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Committed to offering that opportunity to students, Michigan Tech has created the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, where students get projects and stipends. This year, twenty-six students were supported with awards totalling $64,000. Here are three:
When all is said and done
A student in communication and cultural studies, Susan LaCasse's undergraduate research blends language and the environment. It's been demonstrated, she says, that "areas of the world where there is high language diversity also have more biodiversity."
As part of her research, LaCasse, who is a descendent of the Ojibwe tribe, has attended a wild rice preservation conference at one of the reservations in the UP. Rice isn't just a crop, she says. It involves tradition, oral history, habitat, lore, and proper harvest and preparation. The process needs to be preserved, she says. "You lose a lot when you don't do it the way it's been done for years and years."
LaCasse also studies the Ojibwe language. She hopes to become fluent and, on a broader scale, to encourage overall the preservation and use of indigenous languages. Ojibwe and other native languages, she says, are "endangered." "The last of the speakers are dying off, taking their native culture and secrets of nature and survival with them."
LaCasse works with Associate Professor Victoria Bergvall of the humanities department, and her efforts and aspirations reflect Tech's emphasis of achieving sustainability-in this case simultaneously preserving language, culture, and the environment. They are intimately linked, she says. "When a language dies, much dies with it."
Could man's best friend be a grizzly bear?
Aaron Maki is taking a close look at grizzly bear bones from Yellowstone National Park-to help dispel a human affliction: osteoporosis, a condition characterized by a decrease in bone mass and bone density, and a corresponding increase in porosity and fragility.
Grizzly bears spend half of their lives sleeping and their bones stay strong and healthy. When people are off their feet for extended periods, osteoporosis sets in, typically in the wrist, hip, and spine.
As an undergraduate researcher, Maki is part of a team, headed by Associate Professor Seth Donahue of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, that is trying to understand the grizzly's durability-all with an eye on finding a treatment for humans.
Maki's undergraduate research is funded partly by NASA, which wrestles with the problem of astronauts losing bone mass in space flight because of the absence of gravity, which is like being off of your feet. "If long-distance travel is going to become a reality," Maki says, "we have to find a solution to this problem."
He has already joined scholarly circles: he gave a presentation at a September 2006 conference of the American Society of Biomechanics at Virginia Tech.
As for that opportunity and undergraduate research in general? "I never dreamed," he says.
A watershed opportunity
Geographers say that people seek out water when they locate; Greg LeFevre, with a fresh BS in environmental engineering, seeks out water for his research.
Before he graduated, he was one of two students under Associate Professor Brian Barkdoll who created computer simulations of watersheds in Illinois, Kansas, and New Mexico.
The computer models simulated rainfall and runoff conditions in the different environments. LeFevre and his partner cross-checked their models against actual river flows measured by the US Geological Survey. Other undergraduates will take their data and plug it into another computer model that simulates the transport of sediments. Sediments carry agricultural and industrial contaminants and are an important measure of water quality.
The students' work can help scientists predict the quality of water resources in the face of global warming. LeFevre says that predicting effects upon the hydrologic regime and sediment transport can be valuable for land-use and land-management policy.
Currently, LeFevre is doing research on the road. In January, he traveled to Nicaragua with Professor John Gierke and students to help a small community find clean water sources and abate unsanitary water conditions. The project is part of Tech's Aqua Terra Enterprise. Then LeFevre will spend three months working for the World Wildlife Fund and then three months working for the Kansas Geological Survey. Next comes graduate school.
He values greatly the opportunity at for undergraduate research. "It's about getting out and getting excited about what you're going to be doing later on."
All of his inquiry involves water. "It's not that I don't like air quality," he says, "but water is where I'm going."