South Dakota to Kentucky, Eastern Students Conduct NSF Research

Taylor Brown and a team of researchers in the East Fork Indian Creek.

Two Eastern Connecticut State University students have spent the summer working on National Science Foundation-sponsored research projects in Sioux Falls, SD, and Menifee County, KY. Psychology major Kelly Bielonko ’18 has been learning about the challenges faced by rural Native Americans in Sioux Falls, while biology major Taylor Brown ’18 has been monitoring river restoration efforts of the East Fork Indian Creek in Kentucky.

Both students are participating in 10-week Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs), a program of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In South Dakota, Bielonko has tackled a number of projects at the Sanford Research institute in Sioux Falls. Among them, she’s been conducting an analysis of the factors and outcomes of burnout-related teacher attrition in tribal and rural schools in the United States.

Kelly Bielonko at Sanford Research in Sioux Falls

“The focus of my topic comes from my passion for organizational psychology, occupational health and serving those who are underserved,” said Bielonko. “I am looking at cultural, community, school-level and student-level factors that contribute to teachers becoming ‘burned’ out, as well as the outcomes that follow.”

Brown, on the other hand, has been examining the impact of “cross-vanes” on fish diversity and habitat quality along a restored site of the East Fork Indian Creek in Kentucky. Cross-vanes are U-shaped structures made with rocks or boulders to direct energy toward the center of the channel rather than toward the stream bank, which is supposed to reduce erosion, improve habitat and provide stability of the channel.

“This interests me because my goal is to work in conservation,” said Brown. “By doing this project, I am able to provide information to researchers of organizations, such as the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, regarding the impact that their stream management structures are having. I get to see if these structures are actually benefitting the area.”

Both students have had to navigate certain challenges during their REU. For Bielonko, the lack of existing research available on American tribal teacher attrition has made it difficult to carry out a systematic literature review. Meanwhile, Brown has had to familiarize herself with previously foreign topics of study and work around weather conditions that impact the data collection process.

Taylor Brown

Each challenge, however, has made them stronger researchers, as has conducting research out of state versus doing it locally.

“It’s been a wonderful experience to travel to Kentucky, specifically the central Appalachia,” said Brown. “I had never been here before, so I’ve gotten to learn about the environment while simultaneously doing research, which I really like. I’ve also met a diverse group of people that I most likely wouldn’t have met without doing this REU. I’m the only person out of the 10 interns from the Northeast.”

Bielonko concurred, “The experience of being away from home has been incredible, even though I miss Connecticut greatly. Being in a new place, with new people and new things to do, is refreshing and widens your perspective. In the past nine weeks I have learned an incredible deal about myself, industry, academia and the world itself. I will be coming home refreshed to take on my senior year and am motivated to bring back to Eastern what I’ve learned here in Sioux Falls at Sanford Research.”

Some objectives of the NSF-funded program are to enhance students’ overall knowledge of the research process, develop their communication skills and assist them in short- and long-term goal setting to increase future educational and research-related career success.

“The REU has had a significant impact on my research insight,” said Brown. “I have done a considerable amount of fieldwork, learned new techniques and have figured out the direction that I want to go in from here. I am excited to do more research in the future.”

NSF REU participants work directly with faculty mentors and collaborators, including agency professionals, and engage in all aspects of research including study design, data collection, analyses and presentation of results. Those accepted into the program include individuals from the study region, and from other parts of the nation, often from diverse socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Written by Jordan Corey