Science research becomes summer job for BHSU students

More than 20 students from throughout the U.S. are on campus at Black Hills State University this summer engaging in research with expert BHSU science faculty. Pictured here, Caitlyn Larson, a biochemistry major who attends Augustana University in Sioux Falls, and Morgan Weigel, a biology major who attends Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., are working with BHSU science professors this summer to sample and analyze water from different locations underground at Sanford Underground Research Facility.

The Black Hills State University science labs are buzzing this summer as more than 20 students conduct research with faculty mentors. Rather than getting a typical summer job, the students working in the BHSU laboratories are gaining academic knowledge and skills.

Several programs and partnerships at BHSU provide monetary support to the students to pursue their summer research. This summer at BHSU those programs include the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grant and South Dakota Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network (SD BRIN) funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Institutes of Health.

Donnie Decker, science education and special education major from Huron, is working with Dr. Dan Asunskis this summer to study the environmental toxicity of nanoparticles.

"We're working on making nanoparticles so they can be used as light sensors, eventually to monitor pathways for antibiotics," said Decker, who, as a South Dakota Corps scholarship recipient, will stay in the state to teach in a high-need area after graduation.

Decker is supported by another program at BHSU, the South Dakota EPSCoR program funded by the National Science Foundation to increase the state's science and technology research capacity.

Dr. Brianna Mount, assistant professor of physics at BHSU, directs the REU program in collaboration with Sanford Underground Research Facility. She says research is a crucial component of undergraduate education in the sciences.

"Undergraduate research has been shown to increase student retention and intellectual curiosity, as well as research and communication skills. Students who participate in research are more likely to finish their degree and report the experience as helpful in determining which discipline to enter," said Mount.

As a smaller university, Mount said BHSU is able to excel in providing quality research opportunities for undergraduate students. Those research opportunities can be based in one of several cutting-edge lab facilities on campus or even a mile underground through collaboration with Sanford Lab in Lead.

The research opportunities at BHSU are gaining national attention as Mount directs seven students from other universities visiting BHSU for a 10-week research experience through the REU program. These visiting student researchers are working with expert BHSU faculty in the areas of biology, chemistry and physics on campus through Aug. 4.

Dr. Micheal Zehfus, associate professor of chemistry at BHSU, is mentoring Caitlyn Larson, a biochemistry major who attends Augustana University in Sioux Falls through the REU program.

"Caitlyn is sampling and analyzing water from different locations underground at Sanford Lab. She is learning surveying techniques so she can accurately locate water sampling sites underground, a skill that is unique for most undergraduate chemists," said Zehfus.

A group of South Dakota high school students and those entering/completing their first year of college also participated in the Davis-Bahcall Scholars Program sponsored by BHSU, Sanford Lab, the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium, and First Premier Bank.

Mount, who also directs the Davis-Bahcall program, says the purpose is to encourage students at a turning point in their careers to stay within STEM fields.

"This time period in a student's life is critical as they are choosing their majors. Often 18 year olds will not understand the difference between a physicist and a chemist or a mechanical versus civil engineer. This program exposes students to those fields as they interact with and learn from distinguished professors all over the world," said Mount.

During the Davis-Bahcall summer program students spent five weeks exploring the world of modern scientific research at some of the nation's leading laboratories and universities. They spent two weeks at Sanford Lab and traveled to other research laboratories in the U.S. and Italy.