U students display science work at annual symposium

When one thinks of science fair projects, thoughts of solar system mobiles and volcanoes spewing mixtures of vinegar and baking soda might come to mind.

But Wednesday at Coffman Union, those thoughts took a back seat to stem cell research and wildlife conservation.

The University’s Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Symposium, which has taken place for the last 19 years, displayed research that students have been working on for the last year.

“We want to make undergraduate research visible,” said Frank Barnwell, director of the College of Biological Sciences honors program.

Visibility is a reward for students participating in the symposium. But students also said getting out of the classroom and into the laboratory was rewarding.

“It’s better than listening to teachers teaching,” said Jennifer Bury, a biology senior. “It backs up what you’re learning in the classroom.”

Bury, whose project studied the native mussels of the St. Croix River, was able to scuba dive into the river to examine how environmental changes affect their existence.

“It’s crazy, because you’re strapped to a boat with a little cord,” Bury said. “You’re just feeling around to try and find mussels, because you can’t see anything.”

Bury’s project is one of 115 entered in the symposium this year – the most ever, Barnwell said. That’s compared with the 25 or so projects entered when the symposium began in 1987.

Barnwell said the symposium was first sponsored by the College of Biological Sciences but has since spread to the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, the College of Natural Resources and the Institute of Technology.

Matthew Painschab, a junior in genetics, cell biology and development and political science, also entered a project in the symposium. His project studies embryonic stem cells to examine differences between normal blood and blood that causes leukemia. He said the symposium is a good way to get research projects out into the open.

“It’s a good opportunity for people to see what we’re doing and for students to see what each other are doing as well,” Painschab said.

Barnwell said the symposium is also a source of pride for the students.

“This is a big deal to many of them,” he said. “It’s a chance for them to say, ‘This is my project; this is what I have done.’ “

Barnwell said students can get very nervous about presenting their material in front of a live audience.

Nervous or not, Bury said the yearlong work she put into researching the mussels was worth it.

“When you come across a healthy area (of mussel population), it’s like, ‘Yes, this is why I’m studying this project,’ ” she said.

Unlike the stereotypical science fair projects, such as lighting a light bulb with a 9-volt battery, students said these projects could eventually make a difference.

“It’s sad to think of a species going extinct right before our very eyes,” Bury said. “If we can change that in any way, we’ll all be better off.”

– Freelance editor Lou Raguse welcomes comments at [email protected]