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Summer 2018

Meet The Researchers

Meet The Researchers

Student research has long been a year-round focus at Denison. And each summer, a third of the university’s faculty members stay on campus to mentor students on research that will lead to everything from documentaries to peer-reviewed publications.

Thanks to endowed funds, Denison makes sure students have the support they need to do their best work. And in October, the Council on Undergraduate Research recognized the university’s efforts with the 2017 Award for Undergraduate Research. We couldn’t be more proud. In the pages that follow, students share the projects they’re focused on, why they matter, and the dreams they have for their next steps.

 

Fitale Wari ’18

Communication and English literature double major

Mentor: English professor Jack Shuler

Research: Late 20th-century immigration, identity, and education narrative nonfiction

Wait, what? “My research follows my dad’s immigration to the United States after fleeing his home country, Ethiopia, in the 1980s after the Soviets invaded and the communist military took over.”

The daily grind: Wari has plenty of FaceTime conversations with her dad, transcribes the interviews, and researches topics including Soviet and American education and immigration laws. Then? “I wake up before the sun rises and write.”

It’s worth it because: “It’s awesome to use research to get to know my dad in a more intimate way. I’m learning so much about history—and it’s influenced my research interests for potential graduate studies.”

Alexis Lopez

Alexis Lopez ’19

Cinema major

Research: Rwanda’s fight against HIV/AIDS postgenocide

Made for movies: Lopez is creating a documentary about Rwanda’s holistic approach to treating the HIV/AIDS epidemic through the viewpoint of a 25-year-old Rwandan born with HIV. “The film puts a face to the country’s success and fight against HIV.”

The daily grind: Lopez researches Rwanda’s history, meets doctors and heads of nonprofits, organizes shoot dates, and applies for film permits and financing.

It ain’t easy: “Last year, I got stuck in Qatar after Saudi Arabia closed off their airspace to Qatari airlines. Another time, I ran into protests trying to get to my hotel. There are many struggles, but there are also beautiful and unforgettable experiences.”

Mentor: Cinema professor David Bussan ’81

Next up: Returning to Rwanda to continue filming in advance of the film’s 2019 release

Meet The Researchers

Conor Loy ’19

Data analytics and biology double major, Mathematics minor

Mentor: Mathematics Professor Matthew Neal

Research: Data analysis examining the correlation between street checks and criminal charges

The big question: Are our guts as accurate as we think? Loy pored through a decade of data to help determine the patterns at work when police officers pull over individuals for reasons other than speeding. “The work explores if a police officer’s intuition in pulling over individuals is correct—or if there is bias at play.”

The daily grind: Loy helps identify questions based on the data and uses programming tools to crunch numbers and run statistical tests.

Next up: Loy plans to turn his data skills to a completely different realm: cancer research.

Meet The Researchers

Charlie Dykstal ’21

Cinema production and art history double major

Mentor: Art History and Visual Culture Professor Joy Sperling

Research: Objects research at the Robbins Hunter Museum in Granville, a historic house museum furnished with items from the 1700s and 1800s

The daily grind: Dykstal edits videos, researches the museum’s namesake, and investigates the history of objects on display.

Recent project: Tracking down the origin of a piano. “I’m pretty new to research. I’m excited to see lots of cool and unexpected things.”

Jessica Nix

Jessica Nix ’18

Health, exercise, and sport studies major

Mentors: Health, Exercise, and Sport Studies professors Brian Hortz and Eric Winters

Research: The association between biologic and psychosocial variables with exercise behavior

Just do it? Nix’s research is focused on what makes us want to exercise. If more of us worked out more frequently, we’d sidestep some of the most deadly diseases and live longer, healthier lives.

The daily grind: Nix collects data via questionnaires, enters data into Excel spreadsheets, conducts statistical analysis, and interprets results. She recently doubled her sample size to help draw more precise conclusions.

Next up: Medical school

Ceginna Xingyi Shi

Ceginna Xingyi Shi ’18

Biology and psychology double major

Mentor: Biology Professor Lina Yoo

Research: Investigation of PKHD1L1 as a potential tumor suppressor gene and its function in bladder cancer cells

It’s important because: Many bladder cancer patients have a mutated PKHD1L1 gene. That could indicate that the two are linked. Shi’s work with cells in culture is helping identify key differences between cells with functional and nonfunctional versions of the gene.

The daily grind: Shi treats the cells she works with like pets: feeding them regularly, arranging comfortable space in the petri dish, and monitoring incubator temperature, CO2 levels, and humidity levels.

It’s a big deal because: “It’s useful information for basic science research and clinical translations. Thinking big? It’s one step toward finding a good treatment for bladder cancer.”

Jorge Reynoso

Jorge Reynoso ’18

French major

Research: Homosexuality in Martinique after the enactment of its Mariage pour tous (same-sex marriage) law

More on that: Caribbean societies are highly influenced by cultural and religious biases against homosexuality, says Reynoso. His research examines how homophobia “spreads” and affects these societies, and how LGBTQ individuals are treated within these societies.

The daily grind: While spending four weeks in Martinique, Reynoso conducted archival research at the Schœlcher Library in Fort-de-France, Martinique, and interviewed marriage officials and local politicians.

Mentor: French Professor Christine Armstrong

Next up: Reynoso will be moving to France to be an English teaching assistant while continuing his research of homosexuality in metropolitan France.

Elizabeth Postema

Elizabeth Postema ’18

Biology major, English literature minor

Research: Phenotypic variation in spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and its relation to fitness in both adults and seedlings

What does that mean? Thanks to phenotypic variation, individual plants from the same species can look very different—taller or shorter, fruit-filled or sparse. Postema studies variations in fruit count and new growth in spicebush to understand how these differences have an impact. “Ecology is all about unraveling how different traits make an organism suited for its environment.”

The daily grind: Over the past three years, Postema has collected seeds and raised seedlings, done literature reviews and statistical analyses, and tested hypotheses through field and lab experiments.

Mentor: Biology Professor Andy McCall

Next up: Graduate school at the University of California–Davis

Chengyuan Guo

Chengyuan Guo ’18

Political theology

Research: The Crucified God: Covenant, Liberation, and the Hope of the Incarcerated Masses

Prompted by: The disturbing death of Sandra Bland while she was incarcerated. “I come from China, a nation with more than 1.3 billion people. I was surprised to learn that America’s prison system incarcerates more people than China.” And the majority of those are African-American and Latinos, Guo points out.

Hard questions: Guo’s research uses political theology to address questions raised by black communities across the country.

The daily grind: Guo reads the works of black liberation theologians like James Cone and Kelly Brown Douglas ’79, studies the Bible, and listens to spirituals.

Mentors: Religion Professors Dave Woodyard, John Jackson, and Maia Kotrosits and Black Studies Professor Toni King

Patrick Banner

Patrick Banner ’18

Physics major, mathematics minor

Mentor: Physics Professor Steven Olmschenk

Research: Trapping and laser-cooling atomic ions for quantum computation and communication

Which is what, exactly? Banner’s work is connected to quantum information, which  offers the possibility of lightning-fast computing power and greater security than current options. Such work could be particularly important in telecommunications.

The daily grind: Banner performs spectroscopy on ions to measure their energy structure, collects data, and analyzes it. He also develops electronics to modify laser light to suit experiments’ needs. If work is humming along, he’ll keep at it past quitting time. “Sometimes I’ll work deep into the night on the days when lasers are working well.”

Next up: Studying atomic physics at the University of Maryland

 

The Award Of Research and Relationships

Patrick Banner has won an NSF grant to study quantum optics. But don’t mistake this talented researcher for a scientist who doesn’t understand people.

When Patrick Banner looks at the world, he’s searching for the things that are beyond sight, looking for the underlying concepts that support what we take for granted every day. That curiosity is what propels him to study and experiment in physics. “Thinking about problems requires knowing how all the pieces fit together. Sometimes you have to go beyond the picture of what you’re seeing—and that picture can be so big, you can’t see it all at once.”

That drive to understand the deep roots of an issue pushes Banner’s research, and it’s clear that he has the chops to do it well. His work has been recognized by the National Science Foundation, which awarded him a graduate research fellowship that will fund his doctoral research in quantum optics. (Another Denison student, Madeline Van Winkle ’18, was awarded an NSF fellowship for chemistry.) 

Banner also completed two summer projects and senior research with Associate Pofessor Steve Olmschenk, experimenting on trapping and laser-cooling ions for quantum information applications. And he was selected as one of only four inaugural winners of the Provost’s Academic Excellence Award.

Banner’s dream is to continue that research, but he also wants to teach college-level physics. He’s been inspired by great teachers, Professor Wes Walter among them. For example, Walter’s class in electronics includes both classroom and lab time. Students learn in their classes, then practice those theories in the lab. “You can do pretty much anything you want—as long as you don’t blow the place up,” says Banner. “We used binary logic gates, built circuits for analog electronics, learned about capacitors and inductors, and more. I even designed a small game at one point, and investigated chaos for the final project.”

That class pointed him toward his future field. “I realized that I wanted to be an experimentalist, someone who conducts actual experiments; as opposed to a theorist, who conducts simulations on computers.”

Banner also tested future dreams of teaching while he served as a lab assistant in astronomy and physics classes. “I’m excited to help people understand something I really like. I enjoy coming up with new ways to help people understand these concepts. Often this, together with seeing where students are with the material and helping them from there, is what leads to those light bulb ‘aha!’ moments.”

He’s experienced the same kind of mentoring and growth as a student himself. “The physics department has been just amazing, with brilliant teachers, who are kind and available. I feel kind of spoiled in terms of having such excellent professors.”

—Ginny Sharkey ’83