Jacob Urban ’18 considers balancing the world’s escalating energy consumption with its environmental cost to be among the great issues of our time. “I believe a lot of solutions to the energy challenges we face are rooted in the financial markets, and I thought that would be a good research angle to pursue,” says Urban, a dual major in finance and energy and its impacts.
When Urban decided to explore this idea, he applied to the Young Research Fellows Program and was awarded a grant. The pilot initiative, established in 2017 with the support of Syracuse University Trustee Elliott Portnoy ’86 and his wife, Estee, provides up to $4,000 in funding over two years for first- and second-year undergraduates to pursue research and creative projects in a supportive environment with faculty mentors. The program underscores the positive impact of the University’s commitment to fostering student research and will continue to be supported within the newly launched SOURCE—Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement. “The students set their own initial path,” says Kate Hanson, former deputy director of the Renée Crown University Honors Program and now director of the SOURCE. “When they apply to the program, they have an area of interest and a faculty mentor identified, so they already have that spark and want to learn more.”
Urban, one of 16 undergraduates who’ve been involved in the program, began exploring an aspect of solar energy, but pivoted to investigating the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard. Created under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, this policy mandates that a specific percentage of renewable fuels—ethanol and biodiesel—be blended into the country’s transportation fuel supply. “What made me so interested is the persistent uncertainty I observed in the marketplace,” says Urban, a December 2018 graduate who interned last summer with BP and is now working in BP’s Trader Development Program. Last fall, Urban used some of his grant funds to attend the annual meeting of the American Fats and Oils Association in New York City, where he networked and interviewed industry experts, lobbyists and others about the Renewable Fuel Standard. While weighing shifting national politics and market and technology factors, Urban concluded that ethanol blending will continue irrespective of any federal support or mandates because it improves vehicle performance, while biodiesel “could see a stronger future in terms of having stronger mandates, meaning more biodiesel would be required to be blended into the diesel supply.”
Battling Bacterial Infections
Bioengineering major Serena Omo-Lamai ’20 credits the Young Research Fellows Program with opening doors for her. As a sophomore, she began learning about biofilm—a thin, slimy layer of bacteria that adheres to a surface—while working in the lab of Dacheng Ren, the Stevenson Endowed Professor and director of the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute, and applied to the program. As the microbiology and bioengineering fields have progressed, scientists have learned how extensively biofilms are involved in microbial infections. Omo-Lamai built on her lab experience at Syracuse, landing a spot in the Pre-Ph.D. Scholars Program at the University of Pittsburgh last summer. There, she researched biofilms’ role in antibiotic resistance under the guidance of Professor Tagbo Niepa. “All these bacterial infections are getting more potent, and the antibiotics previously being used to treat them are becoming less and less effective,” she says.
For her project, Omo-Lamai studied the interaction of a strain of bacteria with carbon nanotube silk membranes and monitored the bacterial growth using fluorescent microscopy, comparing it with bacterial growth on just a silk membrane. The carbon nanotubes proved toxic to the bacteria. “They could be used with potential applications like antibacterial wound dressings that would prevent the growth of bacteria on the surface,” says Omo-Lamai, who is collaborating on a research paper on the project. “It’s one thing to read about new discoveries, but it’s another to be contributing to those discoveries.”
Omo-Lamai gave presentations about her research at the 2018 Biomedical Engineering Society Conference and the 2018 American Institute of Chemical Engineers Annual Meeting, where she collected first-place honors in the Undergraduate Poster Competition’s food, pharmaceutical and biotechnology category. “It was a very valuable experience,” she says. “I would not have had the opportunity to attend the conferences without support from the Young Research Fellows Program.”
Syracuse’s Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising has administered the pilot program to date. According to Director Jolynn Parker, the program helps students learn about managing a research budget and encourages them to develop a research focus early in their college careers. “They become more intentional and mindful about courses they can take and faculty they can connect with, and they often begin to see connections between the opportunities open to them on campus,” Parker says. “If they start early enough, they have the time to build those connections and take advantage of courses, faculty and experiences.” Research projects, coupled with this level of involvement, can make Syracuse University students competitive for national and international awards and scholarships, Parker says.
Believing in Students
Biology professor Heather Coleman sees strong benefits for students who immerse themselves in research throughout their undergraduate years and considers mentoring one of the best parts of her job. “Having the opportunity to work beside the students and to see them start to understand the implications of their work and get really excited about the results is incomparable,” Coleman says.
Bethanie Viele ’20 began working in Coleman’s lab as a first-year biology major and was accepted into the program in 2017, allowing her to study the connection between nitrogen metabolism and carbon allocation in trees. “In a broader context, her project is focused on improving poplar trees for use in the production of biofuels,” Coleman says. “She is analyzing trees that are overexpressing a specific gene in the nitrogen metabolism pathway, glutamine oxoglutarate aminotransferase (GOGAT), and using these trees to try to understand how alterations in nitrogen metabolism impact how quickly a tree grows, and how this, in turn, impacts the characteristics of the wood.” The trees are potentially fast-growing, renewable sources of energy.
Beyond the lab, Coleman takes pride in seeing students gain confidence in presenting their work and raising questions, collaborating, helping each other troubleshoot challenges, learning and growing. “Getting to participate in a student’s entire four years at the University is a treat,” she says.
The Young Research Fellows Program introduces students to the practice of research, including publishing, creating a digital profile and networking. It also hosts guest speakers and conducts group meetings where students share their respective projects and exchange ideas. “What I enjoy most about this program is that everyone is supportive of each other’s work,” says Candice Hatakeyama ’21, a musical theater major who received a grant for 2018-20 to adapt Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being into a musical. “When we talk about our projects, often people have ideas and suggestions for everyone else’s projects, and there is a shared sense of respect and openness to ideas and collaboration.”
Hatakeyama views her project—“a heightened-reality musical”—as an opportunity to diversify both the range of stories brought to stage and the group of writers whose works are performed. “I was inspired to turn it into a musical because of the important theme of struggling to find a connection in an increasingly digital and solitary world,” she says. “I also am very interested in the story because of its connection to Japanese culture and heritage.”
The range of projects and disciplines, opportunities to network and interact and early faculty mentorship seems to be a winning formula for Syracuse undergraduates. As Hanson points out, “They do amazing work.”
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