In 2015 we supported three AU faculty-student research projects:
Nathan Harshman (Department of Physics): Ultracold Atomic Dynamics -- Few-Body Systems in Microgravity
The goal is to promote STEM education and retention at AU by supporting the participation of an undergraduate student in a cutting edge summer research experience in ultracold atomic dynamics. The quantum coherence properties of atoms gases cooled to a degenerate state can be harnessed to implement the next generation of precision sensors. The student will work on a research project simulating how trap shape and external fields affect the few-body dynamics that drive degenerate ultracold atomic gases out of coherence. The student will participate in formal and informal activities that will encourage and enable them to pursue a profession in a NASA-supported field of STEM research. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is currently building the Cold Atom Laboratory, a payload that will be installed in the International Space Station. The microgravity environment will allow new classes of experiments with single and double species degenerate ultracold gases. One limiting factor in terrestrial experiments in hold and release times is the scale set by gravity, and new physics can be probed where this constrain is lifted. This facility is a response to NASA’s Space Technologies Mission Directorate “Space Technology Roadmaps” for fourteen technology areas required to support the aerospace, science, and human exploration missions for NASA. Two of these Roadmaps, Communication and Navigation, and Science Instruments, Observatories and Sensors, identify as priorities the development of new technologies that take advantage of quantum efficiencies to improve sensing and detection. The revolutionary possibility of navigation based solely on internal measurements of acceleration and rotation is theoretically available using matter wave interferometry of ultracold atoms. Related proposed devices may be able to measure gravity gradients, slight changes in the gravitational field used to detect everything from tectonic activity to groundwater depletion, with unprecedented accuracy. But before these quantum sensors can be implemented for navigation or scientific research, robust, efficient and precise techniques to simulate and control the dynamics of trapped, ultracold atoms must be developed. This project will apply novel theoretical techniques to study the dependence of few-body dynamics on trap shape with weak biases due to microgravity. The 2011 NASA Strategic Plan lays out six goals for the institution for the next ten years. In addition to specific goals focused on space technologies, science, exploration and aeronautics, the final goal is Strategic Goal 6: Share NASA with the public, educators, and students to provide opportunities to participate in our Mission, foster innovation, and contribute to a strong national economy. With a sustained record of mentoring undergraduate STEM students in research and career building, including publishing with students in peer-reviewed journals and presenting with them at national and international conferences, the PI is prepared to contribute to this goal. The student supported by this opportunity, David Lockerby, will participate in an on-campus computational physics research project that will be part of the larger research program of understanding how atomic interactions affect coherence and entanglement in few-body systems. The PI recently developed a new method for constructing efficient computational bases for the simulation of few-atom systems, and has been training Mr. Lockerby in these methods. The student will adapt these methods to several different trap shapes, with and without microgravity bias. The solutions without bias in square well traps will be compared to the famous Bethe ansatz solutions for benchmarking. The expected outcome of this project will be research results that will be incorporated into articles and conference presentations. The student will be expected to develop this work into a Senior Capstone project and present at an undergraduate research conference. Beyond the research project, a goal will be to provide a well-rounded experience to the supported student. The schedule will include individual weekly meetings and frequent, informal contact. Additionally, the student will attend an international conference on few-body physics with the PI in Chicago. The student will also participate in the weekly meetings of the Summer Science Seminars, a STEM research enrichment program which includes training in research and presentation skills, career advising and peer networking, following best practices for recruitment and retention of STEM students, including women and minorities. In 2011, the DCSGC funded the PI to run the Summer Science Seminars. The program has continued under CAS funding and the leadership of Nancy Zeller.
Matthew Hartings (Department of Chemistry): "Interdisciplinary Research as Introductory Science Education"
We will develop protocols to incorporate a single interdisciplinary research project within the introductory instructional laboratories in Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental Studies. Students learn best in environments where they are active participants in their education. This is certainly true for STEM education. NASA has long been an active advocate for advanced STEM education in the US as well as the inspiration for many educators touting the importance of STEM education. The DCSGC supported our efforts in 2011 to develop a student-run research project in the Department of Chemistry and institute the project as part of our curriculum. This work has been and continues to be a resounding success. Because of the support that we received, this project has led to a published research manuscript and three submitted research manuscripts, on all of which our students are authors. My colleagues and I have also published an article describing the pedagogy behind this approach, which was highlighted in Science as an Editor’s Choice. Most importantly, though, our students love being part of this program. Many list it as their favorite experience at AU. We have had several students decide to pursue research as a career, as opposed to attending a professional graduate school, because of their involvement in this research program. And we have sent 8 students to present research results at national American Chemical Society conferences. None of these successes would have been possible without the seed funding from four years ago. With this proposal, we are again asking for seed money to initiate a program that engages our youngest students (first year and sophomore students) with research in their instructional laboratories. In contrast to our previous efforts, and in what we feel is a truly novel and exciting approach, we are instituting a cross-departmental research project that will involve students from General Biology II, General Chemistry I and II, and Intro to Environmental Science I and II. The focus of the experiments will be to observe the effects of and attempt to mitigate a relatively new class of environmental contaminant: nanoparticles. We expect the outcomes of this research to be the following: increased retention (and increased enrollment) of students in STEM majors at AU, an increase in the number of students who are involved in active research on campus, the development of AU as a leader in undergraduate STEM education, and advancing the important research objective of understanding how nanoparticles interact in the environment. The student researcher will work closely with all of the involved faculty members to develop research protocols that are accessible to first year and sophomore students. We will purchase the materials and supplies necessary to conduct the experiments. The funding will also help to support the involvement from faculty across the three science departments: Biology (Meg Bentley and Victoria Connaughton), Chemistry (Matthew Hartings), and Environmental Science (Christina Pondell and Angela van Doorn). Nanoparticles are a relatively new class of materials that have started to make their way into consumer products. While there are many potential benefits from adding different classes of nanoparticles to mass-produced materials, we still don’t fully understand how they move through the environment and affect wildlife, and we have not fully explored effective methods for removing nanoparticles from wastewater. We will apply our methodologies towards research on nanoparticles in the environment. We will optimize our methodologies such that our first year and sophomore students can play an active role in the research while enrolled in instructional laboratories in Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental Science. For research protocols to be developed and used in Biology students will determine the effect of nanoparticles on the viability, development and movement of zebrafish embryos. In recent years the Biology Department has been using similar protocols on other environmental chemicals. For research protocols to be developed and used in Chemistry students will synthesize new polymeric materials that can selectively remove nanoparticles from wastewater samples. For research protocols to be developed and used in Environmental Science students will study nanoparticle transport through soil and water systems. Together, our students will determine the optimal way to deploy nanoparticle pollution mitigation systems through defining: maximum concentrations for safe nanoparticle exposure, the material composition that best reduces nanoparticle pollution, and the most effective sites to implement pollution reduction materials. Along with the novelty of the research, there are no universities that we know of that incorporate a cross-disciplinary research project into introductory instructional laboratories. There are many academic departments that do get research into these first year/sophomore labs, and these have shown beneficial effects on student retention in STEM disciplines. However, our methodology will introduce and train all of our students for an interdisciplinary approach to research. As all of the major scientific and technological challenges we face are interdisciplinary, our students will be uniquely prepared to become 21st Century scientists. Our student researcher will be Julia MacDougall (a biology major and rising junior).
Jessica Uscinski (Department of Physics): Development of a General Education Astronomy Laboratory
The goal is to create a new astronomy lab as part of the General Education Program at AU to help promote STEM education. Due to changes in GenEd requirements, AU’s astronomy classes have seen a substantial increase in enrollment over the past few years while lacking meaningful experiences for astronomical exploration and observation beyond the lecture setting. According to the National Science Teachers Association, all introductory science courses at the college level should include “inquiry-based science laboratory investigations” and in its current form, all observation experiences occur outside of the classroom as independent student work. In response to student demand, and a desire to grow the sciences at AU, the Physics Department will be offering this new lab starting in the 2015-2016 academic year. While the Physics Department has telescopes and other equipment that can be used for some of the weekly labs, research and development of other lab activities is of vital importance for the lab’s ultimate success. The aim is for students to explore a series of experiments and hands-on activities demonstrating astronomy as an observational science. These lab activities will include both real and virtual astronomical viewing and experiments. Development of this lab will enhance AU’s academic program by making it more competitive with comparable universities that already offer similar introductory astronomy labs and will undoubtedly attract more AU students into the STEM pipeline. The development of the new astronomy lab will first and foremost require background research into the current state of astronomy labs at competitive universities, as well as what labs can be performed in our current facilities. AU has never had an astronomy lab and viewing conditions in the DC area are not ideal for substantial observing. Some of the experiments will be conducted outside with our department’s telescopes, but many of the activities will be carried out indoors. There are numerous activities and experiments that can be carried out in a lab environment that include, but aren’t limited to, topics in photometry, spectroscopy, and measurements of distances using different types of data. Part of this work will include consulting with universities in the DC area that are already offering such experiences as well as other experts in curriculum development with whom we have established contact. For example, Lynn Cominsky, a physics faculty member at Sonoma State University, has expressed interest in aiding in our development of this new course. She recently developed an interactive online textbook with many activities that can be transformed into lab experiences. We will be offering this lab in our current facilities and repurposing equipment currently used in other physics labs, but we will also be looking into software and other materials that can be used. Once enough of the necessary background research into different possibilities for lab experiences has been carried out, the labs themselves need to be created, tested, and reworked until it is clear that the learning outcomes for the course are being fulfilled. New software and materials will need to be purchased and developed so that our undergraduates can make the most use from them. To test some of the new lab activities, we will host mock lessons with other summer research students in order to acquire meaningful feedback. In this way, we will obtain advice on how well the learning outcomes and assessments align with the specific activities. The student researcher will work closely with the faculty advisor to aid in the development of the new curriculum. The Physics Department currently has students who have expressed interest in physics and astronomy, and more generally, STEM education. These students are actively looking for opportunities in these areas. Several of our students plan on becoming physics teachers after graduation and would greatly benefit from the opportunity provided by this experience. The goal for the selected student would be to gain exposure to curriculum development, lab design, and to conduct mock courses based on the activities developed. The student will be an integral part of the proposed work and will gain an understanding of the teaching process, from developing activities to presenting and providing guidance to students. The development of a new astronomy lab provides an ideal setting for advancing part of NASA’s strategic plan. Specifically, the proposed work will result in attracting potential students to STEM fields. Astronomy is a natural gateway science that is already popular with AU students and it is the aim of this work to further promote astronomy education through a more hands-on experience. The broad appeal of astronomy activities will undoubtedly draw even more students to take the new course, potentially serving as an entryway to further STEM exploration. This new course will serve to bolster science at AU and will lay groundwork for future growth.
In 2014 we supported two AU faculty-student research projects:
Demetrios Poulios (Department of Physics): LHR-CUBE: A CubeSat Instrument for Atmospheric CO2 and CH4 Measurements
Increasingly, the abundance of methane and carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is being researched for its effects on global climate change. Despite the concentration of methane having doubled in the last few centuries, surface measurements from the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Global Monitoring Division network show that the global methane growth rate began to level off in the 1990s and 2000s. Currently, only a limited understanding of this slow-down exists. In addition to the decline in the observed methane growth rate in recent decades, there have been substantial global anomalies. LHR-CUBE aims to develop a low-cost CubeSat instrument for the measurement of carbon dioxide and methane in the Earth’s atmosphere. As an extension of the mini-LHR project, an ongoing project at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center headed by Emily Wilson, the LHR-CUBE will be able to focus more time on underrepresented areas in the Polar Regions, Southeast Asia, and the Amazon compared to larger satellite missions. Additionally, the LHR-CUBE will be able to provide low-cost validation of larger satellite mission results. The LHR-CUBE is based on existing ground-based laser heterodyne radiometer designs. The instrument captures sunlight that has traversed Earth’s atmosphere and mixes it with light from a onboard single-frequency oscillator. The resulting beat signal is then amplified and filtered by onboard electronics, and ultimately used to determine atmospheric gas concentration. The schematic of the LHR-CUBE is shown on the right. Because of its orbital speed, the LHR-CUBE will require a much faster scan time than the ground-based LHR. Thus, a modified version of the ground-based LHR will need to be constructed and tested. AJ DiGregorio, the student researcher, will be in charge of prototyping this fast scanning system. Duties will include building the optical path, designing and writing a data collection program in Python, fitting components into the CubeSat enclosure, and determining a calibration between output voltage and resultant wavelength. Additionally, due to variation in component quality and efficiency, AJ will be responsible for finding the optimal components to use by writing an automated component test system in Python. By the end of the summer, AJ will have completed a working prototype of the LHR-CUBE, with the goal of writing a paper for publication. This proposed effort aligns with NASA’s ACT call by “enabling considerably smaller instruments that may meet science needs in the future” as well as by “rapidly evolving spacecraft bus technology toward smaller satellites.” Additionally, this work addresses the objectives of the NASA Earth Science Program for carbon with a focus on space-based observations. With the growing interest in climate change and small-scale space technologies, the student researcher will have a chance to play an important role in ongoing research at NASA GSFC.
Michael Robinson (Department of Mathematics): Measuring Small-scale Turbulent Features in the Ocean using a Satellite-borne Radar
Understanding the small-scale structure of the ocean surface is critical for assessing the impact of certain rapidly-evolving environmental problems, such as oil spills, algal blooms, and floating debris. Recent events, such as changes in climate, artificial oil spills, and the prevalence of plastic debris have brought the health of our oceans to the nation's attention. In principle, all of these conditions could be measured remotely since they impact the ocean surface. Satellite-borne sensors could be used for persistent monitoring of these conditions, though most current sensors have resolutions on the order of kilometers between measurements. Newer systems have higher resolution, though this resolution cannot be exploited by existing algorithms to detect these environmental problems. This project aims to develop nonlinear filter algorithms that can be used to measure the fine-scale structure of the ocean surface from radar images collected by the German satellite TerraSAR-X, whose resolution is 3 meters per pixel or less. We will develop filters that are sensitive to texture – specific correlations between the intensity of adjacent groups of pixels that are periodically extended throughout an image. The scientific impact of these filters could be substantial, as it would enable measurement of fine-scale wind turbulence and associated wave effects, and possibly detection of very thin oil slicks and chemical films, of both natural and artificial origin. Both of these directly support the mission of NASA's Science Directorate, by enhancing the capability of existing and future satellites to supply relevant and actionable environmental data to scientists. Dr. Robinson's research team is developing new and effective processing methods for satellite-borne radar imagery that emphasize environmentally-relevant aspects of the ocean's surface. They have successfully demonstrated that some nonlinear filters are effective at enhancing the visibility of gusts that appear in the imagery using from high-resolution radar images as shown on the previous page. This project relies heavily on student involvement at every stage. Students have played an essential role in experiment planning and support, by identifying regions to be imaged, collection geometry, satellite imaging modes, and timing considerations. While the algorithms are initially proposed by Dr. Robinson, his students implement and test them on the satellite imagery that TerraSAR-X collects. Task 1: Apply the techniques developed by Dr. Robinson's team over the past year to newly acquired data. The team has collected 8 images as shown on the previous page, which have not been analyzed thoroughly yet. This effort will begin by processing this data using the algorithms already implemented, and collect additional data as needed. This also provides an opportunity for the student to rapidly learn the background material necessary to understand satellite radar imaging and our existing processing chains. Task 2: The majority of the proposed project will involve the development of the mathematics of texture-sensitive filters, their implementation in software, and validation against the image and truth data we have collected. This is an iterative process, which requires active participation from a student writing the implementation and typically several students processing the data. Dr. Robinson will lead the theoretical development, and his experience with radar systems will provide oversight for the implementation and testing of the algorithms. Task 3: Quantify algorithm performance against coincident data collected by oceanographic buoys. All of the images acquired by Dr. Robinson's research team are coincident with buoys operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration or partner organizations. These buoys produce historical measurements of wind speed, wind direction, current speed, and current direction. The student will compare these buoy measurements against our image-derived measurements, and provide detailed performance characterizations of the algorithms we develop. As a result of this analysis, the student will learn to apply circular statistics to wind and current direction. Task 4: The final task is to develop the final report and briefing material to disseminate results. Dr. Robinson's research team is already disciplined in keeping extensive records about their activities, so there will be plenty of material to discuss at the end of the project. His existing students have presented their results at two conferences and delivered a detailed technical report to the German government; similar activities are expected for the proposed effort.
In 2013 we supported two AU faculty-student research projects:
Nathan Harshman (Department of Physics): Three-Body Interactions in Ultracold Atomic Dynamics
The goal is to promote STEM education and retention at AU by supporting the participation of an undergraduate student in a cutting edge summer research experience in ultracold atomic dynamics. Ultracold atoms have been proposed as the working material for the next generation of navigation and microgravity sensors where their quantum properties like coherence and entanglement could be exploited to achieve unprecedented sensitivity. The student will work on a research project simulating how three-body interactions can affect the dynamics of ultracold atomic gases. In addition, the student will participate in formal and informal activities that will encourage and enable her or him to pursue a profession in a NASA-supported field of STEM research. NASA’s Space Technologies Mission Directorate released “Space Technology Roadmaps” for fourteen technology areas required to support the aerospace, science, and human exploration missions for NASA. Two of these Roadmaps, Communication and Navigation, and Science Instruments, Observatories and Sensors, identify as priorities the development of new technologies that take advantage of quantum efficiencies to improve sensing and detection. Navigation technologies already rely on the precision of ultracold atomic clocks for external measurements. However, the revolutionary possibility of navigation based solely on internal measurements of acceleration and rotation is theoretically available using matter wave interferometry of ultracold atoms. Related proposed devices may be able to measure gravity gradients, slight changes in the gravitational field used to detect everything from tectonic activity to groundwater depletion, with unprecedented accuracy. But before these quantum sensors can be implemented for navigation or scientific research, robust, efficient and precise techniques to simulate and control the dynamics of trapped, ultracold atoms must be developed. Interactions between atoms can modify the few-body energy spectrum with consequences for the coherence and entanglement properties of the atomic gas as a whole. Resonances in the few-body spectrum can also drive loss of atoms from traps via inelastic scattering. While two-body cold atom interactions can be tuned using a technique called Feshbach resonances, three-body interactions may not be directly controllable and create a different experimental challenge. This project will apply novel theoretical and computational techniques to study intrinsic three-body interactions in ultracold, trapped atoms. The 2011 NASA Strategic Plan lays out six goals for the institution for the next ten years. In addition to specific goals focused on space technologies, science, exploration and aeronautics, the final goal is Strategic Goal 6: Share NASA with the public, educators, and students to provide opportunities to participate in our Mission, foster innovation, and contribute to a strong national economy. This goal is identified as the key to enabling success in the other goals. With a sustained record of mentoring undergraduate STEM students in research and career building, including publishing with students in peer-reviewed journals and presenting with them at national and international conferences, the PI is prepared to contribute to this goal. The student will participate in an on-campus computational physics research project for 8-10 weeks that will be part of the larger research program of understanding how atomic interactions affect coherence and entanglement in fewbody systems. The PI recently developed a new method for constructing efficient computational bases for the simulation of few-atom systems. The student will adapt these methods, originally designed to model two-body interactions in few-atom systems, to model three-body interactions. The student will be trained in the use of the software Mathematica on Zorro, AU’s high performance computing cluster, which is supported by an NSF grant and maintained by the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning. The expected outcome of this project will be research results that will be incorporated into articles and conference presentations. The student will also be expected to present at an undergraduate research conference. Beyond the research project, a goal of this summer activity will be to provide a well-rounded experience to the supported student. The schedule will include individual weekly meetings and frequent, informal contact. The PI will be mentoring another summer research student, working on a related project funded by the CAS Robyn Rafferty Matthias Student Research Fund, and peer interaction will be encouraged and expected. The student will also participate in the weekly meetings of the Summer Science Seminars, a STEM research enrichment program which includes training in research and presentation skills, career advising and peer networking, following best practices for recruitment and retention of STEM students, including women and minorities. In 2011, the DC NASA Space Grant Consortium funded the PI to run the Summer Science Seminars. The program has continued under CAS funding and the leadership of Lynne Arneson. The PI will be also participating in the series again. Finally, the student will have the opportunity to take tours of facilities and laboratories at NIST Gaithersburg and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, where the PI has colleagues.
Jessica Uscinski (Department of Physics): Restoration of Howard University’s Planetarium and Observatory
We propose to initiate the restoration of Howard University’s Planetarium and observatory with the goal of using these facilities to promote STEM education in the DC area. Currently, these facilities go unused by students and faculty, and proper maintenance and upkeep has not been performed for years. AU has no comparable facilities and the use of HU’s facilities would greatly benefit both institutions. HU has an active astronomy program that would be greatly enhanced by use of these resources for undergraduates. Due to changes in general education requirements, AU’s Astronomy classes have seen a substantial increase in enrollment while lacking proper facilities and equipment for astronomical observation and exploration. While the AU Physics Department has telescopes, there is no designated place of comparable quality and ease of use at AU for this type of learning and teaching environment. We would look to initiate a partnership between AU and HU for the purpose of teaching astronomy to our undergraduates with these up to date facilities, and holding public observing sessions to promote STEM education to the DC area. We propose to initiate rehabilitation, cleanout, catalogue of equipment, and organization of HU’s observatory and planetarium. This will require research and evaluation of the needs of the space within the bounds of both Universities’ resources. The research team will spend time in the space to assess what specific tasks need to be undertaken and will coordinate communication with specialized repair persons as needed. We will also contact other local observatories to learn how they are organized and how they function. Following that, we would catalogue the available equipment. Currently the observatory space contains many disparate observational components, many of which were hand-built by HU faculty member and DCSGC affiliate George Carruthers. They are undoubtedly usable in a teaching and research capacity but in order to use them the research team will need to learn how they function. This hand-built equipment would serve as valuable tools for possible future student projects, and as a model for how undergraduates can build their own research tools. This work will lay the foundation for bringing HU’s observing capabilities into the 21st century. In addition to the restoration of the space, we will work to build ties with local communities with the ultimate goal of drawing students ranging from elementary school to undergraduates to visit the planetarium and observatory for public observing sessions. Through our partnership with HU we envision these observing sessions to be the shared responsibility of both institutions. We hope to grow interest in astronomy through partnerships with other astronomical facilities in the DC area. Through preliminary research we have found that the current state of available astronomical resources in DC is difficult to easily navigate and as such we hope to build an accessible website showcasing these opportunities. The broad appeal of astronomy will undoubtedly draw students of all ages to these events, potentially serving as a gateway to further STEM exploration. The student researcher will work closely with two faculty advisors—Assistant Professor Jessica Uscinski and Adjunct Instructor David Friedlander-Holm—and will assist with cataloging materials, cleaning the spaces, organizing present materials and building the website mentioned above. The end goal for the student by the end of the summer would be to have the website public, detailing the partnership between HU and AU, an overview of the facilities—including public and private open house opportunities at HU—and links to other local astronomy-related establishments (including but not limited to observatories, planetaria, schools, museums and observing opportunities). Our goal for the website would be to produce and maintain an easily accessible clearinghouse for local astronomical activities, locations and opportunities. The student will be an integral part of the entire process and will receive training to host regular student-run public observing sessions. The restoration of HU’s astronomical facilities provides an ideal setting for advancing part of NASA’s strategic plan. Specifically, the proposed work will result in attracting potential students from all levels of education to STEM fields. Astronomy is a natural gateway science and we aim to promote astronomy education in the DC area. The use of HU’s facilities will also serve to bolster science at HU and AU and will lay the groundwork for future collaboration.
In 2012 we supported two AU faculty-student research projects:
Katie DeCicco-Skinner (Department of Biology): Radiation-induced Brain Changes: An Immersive Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Experience
Proficiency in biology is difficult for many students to achieve in a lecture-only classroom format. The critical thinking and problem solving skills required to excel in this field can be gained only through hands-on laboratory experience. Working in a laboratory setting allows students to gain experience in areas such as experimental design, trouble-shooting, and scientific writing. Moreover, it engages students who are visual learners, teaches students the benefits of scientific collaboration, and helps students develop the confidence to be future leaders. I propose to work with a female junior undergraduate student, Tracy Tabib, in an interdisciplinary summer research project to study the effects of ionizing radiation on inflammatory proteins in the brain. Ms. Tabib would have the opportunity to enhance her scientific knowledge and development, hone her scientific writing skills, gain leadership/mentoring experience, and make a real contribution to this important area of research. Ionizing radiation, a dangerous and high-energy form of radiation, is found throughout today’s world. It can come from natural sources such as soil, rocks, the sun (and other cosmic sources) and radon gas, or from human sources such as X-rays and nuclear disasters. Humans that are exposed to very high doses of ionizing radiation have an increased incidence of cancer-related deaths. This is due, in part, to the ability of radiation to disrupt cell DNA. Yet, ironically it is this same DNA altering effect that makes ionizing radiation an effective cancer treatment. When used as a cancer treatment radiation can have off-target effects on surrounding normal cells. This can result in inflammation and free radical damage, which can contribute ultimately to secondary cancer formation later in life. The effect that radiation has on brain functions is not well understood. Previous research has indicated that radiation treatment in people with brain tumors can lead to impairments in learning and memory. Moreover, radiation damage to the central nervous system can lead to performance deficits, including changes in behavior, loss of motor function, and development of neurological diseases. Researchers have found, for example, that astronauts who spend more than a month in space develop long-term damage to their visual processes. In addition, studies have found profound neurobehavioral changes in rodents exposed to certain forms of ionizing radiation including deficits in memory, spatial learning and neurogenesis. Recent research indicates that radiation-induced brain deficits may be due to the upregulation of pro-inflammatory genes such as TNF-, IL-1 , and cyclooxygenase-2. These molecules, increased normally during a fever response, can have detrimental effects if they remain in the brain for an extended period. My proposed summer STEM project will help to elucidate whether these inflammatory genes and their corresponding proteins are increased long-term in brains of rats administered ionizing radiation. In addition, we will test whether animals that experience severe behavioral deficits have higher levels of these inflammatory factors. Through collaboration with a group at Johns Hopkins University I have obtained brain tissue from rats exposed to heavy ion beams, simulating space radiation. In protein obtained from some of these brain tissues, I have previously found alterations in specific neurotransmitters and their receptors, modifications which help to explain neurobehavioral performance deficits in the same irradiated animals. However, we have yet to determine if brains of irradiated rats have elevated expression of inflammatory genes and proteins. This is the focus of the proposed STEM project. In order to test for elevated pro-inflammatory molecules in irradiated rats Ms. Tabib will isolate RNA and protein from frozen brain tissue of rats previously irradiated with 0.5, 1, or 2 Gy radiation. She will learn and apply two important biological research techniques: using qPCR on RNA samples to 3 determine gene expression of TNF-alpha, IL-1 beta and cyclooxygenase-2; and performing Western blotting to analyze whether the corresponding protein expression of these molecules is increased. Students in my laboratory develop skills related to biology, biochemistry, physics and mathematics through the use of interdisciplinary research questions. By having an interdisciplinary project I envision introducing Tracy to a myriad of career possibilities. Moreover, she will learn the importance of including appropriate controls in an experiment, how to trouble-shoot problems, how to correctly analyze her data, how to determine statistical significance, and how to design subsequent research inquiries. Tracy will hone her scientific writing skills, earning co-authorship on an upcoming manuscript, and will present her findings at a scientific conference, increasing STEM awareness at AU. In addition, she will gain hands-on experience as an educator by helping to mentor an honors high school student who will be working in my laboratory this summer. The interdisciplinary nature of the proposed project and the expected STEM learning objectives include: STEM learning objectives: Isolation /Quantification of RNA from brain tissue; Biology, Molecular biology, physics of spectrophotometry, underlying mathematics; Analysis of gene expression differences using qPCR; Biology, Molecular Biology, biotechnology of gene expression analysis; Statistics (mathematics); Isolation of protein from brain tissue; Biology, Biochemistry and underlying math; Identification of brain pathways and receptors; Anatomy/Physiology, neurobiology; Outreach to local high school student; Science education; Helping to write manuscript; and Scientific writing. My aspiration as a STEM educator is to ensure that all students working with me emerge from my laboratory confident in their scientific abilities, proficient in scientific literacy, skilled in critical reasoning, and prepared to enter graduate school, medical school, or the workforce.
Abigail Miller (Department of Chemistry): NASA Space Consortium STEM Proposal - Seeing the World through Chemistry
Chemistry is all around us in the world, but rarely do we notice or visually see chemical reactions in process. Microscopy is a wonderful way to visualize chemistry both in research and in our general environment, whether that is the chemical reactions cooking in the kitchen or hiking a trail or visiting a doctor. I propose two ways to increase the visualization of chemistry here at AU. The Research Project is Synthesis and Rapid Identification of Metal-Organic Frameworks Crystals for FLIM. Metal-organic frameworks are extended networks (in one-, two- and three- dimensions) that are built on metal centers connected by conjugated organic molecules. They have many applications in energy research, from reusable solid state catalysts to storage of gases, such as hydrogen and methane, to the purification or separation of gases. For all of these, the quality of the MOFs and the catalytic or absorption of gas cooperative mechanisms of the extended networks is important. Currently, structural characterization of MOFs is often limited to acquisition of high-resolution crystal structures by X-ray diffraction or neutron scattering. While extremely useful, these are static methods. Even more dynamic methods available are either bulk measurements, or are destructive to the sample: powder X-ray diffraction, ion-coupled plasma, mass spectrometry. All of the above methods are also expensive instrumentation. We propose to apply single-molecule methods, specifically fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy, developed for studying dynamic biological processes, to the characterizing of the dynamic mechanisms of MOFs as they catalyze reactions. To do so, we first must synthesis large crystals, and be able to chemically and structurally identify the MOF crystal. Current synthetic methodologies are focused on yield, and producing single phase crystals. We propose to focus on the temperature heating and cooling programming, and solvent combinations to produce large crystals, preferably single phase, and a decreased emphasis on yield since FLIM is applied to individual crystals. By slowing down the temperature cooling gradient will allow for the formation of larger MOF crystals. The dominate way to determine the identity, crystallinity and phase of MOF crystals is by powder X-ray diffraction which requires significant amounts of crystals that have been washed and dried. It also takes several hours to collect a powder XRD with appropriate signal to noise to resolve small peaks. Therefore if you synthesize 5-6 crystals, it could take 3 days to identify all of them, delaying the time to proceed to further experiments. The process of collecting, drying and measuring the MOF crystals also leads to significant loss of sample. The other identification method is elemental analysis, which requires sending the samples out to an external company for complete analysis. We propose to find a rapid method of identifying MOF crystals in solution with minimal use and loss or degradation of sample. Our plan is to use the slow, standard methods of MOF characterization to validate more rapid characterization methods. Also, we will use microscopy to observe, in real time, the chemical interactions that make MOFs interesting to study and useful. Through this work we will also increase STEM awareness at AU by demonstrating the real development, applications and limitations of potential alternative fuel sources which are of interest to the AU community and society, in general. Increase STEM Awareness at AU: “Exploring DC as a Science City.” The freshman science students arriving at AU are such a small percentage of the student population that they are usually unaware of each other and the students, in general are unlikely to meet or know a student majoring in science. I propose, working with my summer student, to develop orientation activities to introduce the freshman students to each science as a integral part of DC via a science related activity open to all the incoming students as part of Welcome Week. This is broadening STEM awareness to our incoming students by introducing those who participating in the activity to science here at AU and in DC as well as reminding all the incoming students that STEM is prevalent in all aspects of campus life including the extended campus of DC. Since Welcome Week programming spans two days it will incorporate a variety of activities. The proposed science-themed program would be “Exploring DC as a Science City” and some possible activities for the two days are: A chemistry of cooking lesson followed by a trip to the Food and Drug Administration; A behind the science tour of the application of science to art at the Museum of Modern Art, followed by a look at making your own paints using chemistry; A trip to the air & space museum with an aeronautical engineer followed by an attempt to build a bridge; Growing and observing crystals in the laboratory followed by a hike to look at geological crystal/rock formations; A trip to an observatory, the use of solar telescope, and a behinds the scenes trip to NASA GSFC; A look at microbes and bacteria under the microscope followed by a trip to the National Institutes of Health. The current draft for the brochure is “Did you know that science is everywhere in the District? From on the Hill, to on the Mall, in the laboratory, to in your food, science is found on campus but also in the government agencies, the political arena and the world around us. Chances are you use science every day. Come explore the science found here in DC.” The research project can even be connected to the Welcome week programming and introduce even our non-science students to scientific research. Metal organic frameworks crystals form a wide variety of structures and morphologies that are visible under a microscope. One possible welcome week activity is to spend time making observations about the structure and chemical reactivity of the MOFs and other crystals synthesized by the research student.
In 2011 we supported three AU faculty-student research projects:
David Angelini (Department of Biology): Bugs in our backyard: An intensive undergraduate experience in evolutionary biology
The evolution of organisms by natural selection is one of the fundamental properties of the natural world, and its discovery has been described as one of the most important intellectual developments in history. While evolution is central to biology, it remains poorly understood by the general public and even undergraduate biology majors and graduate students display serious misconceptions. STEM education should not only advocate proficiency in specific disciplines, but must encourage scientific literacy and evidence-based critical reasoning. Poor understanding and acceptance of evolution by students represents the erosion of these goals within education. The development of scientific literacy and critical thinking skills is often difficult in the traditional 3 or 4 credit course format. Science instructors often report that students will show much greater development of these skills in laboratory settings. While delivery of content often drive the structure and pace of courses relying heavily on lectures, content can also be conveyed both directly and by inference in a lab setting. This less formal environment also appeals to many students with non-auditory styles of learning. I propose an immersive strategy for AU undergraduates in their sophomore or junior years. This is modeled in part on the success of AU’s University College program and focuses specifically on developing skills in science, mathematics and biotechnology, using a large scale, long-term project in evolutionary biology. Students will also gain hands-on experience as educators through an existing partnership with Ashley Johnson, a middle school science teacher at Ideal Academy Public Charter School in Northeast DC, where we plan a series of workshops on evolution. This “Bugs in our Backyard” project ties into my lab’s research, and I anticipate a synergy in which students gain useful lab experience, skills, and authorship credit, while making meaningful contributions to data gathering and analysis. This project will act as a scaffold onto which topics of evolution, genetics, developmental and cell biology, invertebrate zoology, biochemistry, ecology, climate change, statistical analysis, scientific literacy, pedagogy, public policy, public service and public relations may be grafted. What are the bugs in our backyard? DC is currently the frontline of an advancing species expansion. The red-shouldered soapberry bug, Jadera haematoloma, is a 1-cm black and red insect native to the US southeast, from Florida to Texas. Historically these bugs have fed on seeds of the native balloon vine. However, beginning around 1950 the goldenrain tree has been planted across the US as an ornamental tree (there are several on the AU campus). Since the tree’s introduction, J. haematoloma have made a host shift, founding new populations adapted to life on the goldenrain trees and expanding into more northerly areas. Moreover, in only 40 years on the novel host, the bugs had evolved shorter mouthparts, reduced flight muscles, higher fecundity, and greater hatchling survival. The majority of J. haematoloma now live on this introduced host, while at least one population retaining ancestral phenotypes remains on the native balloon vine in southern Florida. Phenotypic differences are primarily due to genetic differences, not the effects of environment or nutrition. Collaborators and I are now working to determine the population structure of J. haematoloma throughout the US. My lab is focused on understanding the role of differential gene expression in the recently evolved phenotypic differences shown by these bugs. Because of their rapid and recent evolution, relatively few genetic changes are likely to underlie phenotypic differences and there are likely to be extensive trade-offs among different traits. Many questions remain to be answered, providing excellent opportunities for study by AU undergraduates. I envision students in this program spending at least half their time in small group activities in lab or field settings and a minority of time listening to lecture-style explanations of material. When such instruction comes, it will be student-driven, coming after a topic has been raised in the lab. Students will also be required to develop self-designed experiments. Activity/Related STEM material: Survey of goldenrain trees in the DC area/Biological diversity; plant ecology; public policy...Isolation of DNA; Sequencing of developmental genes; test of population-level gene expression differences using qPCR/ Molecular biology of DNA; physics of spectrophotometry; biotechnology of gene sequencing and expression analysis; statistical analysis for qPCR...Analysis of flight muscle enzymes in different bug populations, sexes, and flight morphs/Biochemistry and underlying math; developmental biology...Collection of bugs from campus and surrounding areas; DNA extraction; sequencing for phylogeographic analysis/Basic ecology; ecology of DC area; population biology; phylogenetic methods and underlying math...Examination of correlations between the evolution of beak and other appendages/Insect anatomy; statistics of correlation...Examination of fecundity differences in bug populations (including local isolates)/Reproductive biology; basic evolution; statistics...Functional analysis of developmental genes using RNA interference Genetics; animal development; biochemistry; underlying math/Artificial selection experiment on the related milkweed bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus...Evolutionary and population genetics..Outreach to DC public schools/Science pedagogy; education policy. This summer I already plan to test potential differences in the expression of 5 candidate genes in the ovaries of bugs from populations known to have differing fecundity. This work will be assisted by an undergraduate, Rashmi Prasad, and exemplifies the kind of intensive, hands-on research experience students would have routinely and continuously under the program described above.
Nathan Harshman (Department of Physics): Promoting STEM Retention through Best Practices in Summer Research Experiences
The goal is to promote STEM education and retention at AU by involving undergraduates in summer research experiences. I propose to organize weekly meetings of undergraduate researchers in STEM disciplines, where they can engage in inter-disciplinary networking and receive STEM career advice. Such activities have been identified as critical components of successful undergraduate summer research programs. I would directly involve undergraduates in my research on quantum information theory. My past experience has shown that research in this cutting-edge field can be successfully accomplished by undergraduates in an intensive, summer experience and has resulted in co-authorship with undergraduates. These activities will provide more AU students with rich, well-rounded summer research experiences that will encourage them to complete their STEM degree, to pursue STEM research as a profession, and to nurture the larger science culture at AU. The case for a national and global need for a larger STEM workforce is made compellingly by the National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. It suggests an adequately prepared STEM workforce requires 10% of all 24-year-olds to have earned first-level science degrees, whereas in 2000 the level was only 5.7%. At AU, graduation records show that from fall 2009 through summer 2010 that 52 of 1,519 total under-graduate degrees (or 3.4%) were awarded BS degrees in STEM fields. While this low number can be attributed in part to the academic structure of AU (we do not have an engineering program), it also reflects difficulties in recruiting and retaining STEM students at AU, which does not have a reputation as a “science school”. By supporting undergraduate research and visibility across the STEM fields at AU, this project intends to create a strongly-bonded community of science students that will foster recruitment and retention by showing students that success in science at AU is possible. The first activity of this project is to organize 8-10 weeks of Summer Science Seminars, weekly meetings where undergraduates who are engaged in mentored undergraduate STEM research can meet their peers, hear informal faculty talks and receive career guidance. This idea emerges from a presentation I heard at the Council on Undergraduate Research Dialogues 2011 Conference on research-based “best practices” for summer science research programs. This project will directly implement recommendations for the “Out of Lab” best practices, including (1) Schedule meetings in advance and at convenient times for students working in labs, such as during lunch or in early evening; (2) Bring in faculty to talk about their research and career path, with time for questions; (3) Take students on lab tours or other science-themed on-campus activities; (4) Bring in faculty and staff members from Office of Merit Awards and Career Center to discuss graduate school and fellowship applications; and (5) Allow students time to network and talk about their projects with other students. I will support a student in a research project on entanglement and quantum information theory. Since arriving at AU, I have supervised six students on summer research projects in QIT and three of these collaborations have lead to peer-reviewed publications. Entanglement is a quantum phenomenon that allows for measurements on quantum systems to exhibit correlations that cannot be explained in classical probabilistic theories. Characterizing and manipulating entanglement is one of the key steps in developing the next generation of information processing devices, and it reveals fundamental insights about dynamics at the quantum scale. The student would investigate the entanglement properties of interacting massive particles in simple model systems. Such studies can address meaningful open questions in continuous-variable entanglement theory, and are accessible to students with only novice theoretical and computational skills. Recent experimental advances with heterogeneous mixtures of cold atoms in optical lattices, and of ions in Paul traps, may allow observation of mass-dependent effects that can only be explained using the methods and models I plan to explore with a student this summer. The combined participation in summer research projects and the Summer Science Seminars will prepare current STEM students for success and demonstrate institutional support for their aspirations. This nucleus of students will aid in recruitment efforts, directly by volunteer participation at recruitment and outreach events, and indirectly by spreading a word-of-mouth and social media presence that will bolster the overall visibility and viability of STEM disciplines on campus.
Matthew Hartings (Department of Chemistry): Scientific Research as STEM Education Advanced Bio-materials at AU
Project Objective: Incorporate a student-driven research project, focused on the creation of advanced bio-materials, into the chemistry curriculum at AU. The sciences are inherently experimental as a discipline. I start my experiments with an uncertainty about what the answers to my questions actually are. This is one of the many joys of science. The ability to explore is perhaps the best educator we can employ in the STEM disciplines; it allows us to create; it allows us to question; it teaches us to be thorough; it helps us to develop into professional scientists. These points will seem obvious to people who work in STEM fields. However, in our current educational system, most of our senior students (those who we have prepared to be STEM professionals) have not experienced true scientific exploration. To be sure, student research is a vital part of our scholarship as scientists. Yet, we don’t employ true scientific inquiry at any level of our structured pedagogy. Our students learn techniques in lab. But, the students know that for each class there is one specific answer that is right. And, predictably, most students are only concerned with getting this right answer. The students don’t concern themselves with perfecting their techniques or precisely analyzing their samples. They just want to get the right answer so that they can get a good grade. Along with several of my colleagues, I am changing this dynamic in the chemistry department at AU. We are doing away with the stale advanced chemistry lab instruction. We are going to give our senior students free reign in our labs. We are going to ask them to explore and create. We are going to make this part of our permanent curriculum. This new lab course isn’t just some ceremonial nod to the importance of exploration in education. This research will be cutting edge, publishable, highly visible work. There are several major selling points developing this sort of STEM education at AU. This innovative approach to “teaching” chemistry will give our students a leg-up on job and graduate school applications in being able to point directly to their abilities to solve real world problems in a research setting. STEM student retention will increase because of what we hope will be a very exciting and engaging addition to our curriculum. AU can tout this program in its publicity as being fundamentally different from the programs at other universities and, as such, will be able to attract more and higher quality candidates into the STEM fields of study at AU. The research in and of itself, I believe, will attract students, funding sources, and an excitement to the sciences at AU. The basis for the lab is to create novel biological-materials. These materials may eventually be used for biodegradable packaging, sensors for disease, electrical relays between machines and neurons, support for tissue regeneration, etc. Importantly, these decisions will be in the hands of the students. The students will be given ownership of this project and the direction that it takes will be up to their interests. The advanced lab will be in a two-semester sequence and will meet twice a week. During the first semester, the students will begin to experiment with a procedure for making novel functional materials that my faculty colleagues and I have come up with. The first semester, in essence, will be the “control” experiment. The students will get used to the procedures and methods of analysis for the materials that they make. In the second semester, the faculty instructors are going to ask the students to create something new from the construct given to them in the first semester. We will ask them to craft a novel material of their own design for whatever uses they intend. We expect them to use the tools of chemistry: design, synthesis and analysis in their work. Other chemistry faculty and I will be testing out some of our procedures in preparation of the first semester. We will also be working on communication strategies for this project, which will be crucial in our efforts to build this program. Part of the funding will be used to hire an undergraduate to help us develop a website/communication strategy that will bring visibility to our new program and to the wonderful students who are in full control of it.