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Harrisonburg: Learning in a real-world setting

Story by Jim Bishop

For most majors, Eastern Mennonite University offers smaller classes that provide much opportunity for close student-faculty interaction and mentoring.

In addition, many majors include opportunities for internships, where students apply classroom learning to “real world” settings.

Beyond this, a number of students majoring in the sciences, particularly biology or chemistry, are supplementing their laboratory experience with original research projects on and off campus with EMU professors.

This year, the departments of biology and chemistry are benefiting from seven grants from federal and state agencies or from private foundations, according to Doug Graber Neufeld, professor of biology and chair of the biology and chemistry departments.

“These grants are critical to help to support the many students involved in independent research projects, with the subjects of studies ranging from molecular neurobiology, to the chemistry and ecology of insects to water-related issues in developing countries,” Dr. Graber Neufeld said. “The past year saw 17 students involved in research projects during the year, with an additional 10 students involved in summer internships with EMU biology or chemistry faculty.”

Graber Neufeld and colleagues from Buffalo (N.Y.) State College used funding from an ongoing National Science Foundation grant to take six students, including two from EMU, to work in Cambodia and Thailand this summer. The program gives opportunities for students to work alongside local scientists on issues of drinking water quality and sewage treatment.

Another group of six students will be selected to return with him to Cambodia and Thailand the summer of 2009 to continue the work on water issues. The work is a an outgrowth of two years that Graber Neufeld spent working through Mennonite Central Committee on environmental issues in Cambodia.

Allison E. Glick, a junior chemistry major from Pekin, Ill., was among the students who spent last summer doing research in Cambodia.

“I looked at the concentration of pesticides on water spinach still in the field,” Glick noted. “It was a greatly enriching experience where I learned as much about the research process in a location like Cambodia as I did about pesticide longevity,” she added.

With the help of a $25,000 Jeffress Grant, a Virginia foundation, along with USDA funds and Hawaii Department of Agriculture funds, Matthew Siderhurst, assistant professor of chemistry, is continuing earlier research on pest control in Hawaii, isolating hormones to use in creating more effective insect traps for ants and beetles. EMU students David N. Showalter and Elisa Troyer worked with Dr. Siderhurst last summer in the Suter Science Center laboratory.

Showalter, a senior biochemistry major from Harrisonburg, is writing a paper on the project the fall semester that he “hopes to have published in a scientific journal.”

“I anticipate doing graduate work in biochemistry, and this experience is helpful preparation that I wouldn’t otherwise get,” Showalter said. “It’s proving a valuable way of understanding analytical methods and connecting theory with practice.”

Greta Ann Herin, assistant professor of biology, has participated for two summers in the Shenandoah Valley Molecular Biology Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Students participating in the program investigate the modulation of glutamate receptors that are important in brain function. EMU’s portion of the REU amounts to approximately $21,000, including supplies and stipends for the student participants.

“The goal is for the student to develop independence as a researcher by conducting his/her own research project, gaining skills in the laboratory, being exposed to the primary literature, participating in scientific presentations and discussions,” Herin said.

An EMU faculty group from a cross-section of departments have formed the Shenandoah Anabaptist Science Society (SASS) for constructive engagement of science and religion.

The group has received a three-year, $15,000 matching grant administered by the the Metanexus Institute Local Societies Initiative, a Philadelphia, Pa.-based organization, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation.

SASS steering commmittee member Roman J. Miller, professor of biology at EMU, said the Society “provides resources and a formal context to encourage the integration of Christian faith – particularly in its Anabaptist expression and convictions concerning peacemaking and service – while helping students learn more about major real-world issues at the intersection of science and Christian faith.”

Stephen Cessna, associate professor of chemistry, in collaboration with James M. (Jim) Yoder, professor of biology, secured some $100,000 in grant funding from the National Science Foundation for laboratory equipment for plant psychology and ecology laboratory courses.

“This is not trivial stuff. These students are doing cutting-edge research,” Graber Neufeld said. “As a bonus, a number of students wind up having their research published in scholarly journals or being invited to give presentations at professional conferences.”

He noted that two EMU students, Laura Cattell and Allison Glick, will present findings from their research in water treatment and pesticide use in Cambodia at a conference in Pennsylvania in November 2008. One of Dr. Siderhurst’s students presented at a meeting this summer.

“All the grants we’ve received are involving students in these research projects,” the EMU professor said. “For a school our size, that’s rather impressive.”

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