Experiential learning encompasses any activity in which a student is actively engaged in their education inside or outside of the classroom. At Trinity, experiential learning includes undergraduate research opportunities inside and outside of the classroom, volunteer experiences, internships, study abroad opportunities, and more.

By Mariah Wahl

It’s clear after a few moments of conversation how passionate Whitney Ball ‘16 and Hannah Sullivan ‘16 are about giving back to their community. As native San Antonians, their concern for the city and its residents is deeply rooted. Their summer work with the Mellon Research Initiative under the supervision of sociology professor Amy Stone reflects this commitment to helping others.

Ball and Sullivan’s summer research benefits Silver and Black Gives Back, the official charity of the Spurs NBA team. Specifically, Ball and Sullivan are working with the Team-Up Challenge. Team-Up Challenge is a service learning program that engages students of all ages in community improvement projects. Students are encouraged to find problems that need solving, like renovating a local playground, then they draw up a plan for improvement. The Team-Up Challenge awards funding to the top twenty teams, and a final award of $20,000 to the top five teams.

Ball edits questions in a preliminary draft of the survey for Team-Up Challenge
But how can Silver and Black Gives Back know if the Team-Up Challenge is effective in its long-term goals of greater student civic responsibility, community engagement, and success in school?

That’s where Ball and Sullivan come in. Their research is evolving into a survey for former participants, carefully analyzing the results of the program. Their questions are carefully designed to learn, from students of all ages, how the program has affected their leadership skills and feelings of community responsibility.

“Writing a survey for little kids was one of the hardest parts,” Ball admits, “There are just certain things they can’t answer, because they don’t understand. Hannah did a lot of research into what a child can cognitively process, and how to word question in a way that helps them to truly understand what’s being asked.”

The test survey was written at a child's comprehension level
In a test survey, Sullivan found it was surprisingly difficult to predict what children will have trouble answering: “One child asked us, ‘Why did you use the word ‘indicate?’ Why not just ask us to ‘tell’ you, when that’s what you really mean?’ It’s incredibly humbling to see our work through a child’s perspective.” Ball and Sullivan had to find a way to gather the necessary information from the survey without overwhelming the children. It was a delicate balance to maintain.

Ball and Sullivan’s survey is special because it is the first professionally researched survey used for the Team-Up Challenge, as well as the first pre- and post- survey. The concrete data from the survey will help potential donors to the project see the statistical results of the program, garnering more funds. If successful, their research will translate directly into more money for the program, and more funding for students in the future.

Sullivan reviews the results of a test survey
For Ball, the results have been of personal importance as well: “Doing this work has been like a lightbulb in my mind. I can apply the research skills I’ve learned in the classroom to something real-world, and help the community in the process. That’s a career I see myself in.” Ball hopes to pursue work in nonprofit development and fundraising after she graduates.

Sullivan, who had once planned to go into social work, has found that research offers another pathway to contribute to her community: “I never thought I would do social science research, or even major in sociology. When I finally started doing quantitative research, I realized I could make a difference that way.”

Learn more about the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Trinity University here.
By Mariah Wahl


Most people are familiar with the Harlem Renaissance, a period of social, cultural, and artistic expression that shaped modern culture in the early 20th century. But what could this movement have to do with Soviet Russia? Ileana Sherry ’16 explores this little known connection in her Mellon Initiative research.

Sherry’s research is focused on the Black and White film cast, a collective of twenty-two African Americans who traveled from Harlem to Moscow in June of 1932. The group, including poet Langston Hughes, was invited by the Meschrabpom Film Company to appear in a film about US race relations. The movie was never filmed, but the trip was a historical moment in the declining days of the Harlem Renaissance.
Sherry peruses some of the primary literature that informs her research.
The film would have presented black and white relations in the US in an attempt to portray American racism and Soviet moral superiority. For the visiting African Americans, the trip was an eye-opening look at a world without Jim Crow. In Langston Hughes’ autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, he writes about the substandard but egalitarian conditions of the USSR: “Dirt without Jim Crow was bad--but dirt with Jim Crow, for me, would have been infinitely worse.” Hughes and several other members of the group remained in Moscow and Soviet Central Asia long after the film’s production had failed.

Many of Langston Hughes' writings and biography reveal the history of the Black and White cast.
The film’s failure was due in part to artistic issues, and to a changing Soviet political agenda. When the potential for US relations arose, the film was abandoned because of the low quality of the script and because of the prospect of diplomatic ties. However, the ramifications of the Moscow trip for the Harlem Renaissance should not be ignored, as Sherry is quick to emphasize: “There’s very little secondary work about the event, but it’s an important part of the history of race relations in the United States.” Sherry’s work will be part of a larger project on the Harlem Renaissance by her adviser, English professor Michael Soto. 

Sherry plans to pursue a career in education.
Sherry’s research experience is also informing her future career as a middle or high school English teacher: “The literature of the Harlem Renaissance, and of African Americans generally, is often underrepresented in the Western literary canon and in English literature curricula. The knowledge I gain from research will help me combat that under-representation in my own classroom.”

After graduation, Sherry intends to pursue a master’s degree in teaching from Trinity University’s M.A.T. program. She is applying to present her research at the American Literature Association’s Symposium on “The City in Literature” this upcoming September.

Learn more about Trinity University’s English department here.
By Mariah Wahl

Alzheimer’s Disease is a frequently discussed, but little understood, neurodegenerative disease. This month, the Alzheimer's Association is promoting their "Go Purple" campaign to promote awareness of neurodegenerative diseases. Karina Cabrera ‘17, working in professor of biology James Roberts' lab, is increasing our understanding of this disease with her summer research.

Cabrera’s work looks at the astrocytes, or the nurse cells, of mice neurons. These cells are responsible for repairing the neuron, but aged astrocytes are less helpful than young astrocytes, which can result in the degeneration that causes Alzheimer’s disease. Cabrera is looking specifically at the High Density Lipoproteins (HDLs) and Low Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) particles containing ApoE which are produced by astrocytes.

STEM research college search pre-med prospective Trinity
Cabrera load harvested cells in the centrifuge, hoping to get a better look at HDLs and LDLs
ApoE is not as prevalent in aged astrocytes, and Cabrera and Roberts believe that looking at differences in the composition of HDL and LDL contained by young and old astrocyte cells might help explain this. Cabrera spent the first several weeks growing and plating astrocyte cells, and now she will begin harvesting them using a centrifuge. This will allow her to examine the cells at a more specific level. Cabrera and Roberts’ research is unique, being the first to look specifically at the HDL and LDL particles of both young and old astrocytes.

STEM research prospective sciences Trinity undergraduate
A look at astrocyte cells under the microscope
Although Cabrera had initially approached Roberts to ask if he knew of any research available, he offered her a spot in his own lab instead. Cabrera smiles when she remembers seeing her first successful collection of astrocyte cells under the microscope: “There they were: happy, healthy, and alive. I was so excited.”

STEm research sciences undergraduate Trinity pre-med
After successfully cultivating astrocyte cells, Cabrera harvests them in the lab
Speaking about what research has meant to her, Cabrera says, “Research has shown me the work that happens behind the scenes in helping others. I feel lucky to be some small part of that.” Cabrera hopes to continue research in a similar field by pursuing graduate study in hereditary diseases.

Learn more about research on Alzheimer's Disease at Trinity University here. Learn more about Neuroscience at Trinity here.
By Paige Roth

"Can you meet me between 9 pm and midnight?" asked senior biology researcher Lauren Davis when scheduling our interview. "We have to run our behavioral trials in the middle of the night because that's when our nocturnal geckos are most active." Now she has my attention.

Davis is one of three senior biology majors completing honors research projects in biology. For the past two and a half years, Davis has worked alongside biology professor, Dr. Michele Johnson, to design and execute her own experiment. During her freshman year, Davis approached Johnson about combining her passion for neuroscience with her interest in environmental biology. And she was in the right place--the Johnson lab specializes in lizard behavior.

Davis presents a nocturnal gecko in the lab
Davis' research aimed to answer a fundamental question: "Why do invasive species invade?" In general, invasive species are more aggressive, bold, active, and behaviorally flexible than native, non-invasive, species. Understanding why particular species invade is important for designing management plans that mitigate the dispersal and spread of invaders. However, the physiological mechanisms underlying this invasive behavior have been largely unstudied.

With the help of fellow research students in the Johnson lab, Davis collected anoles and geckos during numerous trips across Texas. She collected native green anole lizards to compare to invasive brown anole lizards and two species of invasive and native geckos. She then ran a series of behavioral tests such as how quickly the anole or gecko could catch a cricket or how swiftly the animal could navigate an obstacle course to reach a branch or cricket in order to measure the lizards’ aggression and activity.
Davis and her fellow researchers examine a lizard
After the behavioral tests, Davis used brain tissues of the lizards to examine the size of three specific regions: the amygdala, the preoptic area, and the medial cortex to analyze the correlation between and individuals "boldness" and the number of neurons in these particular brain regions. She also measured brain size, hypothesizing that lizards and geckos with larger brains would demonstrate more behavioral flexibility and tendency towards invasiveness overall.

Contrary to her prediction, Davis found that the native geckos had larger brain mass overall and higher neuron density in the brain regions; however, the invasive geckos were more aggressive and active during their behavioral tests suggesting that, for geckos, behavioral traits like boldness are a better indicator of their tendency to invade than brain size or neuronal density. On the contrary, for anoles, brain size proved a better indicator of invasiveness than behavioral displays of aggression.

Learn more about research in Michelle Johnson's lab by clicking here.


By Mariah Wahl

When was the last time you pulled over to the side of the road and took a close look at the grasses growing there? For most people, the answer is probably “never,” but for students working with professor of biology Kelly Lyons and professor of mathematics Eddy Kwessi, the plants we bypass on our morning commute have special significance. Kendall Kotara ‘17, Austin Phillipe ‘16, Cassandra Alvarado ‘18, Ann Adams ‘16, and Avva Bassiri ‘16, will spend this summer studying invasive grass species, such as the King Ranch Bluestem, that displace native species and threaten Texas’ ecosystem.

Phillipe, Kotara, Bassiri and Alvarado prepare soil for their grass samples.
Bassiri, a senior engineering major on the project, at first seems like an unlikely plant biology researcher. She relishes the learning curve: “In most of my classes in the past, labs have all been set up for me, and I have been told exactly what to do--this experience has helped me become more independent as a scientist.” Bassiri is new to research in biology but her mathematical expertise is vital to the project.

Funded by the National Science Foundation as a part of the Integrated Research in Biomathematics program, Bassiri will be responsible for mathematically analyzing their growth patterns using PCA (Primary Component Analysis). Along with Alvarado and Adams, she will work under the integrated supervision of Lyons and Kwessi. This analysis will allow the researchers to determine how different traits contribute to the success or failure of an invasive or native plant. Ultimately, Bassiri and her colleagues intend to develop a new competition index of these native and invasive plants to help make predictions about which species will do best in a restoration context after the invasive species are removed.  

Bassiri and her colleagues study a variety of native and non-native species, such as King Ranch Blue Stem
as well as the native species Little Bluestem and Sideoats Grama

Bassiri and her fellow researchers are doing work that will have important implications for conservation and restoration of Texas native species. Many invasive, non-native grasses have homogenized our grassland communities and this can be devastating to wildlife such as Bobwhite Quail. When only one grass makes up an ecosystem, that ecosystem is more prone to distress from disturbances such as fire, disease, or flooding.

Bassiri plans to pursue further study in engineering
For Bassiri, the research is preparing her for a future in engineering: “Because of this research experience, I’m considering pursuing a graduate degree in environmental engineering. I want to help solve a problem with my research, rather than potentially contributing to it.”

For more information on invasive species research in Dr. Lyons’ lab, click here. To learn more about Integrated Research in Biomathematics at Trinity University, click here.