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Engineering students to showcase research to legislators at the capitol

Hilary Schmidt presents her work to Professor William Folk

Bioengineering senior Hilary Schmidt, one of the engineering students selected for the research day, practiced her communication skills as she explained her research on developing a salivary sensor that detects cortisol levels using a localized surface resonance platform to Biochemistry Professor William Folk.

Eight engineering undergraduates will travel to Jefferson City on March 10 to discuss and explain their research projects to state lawmakers.

Students were chosen through a joint-application process that spanned all four campuses of the UM system. Faculty nominated students, who then sent in an abstract and a poster of previously presented research for evaluation. Eight of the 31 MU students selected for Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol are engineering students.

Alec Page practices his presentation in front of Ronald McGarvey and Jim Noble.

Alec Page, an industrial and manufacturing systems senior working with IMSE Assistant Professor Ronald McGarvey practiced his presentation on “Improving road striping operations through system optimization for MoDOT,” in front of McGarvey, center, and IMSE Professor Jim Noble, left.

“They get the opportunity to meet their legislators, and they learn how to communicate their research with people outside of their field — that can’t be understated,” said Michael Cohen, the assistant director of the Office of Undergraduate Research.

The research day is an opportunity for students to show off their research to legislators and also explain its importance as it pertains to the state.

Bioengineering senior Hilary Schmidt, one of the engineering students selected for the research day, practiced her communication skills as she explained her research on developing a salivary sensor that detects cortisol levels using a localized surface resonance platform.

High levels of cortisol are directly related to stress in the body, which has a negative impact on healing. People who need their cortisol levels checked — such as those with Cushing’s syndrome — must have their blood taken as often as four times a day, which is inconvenient for patients and unsuitable for children and the elderly.

The stress involved in having blood drawn can also cause false positives.

In Bioengineering Professor Sheila Grant’s lab, Schmidt worked on a fluorescence-based cortisol sensor that uses a patient’s saliva. The challenge is that cortisol levels are 10 times lower in the saliva than in the blood, so the lab Schmidt works for has developed a grating-coupled surface plasma resonance platform that works to enhance the fluorescent signal and accurately detect cortisol levels.

Schmidt acknowledged that the subject matter of her research can be confusing for those outside of her field.

“It gets really complicated,” she said with a mindful laugh. Schmidt has been fine-tuning her explanation skills in preparation for the undergraduate research day, which she is both nervous and excited for.

Jason Robke, an industrial and manufacturing systems engineering senior working in the lab of IMSE Professor Jim Noble, will be presenting his research on a reverse logistics network design in a performance-based learning environment for Boeing.

He began his journey in undergraduate research as a sophomore when he was offered a research opportunity with the Discovery Fellows Program, which led to an internship with Boeing at the end of the year.

He worked with a team to clean up Boeing’s scattered data and build a database program in Microsoft Access that would generate the shipping costs for parts. This data could then be used to compare the various locations a needed part could be shipped from and their transportation costs to find the most cost-effective shipping option.

Robke believes one of the most important things for someone in a technical field is to be able to communicate his or her ideas. “I’ve been blessed with various opportunities to stand in front of people and talk about what we’re doing,” he said. “I would agree 100 percent it doesn’t really matter how good your project is — if you can’t talk about it, it has a tendency to slip under the rug.”

The students have worked tirelessly over the past three months and over winter break to improve their ability to communicate their research. “It’s as much about the learning of the process as it is about the event itself,” said Cohen.

Robke, who recently accepted a full-time job offer from Boeing, said undergraduate research jumpstarted his career and greatly improved his grades.

“I used to just kind of go through the motions in class. I was just there to get a grade,” Robke said. “Once you actually do research, once you’re utilizing what you’re learning, it really brings clarity to the whole process. I would strongly, strongly advise you get into research.”

Schmidt said she is drawn to opportunities such as the undergraduate research day because she realizes the need to be able to communicate her findings with a broad audience. She noted that a researcher’s ability to simplify his or her rhetoric while not taking away from the science is of great value.

“Sometimes I think scientists and engineers can be a little impatient and they don’t necessarily always see the importance of communicating their science to the general public,” she said.

Cohen said it was important to recognize the amount of hard work the students have put into preparing for the research day at the capitol. He believes the students have a strong understanding of the importance of the process and they have taken full ownership of that process.

“That shows not only the maturity but the drive the students have to say ‘I want to take this process head-on, and I want to make the most of it,’” Cohen said. “And I think that on March 10, when the students present their work to the legislators, that’s going to be very clear.”

Other MU engineering students who will present their research projects in Jefferson City are:

Marcos Barcellona, a bioengineering junior working with Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Matthew Bernards on “Hydrogels as pharmaceutical drug delivery scaffolds”

Benjamin Davis, a mechanical engineering senior working with Assistant Professor of MAE Matthew Maschmann on “Strong and lightweight carbon nanotube structures inspired by biological bone”

Sam Jonesi, a computer science senior working with CS Assistant Professor Prasad Calyam on “Improving remote access of a data-intensive computing applications: Effects of encoding and user experience”

Jackson Nowotny, a computer science junior working with CS Associate Professor Jianlin Cheng on “A computational approach to construct three-dimensional models of human chromosomes”

Zachary Osman, a senior in civil and environmental engineering working with CiE Professor Carlos Sun on “Civil engineering audible alert systems for moving work zones on highways

Alec Page, an industrial and manufacturing systems senior working with IMSE Assistant Professor Ronald McGarvey on “Improving road striping operations through system optimization for MoDOT”