tasman of Journalism & Media Studies

Second Place:

Danielle DeMorrow and Mark Nebel, L&S seniors
“Regulation of Brain Morphogenesis by Differential Gene Expression in the Midbrain-hindbrain Boundary”
Mentored by Jennifer Gutzman of Biological Sciences

Third Place

Moua Vang and Wa Vang, seniors in the College of Nursing
“Water Quality Database Development and Forecast Modeling at Bradford Beach”
Mentored by Todd Miller of the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health

Best Oral Presentation

Angela Jones, L&S senior
“Normative and Structural Causes of the Black and White Wealth Divide”
Mentored by Enrique Figueroa, director of the Roberto Hernández Center

Cross-disciplinary is key

Students can begin their research as soon as the summer before their freshman year, according to Kyla Esguerra, associate director of OUR.

The focus of undergraduate research is expanding as some students, like Praveen Ghosh, find valuable undergraduate research opportunities outside of their major area, says Esguerra.

“We have had a computer science student work with a visual arts faculty member, programming software for an interactive art exhibit; an architecture student work with a music faculty member on the background of a building important to Milwaukee’s musical history. An engineering student engineered microfluidic chips for a faculty member at the School of Freshwater Sciences to use to study microorganism behavior under various conditions.

“Cross-disciplinary collaboration is something that we want to happen not just at the faculty level, but at the undergraduate student level as well.”

‘Win-win-win’

Involving undergraduates in research is a “win-win-win” situation for faculty, graduate students and undergraduate researchers, says Robert Jeske, an anthropology professor who mentors Stock. “It’s a good chance to integrate everybody together on a project.”

The 10 or so undergraduates in the archaeological research lab can learn from the grad students, and the graduate students benefit from the interaction with undergrads since many are, or will be, teaching them one day. Research helps with learning, and prepares students to move into graduate level work, Jeske adds.

“It’s a lot of fun working with undergraduates,” adds Stephen Dornbos, associate professor of geosciences, who is Wilmeth’s mentor.  Their enthusiasm reaffirms his research interests. “It helps me to see science from a different perspective again.”

Building a strong research portfolio

Stock, a sophomore, is developing an interdisciplinary major, with the goal of working in a museum or teaching at the university level. As part of Jeske’s team, he helped in the analysis of skeletons from three Lutheran parish cemeteries of the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.

The bones, unclaimed by relatives, were unearthed many years ago when a highway went through the area. Studying the bones gives researchers insight into immigrant lifestyles, and the prevalent diseases of their time, says Stock.

UWM’s undergraduate research program was a key attraction for Stock, who grew up in New Zealand and considered universities there before choosing UWM. He started in the summer research program before his first year (with mentor David Mulroy, now retired from Classics).

The experience has not only helped him make connections between what he was learning in class and in the lab, but gives him opportunities to network within his field.

“Through research I have met many committed professors, graduate students and professionals who have given me brilliant advice on everything from completing large research projects, to internship/professional development opportunities, to navigating my field beyond the classroom.”

Wilmeth knew he wanted to be a geology major when he started at UWM and was quick to take advantage of the opportunity to get involved in hands-on research. “It takes those things you read about in class and puts a practical application to them.”

In addition to the learning and hands-on experience, student researchers also have the chance to present their research at professional conferences. Last summer, Ndakuya and Keighla Mueller, Rebecca Robinson and other nursing student researchers who took part in the La Crosse conference presented their work at the Intercultural Cancer Council (ICC) Biennial Research Symposium sponsored by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Ndakuya, a senior in nursing, is based at UW-Parkside in Kenosha as part of Parkside’s collaborative nursing program with UWM, and works with mentor and Professor of Nursing Sandra Millon Underwood.

“When I started, I had little idea what research is about,” she says. “This has helped teach me a great deal about community participatory research.”

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