Summer scholars connect research to the real world

Student Jeannette Lilly (center) works with graduate student Erica Bakker (left) and Sarah Roley, assistant professor of environmental science, in an environmental science lab as part of her Chancellor’s Summer Scholars experience.This past summer, ten WSU Tri-Cities undergraduate students in the Chancellor’s Summer Scholar Program got to experience first-hand how top-tier university research can impact their local community.

“Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree get the opportunity to be a part of intensive research that could positively influence the Tri-Cities community,” said Kate McAteer, WSUTC vice chancellor for academic affairs. “Ranging from engineering, to the arts, to the sciences, there are a variety of opportunities for students to apply their skills in a real-world setting, which only further sets them up for success in their future career.”

The Chancellor’s Summer Scholar program, which is supported by Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), pairs students with University faculty and graduate students to conduct research pertaining to their degree interest. This year student majors included the arts, materials engineering, bioengineering, environmental science, computer science, electrical engineering, and biological sciences.

In addition to individual mentoring, students received funding to support their summer research projects. On average, students were provided with $2,250 in funding from WRPS to support their project.

The 2019 College of Arts and Sciences student scholars and their projects include:


Students working at a table.
Jared Johnson (right) and Aaron Van Morrison work on The Willow of the Waste project.

Willow of the Waste

Jared Johnson and Aaron Van Morris worked with Sena Clara Creston, clinical assistant professor of fine arts, to refine and re-engineer a robotic sculpture known as “The Willow of the Waste.”

The project is an designed to look like a tree, incorporating mechanical and electrical components. The tree is animated and interactive, with the branches slowly opening, closing and pulsating light to give the appearance of a living, breathing plant. Once the viewer approaches the tree, the branches open, inviting the viewer inside. The students are applying skills in circuit design, power distribution and coding from different inputs and outputs to improve upon an existing design. The interdisciplinary project combines engineering, computer science and the arts to create an interactive sculpture that also speaks to plastic waste, as it is made from discarded plastics like water bottles and shopping bags.


Three women in a lab.
Jeannette Lilly (center) in the lab with graduate student Erica Bakker (left) and Sarah Roley, assistant professor of environmental science.

Identifying nutrient limitations in Cascade Mountain Range for understanding nitrogen fixation

Jeannette Lilly worked with Sarah Roley, assistant professor of environmental science, and graduate student Erica Bakker to analyze nutrient limitation in the Cascade Range that could lead to better understanding of where nitrogen fixation occurs in freshwater streams in the Pacific Northwest.

Nitrogen fixation converts nitrogen gas into a nutrient that is essential for all life. While there has been extensive research on nitrogen fixation in the open ocean, estuaries and lakes, comparatively little research has been done on nitrogen fixation in freshwater streams. Nitrogen fixation typically occurs in nutrient-poor streams like those in the Cascades. It may be critical to supporting the food web, including insects and fish, in Cascadian streams. Jeanette established the nutrient status of the study streams, which helps to predict where this process is important.


Students and instructor looking into a plastic tub.
Ellie Barber (center) and Danielle Ringo at work with Jim Cooper, instructor of biology, in Cooper’s fish laboratory.

Studying jaw protusion in fish for insights into evolutionary changes in organisms

Ellie Barber and Danielle Ringo are working with Jim Cooper, instructor of biology, to study why jaw protrusion does or does not occur during the development in fish that could lead to insights into how organisms evolve and when.

Fish develop different feeding biomechanics in their lifespan that determines their economic feeding niche and where they fall on the food chain. Using high-speed filming techniques, the team is working to pinpoint the precise phase during metamorphosis in which the feeding biomechanics of young fish begin to resemble that of adult fish with protrusile jaws. By using gene expression labelling and transcriptome comparative analysis, they hope to gain a clearer insight as to exactly how and why these morphological changes occur in the wild.


Student working with plants.
Javier Chavez Lara works in the greenhouse at WSU Tri-Cities as part of his Chancellor’s Summer Scholars experience.

Determining impact of fungi on tomato plants

Javier Chavez Lara is working with Tanya Cheeke, assistant professor of biology, to determine the impact of a type of fungi on the growth of tomato plants, specifically comparing highly-bred tomato plants with less-domesticated wild type varieties.

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi forms symbiotic relationships with most plant species by colonizing plant roots to provide the plants with nutrients and water in exchange for carbon. Plants grown in conditions of high fertilization and other agricultural practices reduce the ability of the fungi to colonize their roots. Chavez Lara hypothesizes that the less-domesticated wild-type varieties will have a greater growth response with the fungi than the highly-bred tomato plants. The project will allow for the development of a model system to test mechanisms that regulate the level of the fungi colonization in plant roots.

Read about all of the Chancellor Summer Scholars at the WSU Tri-Cities website.

Top image: Lilly (center) in the lab with Bakker (left) and Roley.

By Maegan Murray for WSU Tri-Cities