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Mentors and Project Areas
We feel that original research is a key experience for Science and Mathematics oriented students, allowing them to easily transition into graduate studies in their fields. Student participants of US MASTER program have opportunity to participate in research projects with environmental perspectives, advised by faculty mentors form several departments.
Dr. Brett Goodwin, Associate Professor of Biology, is a landscape ecologist whose research interests include the impact of habitat loss and fragmentation on populations and communities, animal movement behavior in fragmented landscapes, and the use of simulation models to explore the impact of spatial patterns on populations and communities. Current NSF funded research assesses the spatio-temporal patterns of white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) and their impacts on prey (gypsy moths Lymantria dispar and song bird eggs) and parasites (black-legged ticks Ixodes scapularis and the associated bacterium that causes Lyme disease Borrelia burgdorferi). In addition, Dr. Goodwin is investigating insect communities on prairie fragments and the movement responses of katydids (Orchelimum gladiator) to heterogeneous vegetation. Student projects may involve analyzing and/or modeling data from the mouse project or conducting field work on insect communities in prairie fragments.
Dr. Rebecca Simmons, Associate Professor of Biology, is a systematic entomologist, focusing on the taxonomy and evolution of tiger moths and cutworms (Noctuidae). Her research examines the distribution and spread of invasive pest species across geographical areas by sampling DNA-based markers. Information from these studies is used to make management decisions on interception and control of non-native insects in the US. These moths comprise over 40,000 species; many are economically important. Students can choose from a variety of projects within this overall research area, gaining expertise in entomology and molecular biology methods.
Dr. Kathryn Yurkonis, Assistant Professor of Biology, is a plant ecologist whose research broadly addresses how plant communities assemble and change over time. Projects primarily focus on effects of invasive species in grasslands and findings from current projects have applications for grassland restoration and management. Current NSF funded research assesses the effects of species pattern on grassland biomass production and species invasion. In addition, Dr. Yurkonis and her students are investigating effects of plant-soil interactions on common range grasses in North Dakota. Students can choose from a variety of topics related to grassland plants and their interactions with other organisms.
Leslie Yellow Hammer student from the 1st cohort of US MASTER students started to work with Dr. Yurkonis in summer 2011.
Dr. Tristan Darland, Assistant Professor of Biology. Dr. Darland's research interest lies in finding new genes, or new functions of known genes, involved in diverse biological processes ranging from neurodevelopment and neural stem cell regulation to addiction related behavior.
Myranda Beckman, 1st cohort of US MASTER students, started to work with Dr. Darland in fall 2012.
Mandi will be studying the impact of either cocaine and/or cadmium on basic physiology, brain development, and neural function in zebrafish. The zebrafish is a standard model organism in environmental toxicology because of the ease at which they can be raised, treated with toxins, and analyzed. In addition, large clutch size and short generation time makes them ideal for genetic manipulation and screening. Finally, many aspects of early neural development, much of the basic subcortical nervous system layout, and even some complex behaviors are conserved between zebrafish and mammals. Cocaine is an addictive drug that has been shown to have effects on neural development in humans and mammalian model organisms. There is also considerable evidence that embryonic exposure increases the vulnerability to cocaine addiction later. Cadmium is a heavy metal that has numerous effects on development and is a risk factor in many human cancers. Many studies have documented acute effects of cocaine and cadmium on mammalian development and pathology. However, many of these studies are often challenging because it is difficult to precisely control embryonic exposure level when exchange is across the placenta. It is also currently impossible using mammalian model organisms to combine analysis of acute effects on embryonic neural development with tests of longitudinal effects on adult physiology and behavior in the same animal. However, this approach is relatively straightforward in zebrafish.
This study thus looks at both the acute and longitudinal impact of early exposure to an environmental toxin. Transgenic fish that express GFP in their nervous systems will be treated through a critical window in neural development (1-5 days post-fertilization). The fish will be imaged during development to assess the impact of the toxin on brain size and morphology. Heart rate and metabolic rate will be assessed at the same time. The fish will be raised and as adults they will be assessed for metabolic rate, heart rate, response to stress, and learning ability. The learning behavior is actually a conditioned place preference assay using cocaine. The results would indicate not only the ability to learn, but also sensitivity to an addictive substance. These studies would validate the use of zebrafish as a model system for environmental toxicity of cocaine and cadmium in other species, including humans. This would also mesh with overlapping forward genetic studies aimed at identifying genes important in determining toxin vulnerability and resistance.
Dr. Guodong Du, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, is working on the development and understanding of catalytic systems relevant to energy and environmental issues. His current project seeks to utilize carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, as a renewable and inexpensive feedstock to generate value-added chemical products through catalysis. Another project involves developing green, environmentally friendly catalysts for important organic transformations. Under appropriate supervision, these projects can be easily partitioned and adapted for motivated undergraduate students.
Dr. Alena Kubatova, Associate Professor of Chemistry, is an analytical chemist and expert in atmospheric research involved in characterization of organic particulate matter (PM). In her currently funded NSF project, Dr. Kubatova is investigating reaction pathways of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and their polar derivatives. Another area of interest involves secondary organic aerosols (SOA, formed from primary emissions in the atmosphere), which are suspected of being a significant contributor to radiative forcing (i.e., global changes). Suitable subsets of these research projects will constitute manageable topics for the undergraduate students' research.
Dr. Julia Zhao, Associate Professor of Chemistry, works in the area of analytical chemistry with a focus of development of fluorescent nanomaterials as labeling reagents for trace analysis. Dr. Zhao will develop silica-based target-induced fluorescent nanoparticles and near-infrared fluorescent nanoparticles. She will characterize these nanoparticles and apply them in determination of metal ions and biomolecules. She will advise undergraduate students working on these projects.Dr. Evguenii Kozliak, Professor of Chemistry, is involved in several areas of environmental research. This includes research focused on mechanistic aspects of generation of biofuels aiming to replace petroleum-based fuels with CO2-neutral biofuels. Another interest lies in the study of fate of toxic traces metal during coal combustion process with the aim to control emission levels. The subsets of these projects will be adjusted for the undergraduate research project.
Dr. Bradley Rundquist, Associate Professor of Geography, research is focused on environmental applications of remote sensing and geographic information systems. In particular, he is interested in land use/land cover mapping and land-cover change detection using remotely sensed data. Dr. Rundquist also works to characterize a the biophysical properties of prairie vegetation canopies using close-range remote sensing devices, most recently focusing on the characterization of spectral-temporal properties of various invasive plant species. Students will have an opportunity to apply these techniques to their individual research projects.
Dr. Gregory Vandeberg, Associate Professor of Geography, is a geomorphologist and has research interests in trace elements and nutrients in hydrologic systems, and the application of geospatial technologies to environmental issues. One of his research projects is focused on the potential impact of confined animal feeding operations on water and sediment quality. This project involves the use of trace elements, nutrients (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus), and veterinary antibiotics and their spatial distribution in water and sediments as indicators of pollution. Another aspect of this research is the use of Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) to identify areas of high erosive potential using terrain models. Other research projects have focused on the reclamation of disturbed lands contaminated by heavy metals, and modeling the spatial distribution of contaminants in the environment. He will advise students working on projects related to these areas and other environmental problems.
Dr. Ryan Zerr , Associate Professor of Mathematics. Dr. Zerr's research areas are in pure mathematics (functional analysis and differential equations), and the primary research project he would mentor students in would fall within these areas. However, his background also includes a BS in meteorological studies, and he has done work on modeling applications within that area. Thus, part of Dr. Zerr's mentorship will also include discussions and mini-projects on environmental modeling applications, mostly focusing on standard differential equation models. One virtue of this mentoring strategy is that it will expose the involved mathematics students to both of the primary sub-areas within mathematics: pure mathematics and applied mathematics. This variety of experience should help the students make more informed decisions if/when they would apply to mathematics graduate programs.