Students benefit from undergraduate research

Erin Fagan didn't know she was interested in research when her calculus professor approached her last spring about the opportunity, but now she's seeing the benefits of eight weeks of hard and solitary work.

Erin Fagan didn't know she was interested in research when her calculus professor approached her last spring about the opportunity, but now she's seeing the benefits of eight weeks of hard and solitary work.

Fagan, a sophomore mathematics education major from Waverly, N.Y., is one of several Pitt-Bradford students who spent part of the summer conducting research with a professor. And in Fagan's case, she was paid for it.

Not that she did it for the money. It just seemed like an opportunity that was too good to pass up, especially since she has a goal of earning a doctorate in mathematics.

“I did well in Calculus I, and Dr. (Mihaela) Drignei noticed and asked if I was interested in doing research,” Fagan said.

Drignei, an assistant professor of mathematics, was working to create models with engineering applications. The problem concerned a vibrating band of a mystery material. Could they tell what the band was made out of by measuring the oscillations?

To work on the project, Fagan had to learn new math; a computer programming language used by engineers and scientists, MATLAB; and plain text word processing software called LaTeX.

“The knowledge I gained has already helped me this year,” she said during the second week of the fall term. “Doing research definitely helped me open my mind a lot. It better helped me understand the concepts behind things.”

Fagan said she also learned critical time management skills since she worked directly with Drignei one-on-one once a week and on her own for the rest of the week. Fagan will present her work with Drignei at the Penn-York Undergraduate Research Conference Nov. 7 at the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville and during Honors Day at Pitt-Bradford in the spring.

Unlike Fagan, Hunter Kline, a pre-medicine student from Portersville, knew he wanted to do research. A biology major who has been accepted into the Lake Erie College of Medicine's 4+4 program, Kline has already earned acceptance to medical school as long as his grades at Pitt-Bradford earn minimum requirements.

So for him, doing research was not about burnishing his resume for medical school, but rather learning about research methods because he knows he will be using them.

Kline, a biology major, worked with Dr. Denise Piechnik, an assistant professor of biology, to study the effects of road salt on dragonfly larvae.

It was intense work requiring collecting larvae each week from Marilla Reservoir, setting up tanks for a control group and experimental groups, mixing the tank water at the correct salinities, monitoring the larvae's behavior and health and cleaning each tank thoroughly when done to ensure no contamination for the next round of trials.

“There's so much more work than people realize,” Kline said. He checked the health of his larvae every eight hours around the clock, which obviously doesn't allow for getting eight hours of sleep.

Kline said he is now working with Piechnik to use the data, which did show that higher concentrations of salt affect the behavior of the larvae, to write a paper that they hope to publish.

“It was very important to me to do research, so I was excited when Dr. Piechnik asked me,” he said. “Going to a small school, I didn't know how much opportunity there would be, but there's a lot.”

Nontraditional student Lisa Marie Schultz took advantage of a research opportunity, too. A psychology major from Rixford, she worked with Dr. Helene Lawson, professor of sociology, and Dr. Kira Leck, associate professor of psychology, over the summer to study why some people tend to “overshare” personal information with strangers.

Schultz helped read background material, then helped interview service workers about their interactions with customers. She is also collaborating with the faculty members on a paper to submit to journals and will also present results at the Penn-York conference.

“I feel like I have more of an insight into academic research now,” she said. She hopes to attend graduate school to pursue a career in counseling. She feels the research will strengthen her application and make her more comfortable with the requirements of graduate school-level work. She said the research has made her not only closer to her work, but also to her professors.

“I got to know the professors personally, and I really appreciate that,” she said. “I feel like this research is one of the most fulfilling things I've done since I've been here.”