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.

Summer Send-Off

When I began writing the Trinity Undergraduate Research Blog, much like any research experiment, I had no idea what I would find. I knew from casual chats over coffee that my close friends were involved in cutting edge research. I knew professors encouraged collaboration on their personal projects and with cutting edge new facilities, undergraduate students could blaze the trail in groundbreaking research. But you could probably find that information in a brochure.

Even I, a student in the trenches, maintained a healthy skepticism about these bold claims. And, as any good research student learns, I sought out evidence to support these facts. While many writers worry about finding exciting content for their stories, Anh-Viet and I can walk door to door in the science building or library and find no shortage of trailblazing content. If nothing else, these stories show that research is much more than a lab coat and a pipet or replicating tried-and-true experiments just for experience.

What I found exceeded my expectations and instilled in me a pride in this university that comes from far more than football games, Trinity sweatshirts, or bragging about my school to prospective students. I am proud of my school because my friends dedicate their summers and free time to research that will make the world a better place for diabetics, Alzheimer’s patients, LGBT individuals, the environment, sexual assault survivors, children, women and men who combat body image issues, and many more.

With the summer coming to a close, I am signing off for a few weeks, but stay tuned for more exciting research stories to come this fall. Thank you for reading, supporting, and sharing your research stories. I hope this blog has inspired you as much as it inspired me everyday. See you in the fall!

-- Paige Roth

This summer has been a wonderfully unexpected adventure, to say the least. I would have never imagined that I would be working for the communications and marketing office, or that I’d be paired with my partner in crime for the summer, Paige. Together we tackled this project to unveil the magnificent research happening at Trinity University this summer. 

Not too long ago, I also spent my summer in Dr. William’s lab researching breast cancer cells, but it has been a pleasure taking a break from doing research, and instead, seeing the many projects other students are working on. I was surprised by the broad range of research. We met students who are developing and programming autonomous robots to those who are synthesizing the world’s supply of a single molecule. But mainly, I was surprised by how visual each of these projects were. 

Initially, I thought  photography on the blog would become redundant--with an unlimited number of students staring into microscopes or textbooks. However, I quickly found out there was much more to photograph. From the colorful enamel art pieces or hand-written and hand-illustrated books, to lizards and birds, Paige and I never had a dull moment taking photos. Thank you to all the  editors, researchers, and readers for making this blog possible and helping us reach over 10,000 views! I am excited to see where the hard work of all the student researchers leads and look forward to sharing more photos with you this fall!

--Anh-Viet Dinh 

By Paige Roth

What’s going on in the galaxy? Most of us ask the question while stargazing or watching a Discovery Channel special. At Trinity, physics and theatre double major Dallas Akins works with advisor, physics and astronomy professor David Hough, to answer this fundamental question.

Specifically, their research examines quasar jets—small young galaxies. “Before the Milky Way galaxy ‘grew up’ it was just a clump of dust and stars yet to be spread out into a spiral or disk,” explained Akins. Just like planets orbit the sun, every galaxy, including our own, has a black hole at its center. The black hole sucks up gas and particles. Some particles are then shot out of the black hole at the speed of light, producing long jets. The jet ejected from a black hole forms a quasar that can extend a million light-years or more into intergalactic space.

An artistic rendering of quasar jets ejecting from the black hole. The image shows the dense cluster of dust and stars that block the black hole from our view.  Additionally, you can see the hot glow at the center due to heat and energy particles that are fated to plummet into the singularity of the black hole. Image credit: NASA/ ESA

Dallas Akins, Researching Faster Than the Speed of Light

For over 30 years, Hough has tracked the movement of a particular quasar. Because quasar jets are traveling millions of light years, one must observe them over a long period of time to track movement and changes. Hough believes the quasar might be a binary black hole system; however, he recently acquired new higher resolution data and asked Akins to form his own hypothesis so the team can compare notes.
Quasar Jets, Dallas Akins, Researching Faster Than the Speed of Light
Akins shows analyzed images of how the quasar evolved over time.
Gathering data with the detail required to track quasar jet speed requires a telescope that “sees” 60,000 times better than our naked eye. To produce such an image requires a telescope the size of the earth. This giant telescope, made up of telescopes throughout the earth, uses a computer program to stitch together images from around the globe to render one image. Researchers, like Akins, use these images to explore changes in the galaxy.

Trinity University Marrs McLean Observatory, Researching Faster Than the Speed of Light
Trinity University Marrs McLean Observatory 

Trinity University Marrs McLean Observatory, Researching Faster Than The Speed of Light
A student takes a peek through the telescope housed in the university observatory.
Quasar jets travel at super luminal speeds, which Akins and Hough calculated to be 0.998 times the speed of light. Super luminal speeds are an illusion resulting from the high speed particles shooting towards us at relatively close angles--Hough and Akins believe the angle to be between 7 and 15 degrees from our line of sight. With this data, Akins and Hough can characterize the quasar jets and black holes that produce them. Akins can deduce the angles at which quasar jets eject from the black hole. A change in these angles overtime indicates whether or not the black hole is rotating and moving and helps scientists characterize the properties of these infant galaxies.

To learn more about the physics and astronomy department at Trinity, click here.

By Paige Roth

Nicole Vreeland ('14) and Liz Ward
When you think of environmental activism, you probably think of scary graphs projecting the state of the earth in fifty years, picket signs, or political advertisements. But how often do you equate environmental activism with art? And I don’t mean art in an indoor studio, but art outside in nature using only organic surrounding materials. Combining her environmental science major with her art minor, Nicole Vreeland works alongside art professor Liz Ward to raise environmental awareness through her ephemeral art.

Vreeland's environmental artwork incorporated invasive species, like sagebrush.
Vreeland explains the unique artistic process when creating ephemeral art.
Ephemeral art—art that is fleeting with time—will decompose over time back into the environment from which it came. Vreeland explains that the process of experiencing the surrounding nature and working with natural materials are the most important aspects of creating these fleeting works of art. “The process instills an inherent appreciation for nature in an artist because you are working directly with natural materials,” said Vreeland. “You learn about the materials by being with them in their natural environment. I let the space around me give me inspiration for how I will do my art.”

Vreeland created her ephemeral art works during her trip to High Lonesome Ranch where she learned about invasive species and environmental issues from multiple disciplines. Additionally, Vreeland drew from concepts she learned in her environmental biology courses and applied them to her art. She incorporated invasive species, like sagebrush, into her art to raise awareness of such threats to biodiversity.

Ward and Vreeland flip through Vreeland's sketches drawn during her trip to High Lonesome Ranch.

Through her research of invasive species and other ephemeral artists, like Andy Goldsworthy or Mel Chin, Vreeland gained insight into the role humans play in the changing environment and how we can adapt to such changes rather than fighting the process. Inspired by her work this summer, Vreeland hopes to learn how indigenous populations incorporate biodiversity in their sustainable agricultural methods and compile her findings to improve agricultural systems here in the United States.

By Paige Roth

As a kid, how many times did you try to catch a lizard? Sometimes they sat perfectly still on a tree limb, but darted away with you hand inches away. Others crawled stealthily away when they the sensed you approaching. In biology professor Michele Johnson’s lab, research student Michelle Oberndorf explores why certain lizards move the way they do and the muscle fibers behind these different methods of locomotion.

Michelle Oberndorf ('15)

In seven different species, Oberndorf observes two types of forelimb movements—locomotion and display. For example, running, jumping, and crawling are the types of locomotion Oberndorf records in the field. Likewise, lizard “push-ups” are a type of forelimb display. The lab examines how muscle fiber composition type correlates with these different types of movement.

Oberndorf records observations in the field.
Oberndorf divided the groups into short burst and endurance groups. Short burst lizards are sit-and-wait predators expected to demonstrate more running and jumping movement, as opposed to crawling. On the other hand, the endurance group, composed of foragers, is more likely to crawl. Interestingly, only short burst lizards demonstrate the push-up movement—no endurance lizards, in the seven species sampled, do push-ups.

Professor Michelle Johnson holds an Anolis Carolinesis lizard--one of the species studied in her lab.
Short fast movements are largely controlled by fast glycolytic muscle fibers; whereas, slow endurance movements employ slow oxidative fibers. Think of the sprinter and the endurance runner when differentiating the two muscle fibers. To determine which muscle fibers correlate with each movement in the different lizards, Oberndorff takes cross sections of forelimb muscle fibers and compares the proportion of fast glycolytic and slow oxidative muscle fibers using two different stains—darker stains indicates a higher proportion of that muscle fiber type.

Oberndorf's microscope images of fast glycolytic (left) and slow oxidative (right) muscle fibers.

While many animal behavior studies focus on one species, this study investigates seven different lizard species to determine if muscle composition can explain the variability across species. Through phylogenetic tree analysis and analyzing the association of different muscle types to different display and locomotion behaviors will inform researchers understanding of how these behaviors and muscles evolved.

Johnson, recently named Top Mentor by the Council for Undergraduate Research, mentors fellow research students. 

Through her work in the Johnson lab, Michelle recently traveled to Puerto Rico where students collected data for Johnson’s NSF funded research involving neuro-muscular junctions. Stay tuned as we follow up with the Johnson lab this fall.

Also, check out the Johnson lab blog—Lizards and Friends!