Four faculty members from The University of Tulsa’s College of Engineering and Natural Sciences recently received a $461,162 research grant from the National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation program. The grant allows the principal investigator, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Javen Weston, and his team of co-investigators to purchase a high-pressure, high-temperature small angle X-ray scattering instrument. Weston’s team includes Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Nagu Daraboina, Associate Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry Erin Iski and Associate Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry Gabriel LeBlanc.
This device will enable the study of all types of nanoscale materials, from solar cells to pharmaceuticals and wax crystals in oil pipelines to consumer products like the shampoo you use every morning. It will be useful for research in an array of areas, including sustainable plastics, biomedical technology and the distribution of oil through pipelines.
Twenty-one researchers from TU, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, University of Central Oklahoma, Southwestern Oklahoma State University and the University of Arkansas provided letters of support for the NSF grant and have plans to use the device for experiments. It will be the only one of its kind in Oklahoma, making TU a hub for regional nanoscale research. The instrument is expected to arrive and be installed in 2023.
Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Erin Iski has spent the past four months as a Fulbright Scholar at Charles University in Prague, advancing her research and enjoying all the sights and experiences being in Europe offers. Here are her thoughts and insights on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The choice to come to Prague was very deliberate. In 2018, I met Anna Fučíková at a nanoscience conference in Brno, Czech Republic. At that time, it was clear that there is substantial overlap between our research areas and that our projects would benefit from collaboration.
When I applied for the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in 2021, Anna and I thought it was a long shot as it was my first time to apply. But we were surprised and delighted that it was successful, and I was able to come over to Prague this spring for about four months.
The major benefit of this collaboration is that Anna is an expert in the field of Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) and the imaging of molecules at Charles University. This is extremely helpful to me because I have worked my entire career on a different type of microscopy — Scanning Tunneling Microscopy. I therefore needed guidance and training on this new type of microscopy. The reason AFM is so critical is that my main research project — investigating molecular interactions on a gold surface — was hindered because we were not able to actually “see” the molecules on the microscope at TU.
I am thrilled to report that, as the grant window is winding down, I have successfully imaged what we believe to be the molecules on the gold surface. This is a resounding win for such a short time period! Our next goal is to write the results into a communication article and to submit a National Science Foundation grant focused on continuing our collaboration in the Czech Republic.
On the personal side, the experience of living in Prague has been absolutely life-changing.
I have long desired the opportunity to live in Europe, as I skipped over study abroad options in my younger years to race towards my ultimate career goals. But, in doing so, I accumulated considerable regret for not having had the experience of living overseas.
As an avid traveler, I am always looking forward to my next adventure, and moving to Prague as a Fulbright Scholar proved to be the best one yet. The people, the culture and the city are a perfect match with my personality, not only in terms of ease and convenience, but also in helping me to look outside my familiar comfort zones as I attempted to learn some Czech conversational phrases and truly live in a place very different from where I come from (Tulsa!).
Some of my favorite experiences have been walking around in this very pedestrian-friendly city with no particular destination in mind and gazing at all of the gorgeous architecture and beautiful parks and green spaces. I also love the ease of traveling by public transportation, including the trams, which allow you to see many sights as you go across town. I have also done quite a bit of traveling in the Czech Republic as well as Germany, Austria and Hungary, which has been incredibly easy and lovely.
What I have enjoyed most of all is getting to know my Czech and Fulbright colleagues. I have formed some very real friendships that have allowed me to grow substantially and reminded me that the world is simultaneously a much bigger place, but also welcoming and wonderful. I urge everyone to visit this part of Europe as, in many ways, it is an untapped treasure, and I am hopeful to return frequently.
Erin Iski, Ph.D., is an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Her research focuses on the study of the interactions of biomolecules on metal surfaces under realistic conditions for origin-of-life investigations.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) administers some of STEM’s most prestigious awards. These fellowships comprise a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees. Because of this, the program is highly selective (in 2020, 13,000 people applied but only 2,000 received funding). This year, five University of Tulsa students received GRFP fellowships – clearly, their futures are shining bright.
McKinney is thrilled to have been chosen from such a densely packed field of candidates. With her double major in physics and applied mathematics and her minor in computer science, McKinney is particularly interested in applications of plasma physics. “Plasma is the most common state of ordinary matter in the universe. Stars are composed of plasma and lightning strikes create plasma,” explained McKinney. “Plasma is essentially an ionized or charged gas, which gives it unique properties, such as being electrically conductive, and its motion is partially governed by collective and externally applied electromagnetic fields.” It is this component, along with plasma’s wide-ranging applications in technology, including nuclear fusion, space propulsion, space physics and semiconductor manufacturing, that McKinney hopes to address in her graduate research.
As she reflected on her TU years, McKinney emphasized the encouragement she has received from Brett McKinney (no relation), a professor of computer science and bioinformatics. McKinney was thrilled to learn that Lanie’s hard work had been rewarded so generously, noting the privilege he felt to be a part of her academic journey through the theoretical physics research they worked on together. “Lanie adds so much to the university, and she is highly deserving of this honor,” stated McKinney. “I am excited to watch her career develop at MIT and beyond.”
Biochemistry and math major Emily Cook (Class of 2022) will be attending the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign next fall to pursue a doctorate in chemistry. With her NSF GRFP fellowship in hand, Cook plans on specializing in materials chemistry, a process that involves synthesizing and characterizing materials for biological applications.
“At TU, I have done research on the interaction of amino acids on an atomically thin silver layer on a gold surface using electrochemical scanning tunneling microscopy,” Cook noted. “When I’m in graduate school, I would like to research nanoparticle synthesis and functionalization for biosensing or using biomolecules to create materials with useful properties like self-healing capabilities.”
Cook credits Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Erin Iski as a major influence in her development as a scientist over the past four years. “Emily has been an outstanding member of my research lab,” said Iski. “In the time we have worked together, she has not only helped to collect publishable data, but has also helped to write two peer-reviewed journal articles, mentored students, acted as lab manager for two years and received numerous awards at international conferences.” Iski knew when she first met Cook that she was extremely capable and bright, and feels gratified seeing her recognized for her work and future career goals. “I am excited to see where her future leads,” Iski stated; “no doubt it will be amazing.”
Olivia Pletcher is currently working toward a Ph.D. in TU’s Department of Biological Sciences as a member of the Brown Lab. As a student in the field of ecology, Pletcher studies the reproductive success of cliff swallows. A member of the Cliff Swallow Project, Pletcher’s interest revolves around the fluctuating selection of group size among these birds.
“I go to western Nebraska every summer and I monitor about 40-50 colonies, which can contain anywhere from one to over 2,000 nests,” reported Pletcher. Her observations allow her to keep track of nestling survival, reproductive success and ectoparasite loads of nests throughout the summer. “My goal is to compare the reproductive success of cliff swallows across different sized colonies throughout several years.”
While she was still an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Pletcher was hired on as a research assistant at TU by Professor of Biological Science Charles Brown, whom she helped with his long-term fieldwork on cliff swallows. At TU, Brown is now supervising Pletcher’s doctoral studies. “Olivia loves to research, and she already has more field experience than many graduate students,” said Brown. “I expect her to have many important research findings by the time she finishes graduate school. I congratulate Olivia on an impressive research career to date, and believe the sky is the limit for her.”
TU alumna Maddie Pickett (BS ‘20), now a student in the doctoral program in biomedical engineering at The University of Texas-Austin, also received NSF GRFP funding. Pickett’s program takes an average of 5.5 years to complete and requires both coursework and work under an advisor. At UT-Austin, Picket is a member of The Parekh Lab, which uses a variety of microscopy methods, among them coherent Raman and nonlinear fluorescence, to study fundamental processes in soft matter systems from force transduction in cells and materials to subtle biochemical modifications in metabolic disorders. “My research aims to use a dynamic in vitro cell culture model and advanced label-free, nonlinear microscopy to evaluate the impact of extracellular matrix orientation and density on postpartum breast cancer cellular metabolism,” explained Pickett.
One of the most important benefits of the fellowship for Pickett is the autonomy it will provide for her as a researcher. Because the fellowship comes with a stipend, Pickett is relieved knowing she will not have to rely on external sources of funding for the rest of her doctoral studies. She also noted the networking benefits of the award for allowing her to connect with other recipients and travel far and wide to participate in important conferences.
Pickett credits her undergraduate research mentor and Wellspring Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Gabriel LeBlanc with having contributed a great deal to her scholarly success. For his part, LeBlanc noted the various leadership roles, including the SA presidency, that Pickett took on outside of the rigorous curriculum in the chemistry and biochemistry department. “If the NSF GRFP fellowship represents one of the most prestigious awards that a graduate student can earn,” stated LeBlanc, “then Maddie is a stellar example of the type of researcher that the fellowship is meant to support. I am eager to see the products of her research over the next few years!
Samuel Taylor (BS ’20) will begin doctoral studies in cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, in the fall. Currently working as a research specialist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR), Taylor received his degrees from TU in computer science and mathematics with a minor in psychology in 2020. While at TU, Taylor’s research involved mission-planning and path-planning systems for unmanned aerial vehicles in adversarial, multi-agent environments: “In brief,” said Taylor, “artificial decision-making systems for drones.” Taylor also carried out a summer research internship, jointly with research at TU and LIBR, that served as the basis for his passion for the cognitive sciences.
His current research at LIBR involves the design and study of computational models of decision-making as they pertain to better phenotyping of neuropsychiatric disorders. “I study the decision-making processes of people with anxiety, depression or substance use disorders to determine if there are significant, quantifiable differences in those populations from populations without those disorders. This may provide better treatment targets and help the field move towards individualized diagnoses, alongside an improved understanding of the dynamics underlying cognition generally.”
“In many ways,” said Taylor, “my research interests have become a fusion of what I am currently working on at LIBR and what I previously worked on at TU.” Taylor’s fellowship will aid his research at UC San Diego involving the computational and mathematical modeling of mental processes and neural signals at the intersection of computer science, psychology, neuroscience and mathematics: “I am particularly focused on probabilistic models of human decision-making, specifically the relationship between decision-making algorithms in artificial intelligence and decision-making processes in humans.”
Hazel Rogers Associate Professor of Media Studies Ben Peters recalls Taylor’s studious qualities as top tier: “In over 15 years of teaching high-octane students around the world, I would rank Samuel as one of the most natively philosophically and naturally broadminded interlocutors on science and technology as a humane question.” Taylor entered Peter’s Honors course years ago, and since then, Peters remarked, he has been “fortunate to be regularly dazzled and lifted by Samuel’s quiet, brilliant ways.”
“This recognition supports Dr. Chabowski’s well-regarded research in international marketing and sustainability, plus his professional background provides a solid foundation for his proposed Fulbright projects,” remarked Acting Provost Tracy Manly. “For Dr. Iski, the Fulbright award allows her to advance her work at this critical stage of her career and then share the findings with the growing number of TU students who are interested in the intersection of biology and chemistry.”
Sustainability in Finland
Beginning in August 2021, Chabowski will research for nine months at the University of Vaasa in partnership with the Fulbright Finland Foundation as part of a series of projects that examine domestic and international aspects of environmental, social and economic sustainability implementation. “Since I began studying the topic of sustainability over a decade ago,” Chabowski said, “it has been well known that Finland is a model country which has successfully implemented widespread sustainability projects in the private and public sectors in a very comprehensive manner on a local, national, and international scale.”
His proposal includes four distinct projects to begin while in Finland. These plans focus on international social ventures; marketing channel sustainability; emergent and sustainable energy solutions for small and medium enterprises; and digital entrepreneurship and sustainability competitiveness. He intends to coordinate with local partners of the University of Vaasa, such as the Vaasa Energy Business Innovation Centre, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship InnoLab and the Technobothnia research and development laboratory to survey local businesses on their domestic and international sustainability-related initiatives. “It is a great honor to be selected as a Fulbright scholar, and I want to take this exceptional opportunity to conduct in-country research and then return with newly gained insights to apply to real-life classroom examples as well as elsewhere at TU.”
Under the microscope in the Czech Republic
Based at Charles University in Prague, Iski will focus on the use of specialized microscopy to understand and investigate biological molecules on gold nanoparticles. Her work is pertinent to a variety of fields, including origin of life studies, in which it is critical to understand how small biological molecules interact on metal surfaces and perhaps join together to grow larger structures, such as proteins. Iski’s collaboration with Anna Fučíková in Prague is essential to the success of the larger project because Fučíková’s group is particularly suited to understanding these interactions under biological conditions. “In many ways,” noted Iski, “this scholarship presents the natural next step in my foundational work at TU.”
Becoming a Fulbright Global Scholar has been a career goal of Iski’s for as long as she knew the opportunity existed. “Now, not only will I have the chance to perform transformative research in a group that specializes in my niche research area, but I also get to create lasting cultural and academic relationships in one of the most amazing places in Europe.” Iski added that, given her ancestral background is in Eastern Europe, she looks forward to immersing herself in the culture, history and language of the Czech Republic. “And after learning about the Fulbright mission, I believe these goals are exactly what was intended in the founding of this program.”
The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to forge lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, to counter misunderstandings and to help people and nations work together toward common goals. Since its establishment in 1946, the Fulbright Program has enabled more than 390,000 dedicated and accomplished students, scholars, artists, teachers and professionals of all backgrounds to study, teach, conduct research, exchange ideas and discover solutions to shared international concerns.
When an undergraduate student approached University of Tulsa Assistant Professor of Chemistry Erin Iski with a new strategy for laboratory learning, no one expected the idea to result in almost four years of research and a published paper. But that’s exactly what happened when Iski encouraged chemistry and music education major Greg Jones and chemistry doctoral student Jesse Phillips to pursue a new project.
“Using a Guided-Inquiry Approach to Teach Michaelis–Menten Kinetics” was published in the American Chemistry Society’s Journal of Chemical Education on July 3, explaining how Iski, Jones and Phillips applied a guided inquiry-based system of lab instruction to this specific type of physical chemical kinetics.
“My research with former TU Professor Justin Chalker had led me to perform kinetics experiments to investigate the efficacy of a molecule as an enzyme inhibitor,” Jones said. “For me, it was these research experiences that formed the foundation of my chemistry education at TU.”
A teaching tool Iski described as “fun and different,” the strategy involved two components: an inquiry-based exploratory approach to lab data collection and asking students to create their own experimental design involving Michaelis-Menten kinetics and inhibition.
“Here in this department, we’re progressively improving laboratory procedures, which are almost always very arcane — they don’t tend to work,” Iski said. “As faculty, we focus mostly on lecture and that takes most of our time, but students spend three hours every week in labs.”
Guided, inquiry-based learning
Phillips, who completed his Ph.D. degree in chemistry in May and now works as assistant director of research and development at Xcaliber International in Tulsa, said physical chemical kinetics is a challenging concept to teach at the undergraduate level. However, by using a guided inquiry approach, student post-assessment scores recorded after the two-week Michaelis-Menten lab rotation improved greatly compared to pre-assessment marks. Students were provided material to review at home on their own time in preparation for the lab series. Week one involved designing and implementing a method to collect data on a simple kinetically-driven chemical reaction and then develop a means to inhibit this Michaelis-Menton enzymatic reaction as well as identify the type of inhibition in week two.
“I was present for the entire lab and tried to direct students in a way that would facilitate good results without explicitly telling them what to do,” Phillips explained. “Determining the type of inhibition they needed to prevent a chemical reaction allowed them to learn a lot about the overall kinetics process. They may not have even realized they were learning chemical kinetics in a more efficient way.”
The spike in post-assessment results suggests students learn more when the instruction is self-directed, Phillips said. “Students have a greater uptake of knowledge when they’re in charge of their own learning it versus sitting in a lecture hall where it can be more difficult to follow the instruction.”
Chemistry and biochemistry juniors participated in the lab experiment, and the assessment results of 37 students from two iterations of the lab were featured in the ACS paper. Research that is focused more on education in chemistry rather than experimental surface chemistry in a traditional sense is what distinguishes the paper from other published projects in her research lab, Iski explained. Instead of proposing an exact series of steps paired with specific lab instructions, students were given more freedom to solve a question by examining the Michaelis-Menten kinetics and understanding the potential reactions on their own. The research showed learning in an inquiry-based way helps students understand Michaelis-Menten kinetics more effectively.
“This is a topic I also teach in lecture but in a lecture you have maybe 20 minutes on a concept, sometimes 30, so you don’t have time to get into the nitty-gritty about how you would actually measure the kinetics in a real setting,” Iski said. “This new idea of students developing their own experimental designs has been growing in the education literature over the past 10 years, and publication in July, during the summer, is a good time to catch the interest of professors who are working on their syllabi for the upcoming fall.”
Valuing the undergraduate perspective
What makes the research paper even more relevant is the fact that Jones, an undergraduate at the time, is the one who initially proposed the idea to help fellow undergraduates grasp such a tough chemistry concept. “Greg came to Dr. Iski and me while he was working in our lab and proposed using this type of inquiry-based lab to teach chemical kinetics,” Phillips said. “We worked together on the project while I completed my Ph.D.”
As the physical chemistry lab teaching assistant for the physical chemistry lab, Phillips facilitated the experiment, while much of the initial prep work was completed by Jones. “Greg created a rubric we used to make sure the grading was very uniform in an attempt to prevent outliers when collecting data from students, grading lab reports and scoring pre- and post-lab assessments.”
A team effort for a universal technique
Once Jones completed his two undergraduate degrees in 2016, he was accepted to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology where he is currently pursuing a doctorate in chemistry. Despite the distance, Jones and Phillips kept the project going with weekly Skype updates, tweaking the experiment from iterations one and two, double-checking each other’s lab analyses and making additional lab changes based on what Phillips experienced in the lab. Other TU chemistry and biochemistry faculty, such as Associate Professor Robert Sheaff and Professor William Potter, contributed to improvements in the lab.
“Inquiry-based laboratories bring raw creative design and evaluation skills to the forefront of the educational experience, not only making for better chemists, but undergirding a strong liberal arts education that should be the mission of a university,” Jones said.
After three years of data collection that indicated the success of a guided, inquiry-based lab, Jones and Phillips developed the charts and graphs, gathered statistics, drafted the first version of the paper for Iski to review and began the diligent process of publishing a paper in a nationally known and peer-reviewed scientific journal.
“It’s definitely a universal technique that can be used for anyone in the scientific field to get a better understanding of many different scientific subjects,” Phillips said.
One of the main takeaways from the paper, Iski said, is that Jones and Phillips “worked very hard and iteratively improved the lab over the course of three years, something that took significant effort and time.” The inquiry-based concept generated a 10-point jump in conceptual understanding between iteration one and two, and the group has several ideas for a third version. “It’s positive in the field to see that you don’t just write a lab and let it sit and never make any improvements to it. We can use it once and then use the students’ responses to make it stronger for the next time. We don’t live just in research land or education land, it’s the two coming together and that’s why I like how these two students took up the project and said, ‘let’s publish this.’”
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