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2014-15 Mentor of the Month Recipients

Congratulations to the MSU Denver faculty mentors listed below who were recognized as a 2014-15 Mentor of the Month for their continued support of undergraduate students.

               Dr. Rebecca Ferrell, Biology (September/October 2014)
               Dr. Andrew Bonham, Chemistry (November 2014)
               Dr. Alexis Newton, Nursing (December 2014)
               Dr. Hsiu-Ping Liu, Biology (January 2015)              
               Dr. David Hill, Anthropology (February 2015)
               Dr. Pamela Ansburg, Psychology (March 2015)
               Dr. Douglas Petcoff, Biology (April 2015)

Dr. Douglas Petcoff, Biology

When asked why he participates as a faculty mentor for undergraduate research, Dr. Petcoff ‌responded:‌

I participate as a faculty mentor for undergraduate research because I enjoy remaining involved in science, but more importantly I enjoy working one-on-one with students. Getting involved in research has helped many of my students to become competitive in their chosen fields, which are quite variable. Some of my former students now work for biotechnology companies, and others have gone on to Ph.D. or professional school programs. As a teaching professor, being able to contribute in such a direct manner to students’ career development is very rewarding.

Undergraduate research projects that Dr. Petcoff has mentored:

Fertilization, using the frog Xenopus laevis as a model organism: This project is an ongoing ‌collaboration with Dr. Brad Stith (UCD - Integrative Biology), which involves the study of cell signaling pathways that are utilized during oocyte maturation and after fertilization. This work has involved many students, including Ryan Bates, who started on the project as a Metro Biology student, and who is the first author on a paper we published in Developmental Biology in 2013. I have taken a number of students to national meetings, where we have presented data from these studies. One of these students (Aviva Bulow), was invited to attend a summer workshop at Yale as a direct result of our presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society of Cell Biology in 2012.

Genetic status of cutthroat trout: Fourteen subspecies of cutthroat trout have been described, and they can all interbreed. They can also interbreed with rainbow trout. A history of indiscriminate stocking has led to hybridization of these fish, which is of great concern to conservation and fisheries biologists. Determining genetic purity of fish used for hatchery breeding and stocking programs requires careful DNA analysis, which we do for both greenback cutthroats (working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and Colorado River cutthroats (working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife). A number of students have participated in this somewhat new project, and we are currently preparing a report for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, as well as writing up results for presentation at meetings and publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Differentiation and co-culture of neuronal cells from embryonic stem cells: By treating mouse embryonic stem cells with various combinations of growth factors, and then co-culturing the different lineages under specific conditions, my stu

dents have been able to get oligodendrocytes to myelinate neurons in vitro. This provides a model to study remyelination after spinal cord injuries. As a result of their poster at the MSU Denver Research Conference last year, two of my students (Nick Nelson and Mish Desmarais) were invited to work in Wendy Mecklen’s lab at the Anschutz Medical Campus last summer. We are currently putting together presentations for one or two national meetings later this year.

Dr. Pamela Ansburg, Psychology

When asked why she participates as a faculty mentor for undergraduate research, Dr. Ansburg ‌responded:‌

I know first-hand the transformative impact that undergraduate research can have on a student--my own experience as an undergraduate researcher inspired me to pursue a doctorate in psychology. Of course, undergraduate researchers learn a lot about scientific methods and the excitement that accompanies discovery; but, they also learn much more.  The undergraduate research experience allows students to develop strong relationships with other intellectually engaged students and faculty.  These important relationships provide undergraduate researchers a supportive social environment that allows them to build the confidence needed to explore professional opportunities. Undergraduate researchers gain a head-start in developing a professional network that will help them to advance in the field and the profession.  Mentoring undergraduate researchers allows me to regularly experience a joy that is fundamental to teaching:  guiding students as they learn about their own abilities and interests, and showing them how to take hold of opportunities that they had not known about or thought attainable.

Undergraduate research projects that Dr. Ansburg has mentored:

My research program focuses on understanding the basic cognitive processes that underlie effective remembering and successful problem solving. My students and I investigate how both task demands (task familiarity, working memory load, etc.) and individual differences (age, attentional focus, etc.) can impact the ability to learn, access, and apply information in a variety of settings.

Currently, I am working with two students: Heidi Baldwin-Kirchhoff who is an experienced undergraduate researcher and Salina Whitaker who is just beginning to learn about the research process.  Over the past year and a half, Heidi and I have been working together on three related research projects that combine Heidi’s interest in clinical practice and my interest in basic cognition.  This work investigated the relationship between cognitive flexibility and levels of resiliency.  In particular, we assessed whether the ability to inhibit negatively-valanced information and to re-focus in a less emotionally-charged way predicts an individual’s ability to bounce-back from life challenges. Heidi has been the lead these studies.  This past summer, she received a Psi Chi: The International Honor Society for Psychology undergraduate research grant to support the study that will she will report on in her honors thesis.  Additionally, the research was recently accepted for a poster presentation at the May 2015 meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

For her introductory experience as an undergraduate researcher, Salina asked to learn about psychological research from the ground up. Since the beginning of the semester, she has assisted me in designing a study to test whether embedding insightful problem solving experiences in scientific content enhances interest and performance in science among students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. This work has involved discussing the implications of different methodological choices and designing experimental materials.  We are currently preparing a research protocol to submit to the MSU Denver Institutional Review Board (IRB).  Once we secure IRB approval to pilot the materials and run the primary study, Salina will gain experience running subjects and analyzing and interpreting the data. She intends to present the preliminary findings at this spring’s MSU Denver Undergraduate Research Conference.

Dr. David Hill, Anthropology

When asked why he participates as a faculty mentor for undergraduate research, Dr. Hill ‌responded:‌

Supporting student research projects is a component of my overall approach to education that includes finding internships for students, hands-on-learning, participating in professional conferences, summer field programs, and any other way that I can find to engage my students with professional experiences. I tell my students that I don’t want them to compete...I want them to lead. I want to see future employers and potential graduate program advisors being so intrigued by reading my students resumes and applications that they forget about the rest of the pile of applications. 

Undergraduate research projects that Dr. Hill has mentored:

Denis Regan, (graduated Spring 2013) participated in the First Undergraduate Research Conference where she presented her work where she had identified the presence of salicylic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin and derived from willow bark) in two sherds of prehistoric pottery recovered from an excavation site located about sixty miles south of Denver. The results of this study identified the first occurrence of salicylic acid in archaeological context centuries before its medicinal properties were known in Europe.

Faye Olsgard, a recipient of the 2014 Undergraduate Research Program Grant, will be working with archaeologists from Costa Rica and engineering faculty from MSU Denver to CT scan the skull from a prehistoric burial, use a 3-D printer to reproduce the skull and then reconstruct the appearance of the individual. The reconstructed head will be part of a museum exhibit in Costa Rica and will be reproduced for educational purposes. While in Costa Rica, Faye will also meet with Jane Goodall to discuss photographs that she took of New World primates using tools. Faye is the first person to document the use of tools by New World primates.

Watch this video to learn more about Dr. Hill's Museum Studies course.

Dr. Hsiu-Ping Liu, Biology

When asked why she participates as a faculty mentor for undergraduate research, Dr. Liu responded:

Providing undergraduate research experiences is another form of teaching. I believe undergraduate research is one of the most powerful ways to engage students in their academic majors. Many studies reveal that undergraduate research leads to gains in cognitive and affective development in areas such as mastering content and contextual knowledge, intellectual growth, academic achievement, and professional growth and advancement. I am a strong advocate for providing students with research opportunities.

Undergraduate research projects that Dr. Liu has mentored                                 

Dr. Liu's current research focuses on the evolution and conservation genetics of hydrobiids.  Hydrobiids are the largest group of freshwater mollusks, comprising more than 400 recent and fossil genera and several thousand extant species. These snails are ideal subjects for studies of evolution and biogeography because of their diversity, antiquity, and linkage with drainage systems.

Although Dr. Liu has mentored more than 30 research students in her lab since 2008, the project listed below highlights the type of research projects in Dr. Liu's lab.

Genetic variation of threatened Springsnails from the Gila River Basin, New Mexico. The purpose of this project is to assess genetic variation among population of state listed springsnail species, Pyrgulopsis gilae and Pyrgulopsis thermalis, which is distributed among geographically isolated spring habitats in the upper Gila River basin and revise the taxonomy of these snails accordingly. This project is funded by New Mexico Department of Game and Fish with co-PI Hershler. Dr. Liu involved two MSU Denver students Justin Davies and Victoria Ratcliffe in this project. Listed below are the publications resulted from this research project (student names are in bold). In addition, Justin and Victoria presented their research at past MSU Denver Undergraduate Research Conferences. Both of them have won biology presentation awards (2011 Spring and 2014 Spring).

Hershler, R., Ratcliffe, V.*, Liu, H.-P., Lang, B, and Hay, C. 2014. Taxonomic revision of the Pyrgulopsis gilae (Caenogastropoda, Hydrobiidae) species complex, with descriptions of two new species from the Gila River basin, New Mexico. ZooKeys, 429: 69-85.

Liu, H.-P., Hershler, R., Lang, B., Davies, J.* 2013. Molecular evidence for cryptic species in a narrowly endemic western North American springsnail (Pyrgulopsis gilae). Conservation Genetics 14(4): 917-923.

Dr. Alexis Newton, Nursing

When asked why she participates as a faculty mentor for undergraduate research, Dr. Newton responded:

Research is limitless.  It provides students with a rich understanding of nursing.  It serves to define not only academic interests, but personal interests as well.  I cannot underestimate the strong connections that undergraduate research affords faculty and students.  This is what mentoring is about.  Most nursing students have a preconceived notion of research, and I am sad to say that nursing research is not a course that student’s look forward to.  Therefore I view teaching research as a challenge and I strive to impart my passion onto my students.  I was so proud to have students participate in our undergraduate conference.  I believe that it assisted them to develop critical thinking, leadership, time management, and communication skills.  They were proud of their proposals and found themselves deeply interested in all of the presentations on display.  The discipline of nursing must continue to be present in discovering information to increase patient outcomes and nursing knowledge.  This conference empowered them and it was so rewarding to hear them speak proudly about their work.  I am hopeful that nursing will continue its presence at the conference.

Undergraduate Research Projects by RN-BSN students that Dr. ‌Newton mentored at last year's Undergraduate Research Conference:

School Aged Children’s Perceptions of Nurses
Alyson Fujita, Journi Jones, and Kimberly Wynn

Grant Diegel, Yolanda Farmer, Lisa George, and Rebecca John
The Challenges of the Legalization of Marijuana on Nursing Practice:  A Literature Review 

The Effects of a 20 second Hug on Elderly Dementia Patients‌
Kasia Zrodlowska, Bonnie Orr, and Theresa Freund


Dr. Andrew Bonham, Chemistry

Undergraduate Research Projects that Dr. Bonham has mentored

One branch of Dr. Bonham's lab projects focus broadly on rational bio-engineering to design sensitive tools for the detection of biomarkers.  These bio-sensors are built directly from DNA, and can give insight into the process of cell development, offer promise for the early detection of cancers, and can be used to evaluate levels of toxins such as botulism and ricin.  Moreover, the rational design of these sensors allows his lab to pursue bio-informatic and computational approaches to automatically design functional sensors.  Successes to date include bio-sensors that can sensitively detect Myc/Max (a transcription factor complex common in breast in kidney cancers) in biological fluids, as well as aptamers-based, electrochemical sensors directed against the botulinum toxin, and the demonstration of real-time monitoring of chemotherapeutic levels in living animals.  Ultimately, this research will enable point-of-care diagnosis of early cancer risk. 

Another important aspect of the research in Dr. Bonham's lab is advancing the state of electrochemistry for bio-analytical techniques.  This includes developing and testing new, inexpensive instruments that could be used in education and the third world.  Dr. Bonham's lab helped develop and test the CheapStat, a portable electrochemical potentiostat which costs a fraction of the price of traditional devices.  His lab also pursues strategies to miniaturize our sensors, incorporating patterned microelectrodes, with the goal of doing immediate biological diagnosis in a single drop of blood.

Why He Participates as a Faculty Mentor

Dr. Bonham states: "undergraduate research is an extension of teaching; it is the best way to prepare our most talented and motivated students for future careers in academia or industry.  Being competitive for jobs means not only having taken the classes, but being competent at the actual skills of the trade-- something that you can only get from first-hand experience.  I love being able to offer that experience, and see students embrace it and run with it.  Some of my lab’s most ambitious projects don’t come from my decisions, but from my undergraduate students asking, “couldn’t we try this?”  That energy, and that excitement to be involved in real research, is contagious and inspires me every day."


Dr. Rebecca Ferrell, Biology 

Current Research

Dr. Ferrell currently has three research projects underway that involve student researchers, as well as another project that is a continuation of her summer research at Oregon State University. 

Bear Creek is an urban waterway that flows through multiple jurisdictions in the greater Denver area.  Groundwork Denver is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is monitoring its water quality and working with the state to develop a management plan for the creek.  Since August 2013, students from Dr. Ferrell’s lab have been taking samples at 2 week intervals and analyzing them for physical characteristics of the water (temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, salinity) and for bacterial indicators of sewage contamination (coliforms and E. coli).  The Environmental Protection Agency has tested Bear Creek water during the summer months, but discontinues testing from fall to spring; the work of students from Dr. Ferrell’s lab, led by David Watson, is allowing a more complete understanding of year-round water quality in the creek.  On several occasions, the students had to break ice to obtain samples, and in some cases, those samples revealed previously unsuspected indications of sewage contamination during the winter months.  This study is continuing for a second winter this year, with David and Stephen Aderholdt again sampling every two weeks.  Dr. Ferrell and her lab are hoping to recruit a few more students to continue this project, as both David and Stephen anticipate graduation in the next year, and Groundwork Denver would like to continue this monitoring into the future.  David presented preliminary results from this study at Student Research Day last spring, and they expect to have updates to present next spring after completing the second winter of monitoring.  Rachel Hansgen of Groundwork recently told the lab that these results are extremely important in their efforts to formulate a management plan for Bear Creek.

David’s experiences in sampling Cherry Creek have led him to become more deeply involved with understanding urban waterways, and he is now starting a second project in cooperation with Denver Environmental Health, looking at the possibility that indicator organisms such as E. coli may be not only surviving, but multiplying, in storm sewers.  The hypothesis proposed by their collaborator at DEH is that these bacteria reach high numbers in water trapped in storm sewer pipes between rainfall events, and when it rains they are washed out of the pipes and into the Platte River.  This has the effect of producing storm discharge that is above allowable E. coli levels, which can lead to hefty fines if the city cannot bring the bacteria levels down.   David has begun this work by isolating strains of E. coli from a storm sewer outfall, and he is currently monitoring them in water from that outfall to determine whether it supports bacterial growth.  Because E. coli counts are a leading method of tracking sewage contamination around the world, the results of these experiments will be relevant to the interpretations of water quality indicators. 

Dr. Ferrell’s third project involves ongoing soil sampling on the green roof of MSU Denver’s Student Success Building.  The lab has helped coordinate a study that started in fall of 2013 looking at microbial activity in the green roof soils.  Students obtain soil samples and extract DNA from them, and then use molecular techniques to determine relative abundance of several different types of microbes involved in nitrogen cycling.  Little research has been done on nitrogen transformations in green roof soils, so this is both a nice opportunity for students to gain some field research experience right here on campus, and a chance to add to knowledge of how green roofs mimic or are distinct from natural ecosystems.  Bob Hancock from the Biology department also has students surveying insect populations on the green roof, and Christopher Meloche from the Biology department has just joined the team and will be supervising students continuing a botanical assessment of the roof vegetation.  They hope that ongoing study of the green roof will help in improving its appearance and efficiency, as well as providing a nearby site for student learning.

Why She Participates as a Faculty Mentor

Dr. Ferrell joined the MSU Denver faculty in 1991, and soon afterward began considering how she might be able to do small research projects with students.  She believes that to be a scientist, one must do science, and one of the dangers of accepting a mostly teaching position such as those at MSU Denver is losing one’s ability to practice science in the research lab.  There are many kinds of research that we are not equipped to do here, but there are also many projects that are suitable for our resources.  Dr. Ferrell has tried to make as many opportunities as possible available to students who want to learn techniques and approaches to scientific problem solving.  It is hard for good students to get interviews for graduate school if they have not had research experiences, and she enjoys very much mentoring students through the process of learning how to do meaningful research.  Dr. Ferrell says that it is a joy to attend a professional meeting and see former students who are themselves practicing scientists.  She is delighted that MSU Denver has embraced the idea of facilitating student research, and is glad to have the opportunity to be a part of that institutional commitment to providing these great experiences for our students.