Eastern Announces Results of 2018 TIMPANI Toy Study

The stackable, magnetic, bottle-shaped “Magz Clix” scored highest for engaging children in mindful play and was named Eastern’s 2018 TIMPANI Toy of the Year.

Written by Ed Osborn

On Dec. 4, Eastern Connecticut State University’s Center for Early Childhood Education announced that “Magz Clix” (previously known as “Bottle Clix”) by Magz® has been named the 2018 TIMPANI toy. TIMPANI stands for “Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination.”

Now in its ninth year, the annual toy study investigates how young children learn as they play with a variety of toys in natural settings. The toys were placed in preschool classrooms at the University’s Child and Family Development Resource Center, and student researchers used hidden cameras to videotape children playing with the toys. Faculty and undergraduate student researchers then coded the footage according to the study’s evaluation rubric, which includes four subscales: thinking and learning, cooperation and social interaction, creativity and imagination, and verbalization.

“The opportunities that Eastern undergraduates have to conduct faculty-mentored research are a strength of our liberal arts education,” said Eastern President Elsa Núñez. “The TIMPANI toy study is a wonderful example of the sophisticated nature of student research on our campus. For the past nine years, students from the early childhood education, psychology and other departments have observed children at play with a variety of toys. In the process, they have developed a criteria-based assessment of what toys are best for the cognitive, social and creative development of young children. Parents, preschool educators and others around the world are turning to Eastern for direction on how best to support children’s play. At the same time, our students are conducting empirical research of the highest quality.”

The 2018 TIMPANI researchers included (left to right) students Allison Lundy ’19 and Morgan Winship ’18, Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, CECE Director Julia DeLapp and student Dominique McLean ’18. A fourth student was involved as well: Nicole Green ’18.

For this year’s study, researchers also investigated how teachers introduce new play materials into their classrooms and the effects of those introductions on children’s play quality. To study that aspect effectively, it was important to select toys that had similar characteristics, so the researchers selected eight construction toys to study.

Magz Clix received the highest overall score in this year’s study and was the highest-scoring toy in the social interaction subscale. The toy includes colorful, magnetic, bottle-shaped pieces that can be connected side-to-side or stacked. Children were often seen stacking the pieces in very tall towers. According to Morgan Winship, a psychology and early childhood education student involved in the study, “That was a huge problem that they had to solve together. How were they going to get high enough to stack the pieces when the towers were taller than them? They needed to interact and help each other.”

Children were also observed using the Magz Clix to create microphones, rocket ships, and guitars with their peers. “It provided them the opportunity to express themselves open-endedly through object transformations and play narratives,” said Allison Lundy, another psychology and early childhood education student involved in the study. “I wasn’t expecting this toy to score the highest, because it didn’t really seem like there was much to do with them. But watching the videos, I was surprised to see the different ways that children utilized them.”

According to Professor Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, principal investigator of the study and retired Phyllis Waite Endowed Chair of Early Childhood Education, toys that appear simple to adults often inspire some of the highest quality play. “We’ve found over the years that toys that are quite basic and can be used in multiple ways do very, very well.” He also noted that like many construction toys, the Magz Clix consist of many small parts, which leads to more social interaction and problem-solving. “Children need to coordinate their activities with peers as they’re building with them.”

Notably, Magz Clix also held children’s attention over time. “With many toys, we see high-quality play the first day that it’s in the classroom, but then the play quality wanes over time,” said Julia DeLapp, director of the Center for Early Childhood Education and co-investigator of the study. “But with Magz Clix, we actually saw an improvement in the play quality the second week that it was in the classroom.” Magz Clix was also the highest-scoring toy for Hispanic children and for children from families with high levels of financial need.

Study co-investigator Julia DeLapp gave the opening remarks at the 2018 press conference.

The TIMPANI toy study provides undergraduate students at Eastern a unique opportunity to engage in primary research – an opportunity that ensures they are well prepared for graduate school and the workforce because of the professional experience that research projects provide. In addition to Winship and Lundy, two additional undergraduate students were involved in this year’s study: Dominique McLean, a psychology and early childhood education student, and Nicole Green, an English and elementary education student. April Doolan, a communication student, was the student editor for this year’s video.

The results of the study were first announced at the annual meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, DC, on Nov. 14. Findings will be disseminated to preschool teachers nationally to inform their decisions about the toys to include in their classroom. Findings will also be shared with families. The investigation on how teachers introduce play materials will continue for another year; results are expected in late 2019.

For more information on TIMPANI as well as the 2018 video, visit http://www.easternct.edu/cece/timpani/. Contact the Center for Early Childhood Education at (860) 465-0687.

Previous TIMPANI toys include Animal Kingdom Mega Pack by Animal Planet (2017); Plus-Plus® by Plus-Plus® (2016), Wooden Cash Register by Hape (2015); Paint and Easel (easel by Community Playthings), and Hot Wheels Cars by Mattel (2014); Magna-Tiles by Valtech!, and My First Railway by Brio (2013); Duplo Blocks by LEGO (2012); Tinker Toys by Hasbro (2011); and Wooden Vehicles and Signs by Melissa and Doug (2010).

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Disclaimer: The TIMPANI toy study does not consider, nor does it test, the safety of toys. The study makes no claims about the safety of any toy studied. Neither the Center for Early Childhood Education nor Eastern Connecticut State University is liable for any mishaps related to the use of toys mentioned in study findings. Concerns about any toy listed in the study findings should be directed to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

Eastern Holds Third Civic Action Conference

Eastern President Elsa Nunez

Written by Dwight Bachman

Eastern students have a reputation of service to community that goes back decades. But at the Third Annual Civic Action Conference on Nov. 14, it was demonstrated how much students actually learn as a result of their service.

Eastern President Elsa Nunez introduced the idea of structured service learning in 2009, when she established the Center for Community Engagement (CCE), directed by Kim Silcox.

Nunez celebrated Eastern’s faculty for its commitment to organized, systematic service learning. “Students need to ask why people are suffering, and truly reflect on what they can do,” she said. “Getting faculty involved by connecting class curriculum to community needs will increase civic action in a meaningful way. It is so gratifying to see our students embrace this, as it reflects Eastern’s core values”

A wide range of speakers focused on four themes at the conference: 1.) writing assignments to promote civic action; 2.) employability and community engagement; 3.) higher education as a public good; and 4.) community engagement research.

“The conference highlights the amazing work Eastern faculty have achieved in engaging students in the community,” said Silcox, who organized the conference along with Nicolas Simon, assistant professor of sociology. “Students participating in service learning projects are engaging in research, thinking critically and expressing themselves as they reflect on the experiences. These are key marketable skills in today’s job market.”

Part-time lecturer Lucy Hurston and Nicholas Simon, assistant professor of sociology.

Part-time lecturer Lucy Hurston focuses on learning outcomes rather than just the student-volunteer experience. She had students conduct research on numerous issues, including homelessness and poverty. Students volunteered on a Habitat for Humanity housing project. The activity helped students change their perceptions of lower-income populations.

Sociology Professor Cara Bergstrom-Lynch

Sociology Professor Cara Bergstrom-Lynch’s intensive writing course requires students to focus on social inequalities and to identify solutions. “Students then develop a research project through a sociological lens and write a research paper,” said Bergstrom-Lynch.

English Professor Miriam Chirico

English Professor Miriam Chirico’s students focused on urban revitalization. “The goal,” she said, “is to have students come together to create a social network that helps enhance writing about tourism and increase pride in community.” Through the experience, students reinforced their civic commitment and simultaneously developed writing and rhetorical skills.

Education Professor David Stoloff

Addressing the theme of employability and civic engagement, Art and Art History Professor Terry Lennox’s students creatively design with the intent “to advance the communication and marketing outcomes of non-profit organizations. It is a collaborative, guided effort designed to learn the value of art and also show what we all can do, working together,” she said. Through these projects, students build portfolios, which contributes to their employability upon graduating.

Fatma Pakdil, associate professor of business administration, examined employability from a market perspective. She presented statistics showing that “only 11 percent of business leaders agree that today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies their businesses need, while 96 percent of chief academic officers say their institutions are very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work.” Pakdil proposed affording students courses that enable students “to study on projects analyzing real problems, issues and bottlenecks faced by business organizations,” which she believes will better prepare students for the work place.

Associate Professor of Business Information Systems (BIS) Alex Citurs and student Rebekah Brancato, a BIS major, with a minor in Healthcare Informatics, showed how community-based projects help students gain practical experience and make meaningful contributions to communities. Students also gain insight into new ways of doing things and building relationships for future collaborations. The work in information systems that he and his students do, which many organizations cannot afford from professional consultants, improves the operations of non-profit organizations.

Education Professor David Stoloff examined pre-service education as a positive dimension of civic engagement. His students participate in projects in local school and community centers. They write reflections on these experiences at mid-term and at the end of the semester. Stoloff said the goal is to teach students “knowledge, skills, responsibility and commitment within social justice views of civic engagement.”

John Murphy, lecturer in the Department of Communication

John Murphy, lecturer in the Department of Communication, uses local radio, television, web sites, social and print media to demonstrate the value of service learning. Students use various media — digital platforms included — to share stories about the important assets of organizations and people served. This creates opportunities for students to build portfolios and provides information to the community on valuable, underutilized resources available in the community.

Geography Professor Patrick Vitale’s “Geography of Food” class made community-engagement research a campus project. Their results suggest that many students on campus experience food insecurity. The students examined the impact of food insecurity, the resources that are available to support students, and what other universities are doing to address this crisis. “Their research shows the political and educational potential of a class that engages students to take on a pressing concern in their community,” said Vitale.

Yolanda Bergstrom-Lynch, a campus librarian, said “It is vital that librarians have a seat at the table as service learning partners.” She introduced a “Service Learning and Community Engagement” library research guide that was created in collaboration with the Center for Community Engagement. The publication serves as a resource guide of the various ways in which librarians promote community engagement. “Librarians serve as bridges, connecting the library to other campus organizations and the campus community to service learning resources in the library.”

Students Combat Antibiotic-Resistance Crisis via ‘Tiny Earth’

Students in Bio 334 test bacteria for antibiotic properties.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Eastern Connecticut State University is joining the push to mitigate one of the world’s most critical public health crises: antibiotic resistance. Through a new opportunity in the Biology Department, Eastern students are tapping into the Tiny Earth network, an international crowdsourcing effort that engages young scientists in the search for new antibiotic medicines.

The United Nations has named antibiotic resistance a global priority. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections such as pneumonia. The problem? As antibiotics are misused – and new ones are slowly discovered – harmful bacteria develop resistances against them, rendering the medications ineffective.

Through Bio 334 (General Microbiology), Eastern students have joined scientists worldwide in the pursuit of new antibiotics by examining microorganisms found in soil. Why soil? Many of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics were discovered from “dirt,” including penicillin and vancomycin.

Students in Bio 334 test bacteria for antibiotic properties.

“Our supply of effective antibiotics is dwindling, leaving people susceptible to extended illness and even death as a result of seemingly simple bacterial infections,” wrote Biology Professors Barbara Murdoch and Jonathan Hulvey, leaders of Eastern’s antibiotic resistance efforts. “Of even more concern is that only a few new classes of antibiotics have been created since the 1970s, and many pharmaceutical companies have abandoned the search for new antibiotics because of dwindling profit margins and long timelines for FDA approval.”

Eastern’s laboratory findings, and those of the thousands of other students tapped into the network, are sent to Tiny Earth headquarters at the University of Wisconsin. There are more than 200 schools across the United States and 14 countries participating in Tiny Earth — hence the “student-sourcing.”

“I feel as though we are a part of the fight against antibiotic resistance,” said Max Walter ’19, a biology major enrolled in Bio 334. “There are already reemerging pathogenic outbreaks happening around the world, such as tuberculosis.”

Classmate Katlyn Little ’19 echoed, “There’s a purpose to what we’re doing. It’s not an arbitrary lab to learn skills. There’s real importance behind it.”

A goal of the project is to get young people excited about science while training them in important molecular techniques. Research has shown that students who engage in authentic research experiences are more likely to pursue and persist in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“A big part of this program is having students take ownership over their own research project,” said Hulvey, who is leading Bio 334. “The fact that it’s connected to this global effort makes it all the better.”

Jonathan Hulvey teaches in his General Microbiology course (Bio 334), which has a laboratory component connected to Tiny Earth.

“What I like best about the lab is that we are allowed a lot of freedom,” said Molly Corvello ’18, a biology major enrolled Bio 334. “We get to decide what bacteria to test and which pathogens to test against. We’re doing actual lab work and there’s real mystery involved. This isn’t a ‘cookie-cut’ lab where the outcome is already known. It’s pretty exciting to think that the bacteria we find may be used in the future of medicine.”

Murdoch has led students through this research via independent study for the past several years. “We’re not telling the students what to do,” she said of the Tiny Earth approach. “We tell them the project and teach the skills they’ll need. They do genetic analysis and bioinformatics. They can take it as far as they want and apply these skills to other areas of science.”

Eastern students have gone to Church Farm, an Eastern property in rural Ashford, to collect soil samples. Collections have come from wetland areas, loamy soils and sandy soils. This experimentation and comparison of soil types is part of each student’s individual project.

When they return to the lab, they isolate bacteria from the soil; test the bacteria to see if they deter the growth of other bacteria, which indicates the possible presence of antibiotics; and then test to find the identity of the deterrent bacteria.

A student in Bio 334.

“In addition to testing bacterial colonies for the production of potentially significant antibiotic molecules, we must conduct additional tests to determine what species we are actually studying,” said biology and mathematics double-major Stefanos Stravoravdis ’20. “In doing such, this experiment acquires an interesting element of discovery ordinarily absent when conducting stock lab procedures with anticipated results.”

Hulvey added, “As their projects develop, they gain new skills. They’re learning how to analyze DNA sequences or how to carry out biochemical tests for identifying bacteria. These are skills that students would hope to learn in any microbiology class, but we’re putting it in the context of this semester-long project.”

Another goal of the project is to increase awareness of the antibiotic resistance crisis. Eastern is collaborating with local schools, such as Ellis Technical High School in Danielson, which are helping to collect soil samples. “This is an avenue to educate the public and to pique the interest of high school students,” said Hulvey.

Murdoch originally brought the student-sourcing approach of Tiny Earth to Eastern in 2013, piloting it via independent study projects.

“I wanted to link my research to a larger global problem,” said Murdoch, “and to enhance the critical thinking, research and communication skills of our students, as well as provide them with outreach opportunities to communicate the antibiotic crisis to audiences beyond Eastern. I’m thrilled that Tiny Earth is finally being delivered in a classroom setting, under the direction of Dr. Hulvey.”

Hulvey has been engaged in a similar vein of research for the past eight years, testing antimicrobial resistance in fungi.

“Dr. Murdoch introduced me to Tiny Earth, which I immediately saw as a tremendous opportunity to immerse students in the world of microbiology and in a way that benefits society,” he said. “Her enthusiasm, along with that of other Tiny Earth folks, is contagious and I’m seeing this semester that my students have also caught the antibiotic-discovery bug!”

For more information, contact Hulvey and Murdoch at hulveyj@easternct.edu and murdochb@easternct.edu, or visit the Tiny Earth website at https://tinyearth.wisc.edu/.

Health Sciences Faculty Present at Research Seminar

Professor Ashley Bissonnette presented her research related to public health programs and social activism in indigenous communities.

Written by Anne Pappalardo

Eastern Connecticut State University’s Health Sciences (HSC) Department held its first faculty research seminar on Nov. 5 in the Science Building. The event showcased research activities of HSC faculty as well as informed students of potential opportunities for independent study with faculty mentors.

The Health Sciences major consists of three concentrations – Public Health, Pre-Nursing and Pre-Physical Therapy. The department’s objective is to train future scientists and health specialists through a combination of experiential learning and coursework designed to prepare students for careers in physical therapy, occupational therapy, public health, nursing and a variety of other health- and biological science-related positions.

HSC faculty members who presented research topics included Professor Anita Lee, who presented “Physical Activity and Health.” Lee discussed the role of physical activity related to health and disease prevention, the concept of normal weight obesity and how physical activity can be “prescribed” to the general population to achieve health.

Professor Mary Kenny’s “Applying Social Science Research in Public Health” presentation detailed the benefits of public health careers and her background in diverse projects in countries such as Brazil, Jamaica, Mongolia and Ghana. She addressed how applying acquired social science research skills can assist in developing health and educational interventions in similar countries. “Highlight your strengths. This type of work is of value to future employers – focus on it. It greatly enhances your résumé,” said Kenny.

“Using Cultural Resources for Planning Public Health Programs and Social Activism in Indigenous Communities,” presented by Professor Ashley Bissonnette, addressed health disparities rooted in this country’s first wars against indigenous peoples and ways cultural resources can be used in the development of public health educational programs.

HSC Professor and Department Chair Yaw Nsiah detailed his research on experimenting with compounds from tropical trees and shrubs from West Africa.

“Extraction and Purification of Pharmacoactive Compounds from Tropical Plants,” presented by HSC Professor and Department Chair Yaw Nsiah, detailed his research that focuses on experimenting with compounds from tropical trees and shrubs from West Africa. The hope is that new anti-infectives will be discovered that can be used to combat viruses and bacteria.

Health Sciences major Cassidy Martin ’19, who assists Professor Nsiah with his research, said, “I participate in his research project by extracting active compounds from leaves, then use various evaporation and purification techniques to identify organic compounds and test them on different bacteria types for their reactions.

“I’m grateful to be participating in the research project because I enjoy microbiology and now have the opportunity to learn additional techniques and apply them to real research,” said Martin. She plans on pursuing a career in nursing, with an interest in nursing education and biomedical research.”

Students were encouraged to ask questions and contact faculty members to further explore opportunities for involvement in their cutting-edge research opportunities. Department Chair Nsiah announced that the department intends to continue to host faculty research seminars each semester.   

The following HSC faculty also presented at the seminar:

  • “Molecular Mechanisms for Urate Secretion in Human Kidney Cells,” presented by Professor Amy Bataille, documented diseases that are associated with uric acid imbalances – gout, hypertension, cancer, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and cardiovascular disease, among others.
  • Professor Pallavi Limaye presented “Genomic Analysis of the Human Fetal Brain,” which focused on how the understanding of human fetal brain development can be enhanced by genomic data analysis.
  • Professor Paul Canavan presented “Analysis of the Baseball Pitch: Effect of Floor Placement on Body Movement and Pitching Accuracy.”
  • Professor Mitchell Doucette presented “Right-to-Carry Laws and Workplace Homicides: The Role of Firearm Exposure.”

Biology Students Named ASPB Scholar, Present in Texas

Roshani Budhathoki and her research mentor Biology Professor Vijaykumar Veerappan.

Written by Raven Dillon

Roshani Budhathoki ’19 and Jacob Dayton ’19 had big Octobers as biology students at Eastern Connecticut State University. Budhathoki was named a 2018-19 ASPB-Conviron Scholar by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), and Dayton presented research in Texas at Rice University’s Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Budhathoki was one of 43 scholars selected from a pool of more than 200 applicants. ASPB is the professional society for plant biologists and Conviron is a partnering company that manufactures plant-growth chambers.

Within the realm of biology, Budhathoki focuses on plant science and breeding. She is inspired to pursue plant breeding because of the possibility of improving agriculture and food production, especially in developing countries. Budhathoki has given oral presentations at several professional conferences, including the ASPB-Northeast Section Meeting and the Eastern Colleges Science Conference, receiving best oral-presentation awards at both conferences. She was also the recipient of an ASPB undergraduate research fellowship this past summer.

ASPB-Conviron scholars receive a one-year membership in the ASPB, virtual mentoring and résumé review sessions with established plant science professionals, and the opportunity to submit an article to the ASPB blog for editorial feedback and support, with the possibility of publication.

As an undergraduate at Eastern, Jacob Dayton has conducted research at the Jackson Laboratory.

On Oct. 6 at Rice University in Houston, TX, Dayton presented at the Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium. The annual symposium features several hundred speakers in disciplines that span topics from engineering to natural science.

Dayton’s oral presentation, titled “Metapopulation Connectivity Mitigates Permanent Loss of Historical Genetic Diversity in a Federally Endangered Seabird,” concerns the federally endangered seabird known as the Roseate Tern. His findings show increasing genetic diversity among the terns. Dayton’s research mentor at Eastern is Biology Professor Patricia Szczys, with whom he has studied terns throughout his undergraduate career. 

The Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium gives undergraduate students an opportunity to gain presentation experience and to meet peers at other institutions from around the world. Students submit an abstract and present for 10-12 minutes about their research and receive feedback from Rice faculty and graduate students.

Researchers at Eastern Analyze the Baseball Pitch

• A pitcher from Eastern’s baseball team wears a motion-capture suit so that his biomechanics can be analyzed.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Health sciences researchers at Eastern Connecticut State University analyzed the biomechanics of the baseball pitch this past weekend, using pitchers from Eastern’s own baseball team as study subjects. Titled “Analysis of the Baseball Pitch: Effect of Foot Placement on Body Movement and Pitching Accuracy,” the study was led by Health Sciences Professor Paul Canavan, visiting biomechanical engineer Nicholas Yang and Eastern students Christina Gosselin ’19 and Ashley Kennison ’19.

“Improper mechanics can lead to shoulder and elbow injury,” said Canavan. “The placement of the front foot of the pitcher during the pitch can affect the timing of motion in the hips, trunk, shoulder and elbow, possibly resulting in future injury and decreased accuracy.”

• Student Ashley Kennison uses a radar gun to measure the speed of the pitch.

Student athletes from the baseball team agreed to participate in the study, which occurred in the Geissler Gymnasium with a slew of high-tech equipment, provided by Yang, a colleague of Canavan’s from San Francisco. Using high-speed cameras, a radar gun and a motion-capture suit (Xsens) worn by the study subjects, researchers were able to analyze the minute movements that happen during a baseball pitch.

“Providing individual athletes and coaches in the future with results that could optimize mechanics may improve performance and decrease injury risk,” said Canavan of the study’s implications.

This study provided an opportunity for undergraduates in Eastern’s health sciences program to participate in practical research. Gosselin and Kennison assisted in setting up equipment and data collection. They also read literature reviews on similar studies and considered ways to improve upon their study.

“I’m honored to have participated in this research,” said Gosselin, who aspires to become a physical therapist. “I reached out to Professor Canavan this summer, hoping to aid him in any upcoming research projects and we started right away. I’m always searching for new ways to expand my knowledge, and this study has been the perfect opportunity for me to gain experience in the field of sports research.”

Eastern Receives Major NSF Grant to Study Camel Spiders

The camel spiders being studied at Eastern are preserved in ethanol. This specimen, held by Biology Professor Matthew Graham, has a large chelicerae — jaw-like appendage used for catching food.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Eastern Connecticut State University is the recipient of a major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund research on a little-known type of arachnid known as the camel spider. Led by Biology Professor Matthew Graham, the grant will total more than $500,000 over the course of four years in an effort that will develop young scientists and contribute to the understanding of climate change in deserts.

The project is a collaboration between Graham’s lab at Eastern, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the University of Colorado. With more than $1 million in NSF funding split between the Connecticut- and Colorado-based teams, the project represents cutting-edge research that could well make an impact on the global stage.

Camel spiders are actually not spiders at all, but another type of arachnid called solifuges. While they do have eight legs and are in fact arachnids, solifuges don’t have venom or make silk (webs) — unlike their spider relatives. Their most obvious difference, however, is the presence of enlarged chelicerae — ferocious jaw-like appendages — rather than venomous fangs.

Camel spiders do not have 10 legs; the right-most appendages are used for smelling and feeling their environment. Scientists recently found that they also act like suction cups.

Native to deserts and arid habitats throughout the world, camel spiders — also known as sun spiders and wind scorpions — are an understudied taxonomical group, as they are notoriously difficult to find, collect and keep alive in captivity.

Unlike their scorpion relatives, which can survive for months with no food or water, camel spiders have high metabolisms and voracious appetites, and are a challenge to study in a laboratory setting.

One of the NSF’s initiatives is to investigate understudied organisms. Graham and colleagues are tasked with understanding how changing desert landscapes and climates have shaped the evolution of camel spiders. Doing so can help predict how they — and desert ecosystems at large — will respond to global climate change, as well as inform desert-conservation efforts.

“Deserts of the American Southwest are my passion,” said Graham, who is an expert on scorpions. “I’ve been collecting scorpions throughout these deserts and using DNA to learn about their evolutionary history. But scorpions are one piece of the puzzle. Now that we’ve got them somewhat figured out, we can look at other arachnids.”

As the NSF-funded arachnologists study camel spiders, other scientists are beginning to use genomic techniques to look at desert mammals and reptiles. “Together,” said Graham, “we should begin to understand how our desert ecosystems formed, how they have changed, and how they respond to ongoing and future climate change.”

Graham’s team at Eastern will focus on camel spiders of the American Southwest. The team consists of a soon-to-be-hired postdoctoral scholar who will work full time on the project; an REU student from Eastern — REU stands for Research Experience for Undergraduates, which is an intensive NSF research program — and other Eastern undergraduates who are conducting research with Graham for independent study credits.

The second team, led by Paula Cushing and her colleagues at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as well as graduate students from the University of Colorado, will focus on understanding the relationships among North American camel spiders and the discovery of new species.

“The most important thing Eastern is getting out of this is student training in some very marketable laboratory skills,” said Graham. “The genomics techniques they are learning are really powerful and generate exponentially more data than traditional approaches.”

Genomics is a branch of molecular biology focusing on the structure, function, evolution and mapping of genomes. A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes.

Graham and Eastern student Michelina Pinto utilized a new method of trapping camel spiders this past summer in the Mojave Desert. Attracted by a light that hangs from the stake, the camel spiders wander into the fence (landscape edging), which guides them into a pitfall trap with propylene glycol — a mixture that preserves DNA but is safe for wildlife to drink.

As part of the project, the Eastern team will travel to deserts of the United States and Mexico to trap specimens. This past summer in the Mojave Desert, Graham and Eastern biology student Michelina Pinto used a new method to trap camel spiders, which resulted in many more collections. Their method involves installing pitfall traps with lights (lures) above them. Graham, Pinto and Cushing co-authored a manuscript describing the technique and recently submitted it for publication in a scientific journal.

After specimens have been collected, they are preserved in ethanol and sent to Cushing’s team in Denver for species identification. Back at Eastern, the genome is extracted from muscle tissue using a laboratory procedure. The genome occurs as long strands of DNA. Using special enzymes, which Graham describes as “tiny molecular scissors,” they’ll chop up the DNA into manageable pieces and tag them with molecular barcodes before sending them off campus for DNA sequencing.

“After sequencing, we’re going to have tons of DNA data,” said Graham. “We hope to team up with our math department and use bioinformatics to analyze all this data. Patterns in the DNA will show us how populations of these desert animals have responded to climate change.”

Graham’s team will perform this process on numerous samples collected from deserts across the Southwest. They will return to the Mojave and other arid landscapes throughout the American Southwest over the next four years, as well as go on an extensive sampling expedition along the Baja California peninsula in 2020.

“A lot of what we thought we knew about camel spiders turned out to be wrong,” said Graham, referring to new science that has rejected previous assumptions about solifuges.

The primary goals of the project are to (1) revise the taxonomy (classification) of species of North American camel spiders, (2) provide new online resources about their biology, (3) expand digital records within the NSF’s arthropod database, (4) create an online guide to camel spiders of North America, and (5) inspire and train the next generation of arachnologists.

For more information, visit http://www.solifugae.info/proposal%201733117.html.

Eastern’s Tropical Biology Field Course Reaches Milestone

50 Years of Students becoming Scientists

A group of Eastern students crosses a suspension bridge into the Costa Rican jungle at dusk.

The sun was setting on Costa Rica. The air was thick with humidity and adrenaline. The rain was coming down, and Nicholas Kukla, a biology student at Eastern Connecticut State University, was about to step foot on a narrow suspension bridge.

Roughly 30 meters off the ground and 100 meters away from their destination, this was the moment that Kukla and his group had been waiting for. They were venturing from the comfort of their lodge into the deepness of the rainforest for the first and only night-hike of their field trip in the Central American country.

“Once we got into the rainforest, the first thing I noticed were the sounds,” recalled Kukla. “A rush of sounds from different directions had my head swiveling. I wanted to know what each twig snap and leaf rustle could be.”

Using artificial light to see in the pitch-black forest, the researchers spent hours investigating tropical organisms. Among their finds, they discovered the bullet ant, named for a debilitating sting that some say is the most painful in existence. The creature rested comfortably on the handrail of the guided trail, unbothered by its visitors.

“It was the process of turning over every log and exploring every dark hole we encountered that made the night-hike so special,” Kukla said. “This trip really shows you how science works at the smallest levels.”

Since 1968, Eastern’s biology department has taken students on a tropical biology field experience—known as a “global field course” (GFC)—in international locales. This May, a riveting trip to Costa Rica marked the department’s 50th annual trip. The country is a frequent destination due to its tropical rainforests and rich biodiversity.

 

The biology GFC is the longest running program of its kind at Eastern. Destinations have changed over time, initially taking students to Bermuda. In 1984, the department introduced Jamaica as a second location, though Belize took its place by 1986. Bermuda and Belize alternated each year until 2001, when San Salvador Island in the Bahamas replaced Bermuda. Costa Rica replaced the Belize course as a destination in 2008.

Biology Professor Charles Booth has seen much of this evolution, teaching more than 20 global field courses throughout his Eastern tenure.

“My first trip was in May of 1985 to Bermuda with former professors Barry Wulff and Michael Gable,” he said. “I have many great memories — nighttime walks through the Belize rainforest, using a headlamp to spot animals; scuba diving with hammerhead sharks off San Salvador; visiting spectacular Mayan ruins in Belize and Guatemala. My best memories are sharing the experiences with students.”

“Every time I teach the course, I have unique experiences,” said Biology Professor Patricia Szczys. “What I love most about the tropical biology course is to witness the first-time rainforest experiences of my students. Plants, animals and cultural differences that have become familiar to me over 20 years feel new and exciting when I travel with them. Each student brings me a new perspective.”

 

Szczys, alongside Biology Professor Matthew Graham, accompanied 14 students on the trip this May. During the school year preceding the trip, students worked in groups to read the literature and design an experiment later to be executed in Costa Rica. This coming fall 2018 semester, they will analyze the data and create posters that convey their research. Several students are planning to submit their work for publication.

Biology student Jessica Purick and her group studied the effects of visual and olfactory cues on behavioral responses of the strawberry poison dart frog. “It was a very hands-on adventure with lots of hiking and sightseeing. It definitely made me want to do another research trip in the future and travel more in general.”

“The knowledge and experiences that I gained during my days in Costa Rica were invaluable,” added student Nathan Murphy. “Not only did the trip allow me to explore places I’d never imagined seeing before, it also allowed our class to perform scientific research projects involving real-world data collection and experimentation that would not be possible in the United States.”

Eastern students scuba dive in the Bahamas.

“For students in our tropical biology courses,” said Booth, “the biological concepts they read about in textbooks and hear about in lectures come alive when they visit an oceanic island, snorkel on a coral reef or walk through a tropical rainforest. They see exotic plants and animals up close and gain a sense of how tropical organisms interact. They learn how plant and animal communities are structured and how they differ from the communities that we have in New England.”

Booth continued: “The students also learn about new cultures. They see how the local people interact with their environment, how they use native plants and animals for food and medicine. Bermuda, Belize and the Bahamas are English-speaking countries, former British colonies, but they have distinct histories, cultures and customs. The Costa Rica course exposes students to a very different, predominantly Spanish-speaking culture. Among the students who go on these trips, some have never been out of New England, some have never flown on a plane before and some have never been out of the United States. The trips become a transforming experience for many, exposing them to a world they may have only read about or perhaps never knew existed.”

Speaking to the transformation, Kukla added, “These trips really make you feel like you’re transitioning from a student to a scientist.”

In San Salvador, students study the biology of tropical terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Marine studies focus on coral reef, sea grass bed, mangrove, beach and rocky shore communities. Terrestrial studies examine cave, mud flat, sand dune and upland shrub communities. San Salvador’s flora and fauna include both native and introduced species, making the island a natural laboratory for studying island biogeography.

Studying in Costa Rica increases student understanding of tropical ecosystems by reviewing fundamental concepts of tropical ecology, as well as various topics currently attracting research attention. Considerable effort is devoted to assignments and activities designed to enhance educational value. In addition to factual and conceptual content, the course centers on the design and execution of field studies in tropical biology.

 

“All students return changed in some way,” said Szczys. “Some students realize that they love and have a talent for field work, others realize that they are much more interested in laboratory-based biology. All return with an appreciation of tropical biodiversity and the complexity of tropical field studies, along with an understanding of a new culture. Our students return having overcome environmental, cultural and intellectual challenges.”

These challenges, according to Szczys, include handling wildlife, lack of air conditioning amid intense humidity, and troubleshooting experimental designs with limited Internet service.

“For most, perhaps all students, the trips offer a chance to reflect on their personal lives and goals,” added Booth. “Some students decide they want to travel more, and they have newfound confidence in their ability to travel internationally, while some want to go to graduate school to study tropical environments. Others simply have a new perspective on their lives in the United States after having experienced life in another country.”

He also noted that global field courses are as much a learning experience for faculty as they are for students. “I learn something new on every trip — not just biology, but I have gained a better understanding of countries we have visited, and have gotten to know the students better. These experiences helped, I think, to make me a better teacher and mentor back on campus, and to make me a more informed citizen.”

Szczys concurred, “It is a privilege to share my interests as a biologist and experience as a global citizen with my students.”

“The Costa Rica trip was absolutely unforgettable,” concluded Kukla. “I am so thankful to Eastern for providing me with this opportunity that has sparked a permanent interest in rainforest biology.”

Written by Jordan Corey

Summer Fellowships Delve into Industrial Psych, Music Performance

Among her percussion instruments, Emily Miclon trained with the marimba during her summer fellowship.

Two Eastern students participated in Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity (UGRCA) Fellowships this summer, which are intensive research experiences on the Eastern campus that pair students with faculty mentors. Psychology major Kelly Bielonko ‘18 conducted a project on employee support groups while music major Emily Miclon ‘18 prepared for advanced percussion performance.

Bielonko partnered with Professor Peter Bachiochi to execute her study titled “The Relationship Between Employee Resource Groups and Occupational Health Outcomes.” She has prior experience as a research assistant in Bachiochi’s industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology lab. I/O psychology focuses on human behavior in relation to work.

Bielonko attended the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference this past April in Chicago.

“I became personally interested in I/O psychology over a year ago when I realized we spend nearly one-third of our lives working,” said Bielonko. “I’ve always been one for statistical representations or nuanced ways of looking at everyday occurrences, and this one hit home. Workplace behavior and health are very interesting topics that are often overlooked, yet they are a critical component of any successful business infrastructure.

“Within any workplace, there are a variety of backgrounds, from gender to race, ethnicity, religion, talent, disability and more,” she added. “The question is, how can an employer support such a diverse workforce?”

Miclon, on the other hand, partnered with Music Professor Jeff Calissi on a project titled “The Preparation and Performance of Advanced Percussion Repertoire.” Their research included preparing advanced pieces of music on marimba, snare drum and timpani.

“Throughout the program, I had intensive lessons that focused on performance practice, with the goal of preparing me as a musician for performance and competition,” said Miclon. “This advanced repertoire — including transcription works — helped me properly understand how to approach the instruments in a musically effective manner to be presented in front of audiences.

“I believe this will help my contribution to the ensembles I play with at Eastern,” she continued. “Musical performances can unite people and communities, and I hope that I can use my skills to impact others.”

With each fellowship experience came different goals, ranging from personal development to enhancing the lives of others. Miclon, for instance, wants to move on with increased confidence as a performer.

“Musical performance can be a vulnerable thing,” she said, “and I hope to not only feel comfortable taking on challenges in my musical career, but also to feel more comfortable presenting myself as a musician.”

Bielonko noted the possibility of refining workplace environments through her analysis, calling attention to the effectiveness of employee support groups (ERGs). “Not feeling supported by an organization can lead to negative outcomes for both employer and employee. We want individuals to feel happier and healthier in their place of work, and we hope to highlight with our study that the conceptual framework of an ERG can enhance everybody’s experience.”

She also acknowledged her own professional growth. “Going through the entire grant and fellowship process, along with generating an I/O research study from beginning to end, has allowed me to better understand the life of a psychology researcher in academia. The ultimate goal is to publish and present our findings at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference next spring.”

Miclon concluded, “Working closely with faculty over an extended period of time is an incredible opportunity. Professors at Eastern are so willing to spend time doing research with students, and it’s amazing that the school provides opportunities like this fellowship.”

Those selected for the competitive UGRCA fellowships each receive a stipend of $1,000 and $250 to be used for their projects or travel to present/exhibit their projects. Students and faculty members must apply as a pair.

Written by Jordan Corey

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