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 Paige Roth

Stillwell anticline, Geosciences, Big Bend National Park
Mlella and Hill compare notes during the field work study of the Stillwell anticline.

While many have skied, hiked, or admired the Rocky Mountains, few recognize the Stillwell anticlinea landform formed in the same mountain building event. This summer, teams of Trinity research students work with Associate Professor of Geoscience, Ben Surpless to understand the fault system that underlies the Stillwell anticline. Ultimately, the research will culminate into a simulation of how the range evolved over millions of yearsan example that can be applied to similar fold systems worldwide.

Stillwell anticline, Geosciences, Big Bend National Park

Geoscientists extensively documented faults and folds in the Rocky Mountainsthe northern part of the Laramide orogeny (mountain building event) - but few examined the southeastern end of this deformation. This southern part of the orogeny features an 8-km long Stillwell anticline, a convex-up fold composed of layered sedimentary rocks, which sparked Dr. Surpless interest several years ago.

Stillwell anticline, Geosciences, Big Bend National Park
Mlella collects samples with Dr. Surpless.

For two weeks this summer, undergraduate research students Nicola Hill and Mark Mlella traveled to the Stillwell anticline near Big Bend National Park, Texas, to collect detailed field data with Dr. Surpless. The region is ideal for geological investigation because erosion has dissected the anticline in several locations, resulting in a series of well-exposed outcrops for geologic study. 

Stillwell anticline, Geosciences, Big Bend National Park
One outcrop the team studied at the Stillwell anticline.
Hill explained, Think of the outcrop like a cake. From the outside, all you see is a blob. But, if you take a knife and cut down the middleyou can see all the layers. In this case, the cake is the anticline and the knife is a water system from millions of years ago that exposes the rock layers. The team focused on these areas to analyze fold geometries and to obtain fracture samples.

Stillwell anticline, Geosciences, Big Bend National Park
Hill shares her meticulous notes with us during the interview.

Hill studies the varying fold geometries to better understand how the folding event has affected the rocks observed in the field. Mlella analyzes bedrock and fracture samples using high-resolution optical scans, an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (for compositional analysis), and may ultimately use the scanning electron microscope to map the distribution of elements in the samples collected in Big Bend.

Stillwell anticline, Geosciences, Big Bend National Park
Schauer explains her work with the new 3D move software.

Fellow research student Rebecca Schauer analyzes data collected from the Stillwell anticline using the cutting edge numerical modeling software, 3D Move. Schauer aims to recreate what the Stillwell Anticline looked like millions of years agobefore the faults created mountain ranges. Ultimately, she will be able to fast forward and rewind a simulation of fault and fold formation.

We will follow up with the Surpless research group at the end of the summer to learn more about the formation of this understudied mountain range.

To learn more about Trinity's Department of Geosciences click here.

Testosterone: The Weapon of Choice for Female American Goldfinches (Part 2)

By Paige Roth

This week we followed up with everyone’s favorite bird biologist, Matthew Mitts to find out what his research project looks like mid-summer.

Matt Mitts, Aviary, Biology, Gold Finches, The Transformation is Complete
Mitts explains the features of his custom aviary.

For the past few months, Mitts photo-stimulated his birds with 18-hour days and 6-hour nights to make the birds “think” it was breeding season and induce their summer, breeding molt. In the winter, goldfinches display dark blond plumage with dark bills. But, in the summer, their bill melanization (black coloration) yields to carotenoid (orange) pigmentation and bright yellow plumage. Mitts equates the transition to the goldfinches “getting pretty for their date.”

Matt Mitts, Bill Coloration, Biology, Gold Finches, The Transformation is Complete
The changes in bill coloration Mitts will quantify using reflectance spectrophotometry.

With the transformation complete, Mitts measured baseline testosterone levels and weights of each bird. “We take copious amounts of data,” said Mitts, “We know everything about all seventy of our birds—just like a doctor keeping charts of his patients.”

Mitts performs two different experiments. First, to determine if testosterone levels affect bill coloration, Mitts measures the color of the birds’ beaks before and after treatment with a reflectance spectrophotometer. Birds are treated with high, medium or no testosterone (all treatments fall within normal ranges for female goldfinch testosterone levels).

Matt Mitts, Aviary, Biology, Gold Finches, The Transformation is Complete
The trial aviary Mitts designed alongside Dr. Murphy.

Second, Mitts performs aviary trials to measure aggression in females with varied testosterone levels. Before beginning any trials, Mitts worked extensively with biology professor Troy Murphy to design an aviary that would allow them to measure aggression in females. The final design incorporated a small cage for a stimulus bird attached to a much larger cage housing the experimental bird. The stimulus bird has access to 80% of a feeder shared between the two cages. In addition to videotaping the bird’s behavior in the aviary, Mitts measures the bird’s testosterone levels immediately after stimulation.

Matt Mitts, Aviary, Biology, Gold Finches, The Transformation is Complete

When asked what he has learned from this meticulous research process Mitts said, “Dr. Murphy always reminds me that doing research is a huge responsibility. You are on the forefront of creating new knowledge. Your work can’t be sloppy, especially when you work with live animals, because your final result impacts the general public and people who trust you to produce accurate information.” Like many research students pursuing careers in the medical field, Mitts learns the value of conscientious work and integrity everyday in the lab.

We will follow up with Mitts at the end of the summer to learn about his final results.

Click here to learn more about Matt’s study of American Goldfinches.

Click here to learn more about the animal behavior research conducted in Dr. Troy Murphy’s undergraduate research lab.

Click here to learn more about Trinity's new Center for Science and Innovation research facility.

Investigating the Function of the Critical Rieske Protein in the Electron Transport Chain

By Paige Roth

By now we’ve seen research in organic, analytical, synthetic drug design, and chemical engineering labs; but, what does biochemistry research look like?

Trinity biochemists answer questions like: How does our body make energy? And for undergraduate researcher Chris Hertz, the answer lies largely in the electron transport chain. Made up of a series of proteins that establish an electrochemical gradient, the electron transport chain drives the synthesis of ATP—our body’s energy currency. ATP plays a crucial role in energy metabolism and signaling. For the past three summers, Hertz has studied an essential Rieske protein in the third step of the electron transport chain with chemistry professor Laura Hunsicker-Wang.

How We Make Energy, Trinity Biochemistry, Chris Hertz

Dr. Hunsicker-Wang looks on as Hertz examines a sample.

How We Make Energy, Rieske Protein, Trinity Biochemistry

Hertz studies the Rieske protein containing a 2-Iron 2-Sulfur cluster (indicated by the yellow and white structures at the top of the protein). (1)
The Rieske protein helps transport negatively charged electrons and positively charged protons across the membrane in mitochondria. The separation of these charges forms an electrochemical gradient that provides the necessary energy to drive synthesis of ATP. While the protein’s role in the electron transport chain is well studied, Hertz aims to further understand how the protein transports protons and electrons across the membrane to create that gradient.

How We Make Energy, Rieske Protein, Trinity Biochemistry

A close up of the 2 Iron 2 Sulfur cluster (yellow) surrounded by histidine (His) and cysteine (Cys) amino acids in the Rieske protein.

The Hunsicker-Wang lab specializes in metallic proteins like Rieske, which contains two iron and two sulfur units. Surrounding the cluster are amino acids histidine and cysteine. To study the protein, Hertz uses two chemical modifiers called DEPC and MBA.  Through his research Hertz discovered that, when reacted with histidine, DEPC reduces the iron sulfur cluster in the protein to facilitate its function. MBA has a similar structure to DEPC but its effects are neutral when reacted with the protein, so Hertz uses MBA as a control.

How We Make Energy, Rieske Protein, Trinity Biochemistry, Chris Hertz, Laura Hunsicker-Wang

While Hertz is a veteran presenter at scientific conferences, he hopes that this research will culminate in a publication with Dr. Hunsicker-Wang before he graduates in the spring. We will follow up with Hertz at the end of the summer as he further elucidates the function of this critical protein.

To learn more about the research facilities in Trinity’s new Center for Science and Innovation click here.

1. Konkle ME, Elsenheimer KN, Hakala K, Robicheaux JC, Weintraub ST, Hunsicker-Wang LM Biochemistry; 2010 Aug 31;49(34):7272-81