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Scientists and Students, Side by Side

By Nancy Zeller

Photo of biology senior Laina Weinman by Nancy Zeller.

Photo of biology senior Laina Weinman by Nancy Zeller.

New innovative scientific research opportunities at American University are changing the lives and future careers of undergraduate researchers.  

Last summer forty students had the opportunity to work side by side with faculty mentors in research labs across campus. They also attended weekly seminars on scientific research. The students gained valuable experience in everything from making stable buffer solutions to managing high-vacuum systems, lasers, optics, and data collection hardware.  

The research projects were conducted in the Departments of Psychology, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Environmental Science, and Mathematics and Statistics. 

The students said that their experiences have helped shape their futures in a variety of ways. “Several students decided to shift to research careers and post-graduate education,” said Nancy Zeller, science teaching labs coordinator for the College. “Others choose medical school but with an emphasis on medical research. All appreciated the experiential approach to problem solving and the excitement of finding something that no one may have known before.”


In the Physics Lab  

Junior Sam Hickey, worked in the lab of physics professor Gregory Harry over the summer. He and Harry are members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a group of nearly 1,000 scientists, engineers, and students working to detect gravitational waves in the universe based on Einstein’s theory of gravity. Hickey is helping Harry figure out ways to minimize the background noise of the detectors caused by thermal vibrations. He measured properties of mirrors and other materials in the detectors to predict the thermal noise, and then he attempted to find materials with less noise to include in designs for the future.  

Hickey is continuing this work as a research assistant during his junior year. However, he is also shifting in a new exciting direction. He is planning on using the data collection hardware system in a way that could facilitate understanding science information in the political arena and may affect science policy. He will begin by transitioning to a project helping LIGO scientists to communicate with the public sector: politicians, staffers, journalists, and citizens.  

"Professor Harry has accommodated my dual interests in physics and international relations with this project so that I may begin to understand the world of science policy," said Hickey. 


In the Biology Lab 

Senior Laina Weinman worked with Biology Professor Naden Krogan. Krogan is researching how the regulation of gene expression influences plant growth and development. Weinman used sophisticated molecular techniques to determine that a number of genes normally expressed only in the flower of the plant are incorrectly used throughout all tissues in a mutant plant. The work contributes to our understanding of the genetic regulation of plant reproductive structures, and therefore could reveal strategies for improving food productivity in the future.  

This process of planning experiments and analyzing results has made a strong impression on Weinman. "This experience was pivotal in my science career and has given me confidence, direction, and a deeper connection to science,” she said. “I am now planning on including research in my career path, and have even decided to pursue a master’s degree in some type of biomedical research before continuing on to medical school. I also know that I will incorporate research into my medical training and career."  

Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Seminars

Hickey and Weinman also attended AU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) seminars. Faculty from all the science departments offered the 40 students weekly lunch seminars on a variety of subjects related to scientific research. The students received valuable insights on a range of topics, including how national grants funding for research and the ethical use of animals and human subjects in experimentation. 

The SURE seminar series and opportunities for student research are valuable educational experiences for the undergraduates and contribute to the growth of science research on the campus.


For More Information about Research Opportunities

For information about undergraduate science research opportunities at AU, contact Nancy Zeller, coordinator of the science teaching labs at, and plan on attending the next Science Research Open House on January 16, 2015, in the Battelle Atrium.