From skulls to the coffee tree: Students spend summer researching in sciences

August 5, 2009

Chris Wernick spent 10 weeks of his summer finding faces.

"I've learned how to determine the sex and the race of an individual and to estimate age by examining a skull," he said. "You look for characteristics of that individual, any defining characteristics that made that individual unique. Like, did they have a long nose, a short nose? Did they have a crooked jaw? Did they have a muscular face?"

The sophomore anthropology and criminology major took part in Indiana State University's Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE) program. The program gives students the opportunity to spend 10 weeks of their summer in ISU laboratories conducting in-depth research.

A $60,000 grant from the John W. Anderson Foundation allowed the program to be expanded beyond chemistry and physics to include biology, geology and anthropology, according to Eric Glendening, ISU professor of chemistry. By adding research opportunities in these disciplines, the number of ISU undergraduates participating in the SURE program grew from 15 in 2008 to 29 this year.

"One-third of our students have just completed their freshman year," he said. "The program offers research opportunities to students who have excelled in the classroom. They can do something special in the lab and explore an area they might not otherwise have considered."

Students participated by researching several topics, including Kentucky coffee trees, stability of organic substances, meteorite composition, the blood vessel growth in tumors, fruit fly genetics and facial reconstruction.

"Usually, when introduced to a laboratory technique during the school year you use it once," said Breanna Wyman, junior chemistry major from West Union, Ill. "We're using these techniques every day during the summer, and you get really good at it. You get to the point where you know what you're doing and you're really taking more from the experience."

In addition to spending hours a day in a lab, each Friday students took turns giving presentations about their research. Then on Thursday (July 30) the students presented their final findings during a research symposium.

Wernick, of Terre Haute, spent the summer learning to assemble faces by examining human skulls. His presentation focused on "Applying Forensic Facial Reconstruction Methods to Fossil Hominids" and included examples of his work.

After studying the skull, Wernick used one of two methods to reconstruct the face: the tissue depth method or the anatomical method. The tissue depth method calls for the placement of markers around the skull showing thickness of tissue according to established charts.

"Essentially you perform a three dimensional connect the dots; you start connecting the surface by applying clay, shaping the nose, the eyes, and the mouth to standards," he said.

The anatomical method calls for layering clay on the skull.

"You lay down layer of tissue by layer of tissue, starting with muscles, then working to glands and fatty tissue. Eventually you add a thin layer of skin," he said.

Such experience, Wernick said, will benefit him in the future.

"It was one of those opportunities of, ‘Hey, you get to do this and we're going to help you,'" he said. "Well, that's the best thing you can ask for when you want to study criminals and you study anthropology. The big mix is forensic anthropology, which is essentially what this is."

Glendening said that a number of students do not realize that research could be a career option.

"A number change their career path because of the research experience," he said.

Wyman, who started at ISU as a pre-med major, is one of those students. She now seeks to become a pharmacist and move into drug research and development.

"Working in a lab really gives me a feel of what it would be like to have a job in drug research," she said. "I didn't really have an idea of what that was like before this experience."

She spent her summer in the organic chemistry laboratory researching the Kentucky coffee tree and her presentation was on "Studies Toward the Synthesis of Dioicine." She chose that research because dioicine is a natural product and has the possibility of being used as a therapeutic pharmaceutical in the future.

"So far we haven't had a lot of success in our reactions, but even when your reactions aren't successful you're still learning," she said. "You're learning what not to do and you're documenting everything so that somebody else can come in and they don't have to take 10 steps back to move one step forward."

Wyman, who learned about the SURE program from friends who participated in 2008, said it has been a positive experience.

"I learn something new every day and not just about chemistry but scientific research in general - how to organize and execute your research," she said. "No two days are the same. You're always doing something different, and I like that."

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Contact: Eric Glendening, Indiana State University, chemistry and physics chair, at 812-237-2235 or eglendening@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/597944351_unKsZ-L.jpg

Cutline: Chris Wernick, sophomore anthropology and criminology major of Terre Haute, works to create the face of an early hominid during ISU's Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/598603107_rHtTf-L.jpg

Cutline: Breanna Wyman, junior chemistry major from West Union, Ill., works in the organic chemistry lab researching the Kentucky coffee tree during ISU's Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem