Research Early, Research Often — and Reap the Benefits
It’s a common sight at CALS — undergraduates creating new knowledge in the lab and in the field. And it just might be why they’re uncommonly prepared for the future.
Critical thinking, sound judgement, mental endurance. Exceptional communication and effective collaboration. These aren’t just human resources buzzwords. They’re authentic skills and abilities that anyone can weave into their work and everyday life — and be better for it. They’re also among the many attributes students gain from exposure to scientific research. This is precisely why CALS has made hands-on research a signature experience for undergraduates.
Among all the schools and colleges at UW–Madison, CALS has one of the highest undergraduate research participation rates. The college’s flexible curriculum accommodates research opportunities — whether independent projects under mentored guidance or supervised experiences in labs — that prepare students for a long list of careers and graduate school in many fields.
Senior capstones, another CALS staple, also immerse undergrads in research. Capstone courses require students, solo or in teams, to synthesize the knowledge they’ve acquired to solve a complex problem or answer a burning question. And for a more focused, deeper dive into scientific work, the CALS Honors Program offers a special research emphasis with added ways to explore a discipline.
Each research experience is unique. Some students co-author peer-reviewed journal articles. Some present findings at academic conferences. Others even develop new products for companies to produce and market. But all undergraduate researchers learn how to formulate good questions, approach problems analytically, and find creative paths to answers and solutions. And they all emerge with singular stories. Here are three.
Grace Padgett BSx’20 always thought she would become an engineer. That is, until she completed a pair of high school internships with the National Institutes of Health. Her experiences at one of the world’s most prominent medical research centers introduced her to the inspiring realm of biological research. And they showed her what one can accomplish when equipped with a Ph.D. in the field.
Padgett’s first step, however, is a bachelor’s degree in biology. On her way, she’s conducting research on the cellular and molecular mechanisms behind obesity (and the diseases often associated with it) in the lab of biochemistry professor James Ntambi. Her CALS lab experience has bolstered her understanding of basic scientific research, which will prove invaluable as Padgett charts a career in the study of medicine and public health.
“I’m interested in obesity and metabolic and cardiovascular disease, and I wanted to get involved in the Ntambi Lab because it’s focused on the biochemical mechanisms behind them,” Padgett explains. “I knew it would be a great way to gain more knowledge in that field and look at these problems from a different lens, one beyond factors like diet and exercise.”
This is Padgett’s third year working in the lab. She started with little experience in research but learned laboratory techniques and protocols from graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.
“Doing this kind of independent research really helped me apply what I was learning in my classes,” says Padgett. “I was gaining information, but you get a whole new perspective on it when you apply it to a real case in research. Sometimes the opposite happens, too. You perform a protocol in lab and then learn about it in class, and it clicks. They feed off each other.”
One of Padgett’s projects, under the mentorship of Sabrina Dumas PhD’18, a nutritional sciences graduate student at the time, was investigating the effects of a gene called SCD-1 in the skin of mice. A little over a decade ago, researchers in the Ntambi Lab genetically engineered mice that lacked the SCD-1 gene in their DNA, meaning the gene couldn’t be expressed as a protein anywhere in the body. Deleting this gene made the mice completely immune to obesity and the many associated diseases induced by high-fat and high-carbohydrate diets.
Following this revelation, the researchers began untangling how it’s possible. They started by engineering mice that have a tissue-specific deletion rather than a global absence of the gene. They found that an absence of SCD-1 in the liver protected against illness induced by a high-carbohydrate diet — but not one consisting of high fat. Then they discovered that a gene deletion in the skin actually confers resistance to health issues caused by a high-fat diet.
Ntambi believes that understanding these mechanisms in mice can shed light on possible treatments in humans beyond lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, which aren’t possible for all patients and often don’t do enough on their own to curb disease. It’s why Padgett took a keen interest in the lab and pursuing undergraduate research.
“My vision for undergraduates is to have them appreciate their research experience by teaching them about the experiments, the reason they are doing them, and how it fits into the research program in the laboratory,” Ntambi explains. “It’s important for them to be able to articulate their results and how they can interpret them. Working in a lab among other undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs, everyone learns valuable communication skills and how to build relationships with others.”
Padgett hopes to attend medical school, and she’s also passionate about health in communities with underrepresented populations. Her research experience has solidified in her mind the importance of basic research in developing new treatments and prevention methods that will help her help others.
“Doing this kind of independent research, and meeting many people along the way, has helped me find where my interests lie and to narrow that down to the kind of career I might want to pursue,” she says. “It’s helped me learn about the many approaches to an issue, be that clinical, through a global or public health perspective, or in laboratory research.”
Lighting as a Lifesaver
For drivers of tractors, combines, and other farm implements, the risk of collisions with passenger vehicles may be higher than ever. Operators are working longer nighttime hours on larger, more widespread tracts of land in a tangle of urban sprawl. This means big, slow-moving vehicles are sharing busy public roadways with cars more regularly, and the disparities in speed, size, and visibility cause horrific crashes and hundreds of injuries and deaths every year. Poor lighting or reflectance is often a culprit.
“If you’re on a big combine, and you’ve been out working all day, and you’ve got to run it from point A to point B, and it’s 9 o’clock at night, late October, you may or may not know that you’ve got a burned-out flasher or a burned-out taillight,” says biological systems engineering (BSE) professor John Shutske.
The problem calls for a technological solution. Fortunately, Shutske advises four BSE undergrads — seniors David Barrett, Carolyn Mahn, Connor O’Brien, and Eric Western — who researched and developed a device that automatically alerts vehicle operators of problems with their lighting systems. It also provides assurance that lighting and markings are in compliance with federally mandated standards.
But the standards are only helpful when they’re adhered to, so the students are trying to engineer human error and negligence out of the equation.
“We did a client interview last spring, and he mentioned that there’s not really anything like this on the market right now,” says Mahn. “He said that he keeps a mental checklist [of lights and reflective markings] in his head. That was distressing. That inspired us to continue working.”
The federal government calls for two headlights, two taillights, at least two flashing amber lights, turn signals, and various reflective markings, all clean and in working order. It seems so elementary, but these requirements weren’t signed into law until 2012, and they only apply to new equipment manufactured after mid-2017. State regulations vary widely.
The data, however, show that the lights and reflectors required by standards work. Researchers at the University of Iowa examined farm vehicle crash rates in nine Great Plains and Upper Midwest states. They estimated that by modestly improving compliance with standards established by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (which the federal standards reference), Wisconsin alone could expect an annual average decrease from 164 to 65 crashes — a 60% reduction.
The statistics underscore the importance of the students’ work. For two semesters, they teamed up in BSE 508/509, a capstone course, poring over background information, safety studies, and existing patents and engineering standards. They conducted market research and an economic analysis and, finally, designed and built a prototype, which they tested in late fall.
In their design, operators use a vehicle-mounted touchscreen, which connects to a small, open-source computer programmed to read an array of light-detecting photoresistors. One sensor, about the size of a sugar cube, is affixed to each federally required light.
“[The screen] would display ‘all lights are on’ or ‘all lights are off,’” says O’Brien. “If one of the lights is off, it notifies the operator and turns red — ‘one or more of these lights is off.’”
“A big thing for us was ease of implementation and accessibility,” says Barrett. “The easiest way — instead of diving into a tractor’s hood and messing with all the electrical — is just to put a sensor on the outside. Everybody can do that with a good instruction manual.”
The device is also programmed to guide vehicle operators through a pre-drive checklist of safety requirements that the sensors can’t detect: Are lights and reflectors free of dirt and debris? Is your “slow-moving vehicle” emblem showing? Are work lamps angled downward?
The students, who presented their findings in a December CALS poster session, say the experience has been a great bridge between theoretical courses and practical realities. Shutske anticipates continuing the line of research and development with future undergrads to keep chipping away at the problem of poor standards compliance — perhaps with universal retrofit systems to bring much older vehicles into compliance with the modern-day standards.
“There has been a lot more research involved than I would have expected,” says Western. “As far as learning about researching previously made products and finding standards and guidelines that need to be followed, nothing has come close to the experience of putting this project together.”
“This has been extremely satisfying to get our hands on a project and see it through from start to finish,” says Mahn. “I have definitely learned a lot about coordinating workloads in a team, and my eyes have also been opened to the complexity of applying research findings to a real-world problem, which is definitely not as straightforward as I once thought.”
A Tick is a Tick is a Tick. Or Is It?
“Tick checks” — thoroughly inspecting one’s body for signs of the little brown parasites — are a ritual for most Wisconsinites who spend time outdoors. This fastidiousness is fueled by knowledge. Most people understand that certain species of ticks can carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, a potentially debilitating infection. But do they really know what to look for?
The average number of reported cases of Lyme disease has more than doubled over the last decade in Wisconsin, and awareness of the illness has also increased. Despite this, researchers have found that many people who are accustomed to checking for ticks still don’t know how to properly identify them — especially when it comes to tick nymphs, the youngest and tiniest of these insects capable of transmitting Lyme.
“When you’re saying ‘look for ticks,’ and people don’t know what they’re looking for, how are they supposed to do a good tick check?” asks Hannah Fenelon, a senior majoring in entomology and Spanish.
This is why Fenelon is working with entomology professor and chair Susan Paskewitz to perfect a method for suspending ticks in hard resin. With resin blocks, the untrained public can safely hold ticks in the palms of their hands and get a better idea of what they look like.
As an undergraduate researcher at the university’s Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease, Fenelon studied tick populations and the transmission of Lyme disease in Wisconsin over the last two years. The center partners with Columbia University on The Tick App, which allows users to submit images of ticks for the universities to identify. The app helped the center expose some knowledge gaps.
“Some people were submitting photos of arthropods that aren’t ticks,” says Fenelon. “We were seeing images of lice, pseudoscorpions, and beetles like weevils, which are commonly mistaken for ticks. And it seems people are less able to recognize deer tick nymphs versus adults.”
To help fill these gaps with education, she started making innovative visual aids. The disc-shaped resin blocks she fabricated encase adult male and female deer and wood ticks as well as nymph deer ticks. Some other species, such as beetles or bedbugs, are included to provide comparisons of size and features.
“We started carrying them with us in our pockets during our field research,” said Fenelon. “That way, when someone asked what we were doing, we would show them a resin block.”
The people they encountered were surprised to find out what they didn’t know. For example, they learned that only deer ticks, not wood ticks, carry Lyme disease in Wisconsin. They also discovered how truly tiny deer tick nymphs can be, like poppy seeds on a muffin or freckles on an arm. They’re arguably the most difficult infectious tick to detect on the human body, making them must-identify, must-remove hitchhikers — and prime candidates for research.
Fenelon was able to contribute to this vital area of study thanks to a financial boost. Last year, she received a Hilldale Fellowship, a $3,000 stipend exclusively for undergraduate researchers that offsets research costs, such as supplies and student travel, related to a project completed with a faculty adviser. The fellowship is made available through private dollars held in a University of Wisconsin System trust fund. It gave her the support she needed to perfect her resin block production process and test how well the blocks work as teaching aids.
“Hannah developed an extremely useful tool for tick and Lyme disease research,” says Paskewitz. “One of our goals is to provide good advice to the general public about how to reduce the risk of Lyme disease. The resin blocks are a tool that we can use to ask which of these is a tick and which can transmit Lyme disease.”
The use of resin blocks to preserve larger insects is nothing new, but trapped air bubbles can obscure a tick because they’re so small, says Fenelon. Her process involves mixing the resin in a way that minimizes air bubbles, removing those that still form with pipettes, and using pins under a microscope to position the tick so the legs are visible.
“It’s a lot more difficult than one would think to make sure they turn out right,” she says. “I spent more than 10 hours a week just trying technique after technique based on what went wrong the first time.”
Fenelon took the final blocks to a youth camp in Central Wisconsin, where she tested whether they were more effective than photographs in educating children about ticks. “Right now, we use pictures, but we aren’t sure if people are learning well from them,” she says. “Especially kids, because they don’t understand the size and scale of the image compared to real life.”
Fourteen small groups of children were given four to six minutes of instruction about tick identification weekly at the camp. Some groups learned exclusively from pictures, while the others learned only from resin blocks.
Camp counselors answered a questionnaire about their teaching sessions with the children; campers were asked if they had any ticks on them during their stay and whether they were attached. In cases of attached ticks, campers were instructed to go to the nurse for removal, and those specimens were collected and given to Fenelon for identification.
“I received over 1,000 tick-check reports,” says Fenelon. “So I was able to see how many, if any, ticks those 1,000-plus children had.”
Responses from the counselors indicated that the resin blocks are easier to learn from than the pictures, but Fenelon is still sorting through the data to determine whether that’s truly the case. She says the entire process has helped her develop skills for working with the public, which will prove indispensable as she pursues a career in global public health and medical entomology.This article was posted in Basic Science, Beyond classroom experiences, Features, Food Systems, Health and Wellness, Spring 2020 and tagged Biochemistry, biological systems engineering, Biology, Carolyn Mahn, Connor O'Brien, David Barrett, Entomology, Eric Western, Grace Padgett, Hannah Fenelon, James Ntambi, John Shutske, Public Health, Research, Sabrina Dumas, Susan Paskewitz, ticks.