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Hot Summer Days Ignite Scientific Minds

University’s labs provide research opportunities for undergraduates in everything from studying the climate crisis to keeping swimmers safe

Posted in: Research, Science and Technology

Student wearing safety goggles and shield mixes chemicals.
Emily Cepin monitors chemical reactions to pollen samples extracted from ancient rock to understand the repercussions of global warming.

As temperatures soared in July to the hottest in Earth’s modern history, Emily Cepin toiled inside a Montclair State University lab gaining insights into today’s climate crisis by extracting pollen fossils from rock sediment formed 56 million years ago. The work is both tedious and timely. “If we don’t do something soon, it’s going to be that much harder to overcome and it’s going to lead to severe and consequential events,” she says.

Cepin’s research looks at how plants and vegetation are changing today compared to a long ago extreme climate event, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a geologic period of intense global warming. To analyze pollen from that period she removes minerals like carbonates and silicates from ancient rocks using a series of chemical reactions.

“Analyzing the pollen samples will allow me to understand how plants and vegetation responded to the PETM event and compare it to how plants are changing in response to the current climate crisis,” explains Cepin, a senior Earth and Environmental Science major mentored by Assistant Professor Ying Cui.

Cepin’s research is among nearly 40 projects underway this summer conducted by Montclair undergraduate students. The student researchers are tackling some of the world’s toughest scientific and engineering challenges, everything from finding a cure for malaria to building technology for classrooms and protecting swimmers from jellyfish in the coastal bays of New Jersey.

“The commonality,” says Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Yvonne Gindt, “is that these students have research mentors who care deeply about making them into the next generation of scientists.”

Student wearing blue safety gloves holds a petri dish up to the light.
Noah Ramadan, a senior Biology major, counts the number of bacteria colonies in a petri dish.

The undergraduate research program is supported by a combination of funding. More than half of the students receive stipend support from the National Science Foundation Garden State LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation) program, an alliance of New Jersey universities to broaden participation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering research. This support is matched by a New Jersey Opportunity Meets Innovation Challenge Grant and generous donations by alumni and friends of the University who support student experiential learning.

“The program focuses on teaching the students what it means to be a scientist, understanding their professional obligations and understanding what scientists really do,” says Gindt, who helps oversee the program.

As a comprehensive public research university, Montclair provides opportunities for students to work in labs early in their undergraduate studies. “I started doing little things, weighing sediments or helping with graduate-level work my freshman year and slowly progressed,” says Cepin. She has presented her work to the Geological Society of America, and in 2022 won the University’s Mario M. Casabona Future Scientists competition for her ability to explain her scientific research to the general public and non-science professionals.

Student wearing safety glasses and gloves holds a lab cylinder.
Rachel Gushikem, a junior Biochemistry major, tests molecules against an enzyme that is a potential target for the treatment of malaria.

Faculty members play a key role in identifying and training undergraduates. “I encourage them to think on their own because that’s where the real creativity comes from,” says Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor David Rotella, director of the Sokol Institute for Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences.

“Professors know that you’re new and that you’re learning,” adds Rachel Gushikem, a junior Biochemistry major mentored by Rotella. “They’re excited about being a part of your process, which makes it easy to have the vulnerability to try new things in the lab and be unafraid to ask the questions you need to ask to grow as a scientist.”

The students’ research choices reflect what they care about and problems they want to solve. “That’s where the passion comes from,” observes College of Science and Mathematics Dean Lora Billings. “Our faculty are very good at keeping projects moving, at teaching students resilience and persistence, and when things don’t go as planned, that there’s always a silver lining in there somewhere.”

Noah Ramadan, senior Biology major, is comparing the genetic information of a virus discovered at Montclair to a closely related species. “Scientists have been able to determine with some confidence the identity of the genes that comprise the genome. But until those genes are produced in the lab as proteins and we analyze those proteins, we can’t say with confidence that one protein is what we think it is,” explains Ramadan, who is mentored by Biology Professor Quinn Vega.

“Our goal is to take these viral genes, produce their protein products and see what they are for the purposes of identifying them. Once we have identified them, it gives us a lot of room for experimentation,” Ramadan says.

Student looks into a microscope; a jellyfish is projected on the screen behind her.
Rylee Allen studies the tiny – but toxic – clinging jellyfish that live in the coastal areas of New Jersey.

Rylee Allen, a sophomore Biology major, is studying how fast clinging jellyfish polyps clone themselves under different salt environments to try and pinpoint where they might be most abundant in the wild.

Jellyfish polyps are small and hidden, so it is almost impossible to find them. However, understanding the environment that they grow best in will help identify areas where the polyps survive and thrive, she says of the research mentored by Biology Professor Paul Bologna, director of the Marine Biology and Coastal Sciences program.

Since the polyp stage survives the winter and makes the next years’ adult jellyfish, knowing where the polyps are could help find ways to minimize or eradicate this invasive species, while protecting families enjoying the coastal bays of New Jersey.

Student holds a lab device for brain stimulation.
Athenia Ibragimov, a senior Biochemistry major, studies the effect of boosting visualization through TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) on task performance – in her experiment, the ability to hit basketball free throws.

The full-time summer research positions give students the time to delve deeply into the work. “During the school year, you’re trying to balance your classes and research. But in the summer you can focus on the research that you’re doing. It’s definitely a different experience,” says Athenia Ibragimov, a senior Biochemistry major.

Ibragimov says she appreciates the mentorship from Biology Professor Julian Keenan, director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory. “I’ve made some mistakes, like anyone. It’s definitely nice for someone to point that out to you, but in a way that’s constructive, so you don’t make those mistakes again. Ultimately you become a better student, a better researcher and a better leader.”

A sampling of other work taking place at Montclair this summer includes:

tudent lifts a virtual reality headset to show his face.
Anthony Condegni, a senior Computer Science major, mentored by Assistant Professor Rui Li in the Multimodal Interaction and Affective Computing Lab, creates virtual reality games for elementary students to enhance their coordination, memorization and problem-solving skills.
Student uses a computer mouse to click on a screen.
Victoria Udoetuk, a junior Chemistry major, is working on an educational project mentored by Chemistry and Biochemistry Assistant Professor Eli Lee. The research includes developing course materials for experimental biochemistry where students can use fluorescence microscopy and computer-assisted imaging to study lipid membrane-protein interactions.
Two students kneel behind a small square maze. Their professor sits behind them.
Seniors Katherine Saravia, left, a Molecular Biology major, and Manuel Arellano, a Biology major, study crab behavior. “Since you can’t ask an animal how stressed out it is feeling, we need indirect ways of measuring where the animal is between ‘chill’ and ‘freaking out’,” says their mentor Biology Professor Scott Kight, associate dean in the College of Science and Mathematics. The students are observing a behavior called “turn alternation.”
Student seated at a steering wheel looks at a computer screen with an image of a car on a highway.
Katie Corcoran, a senior Computer Science major, channeled the challenges and anxieties of driving to design 3D imaging that stimulates and teaches how to respond to dangerous road conditions. “I love being given this time to work on something that I’m truly passionate about,” she says.

The undergraduate research training is just part of the science happening on campus this summer:

  • Eco-Explorers, run by Montclair’s New Jersey Center for Water Science and Technology. The program connects students from underserved communities to the natural world, including hands-on experience about ecology, environmental science and sustainability.
  • The Weston Science Scholars is a summer experience for high-achieving students from Montclair High School. The students study marine biology, physics, genomic sequencing, cybersecurity, magnetic imaging and more.
  • The Green Teams internship program run by the Montclair-based PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies supports research and community projects, including climate change in New Jersey, and energy and water studies globally.
  • New Jersey teachers receive professional development to learn how to increase computer science offerings in elementary education.

Field research is also part of the summer mix. Outside of the lab, Cepin has waded into the waters near campus to assess the impact of urban pollutants on the 21-acre Alonzo F. Bonsal Wildlife Preserve on the Montclair and Clifton border. Students used heavy-duty surveying and geophysics equipment, tools they will likely use in careers in urban environmental geology.

Three photos show students in a nature preserve. In the first, two students wade in water and a third writes notes. The other two photos show students at a soil pit.
Students majoring in Sustainability Science, Geology and Earth Science spent part of the summer conducting field work in Third River at Bonsal Preserve. Left photo, Hailey Wehner, Alexia Thanapalasingam and Emily Cepin (left to right) conduct a “pebble count,” used to measure the average gravel size, relevant to stream power. Hailey Wehner, center photo, shows a soil pit with ID pins. Right photo Jose Romero (on left) and Associate Professor Josh Galster watch the soil pit fill with water. (Photos by Professor Greg Pope)

“There are hiking trails and a lot of people use the preserve to walk their dogs. We were getting questions from them: ‘What are you guys doing? Why do you have all these machines?’

“I get excited when people who don’t know about science get excited,” Cepin says.


Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters.

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