Feature News

Students display innovative research projects at poster session

Sep 26, 2017

A new event showcasing summer research confirms North Central College’s reputation as a home for state-of-the-art facilities, innovative academic projects and robust opportunities for student achievement that puts the College well ahead of its peers.

A poster presentation in Ratio Hall at the newly opened Dr. Myron Wentz Science Center marked the conclusion of the annual Summer Undergraduate Research Colloquium (SURC) and was open to all 40 students who engaged in summer research.

Nicholas Mauro, (photo, below right) assistant professor of physics and coordinator of undergraduate research, hoped the event would increase awareness of North Central’s outstanding student research. He believes the program is exceptional for its interdisciplinary focus, collaborative nature, and opportunities it gives to students at the outset of their academic tenure.

“Students have the opportunity to get involved with research projects [at North Central] very early compared with peer institutions,” Mauro said. “Our amazing faculty are willing to take on and mentor students who are less experienced and may need more direction than more seasoned students.” Faculty apply for and receive funding for summer research projects through the College.


The program featured 27 joint student and faculty projects covering the sciences and a wide range of other academic topics, including studies in languages, psychology, biology, physics and chemistry.

“The goal of the research program,” said Mauro, “is to allow students to begin researching early in their career to determine if their area of interest can form a worthwhile career path.

“The collective research coming together is rare – [that] doesn’t happen everywhere—as [is] the building of community,” said Mauro. Faculty researchers get help from students in a variety of ways, but much of the work is done together. Students learn the process of scholarship, creative endeavor and research in their discipline.

 “As much of ‘the real China’ as you can get”

The sense of faculty-student collaboration inherent to these projects can be seen in the work of Assistant Professor of Chinese Jinai Sun, who worked with two Chinese majors on using authentic materials in the instruction of Mandarin Chinese.

“Authentic materials are by native speakers, for native speakers. So, for example, a book or a movie that was originally produced in Chinese, if it wasn’t used for teaching purposes, would be authentic material,” said Elizabeth Watson ’18 (photo, above right), a Chinese major and chemistry minor who is working with Sun.

Watson did an extensive literature review and hypothesized that using authentic materials such as folk songs would make learning the language more relevant and bring students closer to the mindset of a native Chinese speaker.

“Each week we would have one or two songs that we’d work with,” said Watson.  “We would also have cultural themes that went with each song. So if one of the songs mentions expectations of women in China, we [would cover] relationships and women’s issues that week.”

Jamie Rohn ’18, (photo, above) who is majoring in Chinese and international business, focused on incorporating native literature into a Chinese curriculum. Her project extended from her work with the STARTALK program, a six-week summer course that combines in-person workshops with online modules to provide techniques for teaching Mandarin Chinese. STARTALK helped her see how important cultural immersion is in picking up a new language.

“Especially for students here in America learning Chinese, you want as much of the real China as you can get,” Rohn said. “Listening to real interviews on TV, real music they listen to in China—you want to put yourself in China even though you’re not physically there.”

Food for thought

Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Bjorklund worked with chemistry major Samuel Lee ’19 (photo, above left) on a project exploring a question rarely asked: Why do food and drink taste the way they do? Their subject is the Maillard reaction, a chemical process by which proteins react with sugars to produce the flavor and aroma of cooked substances.

The project relies heavily the College’s new 400-MHz nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer.

“Knowing that sugars react differently can tell you a lot about what sugars to put into your product to get whatever flavor you desire,” said Lee.

He added that the highlight of the project was the growth he experienced as a researcher.

“When I was getting results where nothing was reacting significantly, we were able to design a different method of obtaining the data so we could find some results,” he said. “I learned a lot about running and analyzing NMR, as well as being able to learn a new method of statistical analysis in PCA (principal component analysis). And I gained valuable experience working on my own in the lab.”

Accelerating their future

Paul Bloom, associate professor of physics, brought several physics majors with him to work at Fermi Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. At the poster presentation, Violet Shamo ’19 (photo, below) and Tyler Weitzel ’19 (photo) presented their work on the g-2 (pronounced “g minus two”) experiment, which measures the magnetic properties of a subatomic particle called the muon.

“This will help us determine if our understanding of the fundamental interactions of the particle are complete or if we are missing something, implying the existence of new particles or interactions we don't yet know about,” said Bloom.  

Shamo and Weitzel particularly enjoyed working closely with Bloom while being given room to address the project in their own way.

“You can always ask him questions, but he’s very good about giving you a project and letting you find out the best way to do it,” Shamo said.

“He definitely let us have our own approach; but if we were ever stuck, he was there to help,” Weitzel added.