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Chemistry student selected to display research on Capitol Hill

April 23, 2012
Kind, Helminiak and Phillips
(From left) U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, Heather Helminiak and Dr. James Phillips at Posters on the Hill event in Washington, D.C. (Contributed photo)
EAU CLAIRE — Chemistry research conducted by a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student and her faculty mentor will be on display April 24 as part of Posters on the Hill in Washington, D.C.

Senior education major Heather Helminiak, of Junction City, is among 74 presenters selected from more than 850 applications for the honor. Helminiak worked with Dr. James Phillips, professor of chemistry, on a project titled "Structural Properties of Molecular Complexes with Potential for Nanotechnology Applications." The research analyzed the interaction between two molecules that are otherwise stable.

"By understanding these interactions, we can potentially determine a trend on the periodic table and apply this idea to molecular machines," said Helminiak. "I learned that the complexes that are intermediate in strength are ones that we can alter to potentially apply to molecular machines."

Phillips hired Helminiak for the project, funded by the National Science Foundation, in 2008.

"She rose to the top during the interview process," said Phillips, noting that students involved in this kind of research take on much of the responsibility for the work themselves. "I loosely oversee all the activities in the lab, set the agenda and answer technical questions. After a training period of a few weeks, students do much of it in a fairly independent manner."

According to Dr. Karen Havholm, assistant vice chancellor for research and director of UW-Eau Claire's Center of Excellence for Faculty/Student Research Collaboration, it is an honor to be among those chosen to present research to members of Congress.

"An invitation to participate in this event is highly selective, so having one of our students present is a great honor," Havholm said. "But it also seems appropriate given the level of undergraduate research on our campus. More than a quarter of UW-Eau Claire students are involved in faculty-mentored, in-depth research projects during their time here."

Phillips said it is not only good for UW-Eau Claire to be recognized, but also for the students and faculty to be rewarded for their work.

"It is nice to be acknowledged," said Phillips. "The sort of teaching that goes on in a research laboratory is challenging, labor intensive — and we do not get credit for it — but it pays big dividends in terms of student development."

Helminiak said she appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with faculty and believes it is the key to success in education. "By having two different perspectives we were able to thoroughly explore each aspect of the research."

"Posters on the Hill" is sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research, which represents more than 900 colleges and universities. The event showcases undergraduate research from across the country for members of Congress. During her visit to the Capitol, Helminiak will meet with members of Wisconsin's congressional delegation.

"It's an important annual event that demonstrates to our federal legislators the importance of student research as a high-impact educational experience," Havholm said. "Our best research students have a track record of presenting the results of their work professionally at local, regional, national and international meetings."

Phillips said it's also important for policy makers to see where federal grant dollars are going.

"Since the goal here is student development, face-to-face meetings with senators and representatives are indeed an exciting prospect," said Phillips. "What better way to display the fruits of our labor?"

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