Summer Undergraduate Research Program

The question of whether substance abuse treatment reduces the likelihood of heroin users having repeat contact with the criminal justice system and the development of a special buoy to convert ocean wave energy into electricity are among the topics being investigated during the second year of Western Carolina University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program.

Nine teams – each composed of a WCU faculty member and a current student – spent eight weeks on campus, May 31 through Wednesday, July 26, conducting intensive research into a variety of topics. Those student and faculty participants were joined in their work for two weeks in June by Research Scholars, incoming freshmen students who will be enrolling in WCU’s Honors College this fall semester.

The summer program is a university-wide initiative overseen by the Honors College and open to all WCU undergraduates. To be considered for the program, current students interested in participating had to identify a faculty member with whom they wished to collaborate and submit a proposal describing their research project and its goals. Incoming freshmen with stellar academic profiles were invited to apply to the program, and those chosen were matched with the teams of faculty members and current students based on their academic interests and preferences.

Faculty members and current students are receiving stipends for their research work, and all the students earn three credit hours with an honors designation. In addition to their research activity, the Research Scholars were enrolled in a first-year seminar and current students are taking a course focusing on undergraduate research. The current students also served as mentors for the Research Scholars while they were on campus and assisted faculty members in planning the freshmen’s work.

Jill Granger, dean of the Honors College, said that during a regular semester, a typical WCU student might spend three to nine hours in research work each week, with time also allocated for classes and other obligations. As a full-time research opportunity, the Summer Undergraduate Research Program gives students a chance to accomplish the equivalent of a semester’s research work in several weeks, Granger said.

“The potential, then, is that the students can really take their projects far beyond where they might be able to go during the regular school year, and hopefully to the point at which their work may be publishable. In any case, the work they are able to accomplish and the new perspectives gained will help to make them stand-out candidates when it comes to future employment, graduate school or professional school applications,” she said.

Bill Kwochka, associate professor in WCU’s Department of Chemistry and Physics, serves as program director. He said working with this year’s students and faculty has been “stimulating and rewarding.”

The program’s inaugural year involved a talented group of student researchers, but seven of the nine upperclassmen were from WCU’s biggest academic college – Arts and Sciences, Kwochka said. “One of our goals for the program was to make this wonderful opportunity available to as large of an audience as possible. This year, we have a much more diverse group of students representing all six of the colleges at WCU, so I think we are making good progress toward achieving that goal,” he said.

Nine projects are underway this summer. Bora Karayaka, assistant professor in WCU’s Department of Engineering and Technology, has been working with Seaon Carter, a senior from Charlotte who is majoring in engineering technology, and incoming freshman Patrick Barchett of Evansville, Indiana, to test models of an ocean wave energy converter that uses the “slider crank power take-off system.” The system involves a generator and gearbox combination, slider crank connection and a buoy to convert the motion of ocean waves into electricity.

Karayaka said he started research and development on the slider crank wave energy converter as a member of the faculty at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2010. Since then, he has partnered in that work with several current and former WCU faculty members and representatives of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. During the summer program, Karayaka has been helping Carter and Barchett learn how to operate a hydraulic flow channel, design and print test buoys in 3D, collect measurements that characterize the hydrodynamic behavior of the buoys, and identify a set of experimental models for each wave frequency. The goal of their work is to learn how to shape the buoy to make it as efficient as possible.

Karayaka said he was inspired to become involved in the research program through his contact with a WCU student who participated in the inaugural edition last summer. “I remember seeing a student researcher, Kyle Johnson, in our electrical engineering program last summer who was very excited about his project related to bio-engineering under the supervision of Dr. Scott Pierce,” Karayaka said. “He was asking me questions from time to time. I would say that was one of my primary sources of motivation for becoming involved.”

Karayaka said he has enjoyed working with Carter and Barchett on the project, officially titled “Slider Crank Power Take-Off System Buoy Optimization.” “They are very motivated, punctual and, more than anything else, they like to learn and ask questions,” he said.

Steven Lawson, a senior criminal justice major from King, has been working with Albert Kopak, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice, and Kathleen Allen, a graduate of Rosewood High School from Goldsboro, to examine how heroin users’ substance use treatment outcomes affect their subsequent contact with the criminal justice system, with a goal of determining to what degree treatment should be emphasized.

Lawson said the project, “Heroin Use and Criminal Justice Involvement Among Substance Abuse Treatment Patients,” is based on the dramatic increase in the number of opioid-related deaths across the nation. “I also have been personally affected by issues related to drug use back home and here, all in a matter of a short period of time,” he said. “I didn’t know much about the drug or any real treatment for addiction, which motivated me to find out more about it. My philosophy is that the more you know about something in the criminal justice field, the better you can address a set of issues.”

The seven other summer research projects are listed along with the team members (faculty mentor, current student and Research Scholar) and a summary of the project:

  • “Alternative Desalination Method” – Bethany Davidson, former assistant professor of entrepreneurship; Jonathan Holden, a senior entrepreneurship major from Hendersonville; and Emily Nytko, a graduate of Lincoln Charter School from Cherryville. The project goal is to find out if near-freezing ocean water below the thermocline, a transition layer between surface water and deep water, can be used in the reverse osmosis process to produce more fresh water than currently utilized desalination methods.
  • “The Effect of Gasoline Price on Emergency Medical Services Demand” – Jackson Deziel, assistant professor of emergency medical care; Nathaniel Andrews, a senior emergency medical care major from Lincolnton; and Shelby Watson, an Enka High School graduate from Biltmore Lake. The goal of the project is to determine if there is a relationship between the average price of gasoline and the number of monthly calls received by emergency medical services.
  • “Perceptions in Comfort of NCAA Ice Hockey Athletes with Athletic Trainers of the Same and Opposite Gender” – Ashley Thrasher, assistant professor of athletic training; Rachel Young, a senior athletic training major from Cary; and Megan Swindell, a graduate of Grace Christian School from Sanford. The project goal is to examine differences in comfort level between collegiate male and female hockey players with athletic trainers based on gender.
  • “An Investigation of How Body Dysmorphic Disorder Influences Sexual Function” – David de Jong, assistant professor of psychology; and Robert Wyatt, a senior psychology major from Asheville. The project goal is to determine if body dysmorphic disorder and sexual dysfunction are related, which could affect how both are treated in a clinical setting.
  • “Suburbanization of the Tiny Home” – Erin Adams, associate professor of interior design; Vincent Cuffee II, a junior interior design major from Lumber Bridge; and Haley Euler, a graduate of Highland School of Technology from Belmont. A goal of the project is to document how the traditional model of American home investment can be traded for a new “tiny model.”
  • “Development of Textile Materials with Microbial Resistant Properties Using Zinc Metal-Based Nanomaterials” – Channa DeSilva, associate professor of bioinorganic chemistry; Kaitlyn Brasecker, a freshman chemistry major from Morganton; and Jala Bogard, a Davie High School graduate from Mocksville. The goal of the project is to develop a prototype textile material for clinical applications to prevent health care-associated bacterial infections.
  • “Analysis of Sugar Mixtures by IR Spectroscopy” – Scott Huffman, associate professor of analytical chemistry; Morgan Cheek, a senior chemistry major from Mebane; and Caleigh Gress-Byrd, a West Stanly High School graduate from Locust. The project includes an analysis of sugar compositions within mosquitoes, which can help determine their feeding grounds, which could in turn lead to development of a field-based analysis method to help target malignant mosquitoes with pesticides.

Near the conclusion of this year’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program, the nine current students will present a symposium for a campus audience to talk about their projects and findings.