Student Research and Development from Day1

It’s day 212 of Day1, the program that gives first-year students hands-on, authentic research opportunities at the very start of their Hope College education, and freshmen Ben Turner and Karey Frink are feeling as comfortable in a Schaap Center laboratory as they do in their cozy Lichty Hall dorm rooms.

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Testing Lake Mac water for E coli content

After almost a year, the two frosh have streaked a plethora of plates to isolate E. coli cultures, used a DNA sequencer to identify those E. coli strains and other bacterial populations, and analyzed the data with Hope’s supercomputer, Curie. They’ve paddled up and downstream in the Macatawa Watershed to gather water samples, in agricultural areas and residential ones throughout the Holland area. They’ve worked side-by-side with Dr. Aaron Best and Dr. Graham Peaslee, and the students worked on their own, too. In Lichty Hall, where all 13 Day1:Watershed students are housed, they’ve become part of a close-knit, residential learning community that is supportive and collaborative in their similar academic pursuits and challenges.

And through it all, Turner and Frink have experienced and developed what Hope science educators hoped the Day1 program would achieve – an early and deep-seated love and appreciation for cutting-edge research that has real-world relevance, all the while thriving in community.

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Freshman Karey Frink, foreground, works in the biochemistry lab as a member of Day 1 Watershed.  In the background is fellow Day 1 freshman Ben Turner.

“Day1 has helped me ask, ‘Do I want to do this kind of science for the rest of my life, or do I want to do something else?'” says Frink who is from Birmingham, Michigan, and plans to be a biology major and environmental science minor. “And the answer is: I love it. I love learning about this science. I’m not sure I want to continue researching forever, but I love that I’ve had this opportunity. It’s been very exciting really.”

“It’s a cool overall community,” Turner says, a native of Albion, Michigan, and also a biology major. “Living together in Lichty has been great because we are all taking the same (science) classes. So if I need help with my homework, I just go to the study lounge and there’s at least six really smart people who are willing to help. I’ve made a lot of good friends fast due to Day1.”

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Freshman Ben Turner,left, researches alongside Karey Frink, right, in the Day 1 Watershed lab.

Day1: Watershed is funded by a major grant, received in 2014 and worth $3 million, from The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation of Midland, Michigan ($1.75 million goes toward the first three years of equipment and operational expenses and the rest, $1.25 million, will be endowed to fund the future of Day1.) The program seeks to study the water quality of Lake Macatawa and its watershed in partnership with Project Clarity, a broad-based community initiative established in November 2012 to remediate some of lake’s physical and bacterial issues.

“Participation in Day1 is not making students take extra time to complete their degrees. These are experiences integrated into required courses, and, in fact, because of the support structure, Day1 helps students graduate on time.”

Dr. Catherine Mader, Day1 grant author and program director, notes that the grant from Dow primarily supports the watershed program, but five other programs – Day1: Phage, Day1: Great Lakes, Day1: Michigan Rocks, and Day1: EDGE as well as a new science peer partnership learning program in Hope’s Academic Success Center (ASC) – have been impacted by its funding, too. More than 200 Hope STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students have received help with, exposure to, and academic credit for research in their preferred fields of study.

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Dr. Cathy Mader

“This is not an extracurricular program and these are not extra courses on top of their potential major requirements,” says Mader, professor of physics. “Participation in Day1 is not making students take extra time to complete their degrees. These are experiences integrated into required courses, and in fact, because of the support structure, Day1 helps students graduate on time because they are in these solid learning communities supporting each other.”

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Dr. Aaron Best
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Dr. Graham Peaslee

Along with Mader and her guidance of this program, a good deal of support comes from dedicated science faculty, such as Best and Peaslee, who not only instruct their watershed students in the ways of becoming quality researchers but also in the ways of becoming quality college students. Watershed students also take their first-year seminar (FYS) with these two profs, participating in a bridge experience as they arrive on campus a week before the start of the official academic year to begin their intensive research and FYS experience before most other freshmen arrive.

“Day1 gives you such great community while doing some not-necessarily-easy work,” says Frink. “But that work is fun because of the people who do it with me.”

Once school starts though, Day1:Watershed-ers meet twice a week for seven hours total lab time in the first semester and three hours of lab time in the second. In the context of this required class and lab taken by choice, Best and Peaslee engendered science enthusiasm by creating an environment of serious research fun. Even though the research skills and subject are advanced and the professors’ standards high, the students appreciate the culture as much as the content.

Well, actually, maybe they appreciate the culture the most.

“Day1 gives you such great community while doing some not-necessarily-easy work,” says Frink. “But that work is fun because of the people who do it with me.” “And Dr. Best and Dr. Peaslee are awesome and hilarious,” adds Turner. “Sure, they know their stuff but they are fun to be around, too.”

Best’s positive feelings about working with Day1 Watershed students are reciprocated. He appreciates their eagerness and energy and how he gets to interact with them in several different contexts – as FYS instructor, advisor, watershed explorer, researcher – all markers of the unique cross-experiential features of the program.

Hope College - Science students during a science lab shoot

“We do authentic research with necessary local application,” says Best, the Harrison C. and Mary L. Visscher Associate Professor of Genetics and Associate Professor of Biology. “I wouldn’t do this research just to do it. I don’t want my students doing research just to do it. There are too many resources involved – time and money and relationships – to do that, right? So, it’s not just enough to learn. We’re doing this to learn with purpose.”

“Without Day1, I definitely would not have this opportunity,” says Turner. “I’m probably about a year ahead in research knowledge than I should be if I hadn’t been involved in Day1.”

Understanding links between the bacterial populations and the physical changes in the Lake Mac watershed is that purpose. Best will continue on with long-term monitoring of the watershed during summer research, in which Turner will continue to be involved. “Without Day1, I definitely would not have this opportunity,” says Turner. “I’m probably about a year ahead in research knowledge than I should be if I hadn’t been involved in Day1.”

Frink will go her separate way by taking an experiential learning trip this summer to the Bahamas with Dr. Brian Bodenbender, professor of geological and environmental sciences, to study geology, biology, and sustainability. Each student’s summer opportunity is funded by Day1.

When they return in the fall, both Turner and Frink will be back together again in Day1, but this time, each will serve as teaching assistants (TAs) in the watershed program. They’ll give back to the program that allowed them to get their proverbial “feet wet” in college-level research, continuing to step into educational and watery currents that have taught and bonded them in a science career at Hope, from day one.

Flint Water Crisis in the Round

This past Monday night in Maas Auditorium, 13 bottles of water sat on a long table, each provided for one of the 13 people preparing to speak on an interdisciplinary panel about the Flint water crisis. One container of water, though, was not being consumed, nor would it be. Displayed at the center of the dais, a mason jar filled with water from Flint, Michigan, looking as benign and similar as the water in the other 13 bottles, was about to be examined from political, sociological, psychological, historical, scientific, artistic, ethical, and personal perspectives. Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

IMG_2537Organized and implemented by Dr. Julie Kipp’s women’s and gender studies keystone class, the event gave an opportunity for a large audience to consider what has happened in Flint as well as providing a challenge for all to get involved and do something appropriate within their discipline or interest. The panel, made up of one student, 11 professors, and one president, discussed the very tragic, sometimes complex, and always upsetting issues revolving around the high levels of lead in Flint water and those who drank that water for over a year. Delivering their expertise from their various points of view within a five-minute time limit each, the panel continued to cast light upon light upon light onto a problem that has fallen out of the nation’s glare… for the time being anyway. This communal time of reflection also gave hope for understanding next steps in Flint.

“When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”

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Katlyn Koegel, far left, speaks as part of the 13-member Flint Water Crisis panel.

Speaking from personal experience, sophomore Katlyn Koegel, a Flint native, shared several stories about people she knows from home who are struggling and afraid—a small, thirsty boy who asked for bottled water from her last summer, a woman who may lose her business due negative media attention that has driven customers away, and a pastor who paid a $900 bill for water he was not even using. “What has been most heartbreaking for me is this dichotomy between breaking news and broken structures,” said Koegel. “A lot of facts and individual stories have gone down a chasm between the two.”

Historically speaking, Dr. Fred Johnson, declared that Flint has its proud roots in Native American origins and the founding of a General Motors plant there in 1908. “And many of you may know, it was the site of the 1936-37 GM sit-down strike which basically brought the UAW (United Auto Workers) to prominence, making it a major instrument in the labor movement.” Now, the city’s heritage is  being viewed only through a microscope created by this recent history.

“All politics are local.”

Politically speaking, Dr. Annie Dandavati, reminded the audience that “it’s important for all of us to be educated voters. Even though we sometimes feel that our voices are falling on deaf ears, it’s important to know about issues no matter where they originate—in the state capitol, nationally or globally. All politics are local.”

Sociologically speaking, Dr. Aaron Franken and Dr. Debra Swanson showed that race and socio-economic status are key to making sense of what is happening in Flint. “When looking at kids in Flint, here’s some points that are important and highlight social processes for health: One, if socio-economic status is linked to health, and two, decreased educational attainment is a key link to lower socio-economic status, and three, lead poisoning manifests itself in behavioral changes and in cognitive ability changes and thus a link to decreased educational attainment, and, four, sizable portions of residents (in Flint) don’t leave the area – so residential non-migration – then we’re going to have a potential geographic health issue with a very long memory in Flint,” said Franzen.

“This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention.”

In 2013, the median household income in Flint was about half of that than in the rest of the state. The state median income is $43,000; in Flint it is about $23,000. Approximately 22% have a household income of less than $10,000 a year. Forty-one percent of those living in Flint are below the poverty line, 56% of the population is black, and 75% of the households are single-parent homes. “This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention,” says Swanson. And yet those women have organized protests at the state capitol in Lansing as well as a movement with Lead Safe America Foundation, bringing attention to the crisis on Twitter with over three million tweets in two hours on February 4, using the hashtag, #StandWithFlint.

Psychologically speaking, Dr. Carrie Bredow offered one good news/bad news scenario: “We know that certain things can ameliorate some of the effects of lead poisoning (such as behavioral and cognitive disorders) though it’s not reversible. But based on the research, through things like good nutrition, having high-quality early childhood education and intervention, and consistent medical care, the level of its effects can be influenced. But these are the same things that children in Flint don’t have access to. So this is something that needs to be poured into in terms of how we stop this from affecting people in Flint inter-generationally.”

Scientifically speaking, Dr. Joanne Stewart and Dr. Graham Peaslee explained how lead got into the Flint water supply in the first place. “When they switched from (using) Lake Huron water to Flint River water (to save the city money), they had no corrosion plan in place (to keep the pipes from leeching lead into the water). That was one of the real shocking things that happened,” said Stewart. “It depends on which house you’re in (when looking at lead levels),” added Peaslee. “Some people have PVC pipes and no lead, others have lead and more lead in their pipes. It depends house to house what the effect was.”

“It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Morally speaking, Dr. Heidi Giannini enlightened with this: “One thing I think the Flint water crisis illustrates and what our response to it should bear in mind is that it is very hard to be good. However, that is no excuse for failing. The crisis in Flint illustrates at least one way it is hard to be good: we form bad habits (like laziness or self-interest) because most of the time they seem like they are not that big of a deal. When we foster these ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad habits, we foster the opportunity for great evil. We like to think that there is extraordinary vice underlying the horrible moral wrongs of what happened in Flint. It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Dr. Charles Green addressed environmental racism, citing evidence that shows more middle-class black families live in polluted areas than poor white families do. “Let me be clear: race is a real factor here… Black kids are three times more likely than white kids to have asthma (due to living in areas with poor air quality) and four times more likely to die from it. The environmental problems that we have addressed in this country over the last 30-40 years have largely benefitting the white population, and the environmental problems we have not addressed have largely impacted people of color.”

“We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.”

From an artistic standpoint, Rob Kenagy and Dr. Katherine Sullivan revealed how art and activism is giving people a news lens through which to view Flint. “The slam poetry coming out of Flint is hot…It’s important to remember that that art is made by real people,” said Kenagy, “and it’s just not something you can click past. There is a real voice behind it. We as readers have a responsibility (to hear it and see it), especially those of us from privileged spaces. We have to actually accept the trauma and invite it into our lives. We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.” Poetry and art is yet another way to do just that.

Finally, President John Knapp summed up the event this way: “Big problems don’t lend themselves to simple, small solutions. What I’ve really appreciated about this evening as I’ve listened to my colleagues here is that we’ve not only examined this problem from the perspective of art, philosophy, poetry, but also sociology, history, and political science. We’ve talked about biological and medical concerns; we’ve talked about psychological matters and even got into chemistry. Every one of those is important, and more, to really understand the nature of the problem. And what I’ve described is what we are about in the liberal arts at Hope. When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”

Breaks Away: Graham Peaslee

sabbatical (n): a break from customary work to acquire new skills or knowledge, traditionally occurring every seventh year

Breaks Away: Sabbatical Stories of Hope
Each academic year, a number of Hope faculty take sabbatical leaves away from the college, submersing themselves for extended periods of time into their favored fields of inquiry. If viewed from above and all together, those fields would look like a calico landscape, so varied and colorful is the topography of their collective research, writing, and creative pursuits. Offering restoration and adventure both, sabbaticals are a bit like information and imagination transfusions. These breaks away from normal classroom and committee work give Hope academicians a boost to reinforce and revitalize their teaching and scholarship.

On a scale of sedentary to prolific, the yearlong break away of Dr. Graham Peaslee, the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science, can be best described as super-productive. If there was such a thing as barometric sabbatical pressure, Dr. Peaslee crushed it.

To wit:

  • He gave talks at 27 venues in nine U.S. states and Australia;
  • He crossed the Pacific Ocean four times in July alone, and his watch hasn’t been the same since;
  • He wrote three successful grant proposals to the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Australian government, collaborated on Hope’s successful Dow Foundation proposal, and has two more proposals still pending to the Department of Defense and the NSF;
  • He wrote three other grant proposals but received “thanks-but-no-thanks” replies;
  • He published five peer-reviewed papers during the year and submitted three more after classes started this fall; and,
  • He registered a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
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Dr. Graham Peaslee, Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science

One last thing, but I’ll wait while you catch your breath…..

  • Dr. Peaslee co-founded a new company— along with Hope colleague, Dr. Peter Boumgarden, assistant professor of economics, and Hope alum, Evelyn Ritter ’15, a mechanical engineer — called University Market Partners (UMP) Analytical that tests for the presence of perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs) in consumer products. PFASs — human-made chemicals found in flame retardant, stain- and water-resistant materials such as carpet, furniture fabrics, textiles and outdoor clothing, cosmetics, fire-fighting foam and even the liner of microwave popcorn bags — are concerning for their long environmental lifetimes, bioaccumulation and toxicity, and thus their impact on human and animal life. Another NSF grant got UMP launched, and NSF featured UMP’s work on its website.

 

“Sabbatical is a time to see where you are and where you want to go,” says Dr. Peaslee, who obviously went to a lot of places in mileage and mind. “It’s a time to put your efforts into your passions.”

“When I stop to think about it, it really makes me angry. There are over 500 (PFASs) and only two have been voluntarily removed from the U.S. market,” he says firmly. “No one eats microwave popcorn in my household anymore.”

Since his passions are the environment and chemistry combined, UMP’s creation perfectly explains where Dr. Peaslee’s newest trek is going. His road is mapped by analytic and nuclear chemistry; his destination is science policy as much as science itself. Those microwave popcorn bags with PFASs? Denmark recently removed them from their grocery store shelves. Understandably, Dr. Peaslee would like to see PFASs removed from all food packaging materials in the U.S.

“When I stop to think out it, it really makes me angry. There are over 500 (PFASs) and only two have been voluntarily removed from the U.S. market,” he says firmly. “No one eats microwave popcorn in my household anymore.”

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Hope senior David Lunderberg, right, and Evelyn Ritter, a UMP Analytical co-founder, at work in Dr. Peaslee’s lab.

Most Saturdays — and any other day of the week, really — Dr. Peaslee can be found with a team of students conducting PFAS testing using the Pelletron particle accelerator, a piece of pricey equipment he acquired with an NSF grant in 2004, in his lab on Hope’s campus. The company’s workers take an existing yet refined nuclear process that Dr. Peaslee and Dr. Paul DeYoung, the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Physics, discovered about a year ago and tests for PFASs in minutes when once the testing required days. While paying back colleges and universities like Hope for their accelerator’s use, and giving Hope students experience and employment to boot, UMP is just as importantly able to provide a low-cost PFAS screening method for non-profit groups such as The National Resource Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Environmental Working Group. It’s a win-win-win for Hope, the environment and humans.

Of course, Dr. Peaslee’s priority remains teaching and researching at Hope while he runs UMP with his partners. Follow him on Twitter @gfpeaslee. You’ll find his feed full of scientific engagement with students and colleagues, from watershed experiences to cyclotron experiments.

Would you expect anything else from a super-productive professor?

Dr. Graham Peaslee is the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at Hope College.