Student researchers claim prestigious awards

Six honored in scientific fields

Summer 2012

Ryan Martinie, junior biochemistry and biology major, recently learned that he had won a scholarship from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program. While celebrating, he took the time to inform Anna Plantinga that she, too, was a Goldwater Scholar for 2012.

Lauren Manck learned she had landed a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship when she was checking her e-mail. “I think I read the e-mail at least five times through right then before I actually believed it,” said Manck, a 22-year-old senior chemistry major from Fort Wayne, Ind. Nathan Romero found out about his NSF grant while traveling.

Both the Goldwater and NSF awards are prestigious, said Calvin chemistry professor Carolyn Anderson.

The U.S. Congress established the Goldwater scholarships in 1986 to fund students studying the traditional sciences, mathematics and engineering. An institution can nominate only four candidates a year. “Our track record on Goldwaters is really impressive,” Anderson said. “Over the past four years, we have been awarded 10 fellowships (out of 16 nominees) and four honorable mentions, and that puts us in a really elite group.” Goldwater scholars are awarded up to $8,500 for each of two successive years to help with tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

The NSF award is likewise a signal honor, Anderson said: “Most of the people writing proposals are already graduate students, writing about what they’re already doing. For Nate and Lauren, they’re writing proposals in the abstract … . It’s certainly an honor, and it puts them in an elite group of people who have won these before graduating.”

The NSF graduate research grant funds tuition, room and board, a stipend and travel expenses for three years at a graduate school of the recipient’s choice. All four students are committed to a future in science research.

Martinie, a Goldwater honorable mention, is studying the formation of tyrosine-cysteine crosslinks with chemistry professor David Benson and has published computational chemistry work with professor Roger DeKock. He hopes to teach and research.

Plantinga is researching “macroautophagy” (self-eating) in melanoma cells with Dr. Jeff MacKeigan in Van Andel Institute’s Systems Biology Lab. She hopes to teach in a private college like Calvin. “Students get exposed to a lot, and you get more invested in the students,” she said.

Manck is studying “molecular tinker toys” with chemistry professor Douglas Vander Griend. Last year, she studied the chemical defense system of marine diatoms at the University of Cadiz in Cadiz, Spain, through the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Program. Manck hopes to someday teach at the university level.

Romero researches, with Anderson, “how to make new and interesting molecules efficiently,” he said. He, too, hopes for a career in both teaching and research.

All four students describe their Calvin research experience as a vocational turning point. “When I was a freshman, I wanted to be a professor, but I mostly wanted to teach, and I knew I had to get a PhD, and that was a means to an end,” Martinie said. “But then I got my first experience in research, and it was like, ‘This is amazing! I want to do this for the rest of my life.’”

Manck agreed: “It allows you to be as curious as you want about something and then really work at figuring that something out.”

Research can take a long time, Plantinga said: “There’s quite a bit of waiting time while cells grow and while experiments are running.”

It can also be frustrating, Manck added: “Sometimes it can take a lot of times of trying things and them not working out until finally you try something new and it works brilliantly or you get a great set of data or interesting results.”

Yet ultimately, Romero said, research is an adventure: “What better way to learn than to study something no one has looked at before?”

Sam Van Kooten and Dan Van Noord are also on the cutting edge of their field. The two sophomore physics majors each received a $2,500 undergraduate fellowship from the NASA-funded Michigan Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) to continue research on asteroids and stars.

The fellowships will allow for the two physics majors—both of whom minor in astronomy—to extend their research, which they commenced as first-year students. Van Kooten’s research is titled, “Collisional History of the Koronis Zone,” and Van Noord’s, “Studies of Contact Binaries.”

Van Noord is exploring star systems (contact binaries) whose stars are so close together that they are touching and might ultimately merge. He’s hoping to learn more about how that happens.

“By us understanding the fate of the close-contact systems, we can understand the fate of most binary systems in our galaxy,” said Van Noord. His research involves systematically searching through a vast catalog of 198 million stars, identifying the ones that are binaries and studying those with the shortest orbital periods.

“This helps explain how stellar evolution occurs and how it might occur differently in binary systems,” he said.

“What we are looking at here is the cutting edge of this field,” said Van Noord. “We are studying systems that we are discovering pretty much in real time, and we are learning all sorts of new things.”

Van Kooten and Van Noord’s recent grants are the latest enrichment to the top-level undergraduate student research at Calvin. Calvin is one of just two solely undergraduate institutions in the state to be included in MSGC. Physics and astronomy professor Deb Haarsma, who serves as Calvin’s representative on the consortium’s board of directors, understands the importance of this new partnership.

“It gives us opportunities for students and faculty to do research in space science and engineering,” she said, “and it provides funding opportunities for science outreach in the community.”