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Hands on Research

Hands on Research

Do the words “Honors College research” conjure an image of footnote-dotted research papers? Think again: research by Honors College students, all of them undergraduates, can take many forms, from a mobile game app to a chemical reaction that may help treat Alzheimer’s disease to, yes, a thoroughly vetted paper that features original (and in some cases, publishable) work.

Some days the research is independent, and some days it’s one-on-one, in-the-trenches work with a faculty mentor.

Here, we present some snapshots of hands-on undergraduate research being carried out by Honors College students across campus – and around the world.

The Lab

Ali McAtee turns on the nitrogen gas that will pump polymer through an apparatus that she designed.

Ali McAtee turns on the nitrogen gas that will pump polymer through an apparatus that she designed.

Ali McAtee, a senior chemical engineering student and Honors College fellow, pulls on blue gloves and snugs safety glasses into her blonde ponytail: she’s ready to roll. A glass beaker spins, creating a polymer from 11 grams of cellulose acetate and 89 grams of acetone, the same solvent used in nail polish remover. Nearby, a large stainless steel tub is filled with soapy water. It’s fitted at one end with a special chrome fixture called a spinneret that is attached by tubing to two “bombs” – pressurized canisters. McAtee carefully pours the polymer into one canister, and then measures acetone into the other. She turns on two cylinders of nitrogen gas to pump the fluids out from the canisters through the spinneret into the tub. If all goes well, a tube thinner than a strand of angel hair pasta, formed by the polymer and hollowed by the solvent, will emerge into the tub.

And … no go. A milky drool oozes out, and McAtee’s face falls. She fiddles with the spinneret, lowering it closer to the water, and adds another capful of Dawn dishwashing liquid to decrease surface tension. Slightly thicker lumps of polymer fan across the water.  Tom Potts, a member of her team who jokingly refers to himself as “the world’s oldest grad student,” stops by to check her progress.

“I think we’re going to have to start again, with a different mix in the polymer,” McAtee says. “It’s hitting the water and turning to mush.”

“It’s not dense enough,” Potts opines. “I’m thinking your polymer is not heavy enough to sink.”

“Yeah, it wants to float,” McAtee agrees. “Would wet spinning help – if I lowered the spinneret into the water?”

“It might,” Potts says.

Both of them lean in over the tub, McAtee starts to pull, and suddenly a gossamer thread shimmies out of the spinneret.  “You’re making headway kid!” Potts says, as McAtee, beaming, gently lays the translucent strand in a hexagonal tray for a long, firming-up soak in water. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s a big step forward for her honors thesis.

Since the spring of her freshman year, McAtee has been working with Jamie Hestekin, a chemical engineering professor, on a team effort to convert algae into butanol, a type of biofuel. She has focused on developing hollow fiber membranes – that tiny tubule produced in the lab is one – that can be used to pump carbon dioxide into algae, making it grow more quickly. The hollow fiber membranes release miniscule bubbles that can be readily absorbed by algae. Typically they’re packaged into plastic cartridges, but Hestekin’s team wants to spread them out in a thin mat under the algae, increasing absorption.  The problem?  The thin, fragile fibers are broken when the algae is harvested by vacuum suction, and they’re not cheap. That’s where McAtee comes in: her goal, and the subject of her thesis, is to develop a stronger hollow fiber membrane.

Success! McAtee and graduate student Tom Potts examine the gossamer-thin hollow fiber membrane. Tiny tubules like this one will help transform algae into biofuel.

Success! McAtee and graduate student Tom Potts examine the gossamer-thin hollow fiber membrane. Tiny tubules like this one will help transform algae into biofuel.

It’s graduate-level work, Hestekin is quick to affirm. “Ali’s leading in an area, and that’s why it can be so frustrating at times,” he said.  Fortunately she’s had some help. Every week McAtee meets one-on-one with Hestekin and takes part in a team meeting. The team, which ranges in age from freshmen to Ph.D students, is tight-knit, “kind of like a family, really,” said  Lauren Woods, a graduate student. They edit each other’s papers, help track down missing equipment, and lend a hand in the lab. McAtee has also benefitted from six Honors College research and research travel grants and one Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

Last year McAtee accompanied Hestekin to the National University of Singapore, where she met Neil Chung, a world-renowned hollow fiber membrane expert. She observed and worked with graduate students in his lab, presented her work to the group, and came home with a present: the spinneret that separates the polymer and solvent solution, creating the hollow membrane structure.

The opportunity to see Chung’s lab was invaluable, but his sophisticated set-up is costly.  With Hestekin cheering her on, McAtee designed the no-frills apparatus in his lab. Now, with the primary goal of producing a hollow fiber membrane met, she can begin to manipulate the polymer solution to move forward in her quest.

McAtee's diagram for the hollow fiber membrane spinning apparatus.

McAtee’s diagram for the hollow fiber membrane spinning apparatus.

“It’s really awesome to see something that I designed on paper, here in the lab,” she said. “The research has definitely been a great ride.”

The Studio

Knox weaves baling wire into a snarling wolf.

Knox weaves baling wire into a snarling wolf.

A cloud of acrid-sweet fumes wafts down the stairs but dissipates as you enter Luke Knox’s studio apartment, thanks to numerous windows thrown open to a cool November twilight. In one corner, a bulbous plasticine bluebird head perches atop a torso woven from baling wire and lithe, spray-painted mannequin legs. A six-foot-high by four-foot-wide painting of gamboling, cartoonesque mares dominates one wall; a blank canvas waits on another. Paint-smeared rags and computer printouts of Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano and Walt Disney’s Bambi hang from a clothes wire strung along one side of the room; shelves crammed with power tools and battered volumes of Capote, Dostoyevsky and Whitman line the other side of the room.

“Sorry about the spray paint!” Luke Knox, a tall, shaggy-haired art student dressed all in black, points toward a ram sculpted from tight, calligraphic whorls of baling wire that is suspended from a wreath of fake flowers, its legs frozen in a mad scramble. “I decided to paint the ram’s head black.”

“I like the black,” says Kristin Musgnug, a painter and art professor who is mentoring Knox’s research. “Why this posture?” she asks, circling around the ram.

“I want it to look like it’s reacting to the wolf,” Knox says, referring to a completed piece that will be included in the installation he’s preparing.

“So … is it a victim?” Musgnug asks. “We’re looking for clarity here. Is it jumping to get away? A carcass? Dancing?”

“Yes, dancing!” Knox responds. “It represents the joviality of Pan, I want to bring that into play ….” 

Faculty mentor Kristin Musgnug discusses a sculpture-in-progress with Luke Knox.

Faculty mentor Kristin Musgnug discusses a sculpture-in-progress with Luke Knox.

And they’re off on a discussion of the ram’s association with fertility and harvest rituals, the darker symbolism of Pan, the frenzied dance of bacchantes. Interlaced with the abstract are some quiet suggestions from Musgnug to help Knox refine the concept: lowering the ram slightly to reinforce the idea that it’s dancing; placing the wreath on its head to push the connection with bacchantes. It’s a dance that they’re doing, the student leading, the professor questioning, correcting, affirming. Perhaps Musgnug’s most important role is to help Knox select from an abundance of ideas and images and refine them.

The ram, the bluebird-headed harpy and the painting in Knox’s studio are all fodder for his honors thesis, which uses mythical animal archetypes to explore the relationship between civilization and nature. Under Musgnug’s guidance, he’s spent the last year creating work informed by the writings of Joseph Campbell, Edith Hamilton and Carl Jung, and artwork ranging from the ancient bronze Capitoline Wolf to the contemporary watercolors of Walton Ford. Knox’s research will culminate in a series of installation pieces using both crafted and found objects that will be exhibited in spring 2012.

“It’s been a long path to this project,” Knox said. “Animals play such a huge role in myth, especially in Aesop’s Fables, and I’ve always wondered why people use animals to represent themselves. It’s been a process of narrowing down – if you discuss one thing enough, you discuss many different things.”

Knox’s research and creative work were funded in part by a Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which covered materials such as oil paint, baling wire, power tools and books.  He also makes a point of noting the impact of Musgnug, with whom he’s worked steadily since he took her class on alternative drawing processes two years ago. “We’ve definitely formed a kinship,” he said. “She’s the most supportive and liberating teacher I’ve ever had.”

Knox is still struggling to nail down a precise plan for the exhibition – a question about what, exactly, will be included doesn’t get answered – but he’s clear on what he’s trying to do. “I want to create a world, with the things I make, and that culture makes, that indicates how animal myths have survived in our culture. It’s about taking the immense power of nature and showing how it’s soft now, commercialized.” He picks up a winsome porcelain piggy bank in the form of a bear, a completely denatured object with a polka dot tie and a parrot on its shoulder. “This is silly, goofy – and it speaks volumes about our attitude towards nature,” he said. “A lot of people will never see a bear now, except maybe on TV.”

The Crit

Hannah Ibrahim's design calls for pockets of outdoor space, the preferred site for socializing in Rwanda.

Hannah Ibrahim’s design calls for pockets of outdoor space, the preferred site for socializing in Rwanda.

Nine architecture students, two of them members of the Honors College, crowd into a former bank vault lined with three-and-one-half-foot-wide by five-foot-high sheets of paper – “boards” in architecture’s parlance. The sketches and plans on the boards outline their proposals for new housing for a neighborhood in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, which is rapidly recovering from the ravages of civil war and genocide. The Rwandan government plans to tear down the current maze of houses on the steeply sloped site, and the students are charged with developing flexible housing solutions that can accommodate rapid population growth while remaining culturally sensitive.

On this afternoon Peter Rich, a South African architect who is co-teaching the studio with architecture professor Korydon Smith, and Tomà Berlanda, a guest critic from the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), critique the students’ work, on display in downtown Fayetteville.

“How do you as a designer provide the basics so that the people can take over?” asks Rich, gesturing at the students’ boards. “There’s no way the government can do it – and people do it so much better anyway. How do you preplan the infrastructure – not just the water and sewage, but the terraces as well?”

Hanna Ibrahim, a senior Honors College fellow, steps up to present her work. “I asked myself, how do you make the most of the retaining wall provided by the government? My solution is to build buildings off of the wall.” Rich praises her concept, which revolves around two housing types and pockets of outdoor space: “It’s what you might see in Italy – a very basic house type, where the staircase and courtyard creates the delight.”

Berlanda, sharing general impressions of all of the students’ work, comments: “Your drawings are beautiful, but we need more information.  How are the buildings getting their feet in the ground, and what are the elements of the Rwandan house that you’ve incorporated into these concepts?”

The exhibition distilled 10 weeks of work that began with a two-week trip to Rwanda. There, each student partnered with a student from KIST, who acted as interpreter, and together they spent time with individual families – interviewing them, eating meals with them, and sketching. Hanna Ibrahim was among the students who spent time with rural families, who have ample outdoor space – the preferred site for socializing in Rwanda. “We really got to know the people we’re designing for,” Ibrahim said. “We’ve been in their homes, we’ve played with their children, we’ve eaten their food. The question is, how to increase density while preserving the private exterior space that they value?”

Andrew Arkell sketches in a Kigali neighborhood while inquisitive children look on.

Andrew Arkell sketches in a Kigali neighborhood while inquisitive children look on.
Photo by Kareem Jack

Andrew Arkell, the other honors student in the studio, worked with families living in the Kigali neighborhood slated for rebuilding. He was struck by the beauty of the ad hoc drainage systems developed by the community: “There are concrete steps that cascade down the hill; when the water flows over them, they look like onyx,” he said, flipping to a sketch he’d made. “The spaces were small, the materials rough, but there’s some subtle moves that are really quite beautiful,” he added. Arkell’s scheme, which centers housing around private water courts where families could bathe, launder clothes and socialize, was guided by a new appreciation for what he described as “practical, simple, honest building.”

Both Arkell and Ibrahim are excited by the possibility that their designs may have a life beyond the studio. Smith is working on a book about the studio, and Rich will select the most promising work for further development by Rwandan architecture students. Eventually these designs will be presented to the government officials in charge of rebuilding the neighborhood. Though officials have expressed a preference for Western-style schemes with steel and glass, the students hope that their designs using mud brick and cross breezes will suggest an alternative vision, shaped by traditional materials and cultural preferences, that can be further developed by the people of Kigali over time.

“Architecture is about the people who use it,” Arkell summed up. “Getting to know these people made me want to be an architect more than ever before. As students, we can start to have an impact.”

Arkell is right. Whether it’s a clever design idea that will help a Kigali family manage stormwater runoff or an honors thesis that opens up a new area of research for a professor, undergraduate research by honors students does have an impact. Most certainly, it shapes the students themselves, preparing them for graduate school and real-world jobs and building relationships with professors and other students that continue long after they leave campus.

Editor’s Note: One-third of the Honors College alumni who completed a recent survey emphasized the value of undergraduate research, commenting on this aspect of the honors experience more than any other.  Learn more about survey findings.

Photos by Russell Cothren

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