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Undergraduate researchers present posters at annual forum

Brittani Bungart’s poster won first place in the physical sciences and engineering category at the University of Missouri’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievements Forum. Bungart’s poster focused on a method using nanoparticles to deliver lower level light therapy to the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

Fully 112 undergraduate students received support from the College of Engineering to conduct research this semester in a faculty mentor’s lab. Research participants presented their projects at the University of Missouri’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievements Forum on Tuesday, April 24.

Brittani Bungart, a senior in biological engineering, won first place in the physical sciences and engineering category for research she’s done in the lab of James Lee, an associate professor of biological engineering. It focused on a method using nanoparticles to deliver lower level light therapy to the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

“Our lab was the first to prove that this method of delivery could potentially work with further development,” Bungart said.

Lower level light therapy has been proposed as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain. However, light cannot penetrate very far when irradiated at the surface of a person’s head. This obstacle is what motivated the research into a delivery method that would not require an external energy source.

“The trend in medicine is to minimize invasive measures if at all possible,” Bungart said.

This was Bungart’s third presentation at the annual event. She presented two posters — one profiling the research she’s done at MU and the other of research she did in collaboration with the University of South Carolina, which was initiated during a NSF-funded research experience Bungart has won two other first place poster awards in the past two months, one at the 2012 Annual Meeting for the Institute of Biological Engineering and one in organismal biology at MU’s 2012 Life Sciences Week.

Bungart said she feels that her success is purely due to her mentors and prior presentation experience.
“It’s always good to be getting out there and communicating what you’re doing,” Bungart said. “I’ve found out that over time you definitely pick up tricks. In a forum with hundreds of presenters and an audience that wants to see many of them, you have a minimal amount of time to get a lot of information across.”

Junior mechanical engineering major Travis Tumlin presented his poster on research he’s performed with electrical engineering professor Shubhra Gangopadhay.

Travis Tumlin is a junior in mechanical and aerospace engineering. He said his presentations also have improved over time. He does undergraduate research in the lab of Shubhra Gangopadhay, a professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“For me, the presentations are pressure to know everything inside and out,” Tumlin said. “It’s all about experience — getting out there and talking to people. Getting better at it is an ongoing thing.”

Sean Dobbins, a senior in chemical engineering, has done research with Matthew Bernards, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, since he was a freshman. This was the fourth and final time Dobbins presented at the forum.

“It allows me to share my research with researchers from other fields and the general public,” Dobbins said.

Dobbins said his posters have improved since his first presentation as a freshman since he now has results and conclusions to discuss from his project. He worked on finding a gel with bacteria resistant properties that could potentially be used to coat biomedical implants and thereby keep the implant from being rejected.

To receive funding from the College of Engineering to participate in its undergraduate research program, students are required to present their research at this annual MU event. Any student with a GPA 3.0 or above is eligible to do undergraduate research — as long as they can find a professor who will match the funds. Undergraduates can earn up to $1,000 each semester doing research. The college pays half and the professor pays the other half.

Sam Kiger, the associate dean for research, said the program has grown since the number of undergraduate researchers was uncapped in 1997. Previously, the program was limited to 10 students.

“We do not limit the number involved,” Kiger said. “It gives a large number of our undergraduates the opportunity to work with faculty.”

Kiger noted the research presents an opportunity for students to apply concepts they’ve learned in the classroom. Tumlin, who is working on a project to create a nanomaterial for a flexible, flame-retardant textile, agrees.

“It shows employers and advisers that you can be on your own,” Tumlin said. “You learn a lot in class but you learn so much more doing research. You really learn how to learn.”

While the size of the flame retardant molecule is down to 15 microns, Tumlin says he wants to get it down even smaller — to the nano level. He’s done the background research and is trying to build on that knowledge for the next step of his research.

“It’s basically my project,” Tumlin said. “My job is to figure out how to get there.”

Bungart agrees that research involves a great deal of independent work and problem solving. Her research successfully demonstrated a method for the lower level light therapy to be delivered using a nano-medicine in rat brain cells. The nanoparticles are conjugated with bioluminescent protein that, when exposed to its substrate, emits light, causing the nanoparticles to emit lower level light.

“I was lucky; I’m a firm believer that not only do you have to be skillful with your hands but you also just have to be lucky,” Bungart said of the success. “I love the problem solving in research.”