Symposium shows variety of students' research

Gabriella Wendell displays her team's research project, which manipulates a photosynthetic microorganism called cyanobacteria to produce molecular hydrogen, a renewable, clean biofuel. (Photo by Cassandra Coria)

By Cassandra Coria
GCU News Bureau

A microorganism over the past two years changed the world. Now Grand Canyon University students want to change the world by looking to a different kind of microorganism – one with the potential to solve the world’s energy crisis.

“Currently, we are overlooking the potential of microorganisms SO much. There is this whole world of possibilities that you can use (them for),” said biology/pre-med student Gabriella Wendell, one of several Research and Design Program groups working on manipulating a photosynthetic microorganism called cyanobacteria to produce molecular hydrogen, a renewable, clean biofuel.

Dr. Breanna Naegeli

“Hydrogen fuel is a very environmentally friendly type of fuel. It’s the only one known that you can actually use without detriment to the environment.”

Wendell showcased her project at Antelope Gymnasium on Saturday as part of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology’s Research Symposium and Honors Showcase. Approximately 60 teams of CSET and Honors College students spotlighted their work in poster and oral presentations.

“This annual event is a culmination of yet another year’s exceptional hard work,” Honors College Associate Dean Dr. Breanna Naegeli said of the event, which for Honors students is optional and ungraded. “The interdisciplinary event offers a platform for our students to share their research, experiential learning and engaged projects from the year prior, and offers an opportunity to practice their presentation skills while networking with judges from related industries.”

She added, “We continue to see growing interest from students, and the event continues to expand, which is exciting to see.”

Winners for the the Honors portion of the event will be announced at the Honors Banquet later this month.

Attendees could view a wide variety of research and scholarship, everything from presentations about a phone app and tote company, to talks on a Thailand internship and serving Mexico’s underserved, to testing marigold plants for antibacterial properties and looking at the diversity of arachnid populations in Phoenix.

Dr. Galyna Kufryk

Some projects have been ongoing for years, with the same dedicated group of faculty and students, and some were initiatives that just started this spring.

Wendell and other students in her research group, mentored by biology professor Dr. Galyna Kufryk, are trying to genetically modify an enzyme in cyanobacteria so that it produces hydrogen on a large enough scale to fuel the world’s energy needs.

To do that, the students are cloning the enzyme, taking out the promoter, which tells a gene what to do, and replacing it with a faster, more efficient promoter “that has been known in the scientific community to enhance the activity of enzymes, thus enhancing production,” Wendell said.

Biochemistry/molecular biology major Luke Bamrud, who also is researching cyanobacteria with another group, said this kind of research is part of a large movement to get away from fuels that produce greenhouse gases and step toward electrically powered cars.

“So this our way of aiding that, in a sense,” he said.

His presenting partner, Martina Miranda, who is majoring in biology with a pre-med emphasis, said the kind of work she and others are doing wouldn’t have been possible without Kufryk.

“She has been my greatest inspiration of going to grad school,” Miranda said. “At first, I wanted to go to med school, but then I got into her research group and I got to intern at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (or TGen) this past summer.”

Miranda has applied to graduate school to pursue her doctorate in this subject.

Bamrud added, “Dr. Kufryk is very much about trying to train us up in laboratory techniques. It’s interesting because we work outside of our classes in the lab, so for me, going into other labs, I think, ‘Oh, I’ve done this with Dr. Kufryk before.’ You can really help other people, and it puts you at an advantage, so it’s a really cool thing.”

Senior Honors student Kendall Smith has witnessed the growth in diversity amongst the event's presentations firsthand. After screening her film during her freshman year at the CSET Research Symposium and Honors Showcase, she began to notice a wider range of projects.

“I think it kind of shook the process for how the Honors Showcase would be conducted in the future,” Smith said. 

Since then, judges from a number of different industries have been present at the event to weigh in on student submissions and assist in giving feedback.

This year, Smith presented her film “Over the VOTSOD (Valley of the Shadow of Death)”  and brought in some of her peers, who she collaborated with on the film, to highlight the intricacies of storytelling and the technical side of filmmaking. 

“I hope they got the deeper meaning out of it and that it impacts their lives but also brings a little more awareness into how we can incorporate film, dance, VFX's (visual special effects) and acting together into one cohesive project,” she said.

In an oral presentation session, computer science/game development majors Kevin Ahlstrom, Keegan McGonigle and Jake Whitebread demonstrated their autonomous driving robot.

“We were offered an opportunity to build a robot, and we thought it would be a good idea. So then we got to experience inventing systems and working with actual hardware, which we don’t get to do in our degree,” Ahlstrom said.

Added McGonigle, “We figured, might as well challenge ourselves, because we know this is something we could have easily implemented in a video game or a virtual simulation. We wanted to do something out of our comfort zone.”

The robot includes a detection system to avoid obstacles using image recognition.

Of course, there were cord malfunctions and Wi-Fi issues, but it was fixed when Whitebread said, “It’s a little nervous right now.”

“In our program and major, we don’t get to usually work with hardware very much like inventing systems and all that, so this gave us way more experience and a whole new subfield to our major that we wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere,” said Whitebread from Antelope Gymnasium, one of the campus’ older buildings that, on Saturday, became the site for projects that speak to the future.

Each year, Naegeli said, “It is exciting to see how these projects continue to evolve, and to see both faculty and students alike grow more and more invested in the work. It is a true testament to the collaborative community here at GCU and exemplifies the dedication and servant leadership of our faculty and administration.”


Related content:

GCU Today: Kufryk sheds light on photosynthesis research

GCU Today: Rock star bacteria, R&D Program fuel research

GCU Today: Students present research at microbiology conference               

GCU Today: Variety of research on full display at fall symposium

GCU Today: Symposium/Showcase shows range of research


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