What if you could take noxious greenhouse gasses and turn them into usable fuel? What if you could explain the inner workings of a nasty bacterium that causes life-threatening illness in humans? Those are questions Utah State University undergraduates Alyssa Sam and Jenna Hawley Bouvang are exploring and they’ll share their findings on Utah’s Capitol Hill Jan. 24.
The science majors are among about 30 Aggies selected to present projects during 2017 Undergraduate Research Day Tuesday in Salt Lake City. The student researchers will discuss their research posters, set up in the Capitol Rotunda, with state legislators and guests.
The annual event, initiated by USU, coincides with the opening week of the 2017 Utah Legislative Session. The gathering is designed to highlight the benefits of undergraduate research to state lawmakers.
A Vernal, Utah native, Sam is studying a nickel catalyst and its use in converting carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and water to hydrogen gas.
“This reaction shows promise in helping to minimize carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and products from the reaction could be used as an alternative fuel source,” says the chemistry major, who conducts research with mentors Tianbiao Liu, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and postdoctoral fellow Jian Luo.
Bouvang, a USU Presidential Scholar and Undergraduate Research Fellow, is studying a bacterial pathogen called Shigella flexneri in the lab of Nick Dickerson, R. Gaurth Hansen Assistant Professor of Biochemistry. With research mentor Abram Bernard, Bouvang is delving into the structure of the bacterium at the molecular level to understand how it attacks host cells.
“The bacterium can cause severe diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and death,” says the chemistry major, who received a USU Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grant to pursue her project. “Children living in developing countries with poor sanitation and substandard water facilities are at particular risk.”
Involved in research since her freshman year, Bouvang says lab activities were initially “over her head.”
“But over time, I learned all kinds of new techniques and the research process,” she says. “Research gives you a whole new level of understanding the material you learn in class.”
Rooting for her success is her grandfather, H. Paul Rasmussen, a USU emeritus professor, who served as director of the USU-based Utah Agricultural Experiment Station for 20 years and as associate vice president for research.
“He was so excited when he heard I’d chosen to go to Utah State, he went out and bought me an Aggie sweatshirt,” says the Bountiful, Utah native.