Voyages of Discovery

Summer Student Researchers Experience Hands-On Learning and Opportunities to Professionally - and Personally - Grow

Exercise Science Major Taylor Garcia

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Exercise Science Major Taylor Garcia demonstrates some of his research 

Photo: College of Arts & Sciences

The quest for scholastic knowledge involves exploration through research. Thanks to the generosity of fellowships from local and national donors, foundations, and grants, nearly 50 California Lutheran University students in the College of Arts and Sciences have expanded their subject-matter expertise while conducting various studies this summer.

“Undergraduate student research is one of the significant opportunities for students attending Cal Lutheran. These research fellowships provide students with additional opportunities to interact with their faculty mentors and peers in and outside the laboratory and classroom,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Timothy Hengst. “Summer student researchers discovered new insights about their areas of study while gaining experience in different research methodologies and enhancing their communication skills.”

“We know from a large body of literature that undergraduate research is a terrific, high-impact experience for students,” said Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, Research, and Creative Scholarship and Associate Professor of Psychology Andrea Sell, PhD. “In this type of project-based learning, students are challenged with research questions that often don’t have a straightforward answer.”

Meeting Obstacles

Whatever their major, students rely on empirical research gathered from observation and measurement of specific phenomena. They use the scientific method to form objective, factual conclusions to their work, whether they study the social, applied, or natural sciences.

Exercise science majors Taylor Garcia and Bethany Metcalfe partnered on their project, which seeks to compare the balance abilities of students participating in land-based sports to their aquatic counterparts. The Swenson Science Summer Research Fellowship recipients knew their research would face challenges in recruiting athletes for their study due to fewer students on campus during the season. However, they found a workaround.

“To combat this, we threw our net wider, allowing most sports to be eligible in our study,” said Garcia.

ALLIES in STEM Undergraduate Research Fellowship awardee Cecilia Marisol Lopez observed the preservation of marine microfossils known as foraminifera to determine how ocean temperatures impact their preservation. She also gauged how the preservation of foraminifera shells influences paleoclimate records through time.

One hurdle the environmental science major encountered was classifying the shells based on their preservation state, explaining that “grading leaves room for possible human error and judgment calls.” Another challenge Lopez confronted involved using a microscope with a 40x magnification. Although the microscope let her see the microfossils more clearly and take high-resolution images to use as a reference for future studies, it put a strain on her eyes.

Senior Kayley Hall, a summer undergraduate research fellowship recipient double majoring in psychology and criminal justice, sees research challenges as inherent. For her studies, she differentiated the visual imagery skill of individuals who play tabletop role-playing games from those who don’t. Hall hoped the data would show that people who play these games have better visual imagery than nonplayers, yet she knew this may not happen.

“I think the most challenging part of research is the reality of it. We aren’t going to get significant, groundbreaking results every time, and sometimes we find nothing to support our hypothesis. That doesn’t mean the work is ‘bad’; it’s just all part of the process,” Hall said. 

Boosting Skillsets

Fellowships give students hands-on learning experiences in their respective majors. Moreover, they serve as an investment in students, enriching the recipients’ undergraduate experiences while improving their skillsets.

Tiffany Robinson, a fourth-year student studying chemistry, received a John Stauffer Research Fellowship in the Chemical Sciences. Her work aimed to create an optimized artificial neural network, which mimics the brain’s physiology, that will accurately predict the chemical toxicity of natural medicines and herbal remedies. Robinson worked in the laboratory experimenting with 14 different natural medicines and herbal remedies, including echinacea, astragalus root, and ginseng. She discussed learning about using computer programming and artificial intelligence for her project.

“I’m the type of person who can’t put down a puzzle until I solve it. With computer programming, the puzzle at hand requires a more creative and intellectual approach to develop an elegant and efficient solution. I find this side of programming to be challenging yet stimulating because I know there’s a solution, but I just have to put the pieces together,” said Robinson

Similarly, Sophia Letendre is bolstering her computer programming skills through her work on the physical properties of a massive star named HD 23478 and its nearby environment. The physics major who earned a National Science Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Astrophysics has gained experience with Python coding for her research’s mathematical applications. 

“I have learned how to open and read data from files, utilize imported functions and packages, plot data, and do calculus easily using Python,” said Letendre. “Learning how to take data to produce graphs was very beneficial because it allowed me to see how the math calculations worked with my visual data. The most math rigorous code was completed using loops and imported math functions built specifically for astrophysics in Python.” 

Sell notes undergraduate research teaches students patience, how to work independently, and give themselves direction in their work. It also gives them competencies they will use in the workplace.

“In addition to gaining field-specific skills like data analysis or lab-based work, students who engage in undergraduate research learn how to manage their time, gain confidence in writing and speaking, and identify with a research community,” said Sell.

Promoting Healthier Lives 

Another benefit of research is how it addresses challenges that affect individuals as well as the greater society. Research can play a pivotal role in solving pressing issues such as criminal justice reform, climate change, human rights, and healthcare, to name a few.

For her Swenson Science Summer Research Fellowship project, senior Zaria Opara questioned whether differences exist in cardiovascular responses (heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow) following exercise in different racial groups. The exercise science major hopes her research will spur change in healthcare. 

“This can hopefully help bring many of the healthcare disparities minorities have into light and prevent misdiagnoses due to improper standards that are set,” said Opara.

She believes changes in healthcare standards could provide additional benefits to the medical system.

“There will be a greater trust between the doctor and patient and a drastic decrease in deaths,” said Opara. 

Bethany Metcalfe’s work with Taylor Garcia has personal implications: Both play respectively on the  Regals and Kingsmen Water Polo teams. Metcalfe’s participation in the sport sparked her interest in the topic, which led her to ask whether she was innately worse at balance than tennis or basketball players.

Regardless of their findings, Metcalfe knows her and Garcia’s research can pave the way to improve the lives of others while contributing to a larger body of knowledge.

“The most interesting thing about researching in the field of exercise science is how applicable the results are,” said Metcalfe. “Most research can be applied to everyday life helping individuals be safer or live healthier lives.”

See the research findings of these – and other summer researchers – at the Student Research Symposium.