Like Hope students who traverse and learn internationally during the summer months, many Hope professors do the same. One such example is a focused and lively international faculty development workshop, co-directed by Dr. Joanne Stewart of Hope’s chemistry department, which brought together liberal arts science professors from around the world during the summer of 2017.
The Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA) Science Teaching Workshop, established by Stewart and two other colleagues from the GLAA, was held in Athens, Greece, for four days in June with roughly half of the participants from American liberal arts colleges and half from international liberal arts schools in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Greece. Its main intention: bring together 26 international science and engineering faculty to build and engage a cross-cultural community to share ideas, resources, and enthusiasm about teaching and learning in the sciences.
A year in the making and funded by a grant from the GLAA, the first-time workshop was a success on several levels, says Stewart. Besides getting international liberal arts faculty together for bonding time, they also “talked shop.” Best practice discussions abounded for implementing primary scientific literature in the classroom; sharing assessment, pedagogy and action research techniques; co-developing new interdisciplinary curricula; and, troubleshooting particular difficulties that faculty encounter.
“It confirmed for me that Hope is well-positioned with respect to all the different ways science is being taught.”
“Hope College desires the globalization of our students’ educations,” Stewart says, “but I believe it’s important also to build connections with international colleagues, especially those in the liberal arts. It was so good for me to engage with this kind of faculty development because of the broad range of teaching expertise I was exposed to. My international and American colleagues use techniques that range from traditional instruction to a more holistic approach. And it confirmed for me that Hope is well-positioned with respect to all the different ways science is being taught.”
Within a very detailed and active four-day agenda, participants were given some flexibility and downtime, too. Stewart remembers on the last day of the workshop, a group of professors finished a project ahead of schedule. For the remaining hour-and-a-half, they simply talked with each other about their challenges and joys of teaching science.
“And they took notes — like good science faculty — about all they discussed and gave them to us (the co-directors). They talked about what each of them do with student evaluations, how they grade, how they run labs without money. They bonded over science-teaching problems and solutions.”
“Seeing the commonality of issues across the GLAA community, across many disciplines gives me confidence that I can apply many of the tools I learned at the workshop into my own courses.”
Stewart has plans to offer the workshop again in a year or two. In the meantime, this initial community of science educators lives on virtually with their own collaborative website. They have also been Skype-ing into each other’s classrooms, another way science teaching is becoming more globalized. And they’ll put into use those best practices they learned for four days in Greece, proving good teaching and cross-cultural learning partner to bring new friends together anywhere in the world.
They have never met but they are on the same team. Their uniforms are different but they don them with solidarity of purpose. And though they play different positions, they desire the same outcome. The soccer player and the scientist want to beat cancer.
Purple means funding. Purple stands for awareness. Purple gives hope.
And the color purple unites them. Is there a prettier color to represent a longed-for cure of this ugly disease? It signifies VAI’s grassroots fund-raising program, called Purple Community, connecting individuals, schools, teams and businesses to the resources needed to join the fight against cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Purple means funding. Purple stands for awareness. Purple gives hope.
And in January, 2017, purple equaled $8,691.89. That was the amount raised by Hope athletes during a Purple Community Game on Hope’s campus. The funds are financing the stipend, and other expenses, for a Hope student to be a VAI summer intern, a unique way Hope athletics partners with Hope academics. Wittenbach is one such athlete. Versluis is this summer’s intern.
Whenever Allie Wittenbach puts on her soccer cleats — the ones with her mom’s initials, DJW, penned on the white Nike swoosh, and “Never Give Up” written on the sides — she remembers she is playing for something bigger than herself. Every practice. Every play. Every game. When the Purple Community Game rolls around, played in purple jerseys and paraphernalia to bring attention to and raise funds for cancer research at VAI, her sense of loss and hope is even more pronounced.
“There is definitely a different feeling in the air that day,” she says. “On Purple Game day, we are playing for those who are fighting and surviving cancer.” She pauses and her voice trails off a bit but does not tremble. “Or those who are no longer with us. They are, and were, the ones battling harder than we ever could on the field.”
Wittenbach became heavily involved in Purple Community Games long before she arrived at Hope. At her high school, Forest Hills Central, she became a whole-hearted Purple Community member after her mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. While there, she was instrumental in raising over $100,000 for VAI ‘s cancer-cure effort.
“There is definitely a different feeling in the air that day. On Purple Game day, we are playing for those who are fighting and surviving cancer.” She pauses and her voice trails off a bit but does not tremble.
Once at Hope, Wittenbach rallied forces again to raise even more money. Driven and intense, loving and loyal too, Wittenbach just wants to make a difference beyond the soccer pitch. It’s that plain and simple. Her commitment to cancer research is as purple as purple gets.
“This is a cause Allie is really passionate about but it is never all about her,” observes Head Women’s Soccer Coach Leigh Sears. “Last year, I left it to her to organize the event for our team and she had everyone involved. She is always so grateful for the opportunity to raise money and awareness for the cause.”
Debbie Wittenbach ended her battle with cancer in November of 2015, Allie’s sophomore year. The woman who knew just about everyone by their first name in her hometown of Ada, Michigan, and who never missed one of her children’s sporting events (Stephen Wittenbach also played basketball for Hope), left a legacy of strength and compassion as well an indelible mark on her community and her daughter. Allie talks about her mom with evident pride tinged by profound loss. But it’s clear she’s not asking for sympathy. She talks about her mom with great joy as a way to keep her memory alive.
“Everybody knows somebody who has been affected by cancer. I’m not the only one who’s lost a loved one too young…. But I would not trade the 20 years I got with my mom for 100 years with anybody else,” Allie says. “You can quote me on that.”
Philip Versluis commutes to VAI in downtown Grand Rapids from his hometown of nearby Walker, Michigan, long before the traffic gets thick. He takes the elevator to his fifth-floor lab and starts his day by checking the incubator he set up the night before, well after 6:00 p.m. Research is not a 9-to-5 job, he says. It’s dedicated to questions and experiments that have little consideration of a clock. And that is why the whip-smart Versluis likes it. No two days worked, or the results derived, are exactly alike. Even if those days and experiments try his patience and stamina.
“When you do research, most of the time you just fail,” he confides. “It’s rather remarkable how many times you can perform an experiment and see it get infected, or it doesn’t develop well. So then you redo it over with the hopes that it works next time. When it does, when you find that one bit of information that leads to another question that leads to another experiment, that is pretty cool. And the more you dig in, the cooler it gets.”
Versluis has been digging in for three summers now under the direction of Dr. Scott Rothbart, assistant professor in the Center for Epigenetics at VAI, who supervises five other lab assistants too. The two previous summers Versluis worked as an intern funded by the Meijer Foundation. As he continues on with cancer research this summer thanks to funding designated from the Hope Purple Community Game (“For which I am very appreciative,” he says), Versluis embraces the complexities of his work that specifically deals with the mechanisms of DNA control. Knowing more about genomic information inside various, specific cells — be they the peculiarities of brain, blood, liver or lung cells — gives researchers better knowledge about molecular drivers of cancer.
We expect a lot from human-made technology. So why is it then that we haven’t cured cancer?
And it’s the knowing that takes time and money. A lot of time and money. We’ve gotten men to the moon, constructed an information highway, talk on phones that move with us, and built monoliths of modern design. We expect a lot from human-made technology. So why is it then that we haven’t cured cancer? It turns out the human body is much more complicated than any one of those other things.
“Different cancers act differently,” says Rothbart. “And they affect different people differently. The types of approaches that would be effective for treating one type of cancer are ineffective for treating another type of cancer because they are driven by completely different mechanisms.”
In other words, curing cancer is like taking aim at a constantly morphing bull’s eye even though the target may look somewhat the same. But there is hope on the not-too-distant horizon because “for some cancers, the idea of a cure is within reach,” Rothbart adds. “For other types of cancer, the idea of converting these deadly diseases into chronic diseases that are abated with a pill once a day, like diabetics use insulin, may be a way to manage cancer. We may not be able to get rid of every single cancer cell but we may be able to hold the system down where you can live a long healthy life as long as you take your pill.”
Having assurances like that from Rothbart keeps Wittenbach focused on Purple Community efforts at Hope and inspires Versluis to continue research after graduation from Hope, as he’ll soon apply to Ph.D. programs in molecular biology. The two Hope students may not know each other but they share the same commitment to be the change they want to see in the medical world. The soccer player needs the scientist and vice versa.
“You don’t have to be only in the lab to help this cause. We all play a part. That’s why these games matter.”
“I can’t be in the lab but Philip can and is and I respect him for that. We need him there,” says Wittenbach, a communication and business double major. “But you don’t have to be only in the lab to help this cause. We all play a part. That’s why these games matter.”
Water is life. Our liquid reliance is embedded in 70% of our world’s geography and makes up 60% of our bodies, after all. Yet, nearly one billion people do not have access to safe water.
Boiled down: One in eight people worldwide cannot find clean, drinking water.
And that’s exactly why the Hope College Engineers Without Borders (EWB-Hope) chapter traveled to Kenya in May 2017. Only 57% of Kenya’s population has sustainable access to clean water sources, according to the World Health Organization. By comparison, the United States measures 99%.
For three weeks, in a rural area called Bondo just outside Migori in southwest Kenya, Adam Peckens, laboratory director for the engineering department, and seven Hope students, coordinated and engineered the installation of two wells and a rainwater catchment system. Their efforts — financed through EWB-Hope’s own fundraisers and a crowd-funding program initiated by the College Development Office — ultimately changed the lives of over 500 local residents whose previous access to clean water was an hour’s walk, each way. EWB-Hope went on a mission to give water for life.
Their efforts ultimately changed the lives of over 500 local residents whose previous access to clean water was an hour’s walk, each way.
This was not EWB-Hope’s first trip to the Bondo area. The chapter — under the advisement of Dr. Courtney Peckens, assistant professor of engineering — has partnered with the community for three years and has made two previous excursions there — the first in 2015 to determine what water residents had access to (very minimal, very seasonal, and very contaminated); the second, in 2016, to attempt a well installation that unfortunately was not successful. This year, however, the team struck it water-rich. By the end of their stay, they watched their new Kenyan friends gratefully use hand pumps to access clean water close to home.
For all of the manual and mind hours it took to make living waters flow, none of the work hammered out by EWB-Hope in Africa or on campus prior to departure, was done for college credit. Instead the sheer satisfaction of knowing fellow human beings could now drink clean water was reward enough.
“It was a great learning experience where it’s not necessarily an equation you’re trying to solve for a grade like in an engineering class, but a real-life problem affecting real people.”
“It was a big success story for our students and the (EWB) chapter overall. They really pushed forward to get the work done,” says Peckens, an environmental engineer who worked on many different groundwater remediation projects around Michigan and the Midwest, before coming to Hope in 2014. “It was a great learning experience where it’s not necessarily an equation you’re trying to solve for a grade like in an engineering class, but a real-life problem affecting real people. It’s taking in all of the factors around that problem and trying to come up with the best solution. And that solution might not be perfect, but it works.”
To his point, Peckens recalls how designs changed once the team got on the ground in Kenya. Though the full drawing set and a mock build of the catchment system worked just fine in the engineering lab on campus, “when we got there, circumstances were different, of course,” he observes. “We lacked some of the same supplies or the right tools (we had back home), and multiple trips to the hardware store in Bondo meant we had to adapt the design in the field. It was a good hands-on experience for the students to see that not everything works out as you planned so how are you going to troubleshoot that.”
“It was a good hands-on experience for the students to see that not everything works out as you planned so how are you going to troubleshoot that.”
Another challenge was the language barrier. The Bondo residents speak Luo, a dialect of Nilotic languages. The Hope team did not have that language skill in their toolkit so dependence on their guide and interpreter, Paul O’lango, was heavy, especially at that Bondo hardware store.
“Part of our project requirements was to locally source as many components as possible,” explains senior mechanical engineering major Rilee Bouwkamp from Holland, Michigan. “For the rainwater catchment system built at a local church, this meant finding a 10,000-liter water storage tank, saw, gutters, nails, hanger straps, the works. Most of the frustration came with trips to the hardware store in nearby Migori that would take almost an entire afternoon. Trying to explain what we needed was difficult even with a translator’s help and a sense of urgency in Kenyan culture is rare. Overall, our team learned to be patient and we began to understand that this aspect of the project was out of our control.”
“In the process Hope students discover they have so much impact not just mechanically but in local relationships.”
Dr. Courtney Peckens has been EWB-Hope’s faculty advisor since she returned to Hope to teach in 2013. (And yes, Courtney and Adam are a husband-wife team.) A Hope graduate of the class of 2006 who participated in EWB herself (she travelled to Cameroon to install bio-sand filters), Peckens knows full well how much the program changes lives… and not just those who now are able to get clean water. “This program is a good fit for us. It ‘s a way for Hope engineering students to use their God-given talents to help people,” she says, “and in the process they discover they have so much impact not just mechanically but in local relationships.”
“My favorite memory of the entire trip was interacting with the community members because they showed me how to appreciate the little things in life,” concurs sophomore mechanical engineering major Kaytlyn Ihara from South Lyon, Michigan. “Compared to what we have in the United States, they have very little. Even though they don’t have the luxuries that we Americans have, they always had a smile on their face. They always were thanking us, but I can never thank them all enough for all that they showed me. Now being back in the States, it has really taught me to take nothing for granted.”
Now that clean, safe, reliable, living water flows in Bondo maintaining relationships is as important as maintaining systems.
EWB-Hope will continue to get updates from O’lango about once a week and then they’ll return to Kenya within the year, this time for a monitoring trip to check on the status of the wells and catchment system as well as the lives of their new friends. “We aren’t a group that comes in and installs an engineering system and then leaves without any future contact,” says Courtney. “We are in this for long-term solutions for people.”
Now clean, living water flows in Bondo. And so do beautiful, cross-cultural relationships. Both, it turns out, are necessities of life.
If they could have projected their 10-year-old futures after graduating from Hope, Rachel Bakken ’09 Romero and Greg Pavlak ’09 may have never seen another opportunity to work together again. Yet, maybe their engineering minds could have forecasted the possibility, albeit a small one. They did, after all, both graduate as mechanical engineering majors the same year, after taking multiple classes together on the same course sequence. They both had the same interest in building science, and they both ended up at the same graduate school, too — University of Colorado-Boulder — for a period of time to earn graduate degrees in the subject (Romero with a master’s; Pavlak with a doctorate).
So this past April, when they had the chance to work together again, though briefly, it was to culminate another engineering project for the sake of Hope students and energy efficient construction. Romero, as an energy engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, was helping to direct the Race to Zero Student Design Competition, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy that challenges collegiate students to design zero energy ready homes. Pavlak, as a visiting assistant professor of engineering at Hope, was mentoring three Hope engineering majors in their year-long senior design project for that competition.
Together, two alums and three soon-to-be alums, were making known the quality of Hope’s engineering program on a national stage. Of the 50 institutions that submitted designs to the Race to Zero competition, 40 were chosen while 39 teams traveled to Golden to vie for the title. Of those 39, the Hope team was the only one from a liberal arts, undergraduate institution. Baylie Mooney, Rachel Barbutti and Tiffany Oken — all members of the Hope engineering class of 2017 — put their quality work up against other teams from the University of Vermont, Syracuse University, Vanderbilt, and Purdue, Pavlak says, and learned a great deal about building science and themselves in the process.
“Dr. Roger Veldman called it a David and Goliath story. And it was. But even to be participating and competing against those other teams that had much more experience, specialized education, and funding was a testament to the hard work that our students put in to work out their design problems.”
“Some of the other teams they (Mooney, Barbutti, and Oken) were up against had these small armies of master’s and PhD engineers,” explains Pavlak. “(Hope engineering colleague) Roger Veldman called it a David and Goliath story. And it was. But even to be participating and competing against those other teams that had much more experience, specialized education, and funding, was a testament to the hard work that our students put in to work out their design problems.”
So, what was the Hope team’s project? Finding ways for the newest Hope housing project — Cook Village, currently under construction — to become so energy efficient that the building’s own renewable power can offset most or all its annual energy consumption. “We selected a Hope campus project partly because it was interesting and partly because of the timing,” Pavlak says. “Construction was starting on the next two buildings of the village last fall, and AMDG Architects, who did the original design, was still involved so we were able to work with them and get the detailed plans for these new buildings. We really approached it from the perspective of what can we do with this existing design to make it ready to meet the zero energy requirements for the competition. ”
Using energy modeling software to simulate, test, and derive proposed outcomes, Mooney, Barbutti, and Oken found they could take a Cook building from its base of 40% to 83% more efficient than the average home. To get there, they boosted insulation and mechanical systems quality, used strategic solar paneling, and took advantage of the relatively constant temp of the earth (roughly 50 degrees all year) to heat and cool the house with an enhanced geothermal system.
A skeptic might think that all of those energy upgrades might come at too high cost. But Mooney will be quick to tell them that it’s all not as expensive as they’d think. Especially considering the cost of energy consumption over the life of the eight-occupant, two-story home.
If they aren’t sustainability buzzwords already, “doable efficiency” just got elevated in the Hope engineering lexicon.
“We found through our updates that there was only a 2.7% pricing increase from the original bids for that building to the more energy efficient upgraded materials and systems we proposed,” says Mooney who hopes to go into building science for her career. “Considering that there was only a 2.7% cost increase, that was pretty impressive especially since we got so close to zero energy for a good size home (2800 square feet). It’s very exciting because significantly lowering energy use and cost for these already efficient (Cook Village) buildings seems doable.”
If they aren’t sustainability buzzwords already, “doable efficiency” just got elevated in the Hope engineering lexicon. Though the Hope team’s findings could not change energy efficiency for these recently completed buildings, future Cook Village buildings could use some of their recommendations. Either way, from Mooney’s perspective, everything about racing to zero was worth it. “The project, the competition and the trip out to Colorado — they were the highlight of my career at Hope,” she says.
“To have Hope playing on that level was a great way to get recognition for a strong program that is growing these really unique individuals who are well-rounded and well-educated. They don’t just speak engineering. They can literally speak Spanish, or they traveled abroad, or they play a sport. They are engineers with a liberal arts background, which of course I believe in.”
As for Romero, she was excited to have the opportunity to engage with and showcase Hope College students and faculty, especially one who was a former classmate, on her home turf of NREL where she has worked for seven years. And though Pavlak has recently taken a new position at Penn State and will be leaving Hope this summer, Romero hopes a Hope team will return to Race to Zero in the future.
“It was great to have others at NREL and in the competition know about Hope,” Romero explains. “To have Hope playing on that level was a great way to get recognition for a strong program that is growing these really unique individuals who are well-rounded and well-educated. They don’t just speak engineering. They can literally speak Spanish, or they traveled abroad, or they play a sport. They are engineers with a liberal arts background, which of course I believe in. Overall, I think the Hope team did a great job showing off the quality of Hope engineering.”
It’s the second-leading commodity traded in the world after oil, with a worldwide consumption of 2.2 billion cups per day. And, the United States is its leading consumer at 400 million cups daily. Yet, few people are aware of the scientific, political, historical and cultural implications swirling inside their cup of morning joe.
True scientific experiments are conducted using coffee as the vehicle to construct hypotheses, make predictions, collect data and evaluate outcomes.
Offered for the first time this spring, Bultman’s two-credit coffee course is just one of two of its kind taught at colleges and universities in the U.S. as far as he can tell (the other is offered at UC-Davis). While there are dozens of barista schools in the country that teach their students how to roast, grind and brew the perfect cup of coffee, this new class for college credit goes much deeper than that. True scientific experiments are conducted using coffee as the vehicle to construct hypotheses, make predictions, collect data and evaluate outcomes. How do acidity levels change in beans due to varying roasting times? What happens to the mass transfer of water and grounds during the brewing process? What is the anatomy of a coffee cherry fruit and how are beans harvested from within?
There are history lessons, too, about the global trade of the Coffea arabica beans and bush — a plant native to Ethiopia that helped create early agricultural routes throughout the sub-tropical world. Bultman, a professor of biology, also covers ground on the way coffee affects national economies, personal health and policies on fair trade and human rights. And knowing how much college students love their coffee for its social and caffeinated benefits, Bultman’s course is listed under Hope’s General Education Math and Science offerings which target non-science majors. It’s gives its pupils one truly eye-opening experience.
“This class has definitely increased my appreciation of coffee, especially in the roasting of it,” says sophomore Sarah Kalthoff of Carmel, Indiana. “I see all of the work and love that goes into the process. Coffee really brings people together throughout the world and I now recognized that when I go to a coffee shop here. So many people around the world — farmers, families, fair traders — are affected by the cup of coffee I’m drinking so it’s been great to see how coffee brings cultures together.”
Students in the class roast green coffee beans nine times during its half-semester schedule, using makeshift roasters that consist of an air popcorn popper, a tin can, and a small cooking thermometer. As the chaff from the beans pops like confetti from the contraptions’ tops during the roasting process, the lab becomes the best smelling classroom on campus. Students monitor the time, temperature, color and odor of the beans. Then later, they’ll brew and drink their roasted creations, experiencing the process of “cupping” to learn to how to discern and evaluate the taste of flavor notes — chocolate, butterscotch, molasses, raisin, for example — that are subtle but evident in good beans.
As if getting free morning coffee isn’t benefit enough (the course is offered at 9:30 am on Tuesday and Thursdays), Bultman even sets aside a class period for his students to learn how to create their own coffee mug in Hope’s ceramics studio under the guest tutelage of art professor Billy Mayer. Field trips to area businesses that roast and retail are also on the course syllabus.
Not surprisingly, this class on coffee has grown in popularity quickly. It’s been full to the brim each time it’s been offered (twice thus far) and the buzz around campus is that more students are clamoring to get in.
In this class, because all of us drink coffee, the knowledge is applicable to us. And we’re taking a class we’d never expect to take in college. This class to me is the definition of a liberal arts education.”
“It’s been a blast,” say the middle-aged Bultman who took up drinking coffee just three years ago and now admits to being a coffee geek. “Everyone who enrolls drinks coffee so it means something to them. And so many students don’t think about where coffee comes from or how it’s grown or brewed, it’s just one of those things we easily take for granted. Now they are more appreciative of all the work that goes into coffee before they sit down and drink a cup.”
“I technically didn’t have to take this class because all of my science requirements were done but when I saw the poster about it, I knew I had to take it,” comments junior communication major Sarah Gallagher of Chicago, Illinois. “A lot of college students who are not science majors say science and math classes are impractical to their lives but in this class, because all of us drink coffee, the knowledge is applicable to us. And we’re taking a class we’d never expect to take in college. This class to me is the definition of a liberal arts education.”
Time travel, long imagined by writers and dreamers, is not as far-fetched as you might believe. Sure, it seems fantastical and improbable — the imaginings of which are only meant for postulations and movies — but astrophysicists do it all the time.
And so did Hope College freshman Jeff Engle in the summer of 2016 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. All it took was expensive, highly powered, one-of-a-kind stellar equipment called the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. That and funding and guidance from the Hope College physics department and Professor Dr. Peter Gonthier.
Before ever taking one class at Hope, Engle spent his pre-freshmen summer as a member of the Hope physics department’s Research Bridge Program which operates with the belief that students should “learn physics by doing physics.”
Engle spent his pre-freshman summer in the physics department’s Research Bridge Program as part of the department’s philosophy that students should “learn physics by doing physics.” Before ever setting foot in his first Hope College class, Engle worked with two upperclassmen, Jesse Ickes ’16 and sophomore Josiah Brouwer, on pulsar star research with Gonthier at Goddard and at Hope.
Five incoming freshmen took part in the Bridge Research Program in 2016, and Dr. Stephen Remillard, chairperson of the department, hopes to expose as many 2017 freshmen to similarly strong laboratory experiences. “With the Physics Summer Bridge Program, incoming students who are seriously considering a career as a physicist have the opportunity to begin the real science that is one of the great pillars of a Hope College science education,” describes Remillard. “As they begin their first physics course, bridge students have already gained familiarity with the application of the knowledge. Ultimately, this undergraduate research will open doors for these students as they continue into industry, graduate programs, or wherever their scientific training takes them.”
Engle jumped into his first Hope research experience “kind of blindfolded because I’d never done anything like that before,” he admits. He found Gonthier and his fellow Hope students encouraging and supportive. “I was a little nervous because I was going to be working around well-known scientists (at Goddard).” But he embraced the experience nonetheless.
“Stars, such as pulsars, give off gamma and radio waves and these are filtered through the telescope which shows us the ways they were created billions of years ago,” says Gonthier. “Understanding pulsars helps us know more about our galactic center, about the beginning the universe.”
With Goddard’s Fermi (a cousin to the famed Hubble Telescope), Gonthier and crew were working with a virtual time machine. The telescope takes its users back in time and space to see the history of the entire universe written in the heavens beyond our sky. “Stars, such as pulsars, give off gamma and radio waves and these are filtered through the telescope which shows us the ways they were created billions of years ago,” says Gonthier. “Understanding pulsars helps us know more about our galactic center, about the beginning the universe.”
Gonthier has conducted research at Goddard for the past 24 summers, most years taking Hope students along with support from grant funding. His work in theoretical physics is helping to develop and test realistic descriptions of pulsars’ magnetospheres, important for the understanding of how neutron stars are able to produce radio and high-energy radiation pattern. His team worked last summer in the Goddard office of Nobel Laureate John Mather.
“It was definitely humbling to meet him and work in his office,” says Engle of cosmologist Mather, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite with George Smoot.
“One of the best things about getting to do research at Goddard was being able to see the way so many people of different nationalities come together to study one thing — our universe,” Engle says. “There were scientists there from Africa, Russia, Italy, Greece, and the Netherlands. It was cool to get to work around them.”
Engle isn’t sure what kind of scientist he wants to be at this point, but he knows one thing for sure: This early experience has helped him appreciate not only all that goes into conducting such complicated research but all that goes into this complicated universe. Ultimately, it even helped strengthen his Christian faith.
“It is so cool to see how delicate the system is, how God is at work in it all.”
“If anything were different about our solar system, if anything was off just a little bit, it would be a huge mess,” says Engle. “It is so cool to see how delicate the system is, how God is at work in it all.”
If the fast-food industry ever does away with those crinkly but potentially harmful papers that your favorite burger comes wrapped in, one of the people you can thank is a physics-turned-history-major from Hope College.
Margaret Dickinson, a senior from Grand Rapids, MI, spent two years at Hope testing hundreds of fast-food wrappers from several states in order to detect per- and polyfluoro alkyl substances (PFAS) in the packaging. Human-made with long environmental lifetimes, PFASs are toxic to humans and animals, and its bioaccumulation is troubling to scientists.
Linked to some cancers and health disorders, PFAS is used in products to repel water and retard flames, and has been found in carpet, furniture fabrics, textiles and outdoor clothing, cosmetics, fire-fighting foam, microwave popcorn bags, and, yes, fast-food wrappers.
“The best part about doing research as an undergrad is learning how to ask difficult questions and learning how to find their answers. Often we were on our own in the lab, working with expensive machinery, and we had to calmly work out problems quickly.”
“Around fifty years ago, PFAS was not found in anyone’s blood at all. It did not even exist,” explains Dickinson. “Now it is in measurable quantities in every human being, and that includes newborn babies because it passes through the bloodstream from the mother to the fetus.” PFAS has even reached the blood streams of polar bears in the North Pole.
Using the Pelletron particle accelerator on Hope’s campus, under the guidance of Professor Dr. Paul DeYoung and former Hope Professor Dr. Graham Peaslee, Dickinson and fellow senior David Lunderberg, along with alumnus Nick Hubley ’14, used a testing technique called PIGE, particle-induced gamma-ray emission, to detect fluorine in the wrapper samples. But because the paper is fragile and the proton beam from the accelerator is powerful, Dickinson and team had to refine their normal testing methods so as not to destroy their paper samples.
“The best part about doing research as an undergrad is learning how to ask difficult questions and learning how to find their answers,” Dickinson declares. “Often we were on our own in the lab, working with expensive machinery, and we had to calmly work out problems quickly. You learn how not to panic, when to get help, when to work independently. These are all good skills to have in life, too.”
It’s good to remember that not all fast-food wrappers have PFAS, she notes, but since you don’t know which do or don’t, the best thing to do is take your food out of their wrappers and containers as soon as possible.
The Hope crew’s efforts over two years, in collaboration with other well-known research powerhouses, found that 38% of the sandwich and burger wrappers tested, along with 20% of the paperboard and 56% of the dessert and bread wrappers had PFAS in them. However, 0% of the tested paper cups had PFAS. While skeptics note that consumers aren’t actually ingesting the wrappers themselves (so what’s the harm?), scientists argue that it is the high temperatures of the food that allows wrapper-holding PFAS to seep into your burger and fries.
Other teams contributing to the research were from Silent Spring Institute, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Green Science Policy Institute, the Environmental Working Group, and Oregon State University. News of their joint research broke in February 2017, and Dickinson reports that over 200 news outlets have since carried the story.
So what’s a consumer to do? Give up fast-food?
Not all fast-food wrappers have PFAS, Dickinson says, but since you don’t know which ones do or don’t, the best thing to do is take your food out of its wrappers and containers as soon as possible because the greater the exposure to PFAS, the higher the levels in one’s system. Still, “Everything in moderation,” Dickinson reminds.
“All along it was really important for me that my research made a difference. I needed to see that it had an effect on people.”
No longer focused on physics, Dickinson changed her major area of study to history after a personal epiphany while studying abroad in London in 2015 (she also has minors in math, classical studies, and, of course, physics.)
She hopes to eventually teach modern British history at the college level, or even go into scientific governance — the realm of looking at how scientists are affected by policies made by non-scientists. It is here where this fully formed liberal arts student knows she could best apply her experiences in sciences, skills in research, and passion for history and politics to affect others for the better.
“All along it was really important for me that my research made a difference. I needed to see that it had an effect on people,” concludes Dickinson. “I hope eventually that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) bans these chemicals. I hope that fast-food companies realize that wax paper is just as cheap. Half the time they use it anyways, so why not all the time? Why not put pressure on the companies that are supplying the paper to switch over. It’s not difficult to switch and it’s not expensive. That would be the goal.”