Pax Otuonye, a senior biology major at Kansas State University, thoroughly understands how a catalyst works. She’s studied the concept in her courses, and even as an undergraduate she’s worked on intricate laboratory experiments involving catalysts.
“A catalyst, in chemical terms, is something that speeds up a reaction,” said Otuonye on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry Fair, in the K-State Student Union.
Otuonye is deep into research with Pricilla Matseketsa, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in inorganic chemistry, and Tendai Gadzikwa, an assistant professor in chemistry at K-State. They’re working to design catalysts that can do just what Otuonye said, speed up reactions, making them more efficient.
“The way we design them is inspired by the structure of enzymes,” Gadzikwa said.
It’s the sort of work that later could be applied to many tasks, such as creating more efficient ways to manufacture medicine.
All three researchers were all presenting their work to people trekking through the Ballroom of the K-State Union on Wednesday at the Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry Fair. The annual fair is designed to celebrate and inspire research among undergraduate students.
“What you can do in the class is limited,” said Chris Culbertson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at K-State. “This allows (students) to go out and explore their passion.”
Some of the undergraduate research was sparked by class assignments, and other research began outside of class – sometimes in conjunction with the work of professors or graduate students. Culbertson said the College of Arts and Sciences offers $1,000 semester scholarships for research projects outside of class. Students can apply for the scholarships with a letter of support from a research mentor.
“The reason for that is a lot of students have to work their way through college, and they can’t afford to take 10 hours a week to do research,” Culbertson said.
Student projects on Wednesday spanned a range of thematic and geographic territory.
Keith Birnbaum, a senior majoring in educational studies and social sciences, presented a project focusing on an issue close to home.
“My quest was to figure out how typical it was for a city of Manhattan’s size to not have a year-round publicly accessible pool,” he said. “The Natatorium closed a couple of years ago, and things have been hard for aquatics.” Kansas State University announced the closure of the Natatorium in February 2021.
Birnbaum explained his findings.
“What I found was that 97% of communities with a population of 50,000 or more do have access to such a facility,” he said.
Birnbaum said he considered “access” to mean a pool within the city limits or within a 15-minute drive from the city center. He also used the term “year-round” to indicate both indoor pools and outdoor pools in warm climates, accessible throughout the year.
He also considered, in another part of his study, communities just in the 50,000 to 60,000 range in an effort to even the grounds for comparison. That way, a relatively small city like Manhattan wouldn’t be compared to a mammoth place such as, say, Manhattan – in New York City. In the 50,000 to 60,000 population range, he found that 92% of communities have access to a year-round swimming pool.
Birnbaum said much of his research came from crowd-sourced data at SwimmersGuide.com.
“I reached out to the owner of the website, and he provided me with all of the data,” he said. “There’s no comprehensive data set for pools out there, so that was the best I could get access to.” Birnbaum said he followed up by researching individual cities, particularly when they appeared not to have such a facility within access.
Maddie Franklin’s research focus rested farther away – in the Alps. Franklin, a junior anthropology major, was studying how soil reacts to glacier retreating, a product of climate change.
She went to the Alps with fellow researchers during the summer to collect soil samples and measure carbon levels within the samples.
“We’re analyzing those samples, trying to see the effects it might have and how global warming can tie into it,” she said. “This project was more of a stepping stone for other research we want to do.”
Timmy Sullivan, a senior geography major, is assisting research into the way conservation efforts may affect wildfires in the southern Great Plains.
“We’re wanting to see how conservation efforts such as the Conservation Reserve Program … and see what’s working and what isn’t,” he said.
Sullivan is working with Marcellus Caldas, professor in the Department of Geography and Geospatial Sciences; Jason Bergtold, professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics; and Audrey Joslin, associate professor in the Department of Geography and Geospatial Sciences.
Suzanne Roggenkamp, a senior economics major, was displaying a group project on Wednesday that sprang from her public finance course, an upper-level undergraduate economics class.
Roggenkamp and two classmates – both graduated – explored parental leave. Roggenkamp was present on Wednesday.
“Having parental leave, if the fathers also have access, can create better equity in the office at home,” she said. But her research, she added, indicated that “even with equitable policies, women are still more likely to be discriminated against” in such areas as pay rates and hiring.
Mohaned Al-Hamdi, assistant professor of economics at K-State, noted the importance of research – particularly in economics – that can reach an audience outside of its own field.
“One of the most important things in economics that we need to do is to propagate our ideas to the public instead of writing for ourselves,” he said. “Most of the research now in economics, unfortunately, is limited to the people who understand it in the field … which kind of isolates the research in economics from the general public.”
Al-Hamdi said that a gathering like Wednesday’s helps students from a variety of disciplines – such as economics – to understand that the issues they study touch their own lives.
“They might be able to change things based on this kind of research,” he said. “That’s how we make policies.”
Students also made connections with classmates and mentors through the research – and they deepened connections they’d already forged.
Faculty and staff members from 24 departments in the College of Arts and Sciences were present on Wednesday, as were representatives from five organizations that partner with the university to help students, said Kate Williamson, event coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences. Representatives from the Chapman Center for Rural Studies and the Johnson Cancer Research Center – both part of K-State – also participated on Wednesday.