At TLU, any student has the opportunity to participate in faculty-led undergraduate research.
Undergraduate Research Opportunities
Undergraduate Research Opportunities
- Develop critical thinking skills
- Foster teamwork and collaboration
- Increase marketability to potential employers
- Serve as career preparation
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.
TLU is a Council On Undergraduate Research (CUR) Affiliate
CUR provides support and professional development opportunities for faculty, staff, administrators, and students.
Our publications and outreach activities are designed to share successful models and strategies for establishing, nurturing, and institutionalizing undergraduate research programs.
They assist administrators and faculty members in improving and assessing the research environment at their institutions.
CUR recognizes institutions that have exemplary undergraduate research programs and faculty who have facilitated undergraduate research at their institutions through their mentorship and leadership.
They also provide information on the importance of undergraduate research to private foundations, government agencies, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress.
Faculty, staff, administrators, students, and colleagues from all types of academic institutions and organizations form the dynamic CUR membership.
Identification based on morphology, or physical characteristics, is often challenging for certain plant specimens. Recently, Associate Biology Professors Dr. Danielle Grove and Dr. Stephanie Perez worked with students Mariluz Gonzalez, Leila Martinez, and Jasmine Sierra using DNA sequences to more accurately identify certain plant specimens stored in the TLU Herbarium. Gonzalez focused on identification of Paspalum grasses in Poaceae. Martinez worked to identify sedges in the Carex genus.
Sierra worked on the molecular identification of three challenging Oxalis species within the wood-sorrel family. These three students also spent time during their summer research assisting and teaching four additional students on a project identifying Eragrostis specimens. Morphological identification of plant specimens and initial project design were determined with assistance from Drs. Mark Gustafson and Alan Lievens. Funding was supported by the Weston Ranch Foundation and the National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education HSI SURE grant.
Biology Professors Dr. Alan Lievens and Dr. Mark Gustafson once again led a group of student researchers on their Weston Ranch project. Madison Schultz, Hannah Welfel, Kristin Lucero, and Isaac Orozco collected plant specimens from the Weston Ranch, created scientific voucher specimens, and visited the Plant Resources Center at the University of Texas Austin. The research group sampled permanent study plots for an experiment on the effects on grassland plant diversity of removing invasive shrubs. They also collected tissue samples and analyzed DNA barcodes, which were contributed to an international database of DNA sequences.
Students Gilberto Lares and Nichole Cepeda worked with Biology Professor Dr. Robert Jonas to continue the longterm Bacillus evolution project, passaging cells every day allowing genetic drift to cause changes while looking for differences in growth rates and sporulation capability in the four strains. Two of the strains were less able to form spores compared to the parental type. They also surveyed buildings on campus for the number of mold spores in the air, started an investigation into survival of bacterial species in saline solutions, grew symbiotic fungi from lichens and, in cooperation with Dr. Kevin Tate’s lab, investigated the microbiome of the snail Rabdotus dealbatus. Snail bacteria were isolated using several types of microbiological media, and eight strains were successfully identified by genomic analysis.
Assistant Biology Professor Dr. Kevin Tate and students Laura Hernandez and Travis Bishop were interested in answering questions about how animals respond to challenges from their environment. Bishop studied the metabolic and cardiovascular response to acute warming events while Hernandez studied the impact of warming over a long period of time on metabolic and cardiovascular function.
Dr. Tate’s lab also collaborated with multiple members of the science department to develop integrative approaches to answer research questions. Dr. Tate’s lab collaborations included working with Physics Department Chair Dr. Toni Sauncy’s student Ezvyn Zuniga who designed a backpack for snails to measure heart rate using LED lights, and Dr. Jonas’ students Nichole Cepeda and Gilberto Laras who investigated the microbiome of snails.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Jacques Jean-Francois and students Michael Lopez, Crystal Rauschuber, Eduarda Stein Christ, and Jamaurey Webster looked at Physico-chemical studies of hydrogels made of linear (two-arms) or star-shaped (four-arms) polyethylene glycol (PEG). Hydrogels are 3-D Jell-O-like matrixes with a high-water content and are typically made of different types of polymers (natural or synthetic). Hydrogels can be used for various applications such as, controlled drug release and tissue engineering.
The widespread use of those biomaterials stems from their mimicry of soft human tissues when used as implants. The hydrogels in this study were synthesized through the chemical reaction of bovine serum albumin with a polymer PEG of various shapes and masses. The hydrogel is predicted, based on its composition, to be biocompatible since bovine serum albumin is a cheaper homolog of human serum albumin and PEG use have been validated by the FDA for human applications.
The resulting gel was cut into small discs that were dried in an oven then allowed to swell in different liquids (water, borate buffers of different concentrations and pHs). Gels made with PEG two-arms and PEG four-arms showed similar water content (95-97 percent) and dry weight (3-5 percent). More in-depth studies such as the evaluation of the mechanical properties will be performed in the future to evaluate the extent of the similarity of those two types of gels.
The Building Excellence by Advancing Knowledge through Experimental Research (BEAKER) scholars’ program in Organic Chemistry featured students Madeleine Balderrama, Shannon Perez, and Hannah Jacqueline Floyd under the supervision of Chemistry Department Chair Dr. Michael Ruane. All three research students plan to enter the medical profession after graduation, and the group made steady progress toward the generation of a non-basic enolate formation reaction with an eye toward the formation of pyranones. Pyranones are found in many natural products that have pharmaceutical interest. Their methods will allow for quick generation of frameworks which can be used to synthesize lead compounds derived from the enolate and pyranone synthesis.
The students made non-basic enolates using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) with results showing the reactions are forming new compounds. One reaction method seemed to show the formation of a pyranone, but other methods have been resistant to the final cyclization. Their work has made major strides in the project, and they will present this research at the next American Chemical Society National Meeting.
The past few years have been particularly tough on people’s mental health and coping. Communication Studies Professor Chris Bollinger and student Bailey Hudgeons developed outreach programs that equip community members to both recognize and respond to people in their lives who are struggling. Specifically, they built workshops that can be conducted face-to-face or online and crafted social media messaging. To do this, they first identified coping strategies for isolation, anxiety, depression, and diminished support. Next, they designed workshop goals and strategies that engage people via different modalities (face to face, synchronous online, and asynchronous online).
Finally, they put those elements together into cohesive programming that targets different community subsets. By building this with multiple, adaptive components, they hope to continue mixing and matching the pieces to function within varying contexts and modalities.
Computer Science & Information Systems
In this digital era of social media, fake news has become a very common and widespread problem. Fake news is created to deliberately misinform or deceive readers and often has the aim of damaging the reputation of a person or entity which can have personal, social, organizational, political, and economic impact.
With their research, “Fake News Detection using Machine Learning Approaches,” student Ty Edwards and Assistant Professor of Math, Computer Science, and Information Systems Dr. Ridwan Noel created an automated system for fake news detection. The goal is to create a system or model that can use the data of past news reports and predict the possibilities of a news report being fake using machine learning algorithms. They utilized Kaggle's highly-rated news detection dataset, "Fake and Real News."
After preprocessing the news data, they applied different machine learning approaches for the detection. They also implemented different traditional machine learning approaches such as Logistic Regression (LR), Support Vector Machine (SVM), decision tree, K-Nearest Neighbor (K-NN) and Naïve Bayes classifier and different neural network-based approaches such as Multi-layer Perceptron (MLP) and Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM). To measure the accuracies of the developed detection models, they applied the confusion matrix which compares the actual target values with those predicted by the machine learning models. The two then compared the accuracies of the methods.
From their experiments, the neural network-based machine learning models had the highest accuracies of more than 90 percent and outperformed the other traditional machine learning approaches in fake news detection. In the future, they plan to incorporate ensemble machine learning techniques and use multiple datasets to further improve the performance and versatility of their fake news detection system.
With their project, “Hunger Shame: Understanding Food Insecurity Among TLU’s Student Body,” Assistant Professor of English Dr. Lauren Shook and student Caroline Hrncir researched how this phenomenon affects TLU students. Numerous college students live day-to-day not knowing exactly when, what, or how they will eat. The two compared TLU to other ELCA schools with food pantries and other Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) Level III institutions that are church-affiliated, have food pantries, and are Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI’s). They discovered two unique factors about TLU. Out of 26 ELCA universities, TLU is one of two institutions that is an HSI and has a food pantry (the other being California Lutheran).
TLU is also one of only two SACSCOC-Level III institutions that is church-affiliated, is an HSI, and has a food pantry (the other being Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas). These factors are important when addressing hunger at TLU.
Knowing that Hispanic students are at higher risk for food insecurity than white students and knowing that TLU has a Hispanic student population of more than 40 percent means the university has an obligation to acknowledge hunger and advocate for change on campus to align even more with the ELCA’s and TLU’s shared missions to make the world a more just place. They then used their findings to create a survey addressing students’ various experiences with hunger. The survey will be distributed this fall with the goals of learning about students’ relationship to food access and gauging their knowledge of available resources.
This survey will help TLU learn how many students need assistance and how to improve existing programs like Swipe Out Hunger and the food pantry to increase student retention, enhancing the overall Bulldog experience.
Students Christina Resendez, Ezrael Powell, Kelly Jurden, and Cullen Barry all participated in an interdisciplinary project between Sociology, Computer Science, and Math, to research voting rights and city council district lines in Seguin, Texas, during the past 50 years. Working under former Associate Sociology Professor Dr. Corinne Castro, Resendez provided the sociological context and framework to identify key forces and pivotal events shaping voter suppression and participation over this time frame.
Using those dates identified by Resendez, Powell and Jurden worked under Associate Math Professor Dr. Will Hager using the opensource Gerrychain software (from the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group) to perform an outlier analysis on the Seguin city council districts and evaluate whether there has been a fair number of opportunity districts for Hispanic citizens, at various points in time. Finally, Barry and Jurden worked under Math Professor Dr. Betseygail Rand to determine new methods to represent the degree of difficulty of fair map-drawing which is inherent to the geography.
Students Martin Ortega, Kassandra Ortiz, Fernanda Gonzalez, and Benicio Ruiz participated in the STEM Undergrads Reaching for Excellence (SURE) summer research program, under the instruction of Math Professor Dr. Betseygail Rand and Lecturer Rebecca Clark. The summer began with an assortment of problems characterized by “low barrier to entry, but arbitrary depth.” Students then selected their own individual projects, and explored graphs, geometry, sequences, state spaces, and other mathematical areas.
Through a combination of collaborative and individual efforts, students proved various theorems and concluded their research in a formal research paper. Their work was showcased at the SURE Summer Research Symposium.
Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, Math, Computer Science and Data Analytics Professors Dr. Reza Abbasian and Dr. John Sieben, conducted an eight-week research project “Math-Stat Modeling Across the Curriculum” with students Elizabeth Klaehn and Ty Edwards. This collaborative research used sets of large data and modeling of real problems. Klaehn worked on two projects, first looking at how a lack of fan support during COVID-19 affected a team’s home field advantage. She looked at data from the last decade in several sports like the British Basketball League, NBA, MLB, and MLS.
Using statistical techniques, she compared the ratio of total number of home wins to away wins to the same ratio during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Klaehn also worked on exploring methods for estimating the total number of trees in a region. She and the group looked at several methods including mapping tree density, satellite imagery, airborne laser scanning, and variable-radius plot sampling. The group then used the methods to estimate the number of trees in Filer, Idaho. Edwards also worked on two projects including using Bootstrapping Methods and simulation to solve a well-known WWII problem: estimating the monthly production total of German tanks using serial numbers from captured tanks.
This method can be used to estimate the total number of items in a population where items are numbered sequentially. Edwards’ second problem focused on finding the optimal group size in group medical testing. To reduce the number of tests in a pandemic, small samples from multiple individuals were combined into a single batch and then tested using a single test. The size of the pool (n) is a function of the total population of infected, (N), and the infection rate, (p). Their goal was to determine the optimum value of n given an estimate of p using math to test results through simulation.
Assistant Physics Professor Dr. Calvin Berggren and student Aaron Salinas designed, analyzed, and fabricated a mechanical analog of a cyclotron from scratch. Cyclotrons are a type of particle accelerator and are one of the main experimental tools used in particle physics and nuclear physics research.
For the mechanical analog, a spiral-shaped track which extrudes out of a rectangular platform was chosen, and the entire platform is suspended and oscillates back and forth as a pendulum. A ball accelerates through the spiral due to the pendulum motion like how a particle accelerates in a cyclotron due to an electric field.
While designing this demonstration, Newton’s laws of motion were used to understand the dynamics of the ball and pendulum as the ball accelerates. Using this analysis, the apparatus was designed using a CAD system and 3D printed to produce a working demonstration.
Dr. Berggren also worked with student Courtney Burnett on a project in computational mathematics exploring the properties of the Dragon Curve fractal using the programming language Python. The Dragon Curve is a fractal with an intricate shape that has interesting interlocking properties. A fractal is a shape that can be built using a recursive process. The Dragon Curve holds its place in a group of fractals that includes the Mandelbrot Set and the Koch Curve.
A Python module was created to house all functions needed for exploring the Dragon Curve’s characteristics, features, and interlocking properties and to allow the creation of visually appealing pictures. For example, the Dragon Curve can tile the 2D-plane, meaning that the plane can be filled with these dragons without overlap or gaps, and multiple images were created of these tilings.
To create a module that was organized and easy to use, computer science professional practice techniques were essential throughout the project.
Psychology Professor Dr. Tiffiny Sia worked with student Sydney Ryan to conduct a textual analysis of unpublished correspondence between two famous psychologists from 1925 to 1932. The letters were between early female psychologist, Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley, and her mentor the President of Yale, James Angell, and they were found in Yale’s Presidential archives. Woolley’s groundbreaking research contradicted the stereotype of women being physically weak, emotionally unstable, and illogical. She was the first to find that there were minimum to no differences between the genders.
The founder of Developmental Psychology, G. Stanley Hall, dismissed this research as “feminist propaganda.” Woolley, and her research findings, were discredited when she was forced out of psychology with accusations of mental instability.
The letters between Woolley and Angell cover her being fired and their unsuccessful struggles to find her any position in psychology. The group hopes the textual analysis would uncover if the mental instability had any bases in fact; or alternately, if no mental instability is detected it could lend support that she was a victim of sexist politics within psychology.
Student Communication Center
Launched in 2018, the Student Communication Center (SCC) provides one-on-one peer support for written, oral, and visual communication. This summer, SCC Peer Consultant Caroline Olson analyzed the SCC’s assessment data from the 2021-2022 academic year. She conducted a mixed methods analysis to evaluate the effectiveness of over 700 peer consulting sessions. The research was supervised by Associate Professor of English and Director of Composition Dr. Margaret Gonzales, and the SCC.
As part of ongoing research, students Macey Barton, Makayla Unks, Abby Becerra, Malia Mikol, recent graduate Lance Radtke’ 22, Psychology Professor Dr. Scott Bailey and Assistant Psychology Professor Dr. Elizabeth Woods collaborated on neuroscience projects in the functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) Lab.
FNIRS instrumentation permits ecologically valid, real-world insight into brain activity while participants engage in cognitive tasks that are common in academic settings and standardized assessments of scholastic aptitude. The research teams investigated brain regions involved in easy and difficult language and math tasks. In the language experiment, participants were instructed to attend to letters in a list of familiar and unfamiliar words.
They were slower and less accurate at performing the task with familiar words, perhaps because participants were considering the meanings of the words rather than their constituent letters. Results from the math experiment extend the sparse fNIRS literature on mental math. Math anxiety influenced speed and accuracy during simple and complex multiplication and order of operations tasks. A key takeaway from this research was that participants activated left and right hemispheres when tasks were more cognitively demanding, consistent with neuroimaging data from other labs.
Results from both projects raised many additional questions the group looks forward to pursuing. The research teams are grateful for the generous financial support of Knaier, Inc. and alumnus Mark Knaier ’82 who supports the fNIRS lab.
In 2013, Assistant Chemistry Professor Dr. Alison Bray received an E. Kika De La Garza grant from the U.S Department of Agriculture and “Team Rice” began examining arsenic uptake by rice plants. Now in their ninth year, Team Rice’s initial research has sparked many new projects, like investigating other foods for metal or metalloid contamination like basil, measuring potential contaminants in a wide variety of commercial dog foods, and trying to make a polymer that will absorb contaminants like arsenic from the water before the plants are grown.
This summer, the sixth generation of TLU’s agricultural and environmental chemistry group, Team Rice 6.0, continued experiments to examine rice plants grown in soil containing arsenic and cadmium. The group has continued to study arsenic and cadmium as they are both carcinogens and at high concentrations can be toxic The popular press has reported many studies of elevated concentrations of arsenic in rice as well as rice containing products like baby cereal. This crop of plants were grown under different conditions with some plants flooded like a typical rice paddy and others in moist but not flooded conditions.
Most recently, students Casey Martin, Cat Ramos, and Mark Mainez worked with plants grown by Team Rice 5.0 over the academic year to determine the elemental concentration of these two contaminants in the stems, leaves, leaf tips, and seeds in order to gain a better understanding of how these elements distribute through the plant under different growing conditions.
Using Optical Emission Spectrometry and Mass Spectrometry, the students found that we were unable to detect any uptake of cadmium by the plants and that the plants grown in arsenic soil were extremely stunted. Unlike their previous data, the students found that most of the arsenic collected in the plant stems, but this likely reflects the very poor growth of the plants grown in arsenic contaminated soil.
STEM Undergrads Reaching For Excellence (SURE)
Students and faculty from Biology, Math, Psychology, Integrated Science, and Physics all participate in the STEM Undergrads Reaching for Excellence (SURE) research program funded through a National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education grant. The grant supports research at Hispanic Serving Institutions like TLU, and students presented their findings during a special summer research symposium.
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.”