Wrapping it up

This past Friday, 21 undergraduate students wrapped up six weeks of reading, measuring, interpreting, strategizing, observing, building, calibrating, and learning to think like scholars. They shared their conclusions with an audience of faculty, staff, special guests, and students. Below are a few pictures from the presentations. They delivered very professional presentations and helped the audience understand ideas that were quite complex. Congratulations to this year’s group, and we hope some of you will return next summer!

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A Breakdown is in the Works

To start off the research institute, I (Ty Balduf) was to spend the first few weeks finding related research to my topic of polystyrene photodegradation in the presence of a sensitizer. This research was meant to assist me in developing my proposal, which is a full description of the chemistry involved in the project, the potential applications, and the intended methodology. I came across a lot of useful articles and ideas for how I could develop my research.

One of the early problems I encountered in piecing together a method was how to best irradiate the samples. There was the option of just leaving them in the windowsill and allowing the sunlight to be my UV source, but this could have led to inconsistent results due to the varying amounts of light the samples would get. Thankfully, I was directed by Dr. Gierlus to an article that offered a convenient, albeit unusual, method for irradiating samples. The article demonstrated that one could get consistent photoreactions by using a UV light nail dryer as the light source.

UV irradiation of polystyrene via a commercial gel nail "dryer"

UV irradiation of polystyrene via a commercial gel nail “dryer”

Now that I have preliminary proposal ready, I’ve begun testing to see if my procedure will really work or if some further modifications have to be made. As of right now, my current methodology involves dissolving polystyrene in dichloromethane (DCM), a volatile substance which should evaporate on a flat surface leaving only a thin film of polystyrene. A thin film is needed so I can examine the sample using ATR/FTIR (Attenuated Total Reflectance/Fourier Transform Infrared) spectroscopy. Keeping the description relatively basic, this involves placing a sample on a reflective crystal and bouncing infrared light between it and a mirror until it reaches a detector. The detector can measure how much light of different frequencies the sample absorbed. These wavelengths of absorbed light are distinct to certain chemical groups and so allow one to identify types of chemicals present. For my experiment, there are two particular frequencies I’m looking at. If the samples absorb more light at those frequencies after having been irradiated, it suggests that the polystyrene has begun to break down.

Ty analyzing the FTIR spectrum of a polystyrene/benzophenone film

Ty analyzing the FTIR spectrum of a polystyrene/benzophenone film


In the time since I’ve started testing, I’ve encountered a few issues that I’ll need to address, namely that our current ATR crystal is not designed for this type of sample. Fortunately, USRI has provided funding to purchase a new flat plate ZnSe ATR crystal that should allow for more consistent sample prep and analysis. With these tweaks to the method and the new equipment, I’m looking forward to making further progress as I continue the project during the fall semester.

Ty Balduf

In the Home Stretch

We are about to enter the last week of our summer research experience, and students have their noses to the grindstone, trying to get as much done as possible before we disperse. One valuable lesson that I think all students come away with is that research and scholarship invariably involve unexpected complications, delays, things that don’t go as planned. This is the nature of discovery. And discovery would be downright boring if everything turned out to be predictable, accessible, and uncomplicated. Another important lesson is that for every question you ask there are many more yet to be asked and answered. A lifetime of asking questions and searching for answers often yields only a small piece of the puzzle. I think it’s pretty cool to think we will never run out of questions! Off to our weekly large group lunch discussion…

-Katie Trujillo

Going the Distance

IMG_1067_croppedTo start off the research institute I learned how to use the computer programming language called Matlab. We have been using Matlab to plot spectra and perform many mathematical functions, which came from various journal literature by researchers who have been experimenting with the expanding photosphere method (EPM) before. EPM is a method to determine the distance to a supernova by measuring how fast the photosphere is expanding by measuring temperature of the photosphere and combining these two measurements to find the radius of the photosphere and therefore, the luminosity. From this the distance to the galaxy that the supernova occurred in can be calculated.

So far we have looked at Spectra from 3 separate supernovas from 1994, 2002, 2010. We have also started looking at one from 1999.  To determine the distance, we have to calculate the apparent size of the supernova photosphere divided by the expansion velocity, and then graph this against the dates on which the spectra were taken.

2002gd_thetavsThe slope of the graph indicates the distance, and the y-intercept indicates when the supernova actually exploded (they’re usually not discovered until at least several days after the explosion). Once the technique is perfected we can not only determine how far away the supernova occurred, but when it occurred.  But to perfect this method, we need several high-quality spectra over several different observations of a supernova, and not every supernova is observed that closely.  We’re hoping that by looking at different combinations of the data available for each supernova, we’ll be able to narrow down which sets give more reliable results.

The first two supernovae we’ve looked at, from 2010 and 2002, gave distances for them pretty close to what other methods say are the distances to their home galaxies.  So far, the uncertainties in the times of these explosions are a little high (up to plus or minus several days).  This could be due to high uncertainties in some of the data points, especially for later spectra due to greater signal noise and line blanketing.  Line blanketing makes it harder to estimate the photosphere’s temperature and to properly identify which line is which (for determining velocities).

The 1994 supernova’s calculated distance is further off than for the first two; we’ll be looking at our data again to see if any measurements need to be retaken.  Signal noise is a concern with this supernova as well; so far, only two separate spectra have been usable.  This further stresses the need for more comprehensive observations of supernovae.


The History department is concerned with what some of the great thinkers have had to say about societal structure, in regards to justice, morality, democracy, economics, etc.  As there have been many great thinkers throughout history to disclose their opinions on this subject within their various works, our team was naturally forced to narrow our research subjects.  Currently, we have each decided on a social philosopher to research and have dived head first in some of their most important contributions on the subject matter.

Brendan Bakala has been researching the great 18th century Swiss born French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  Brendan is currently working on Rousseau’s Second Discourse on the Origins of Inequality and The Social Contract.  The first argues that the worst thing to ever befall the world was the invention of agriculture and therefore property.  He further states that government was a human construct designed to defend property.  War, organized attacks, was invented by the state which of course is a product of property.  He also discusses the idea of new emotions emerging in human groups: self-love and compassion for others.  In this new state, people have begun to have a self-love based upon the opinions of others. Rousseau sees this as unnatural and problematic which will lead to corruption and suffering.  In the latter work he states that the people are sovereign, and that the general will is where the real power in any society lies.  Rousseau states that man’s natural condition is to be free and that the government construct where one person can call themselves sovereign is slavery.  He also deconstructs different types of governments and points out their basic problems in this work.  He goes onto say that the there is no one universal form of government which will be best for all nations.

I have been researching the early 20th century French social theorist and philosopher Georges Sorel (1847-1922).  I am currently working on his major contribution Reflections on Violence.  In this work he discusses his theory Syndicalism, which is a society entirely composed of syndicates, or trade unions.  His theory is based on Karl Marx’s ideas of a socialist society, though he considers the class struggle to be the downright essence of socialism. He argues that the so-called socialist politicians of France in the early 20th century, particularly Jean Jaures, are using socialism to gain the support of those who it appeals to the most, the proletariat, in order to climb the social ladder while gaining wealth and power.  He goes on to say that all politicians in general, as well as the middle class and virtually all other members of society that are not of the working class, are a parasitic group that exploits the working class and make the money capitalism produces without producing anything at all.  Capitalism is necessary for syndicalism and capitalism was once a virtuous system full of booms and busts and risk taking entrepreneurs.  But those days are gone, and now the capitalist system is corrupt and exploitative.  Sorel argues that violence, and the idea of a unified General Strike involving the entire producing class, is the greatest weapon of the proletariat.  Their use can threaten a catastrophic social disturbance that will bring capitalism to a grinding halt.  The desired result will be the destruction of capitalism and the birth of a syndicalist society, one that is run, from government to industry, entirely by the syndicates made up of the proletariat.

Jon and Brendan, thinking deep thoughts.

Jon and Brendan, thinking deep thoughts.

Our group meets regularly with the guidance of Dr. McKinley, who is more than happy to answer our questions and discuss further how these thinkers relate to each other and their relevance to our topic and history in general.  We have also met with the political science group lead by Dr. Hebert to discuss how our research relates to theirs in the overall theme of issues within societal structure.  If history has taught us anything in this matter, it is that there have been many bumps along the road of our evolving civilization and that there has never been a shortage of great thinkers willing to share their thoughts for us to indulge and contemplate at our leisure.

Jon Kelley and Brendan Bakala

Oodles of Poodles


Andie takes Dr. Mitchell’s pulse and oxygen in a practice trial.

The first week the Psychology research team practiced both the control and experimental protocols for collecting data. The goal of our research is to determine whether therapy dogs have a measurable impact on family members’ stress in hospital waiting rooms.Fellow USRI members, Dr. Mitchell and his student, Brian, volunteered to be guinea pigs for our team.

Pulse oximeter

Pulse oximeter

We were able to practice using the pulse oximeter (which measures oxygen levels and pulse) and to prepare responses to unexpected situations that could arise when recruiting participants for our study.

However, lots of kinks were worked out and we were ready to take on the real-world hospital setting.

Amber with a very cooperative dog!

Amber with a very cooperative dog!

On the first day of data collection, our team went to Genesis East to meet up with the therapy dog teams. Dr. Trujillo introduced us to Pam and DJ and their lovable dogs: Polar the golden-doodle and Harley and Suki-Sue the shih tzus. Once acquainted, we split up and started collecting our data. One group followed the therapy dogs on their visits with patients, and the other recruited participants in the family waiting rooms.

Later that week we met our third therapy dog team, Louise and her dog Faith, the standard poodle who has a fancy poodle haircut like a lion. Each of these teams come twice a week to the hospital and have been willing to donate their time to assist us with our study.

Polar, one of the therapy dogs in our study.

Polar, one of the therapy dogs in our study.


We have been recruiting participants who are waiting on a family member who is undergoing surgery or a cardiac procedure. Once recruited, they read through our informed consent form that explains the possible risks and benefits of the study, and exactly what will consist of their participation. Then, they either go through our experimental or control protocols.

In the next two weeks we will continue to collect data at the hospital until we reach 20 participants. Soon we will be analyzing the data to determine whether the dogs were able to reduce people’s stress!

– Amber, Andie, Cierra, Lani, Kristina

Harsh Sentences

“Not failure, but low aim, is crime.” (James Russell Lowell 1819-1891). …and the Criminal Justice Undergraduate Summer Research Institute (USRI) team is aiming high. The Department of Criminal Justice is proud to say that its first year participating in the USRI at St. Ambrose is off to a compelling start!


Tonya hard at work!

Over the past three weeks, SAU senior Tonya Boots has been working with Dr. Grant Tietjen, learning how to use the SPSS database through the GSS (General Social Survey), to conduct a quantitative research study of her choice related to criminology. During the first two weeks, Tonya experimented with different variables that interested her, such as if children who receive medical treatment for behavior problems are less likely to get into trouble with the law later in life, or if courts are sentencing juvenile offenders too harshly. With the variables she found interesting, she created and examined crosstabs and correlation tables of these variables with demographic and socio-economic variables (i.e., age, highest education level, race, gender, and income).
So far, Tonya has found intriguing outcomes in the crosstab tables she constructed that report 4% of white people believe courts sentence criminals too harshly compared 14% of blacks who believe courts are sentencing criminals too harshly. Also, Tonya has found that as a person’s income increases, they are somewhat more likely to think that courts are not dealing with criminals harshly enough.

Dr. Tietjen and Tonya examining the data

Dr. Tietjen and Tonya examining the data

Tonya is now in the process of finding articles related to her topic on if juvenile delinquents are more likely to be sentenced more harshly as an adult in adult criminal court. By the end of this week, Tonya will have constructed introduction and literature review sections, thus writing the beginning of her final research paper. In the remaining three weeks, Tonya will interpret and write-up the results of her statistical analysis of GSS data. This process will include constructing tables to include in the methods and results sections of her report (i.e., descriptive table, crosstab tables, and correlation tables). Finally, Tonya will discuss her results, integrating relevant literature and research from her literature review into her discussion section of her paper, and work on constructing an academic quality presentation.

Dr. Grant Tietjen
Tonya Boots