STEM Research on Display

Seattle University undergrads Lior Fisher (l-r), Tusani Nhleko and Megan Bigalk determine the proteins in different gel samples during a summer research project under the direction of Assistant Professor Chris Whidbey.

STEM Research on Display

Chemistry Professor Kristy Skogerboe’s latest research could be straight out of an episode of CSI as it involves “fingerprinting” a scent or fragrance that might linger on or in the fabric of a piece of clothing found at a crime scene.

This forensics-focused research is more than just testing perfume on swabs of vvc. . It involves the use of some pretty high-tech instruments that were part of the lab work conducted by Skogerboe and undergraduate student Eabha Finn, ’25. As a team they worked with Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry, which can study liquid, gaseous or solid samples. For this research it was used to study a variety of scented products such as aftershave, bodywash and perfume. They also went through tests using fragrances straight out of a bottle and compared it to scents discovered later on the aforementioned piece of clothing—in this case, a T-shirt.

“We are working to develop a method to collect fragrances or other odors and preserve them so a lab can perform analysis at a later time, where such information may be useful in helping solve the crime,” Skoerboe explains. “We found that modeling this system was a bit more complicated than I originally thought. That is the beauty of science!”

This was Finn’s first time doing research at SU and the experience was valuable on many levels. 

“I had a very rewarding experience as Dr. Skogerboe’s summer research student. Her guidance has helped me learn so much about analytical chemistry and become more confident when working in the lab,” says Finn, a chemistry major and this year’s recipient of the Peter L. and Patricia A. Lee Fellowship for Excellence in Student Research, which also provided funding for her research. “Working in a research lab taught me invaluable lessons about problem solving as well as strengthening what I have already learned. Recalling and applying what I have learned in lectures to my research has helped me gain a more holistic understanding of analytical chemistry.”

This is just one of the undergraduate summer research projects that will be on display at the 2023 STEM Research Showcase, Friday, October 13, 3–4:30 p.m. in the Bannan Atrium. The event is open to the campus community and the public.

There were 14 College of Science and Engineering-funded faculty-student teams that conducted research from June to early September—with faculty from seven departments and 27 students from across the college—in addition to several research projects funded through various grants including from the National Science Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement and M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. 

Research such as this, featuring a collaboration between faculty and students, is an example of SU living out its mission, says Chemistry Professor Jenny Loertscher, PhD, who is also associate dean of the College of Science and Engineering. 

“Faculty-mentored undergraduate research is widely recognized as a high-impact practice in higher education with significant benefits for student learning and career development,” says Loertscher. “Such learning experiences are transformational for all students, especially for those from groups that have been historically underrepresented in STEM.”

For students, this hands-on work provides an opportunity to do research where they don’t just learn about STEM but, says Loertscher, “they become part of the process of building new knowledge and applications in science, mathematics, engineering and computer science. STEM students who participate acquire skills and experiences that will benefit them” regardless of their post-graduation plans.

Here’s a closer look at Skogerboe’s and three other research projects that will be part of the showcase:  

Research Team
Professor of Chemistry Kristy Skogerboe, PhD
Student researcher Eabha Finn, ’25 

Research Focus: Chemical analysis applications in toxicology and crime scene investigation rely on highly sensitive and specific methods to connect circumstantial evidence to legal decisions. Addressing concerns over contamination, detection limits and improper storage are pivotal to putting “science back into forensic science.”

This research is in line with Skogerboe’s long career as a chemist and her extensive experience using various instruments to measure chemicals that can be vital in making a diagnosis or, as in this most recent subject of her research, to potentially solve a crime.

“I love analytical chemistry and its ability to help humankind address issues with human health and well-being as well as deleterious environmental impacts,” she says. “This research focuses on current limitations of analytical testing in toxicology and forensic science. Understanding and solving these limitations is an essential ingredient in creating a stronger sense of public confidence in science.”

Chemistry major Finn’s involvement in this research started with a knock on the professor’s door. Finn was looking for research opportunities and one day came to Skogerboe’s office and introduced herself. The level of initiative and curiosity showed that she was the right person to join Skogerboe on this research project. 

In addition to a desire to learn, Finn brought “earnestness, problem solving and a wonderful attitude to engage in science and have fun,” says Skogerboe. 

The research not only has real world application but also helps provide students invaluable hands-on experience that can be parlayed into future professional pursuits. 

“Students who want to work directly after Seattle University graduation often get jobs as chemical analysts,” Skogerboe says. “Research experiences are valuable for those interested in science graduate school or professions in the health sciences.”

An opportunity to conduct research side-by-side with a faculty scholar can spark in students a deeper interest in doing more of this work, an extension of what they learn in a course. 

“Being able to test the scientific method in such an interesting way has sparked my curiosity on what other research projects and topics to learn about during my time left at Seattle University,” says Finn.

While undoubtedly students who are brought onto a research project gain considerable experience, it is also rewarding for the professors. 

“Collaboration is an essential part of being a scientist. We can never know it all. In research, we learn from each other and from the data we generate,” she says. “I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work with students who are on a path to learning. We get to walk this road together.”

Beyond sharing their work at SU’s research showcase, Skogerboe and Finn are drafting papers for publication consideration based on the findings of their work. 

Research Team
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Henry Louie, PhD
Student researchers Daniel Kasakula, ’24, and Melvin Dang, ’26

Research Focus: Looking at off-grid electrical systems in primarily developing countries. This current research is part of the final year of a three-year project funded by the National Science Foundation that explores how solar power can be used on homes in the Navajo Nation.

It’s a staggering statistic: More than 700 million people in the world don’t have access to electricity. This sobering reality has, for years, guided the research of Professor Henry Louie, PhD, who has traveled to far points of the globe, such as Zambia, to use his skills as an electrical engineer to help bring power to areas where it’s non-existent or limited at best. 

This research track is an extension of his role as director of SU’s Humanitarian Engineering Applications Lab, where Louie and his students develop practical solutions to end energy poverty. In 2015, he co-founded the nonprofit organization KiloWatts for Humanity, which seeks to empower off-grid communities.   

For this latest research conducted over the summer, Louie focused closer to home. The aim was to explore how solar power can help power up homes in the Navajo Nation. The research was collaborative, as Louie and students Daniel Kasakula, ’24, and Melvin Dang, ’26, worked with peers from Navajo Technical University (NTU) and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA).

According to Louie, students and faculty from both universities analyzed data from more than 300 solar-powered off-grid systems installed in people’s homes—this is more the exception than the rule as it’s estimated that more than 10,000 homes in the Navajo Nation do not have grid electricity. 

“We are conducting surveys and building data acquisition systems to better understand how people are using the systems and to find ways to improve them,” Louie explains.

In selecting students to join him on this research Louie says he recruited electrical engineering and computer engineering majors who are interested in energy poverty and “had a personal motivation to work on projects that help the underserved.”

And students Dang and Kasakula conducted crucial research. Dang was tasked with designing a data acquisition system that measures sunlight. Explains Louie, “Working with students at NTU, we will make and deploy about a dozen of these to understand how the solar panels installed in the off-grid systems are performing.” As part of this research Dang also was learning how to code, design and build and test electrical circuits. 

An international student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kasakula is aware of energy insufficiencies. His part of the research involved testing batteries to understand how real-life discharging profiles affect their energy, which is useful in designing battery banks for off-grid systems. Not only will Dang and Kasakula present their work later this month on campus but also at various conferences including the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology conference and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society conference.

This was the first research project for Kasakula since he’s been at SU. And while he says the work was challenging, it was gratifying to be part of something that may provide real answers to solving electricity deficiencies in the Navajo Nation.

“As a society we have come to realize the danger that global warming and climate change presents. The government is investing a lot of money to foster renewable sources of energy to hopefully achieve net zero by 2050 or sooner,” says Kasakula, an electrical engineering major. “This research, although focused particularly on the Navajo Nation, (shows us) how to improve the performance of off-grid power systems.”

While his dream job is to work for NASA, Kasakula sees the skills gained through this research project beneficial wherever his future takes him as he is now equipped with more on the fundamentals of being a successful engineer, tackling complex problems and driving innovation. 

“These are great opportunities for the students. They receive high-touch, one-on-one mentorship from faculty,” Professor Louie says. “They are doing research that really matters, but in a safe environment where they can make mistakes and learn.”

Research Team
Assistant Professor of Computer Science Xin Zhao, PhD
Student researcher Riley Young, ’25 

Research Focus: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is fueling the U.S. economy. An FTI Consulting report finds that 67% of U.S. jobs and 69% of the nation’s gross domestic product are supported by STEM. Despite the growth of STEM employment opportunities, there has been discriminatory practices, with a distinct lack of opportunities for females, workers over 40 and other minority groups. The focus of this research is on the “Climate Surrounding Workplace Discrimination in Human Resources in STEM.” 

In 2022, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Xin Zhao, PhD, was joined by undergraduate student Riley Young, ’25, on a research paper that set out to understand workplace discrimination toward software developers. They discovered that often times when employees face discrimination, they choose to not report it to Human Resources and instead “just let it go.” 

Figuring out why the reporting structure with HR doesn’t happen and looking specifically at the climate within HR units as it pertains to STEM professionals, Zhao and Young set out to continue and expand on this research this past summer. 

“We hope our research can provide more insights into the understanding of workplace discrimination from different stakeholders, thus creating a fair working environment for all STEM professionals,” says Zhao.

Adds Young, “Investigating discrimination, especially in the field I will be entering post-grad, is incredibly important to me. As we continue to look at where discrimination comes from and what we can do to mitigate its harm, experiences will majorly improve. We need to make sure the space of software engineering is welcoming to all types of people, as its technological impact affects the entire population.”

Young plays an important role in the project as she was involved in the design of the study and in recruiting people to participate. This work will ultimately produce findings for a paper that Zhao and Young plan to publish in Transaction of Software Engineering, a leading journal for software engineering. This will be the second published paper for the student-teacher team and last year Young’s research was accepted to the International Conference on Computer Science and Software Engineering (ICSE), which allowed her to attend a conference in Melbourne, Australia. “I would love for this year’s research to be accepted to another conference or journal so that this information can continue to reach a large audience,” says Young. 

“Through my working with Riley over the past year, I can see she is growing a stronger interest in research, especially in empirical studies in the field of computer science,” says Zhao. “This research will provide Riley deeper insights into the following questions: ‘What is research?’ ‘How to conduct research?’ and ‘Why is research important?’ all of which are critical in her post-SU professional pursuits.”

Young sees a correlation with this research and her professional interests.  

“This research could directly impact the experience I have at software development companies, considering the level of discrimination that is present and what is being done to resolve discriminatory actions,” she says. “It has also confirmed for me that I absolutely want to pursue a career in academia in the future.”

Research Team
Associate Professor of Biology Stephen Luckey, PhD
Student Researcher Natalie Crouse, ’24 

Research Focus: Regular exercise is a recommended preventative measure against cardiovascular disease (CVD). While the beneficial impact of exercise is unequivocal, our understanding of the required exercise intensity, frequency and duration in the context of CVD is still being elucidated. This research is investigating how exercise intensity, specifically, impacts the progression of CVD in a rat model of hypertension, called spontaneously hypertensive rats. 

Associate Professor Stephen Luckey, working with student Natalie Crouse, ’24, says the goal of this research project was to conduct an analysis into which intensity level of exercise had the greatest impact on cardiovascular disease using what’s called “a rat model of hypertension.”

“The strength of this type of research is that it qualitatively analyzes a large, pooled body of data that is sometimes conflicting, to draw a conclusion or identify any trends that cannot be derived from individual studies,” Luckey explains. “In our case, we are hoping to determine both which type of exercise intensity is most impactful and the strength of this evidence. We are also very interested in understanding the role of confounding factors such as biological sex, age and duration of exercise.”

Central to this research is what Luckey calls a “systematic and exhaustive” review of scientific literature related to the topics of hypertension, CVD and exercise. This meant going through hundreds of studies and searching databases to then winnow this information down to an abbreviated list of publications for a study. 

“This study will aggregate the findings of individual studies, thereby strengthening the body of literature and providing additional support for an intervention such as exercise and possibly identifying additional confounding factors,” says Luckey.

While this research was largely done on computers, rather than a lab, it reflects the different types of research that is being conducted in the college and its affirming impacts—building critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills while equipping students with the know-how to analyze and process volumes of scientific literature.  

“The development of these transferable and important skills requires practice and can be applied to any job position in any field,” says Luckey. “Many skills such as literature searches, reading literature and basic bench research skills are fundamental to any research position.”

As a researcher, what is most rewarding about working with students? 

“I particularly value the relationship that I build with each student researcher. I enjoy being a mentor to them and it also affords me the opportunity to learn more about the trials and tribulations that students are experiencing in their lives both on and off campus,” says Luckey, “which makes me a better research mentor and educator.”

Learn more about the Undergraduate Summer Research and other research ongoing at the College of Science and Engineering. 

Written by Tina Potterf

Thursday, October 5, 2023