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When asked, students and alumni often say they’re grateful that they began research right from the start at Elmira College. They enjoyed the chance to delve deep into topics and gain skills often reserved for upper-level or graduate students at other colleges and universities.

“Research is amazing if you’re a person who likes to ask why,” said Christian Zwierlein ’23, a Biochemistry major. “You can learn about yourself as a person and learn about the world around you.”

The Mathematics and Natural Sciences department particularly lends itself to the investigative process and students pursuing these majors often present their findings at conferences and sometimes get their work published in journals. Here’s a quick look at some of the newer research being conducted this year by both faculty and students.

Environmental Science:

Students in the Environmental Science program are learning to assess the baseline conditions of a region to understand the impact of natural and human changes. They’re first learning to track flood patterns and measure water quality, microplastic abundance and locality, and sediment and mineralogical composition in the Chemung River. They’ll later apply
these techniques and understanding to a tropical setting in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands in the spring of 2024.

“In order to understand the impact of climate change and other stressors we must first understand how the natural systems are intended to function. This gives students a better view of how humans have altered natural activities and then develop solutions to fix
broken systems,” said Dr. Trevor Browning, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science.

Biology:

Students working with Dr. Elisabeth “Abbi” Paulson, Assistant Professor of Biology, are using small (~1 mm), transparent worms called Caenorhabditis elegans to study the cell biology of
autism-associated genes. The C. elegans live in soil and feed on microbes such as bacteria. They’re useful in this research because they have about 78% of the more than 100 genes currently linked to autism in humans. Paulson and her students are interested in finding
genes that regulate the biology of the intestine to better understand the relationship between certain intestinal problems - often referred to as “leaky gut”- and autism.

“I like that we’re not just seeing the genes on a line of a piece of paper,” said Zwierlein. “We’re seeing the phenotypes in real life and seeing how these gene changes affect things in real life.”

“So far, students in my lab have screened ten autism-associated genes,” said Paulson [in October]. “We have identified three that cause worms to accumulate fluid in their body cavity. This could be due to a leaky gut or a defective excretory cell - which acts like the kidney for the worm. Follow-up studies are in progress.”

Chemistry:

The Chemistry department has three new faculty members who are working now to establish their research at Elmira College.

Dr. Veronica Moorman, Associate Professor of Chemistry, is a biochemistry/biophysicist, utilizing tools from across biology, chemistry, and physics. She’s currently working with Paige Stilts ’23 to investigate the interactions between flavonoids - common antioxidants in foods like tea and wine - and proteins. They hope to understand better why flavonoids have health benefits. Moorman will enlist additional students to help her research better ways to
measure acidity in non-water-based solutions like oil and the use of PETase, a fungal protein, to break down plastics. Moorman is also helping three seniors complete research they’ve been working on for a couple of years investigating a protein complex called 9-1-1 that’s
important for recognizing DNA damage and making sure that the damage gets repaired correctly.

Dr. Samantha Bidwell, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, is recruiting students into her lab to work on a variety of projects including computational chemistry investigations and STEM education development. Bidwell’s computational work involves the analysis and development of chemical pathways critical in the development of new industrial, medicinal, and environmental processes. Using computer programs and quantum chemistry in her work, she is able to look at the electronic structures of molecules and examine their bonding behaviors. For example, Bidwell is looking at how to successfully bond CO2 molecules to metals containing compounds to aid in their capture from within the atmosphere. At the same time,
most of Bidwell’s career has focused on education research and considering ways to improve student success, specifically in STEM. In this research, she is looking for students to assist in projects involving the implementation of self-reflection tools into introductory courses and the development of topic-related supplemental materials.

Dr. Michael Selig, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, spent much of his 14-year career focused on converting organic waste into fuels or materials that can be used medically. He has also done work in the food sciences and some of his current projects are investigating ingredients used in foods that provide additional health benefits known as functional foods. He’s currently working with students on developing novel food-safe bioplastics, the isolation and stabilization
of plant-based pigments for use in foods and bio-based solar cells, and a joint project with Dr. Browning collecting and identifying microplastics in sediments from the Chemung River and other local waterways.

Mathematics:

“Research is built into our program,” said Dr. Ryan McCulloch, Associate Professor of Mathematics.

For example, students in the Statistical Methods course get to construct their own research question, collect their own data, and analyze this data to draw conclusions for their final projects. Some of the students will use math models to address industry-related
problems. But McCulloch also encourages his students to use math to “discover the beauty of things,” like patterns that show up in nature.

In a recent article in the Journal of Integer Sequences, McCulloch used pure mathematics-the area of abstract mathematics that is studied without concern for immediate applications-to examine patterns in a two-player coin flip game called Penney’s Game.

This type of research is less focused on modeling problems related to industry, but still requires students to develop the rigorous methodologies and communication skills required in other types of research projects. And, because math is so foundational to understanding our world, applications for this work can potentially be discovered in the future.

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