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

Julianna Kurpis ‘16, an environmental science major with a concentration in biology, has spent the last six months studying hydroponic growth systems in the lab of professor James Shinkle. Through Trinity University’s Arts, Letters, and Enterprise (ALE) program, Kurpis has combined her scientific knowledge with practical business skills.

This summer, Kurpis worked with a hydroponic company called Local Sprout, founded by Trinity alumnus, Mitch Hagney ‘12. In a hydroponic system, plants grow in water and a nutrient solution rather than soil. Local Sprout grows primarily kale and basil. The company partners with the Food Bank, a nonprofit provider of food to those who might otherwise go hungry. Local Sprout runs their greenhouse at the Food Bank and give a portion of their sales back. In addition, Local Sprout harvests crops on the Food Bank’s 25 acre farm. Kurpis helped Local Sprout in their work with the Food Bank, in addition to working in the greenhouse. 

Kurpis' research helps to benefit a local nonprofit. 
 Kurpis’ scientific work this summer focused primarily on growing the plants as seedlings and transferring them to the hydroponic system. Part of this work focused on increasing the antioxidant levels in kale by growing it under ultraviolet light, making Local Sprout’s product healthier and more profitable. She also had the opportunity to work with the sale of the crops.

“It was a mixing of science and business. I worked primarily with plants, but I appreciated the opportunity to meet with customers and make deliveries.”

This combined experience is a cornerstone of Trinity University’s ALE program. Kurpis enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of the program, as well as the opportunity to learn about other students’ work in different field. 

Kurpis was able to raise the antioxidant levels of kale, making it a more valuable crop. 
“Everyone else’s work was so different from what I was doing, and it was exciting to have so many vastly different projects under the same program.”

Transitioning her research into the fall, Kurpis continues to work with hydroponic systems. Her research this semester focuses on Arabidopsis plants. Working with a plant missing photoreceptor UVR8, Kurpis studies how plants with and without the mutation respond to ultraviolet light.

“Most studies have shown that this receptor is important for plants to absorb UV, but our research is suggesting that it might not be as important as we previously thought. There are other photoreceptors required for plants to absorb UV. We continue to find the same result that indicates existing published research doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Kurpis is a senior graduating in May. 
Her summer and fall research has inspired Kurpis’ work in hydroponic farming, and its potential for growing crops in the arid Texas environment in a sustainable and nutrient-producing way. For Kurpis personally, this research has opened up a whole new potential career path.

“Mitch [Hagney’s] company is the only one like this in San Antonio and there is growing market for hydroponic farming in our area. Now that I have some experience with both the planting and business side, it’s something I might explore after graduation.”

Kurpis is originally from New York, New York.

Learn more about the ALE program here. Visit our Center for Experiential Learning and Career Success to find the many ways students are expanding their education beyond the classroom.
By Mariah Wahl

The final product of many semesters of research, Liezelle Lopez ‘16 is conducting her senior year research under the Mach Fellowship program in Laura M. Hunsicker-Wang’s biochemistry lab. Their project explores the way in which structure influences the function of the Sco protein found in the Thermus thermophilus bacterium.

Lopez has spent her time in the lab working with metalloproteins, specifically the Sco protein. This protein is is found in a number of organisms, including humans. Currently, the scientific community does not know what its specific function is within its role in the assembly of Complex IV of the electron transport chain. Complex IV functions in the electron transport chain to transfer electrons from cytochrome c to reduce molecular oxygen into water. This stage in the electron transport chain is a key component of cellular respiration.

Lopez and Hunsicker-Wang hypothesize that the Sco protein reacts with one subunit in Complex IV, the CuA protein, and that this interaction is key to the role it plays in the assembly of Complex IV. Their lab seeks to catch the Sco protein in the middle of this interaction by reacting the two proteins and using X-ray crystallography to visualize this intermediate state. This intermediate of the reaction between the two proteins will provide evidence to support or refute their claims.

Of her experience in Hunsicker-Wang’s lab, beginning in 2013, Lopez has only positive things to share.

“It’s been a fantastic experience. I started working in this lab the summer after my sophomore year, and my comfort in the lab has grown immensely. It’s translated into academic confidence as well.”

She speaks fondly of the day in the lab, right before last summer’s research symposium, when her results came through. They were excellent, and she was excited to uncover her data at the last second possible, meaning it was as much a surprise for her labmates as it was for the audience as a whole.

Lopez’s work is not just exemplary in her field, but also speaks to the ways in which the Trinity University undergraduate lab experience is unique.

“Dr. Hunsicker-Wang asked me to speak on a research panel for post-docs and graduate students looking to begin their own labs similar to what we have at Trinity. I was able to share my insight, and also had the opportunity to realize how special this undergraduate research experience in a lab really is. There aren’t many places where undergraduates can do research at this level.”

Lopez and Hunsicker-Wang plan to submit their findings for publication, and Lopez intends to attend medical school next fall. Lopez is a native of the Woodlands, TX.

Learn more about the Mach Fellowship and other opportunities for undergraduate research at Trinity University here. Visit our Center for Experiential Learning and Career Success to find the many ways students are expanding their education beyond the classroom.