Undergraduate Research

Undergraduate Research

At Texas Lutheran University, any student has the opportunity to participate in faculty-led undergraduate research. These powerful and transformative educational experiences range from studying the biodiversity of plants to measuring the impact of social media. 


Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Across all majors, students can work one-on-one with professors and peers on projects that:

  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Foster teamwork and collaboration
  • Increase marketability to potential employers
  • Serve as career preparation

Summer Research

In addition to research done during the school year, TLU’s summer research programs give students hands-on experiences in specialized areas ranging from lab work, to the intersection of theology and gender, to diabetes education in local communities.

These independent studies allow students the opportunity to work closely with professors and gain valuable experience in their prospective fields.

Learn more about academic programs at TLU

Undergraduate Research Programs

  • Chemistry

    Team Rice, led by Assistant Chemistry Professor Alison Bray has been funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to continue with experiments examining uptake of arsenic by rice. Using rice plants grown and harvested over the past year, students focused on digesting the plant materials and conducting various extractions on the soil. Soil samples, water samples, and rice samples were analyzed using the Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometer purchased through the USDA NIFA grant. Students have worked on food safety issues examining concentrations of metals and metalloids in products that are often considered healthy such as dried spinach, kale tablets, protein powders, and meal replacement shakes. Students also presented their results as part of a chemistry seminar series and at the American Chemical Society regional meeting.

    In continuing the department’s partnership with the USDA, student Michael Penrose traveled to their Agricultural Research Services labs in Beltsville, Maryland to work in the labs od Dr. Yakov Pachepsky and Matt Stocker. Penrose worked on experiments to determine which areas of irrigation pods (near algae mass, away from algae, center or edge of the pond) would be better to draw water from and to help decrease the amount of E. coli in the water used for crops.

  • ​Write To Serve

    “Write to Serve” is a service-learning program created in 2010 by English Professor Beth Barry to give TLU’s composition students the opportunity to use their research and writing skills to serve the surrounding community. Barry developed the “Write to Serve” concept in response to TLU’s focus on hands-on learning opportunities that link real world experiences with course objectives. The program has since been extended to provide students with an opportunity to work directly with community partners and advance the work started during the academic year.

    Since 2011, student writing and research from the Write To Serve Program has acquired $275,000 in grant funding for Comal County Senior Citizens Foundation to support programs like Meals On Wheels, congregate meal services, transportation services, My Friend’s Haus (an adult day center), and educational and activity programs that directly benefit the senior citizens of Comal and Guadalupe counties.

  • ​Biology

    Environmental Estrogens and the Brain - Dr. Grove

    The studies of Dr. Grove are aimed at understanding how environmental estrogens affect neurons at the molecular level. Environmental estrogens are estrogens that are not produced by our bodies, but they can bind to estrogen receptors throughout our bodies. In addition, we are exposed daily to environmental estrogens through many manufactured products. Environmental estrogens include bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S (BPS), which is the most recent “substitute” for BPA. Both of these compounds affect the brain when it comes to behavioral studies. However, less is known about the effects BPA and BPS have at the cellular or molecular level. This work attempts to bridge that gap by growing neurons in culture and exposing them to environmental estrogens to see if a transcription factor is activated. Details on the molecular pathways are currently being investigated.

    Bacterial Evolution - Dr. Jonas

    Dr. Jonas is interested in tracking the changes that occur in cultures of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis passaged by dilution into fresh media every 24 hours. His research uses sporulation media, allowing the cells to form endospores during stationary phase, and is tracking four cultures: duplicates of two conditions. One set is diluted 1:100 every day; the other is diluted 1:50. Samples from the cultures are frozen at -70˙ C every week, allowing strains at different evolutionary stages to be tested for phenotypic changes. Using B. subtilis allows him to assay for sporulation changes, as well as changes in growth rate, ability to utilize different carbohydrates, amylase production, and other characteristics. So far (since 2000), cultures have been through about 1600 generations (over 120 days/serial passages). Changes have been observed in amylase activity in one strain, and all four cultures have adapted to their environment by decreasing their generation times. Other projects include: isolating bacteria from the environment that can take waste products such as cornstalks and grass clippings and convert them to alcohol; using genetic engineering to endow bacteria with useful phenotypes; identifying antibiotic producing bacteria from soil.

    Weston Ranch Project - Dr. Lievens, Dr. Gustafson, and Dr. Perez

    Dr. Lievens, Dr. Gustafson, and Dr. Perez focus on biodiversity of the Weston Ranch, located southwest of New Braunfels, and more generally on biodiversity of Guadalupe County. Over the past 10 years, they have focused their studies on vascular plants, lichens, and insects (especially butterflies). They collect and preserve specimens as well as photographs of each species, record locations using GPS, and create scientific voucher specimens that provide a record for future generations of the species living in their county. Dr. Perez’s research with the project has focused on DNA barcoding of the plants and using DNA sequences to reconstruct phylogenies.

    Bone Marrow Microenvironment - Dr. Perez

    Dr. Perez is interested in the fundamental problems of how the bone marrow microenvironment participates in the development of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). Primarily a disease of the elderly, MDS can also develop after benzene exposure. As the elderly population in Texas increases and exposure to benzene rises because of emerging petroleum industries across south Texas, so will the need for understanding how the bone marrow microenvironment participates in the development of MDS. Current research in Dr. Perez’s lab focuses on the effects of benzene metabolites on bone marrow stromal cell lines.

    Students who have completed at least the first year of biology courses are encouraged to contact the faculty members whose research interests them.

  • Communication Studies

    Led by Associate Professor of Communication Studies Chris Bollinger, students generated workshops exploring identity with respect to identity and race and web-based resources supporting the exploration of these issues. Alumna Mildred Ray's workshop, “Unpacking Our Racism in The Workplace,” looked at whether black people and white people are treated differently in professional settings, or if it is a matter of perception versus reality. The workshop examined the ways individuals portray themselves, understand colleagues, and interact with each other in a professional setting with race being the main focus. Ray’s second workshop, “The New Black Female,” interrogated three common stereotypes with which black women are forced to contend socially. The workshop’s goal was to educate women on how they can address and alter these stereotypes, as well as see themselves in a more positive light.

    Ray ’15 is currently works for San Antonio City Councilman Alan E. Warrick, II and her main role is to listen to and be a voice for the community on anything from potholes to crime awareness. She and her colleagues are dedicated to creating a mentorship program for the city’s Eastside that will primarily benefit African-American youth.

  • ​Math and Statistics

    Alumna Amy Gastauer worked on the project, “A Multivariate LOGIT Model for Determining the Probability of NFL Success Based on the Rating of High School Recruits,” under the direction of Dr. Reza Abbasian, professor and chair of the Department of Math and Computer Science. Since 2002, colleges have utilized a one to five-star rating system to determine the quality of their football recruits. Five-star rating is a term reserved for the best high school football recruits. Every year, approximately 30 high school seniors are awarded the prestigious five-star rating next to their name by the recruiting agencies and sports websites. 

    On average, 3000 high school seniors sign letters of intent to play football with an FBS program on National Signing Day. Roughly one out of every 1000 recruits is branded a five-star recruit. Their research asks: will most five-star athletes be stars in the NFL? Professor Abbasian’s and Gastauer’s goal was to develop probabilistic models that can be used to calculate the probability of success of a professional football player based on his ranking as a high school recruit. The team looked at more than 20,000 pieces of data from 2002 to 2012 for the ranking of high school recruits, colleges and conferences that recruited the player, and whether or not they were drafted by an NFL team. If the player was drafted, they looked at the level of success achieved during their professional career and devised a metric to quantify various variables and develop specific models.

  • Political Science & Geography

    Sponsored by Geography Professor Kathleen Seal, senior Sarah Neill's research on Texas Voter Turnout won first place at Texas State's Annual Texas Geography Student Research Symposium. Her poster presentation showcased spatial and statistical analysis of the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections in Texas and what factors encourage Texans to vote. By looking at eligible voters and turnout in each county Neill, a political science major, sought to prove that small homogeneous communities, communities with a small variance in education level, income, age, race, etc., would have a higher turnout rate than vastly diverse counties. Her spatial analysis of the 2014 midterm election and the 2016 presidential election turnouts compared to average median income, percent of the population with a bachelors or higher, and the unemployment rate supports that small alike communities have higher turnout rates. Neill's statistical analysis of the 2012 presidential election showed that the average median income and high school graduation rates have a statistically significant impact on the voter turnout, meaning in communities where all eligible voters are at a similar level the turnout rate is going to be much higher than a community with varying levels.

    For Neill, this research is incredibly important in understanding how to run an effective campaign and encourage Texans to vote in all level elections. Texas has the second worse turnout rate in the nation and she believes campaigns at local, state, and national levels will all benefit from these findings as she continues her research as she enters a graduate program.

  • Nursing

    As part of a project supported by summer funding from the Vice President of Academic Affairs and a Budwine scholarship, Nursing Instructor Kimberly Griffith and students Donniqua Sanders, Luis Rodriguez, and Cayenne Claassen-Luttner began implementing a Spanish-language diabetes education program at clinics in Dallas and New Braunfels. During the clinics, they collected baseline data about participants in the program. For their project, “Evaluating the Impact on Glucose Control of the Viva más y mejor…con su diabetes bajo control Educational DVD,” the group tested the effectiveness of classes centered on a video produced by the Emory Latino Diabetes Education Program. The group has conducted classes for dozens of Spanish-speaking diabetics, including immigrants from Honduras, Ecuador, and Mexico, as well as native Texans. 

    The students also learned about research design, clinic management, and the intersecting factors that influence patient self-care. The students were surprised by how many study participants had diabetes-related vision loss, and by how few have their own glucometers—a basic tool for diabetes management. As one participant told them, income does play a major role in whether patients are able to access medication, prepare nutritious food, and do regular exercise. This fall, they will begin the next phase of their research project: collecting post-intervention data about participants’ hemoglobin A1C levels (a measure of the average blood glucose level over a three-month period). The students and Professor Griffith will analyze whether the educational program produced statistically significant changes in participants’ HbA1C level.

  • Physics

    Physics Department Chair Toni Sauncy oversaw the research of four students, with three of them focusing on projects related to the ongoing development of the optical and materials physics lab facility. Grace Holling worked on establishing a low-temperature photoluminescence system to measure the optical properties of semiconductor material structures, while Justin Harshman concentrated on developing code for calculating transitionenergies of these materials. The materials system of interest—GaAs/InGaAs quantum well Heterostructures—have application in optoelectronic device development. Emily Churchman continued work on constructing a low-cost optical trapping microscope with a redesign of the instrument and development of an improved sample illumination method. The instrument, which traps small dielectric particles using a laser beam, will be used in the Applied Optics course and for future research on trapping birefringent particles using circularly polarized light. 

    Andrew Hamilton worked on developing a new line of astronomy research at TLU, developing remote control and image acquisition techniques for two telescopes and reconfiguring an old refracting telescope into a helioscope for solar observation. Hamilton’s work will lead to the ability to do astrophotography of both planets in our solar system and of distance objects, as well as photometry observations of distance variable stars and star clusters. This is a new area of interest for Professor Sauncy who made use of connections with a number of astronomy colleagues around the country for expertise. The telescopes will be used for outreach and for further observational astronomy research.

  • Psychology

    During the summer of 2017, Psychology Professor Tiffiny Sia worked with three senior psychology majors to examine how various types of student life involvement affect who remains at TLU (i.e. retention). Julian Gomez focused on the link between involvement in the Mexican American Student Association (MASA), and their retention rates compared to ethnically- and academically-matched non-members. Thomas Snooks investigated the impact of engagement in the three social fraternities (Omega Tau, Sigma Phi Theta, and Zeta Chi) and high school academic success as they relate to staying at TLU. Jacob Lara researched how attending the TLU Transfer/Commuter Student Socials helps ensure involvement (and retention) in the Bulldog community compared to commuter students who choose not to attend. Findings from the studies will be shared with appropriate campus administrators in order to improve the likelihood of graduation for groups who may be disconnected from the larger TLU community, such as fraternities, Latinx, and transfer/commuter students.

Special Programs & Events

Annual Student Academic Symposium

Started in 2009, the annual Student Academic Symposium (SAS) allows students to share the culmination of their senior thesis or capstone project with the campus community. From conducting and artwork to research on type 2 diabetes and higher education funding in Texas, students have the opportunity to showcase their talent, skills, and knowledge in various academic areas. Over the years, presentations have ranged from "A Review of Three Lactobacillus Species and Their Ability to Reduce the Antigenicity of Cow's Milk Protein" to “Black Masculinity and Responses to the Moynihan Report in Ebony Magazine.”

2017 SAS Schedule

Undergraduate Research Day at The State Capitol

Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the State Capitol is an opportunity to display the experiences of undergraduate students engaged in research for Texas legislators and the public. The 2015 theme, “Transforming Texas Through Undergraduate Research,” focused on how research done by undergraduate students can positively impact Texas and Texans. Under the direction of Psychology Professor Tiffiny Sia, students Hannah Liebman, Megan McBride and Rene Dominguez presented their research on the effect of optional essay questions in standardized examinations on the scores of minority students.

In addition to the event at the Capitol, their research, “Narrowing The Exam Gap: Impact of Optional Testing Essay Usage on Minority Performance,” was presented at the 2015 Southwestern Psychological Association conference. There, Sia led a teaching demo showing how the addition of an optional essay question on exams benefited English as a Second Language (ESL) and minority students.

Read The Full Story

In 2017, Chemistry majors Carly Miller and Ramiro Nava represented TLU at Texas Undergraduate Research Day with their poster "Effects of Varying flood Conditions on Arsenic Uptake by Cocodrie Rice." Led by Assistant Chemistry Professor Alison Bray, Miller and Nava's research is part of an ongoing effort to understand how arsenic is taken into rice plants and ultimately rice grains. Team Rice (partly funded by the USDA-NIFA) is looking at ways to mitigate this uptake as arsenic is a carcinogen and toxin, while keeping in mind it is also a critical, global health concern.