‘No limits’: Students receive funding for research projects

It began with a bet: How cheaply could you build a house?

For Kaitlyn Gonzalez, that initial conversation with a friend has morphed into a research project that will examine a unique idea for sustainable housing. The sophomore – who is a double major in physics and math – will be putting two-liter plastic bottles to the test as a potential solution to the housing crisis that could also provide safe shelters in war-torn areas.

“My advisor, Dr. Jency Sundararajan, had asked me if I was interested in doing a research project and I said no,” Gonzalez said. “But after talking about the housing issue with my friend, I decided this would be a good project.”

Gonzalez is one of eight students at Missouri Southern State University who were recently awarded more than $5,000 in grants for research projects that will tackle a wide range of issues – from examining the bite force of snapping turtles to designing more effective antibiotics.

The “soda wall” being constructed by Gonzalez will use dirt-filled 2-liter bottles as its main component. She’ll test its durability by seeing if it will hold against .40 caliber, .22 caliber and 9 mm bullets.

“Sand has been tested, but it can be very taxing on the environment and can be expensive to purchase,” she said. “If dirt works, it means anyone can do it.”

Because of the time it takes for plastic to degrade, the “soda wall” could potentially last more than twice as long as conventional brick, which lasts around 700 years, she said.

Gonzalez received $700 toward the project from the Student Research Grant Committee. She said funding will be used for supplies and to help her attend conferences next spring to present her findings.

Students can submit proposals for funding to the committee at any time, said Dr. Paula Carson, provost and vice president of academic affairs.

“The committee meets a few times a year to go through the current applications and make awards of up to $700,” she said. “The funding can be used for equipment, data acquisition, conference fees, travel … anything that relates to their ability to successfully complete the project.”

Dr. Jason Willand, who heads up the committee, said there are several factors that go into awarding the grants.

“We look at what the project is and how well it’s described, whether it’s a benefit to both the university and the student’s field of interest, and if it can realistically be done in the time frame they’re proposing.”

In some cases, it’s a suggestion from a professor that can send students down the path of important research.

“Dr. Alla Barry teaches a class on human dissection and one of the things that class looks for is abnormalities,” said Dr. Brad Creamer, chair of the Biology Department. “One of the things the students noticed was tortuosity – arteries and veins that are twisted.

It’s a condition that can lead to issues such as hypertension, atherosclerosis and even more serious health issues, said Creamer. For example, tortuosity in the internal carotid artery could cause mini strokes.

Haroldo Hernandez, a junior biology and biochemistry major, was looking for suggestions for a research project. Creamer, who had previously had the Honors Program student in class, suggested looking into the tortuosity issue as part of a larger project.

“Haroldo and two other students are working on the genetic side, while three of Dr. Barry’s students are looking at the anatomical and histological side,” said Creamer. “It’s a big team effort.”

Hernandez intends to study five specific genes – SLC2A10, ELN, FBLN5, TGFBR1 and TGFBR2 – that may contribute to tortuosity.

“I began researching literature and found five specific genes that could be associated with it,” he said. “I’ll be buying primers that are specific to the genes I’m looking at and the reagents needed for the DNA sequencing.”

Hernandez was awarded $600 toward the project. Having the funding available is a huge boost to students who are doing important work in their fields of study, he said.

“It’s very helpful for us,” he said. “It means there are no limits to the potential students may have.”