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Students from diverse backgrounds dive into research at UW-Eau Claire thanks to NSF grant

| Samantha West

Thanks to a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation under the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, eight underrepresented students of color are getting the chance this summer to work on research projects in the areas of biophysical/biochemistry, physical chemistry, materials science and biology at UW-Eau Claire.

Six UW-Eau Claire faculty members are hosting the group, three from chemistry, one from biology, and two from materials science.

Our first group of REU students of summer 2016

Left to right: Dechen Wangmo, Andrew Lynch, Maria Brandel, Skylee Lara, Kyle Thao, Tim Crushshon, Ryan Swenson, and Cristian Naxi.

Eight students are in the program. Two of them, Maria Brandel and Andrew Lynch, are from UW-Eau Claire. The remaining six students come from two-year technical colleges, including Timothy Crushshon and Dechen Wangmo (Minnesota Community Technical College), Skylee Lara (UW-Marinette), Cristian Naxi (UW-Baraboo/Sauk County), Kyle Thao (UW-Marathon County) and Ryan Swenson (Chippewa Valley Technical College).

The grant supports student stipends, room and board, supplies needed for research projects and travel to present their research results.

Those working in the biophysical/biochemistry areas are examining peptide synthesis and chemistry, structure determination of peptides, cloning and expression of enzymes, enzyme kinetics and molecular dynamics of enzyme structures.

The students working in the physical chemistry research area are performing bonding and energetic studies of alkyl halide-to-metal halide complexes.

Students working in the materials sciences area are working on the synthesis of smart polymers that can change shapes, as well as the characterization of microstructures of superconducting materials; students studying biology are examining fish behavior in response to chemicals released by club cells during predator attack.

Dr. Thao Yang, associate professor of chemistry, said the grant strengthens UW-Eau Claire faculty’s research programs that had already been started, and gives faculty a chance to start new research. In turn, those efforts will give students more opportunities to do research in the future.

“(The program) will enhance the opportunity for students to do research with faculty, and give UWEC students and faculty opportunity to work with underrepresented students,” Yang said.

In addition, Yang said the research experience will be a tremendous benefit to the underrepresented students coming from other colleges as they will get to experience the research opportunities UW-Eau Claire is known for far and wide.

“The research experience will enhance the students’ ability to pursue higher education in the areas of scientific careers in the future,” Yang said.

Dechen Wangmo, one of the students on campus for the program, said she feels quite lucky to have been accepted into the 10-week program at UW-Eau Claire.

Wangmo, who was born and raised in India, came to Minnesota in 2013 following her high school graduation. She attended MCTC for two years and graduated this spring with an associate degree in biological science, with particular interest in molecular and cell biology, cell culture technologies, biochemistry and genetics.

In the short time she has been in Eau Claire, Wangmo has already reaped the benefits described by Yang.

 “It has been just one week since I came to UWEC and I am already learning so much in lab and I’m having so much fun doing the research,” said Wangmo, who will be pursuing her bachelor of science degree in genetics, cell biology and development at the University of Minnesota this fall. “I am sure that this is going to be one of the best and most productive summers ever. I am very much grateful to NSF and to Dr. Thao Yang for coordinating the whole program and providing this opportunity to explore and learn from the professors.”

Photo cutline: Dechen Wangmo, a student from MCTC, performs research on campus this summer as part of a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant given to UW-Eau Claire. The grant is to help underrepresented students of color gain access to undergraduate research opportunities.