Undergraduate Research Shines at Illinois Wesleyan Conference

View highlights from the conference and recent campus performances, or 
See a photo gallery from the conference

April 25, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Nearly 170 Illinois Wesleyan University students showed off their research, scholarly and creative activity Saturday at the annual John Wesley Powell Student Research Conference. 

Now in its 24th year the event showcases poster and oral presentations, music performances or art displays. The conference is unique among baccalaureate-only, liberal arts institution, and reflects student research as an integral part of the curriculum at Illinois Wesleyan.

Leah Nillas, co-chair of the conference committee and associate professor of educational studies, said this year’s conference is the largest ever in regard to the number of students participating. Oral presentations -- 51 this year – continue to increase as well, Nillas said.

Originally the conference drew science majors almost exclusively. Now, however, many students from social sciences and the humanities take part in the conference. This variety of academic disciplines is an apt reflection of a liberal arts education, according to Nillas.

For committee member Joe Plazak, assistant professor of music, the best part of the conference is the evidence of student-faculty collaboration.

“As you go around to look at the posters, you see the one-to-one interaction between student and faculty advisor, working together to do the things they are not doing when they are in the classroom,” said Plazak. “The conference is a wonderful showcase that demonstrates how small schools can bring this unique experience of individual attention and guidance.”

Projects this year ranged from the development of a technique for measuring gas pressure using laser induced plasmas to an investigation of mammalian taste buds. The projects below are just a sample of those featured at this year’s event.

Taste Test

Taste buds in mammals are known to contain releasable stores of norepinephrine and serotonin, both of which are electroactive neurotransmitters that can be detected by electric current. Stephen R. Whitfield’s project demonstrated that a new type of electrode using many carbon fibers could perform as well and even surpass previous research techniques using an electrode with just one fiber. This approach demonstrated that mouse taste buds release neurotransmitters in response to stimulation by linoleic acid, a finding that Aaron Moore ’12 (who is now enrolled at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine) and Whitfield discovered and characterized working in the lab of Melinda Baur, assistant professor of chemistry.

 “The most interesting thing about our research is that it was previously thought the five tastes were sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory, or umami, which is a word borrowed from the Japanese,” explained biology major Whitfield ’14. “We are saying there are at least six tastes because we found that fatty acids, which are a primary component of fat, can be tasted as well.”

Whitfield said previous thought indicated something had to dissolve in saliva in order to be tasted, and fatty acids generally won’t dissolve in saliva.

“That was a surprising result, although there had been some previous research indicating it is a possibility,” said Whitfield.

Elizabeth Kuehn '13 presents her research.

“We don’t necessarily know if this is a positive or negative experience because we are not testing it in an intact animal, just isolating taste buds,” Whitfield added. Next steps in this line of research include testing more fatty acids to make sure the reaction to linoleic acid was not unique. In addition, some evidence suggests metal ions can be tasted and further exploration is necessary there as well.

Career Center Attitudes

Illinois Wesleyan students who utilize the services at the Hart Career Center report “remarkably high levels of satisfaction” and have more confidence in continuing on a clear career path. The problem is that not enough Wesleyan students are utilizing the career center’s services.    

These are the findings of psychology major Anna Woodruff ’13 for her senior honors thesis, “What University Personnel Should Know: Student Career Confidence, Help-Seeking Stigmas, and Use of Career Center Services.”  Under the direction of Associate Professor of Psychology Linda Kunce and input from Career Center personnel, Woodruff surveyed college students’ awareness and use of career centers, and stigmas related to career counseling and career decision self-efficacy. She also assessed Wesleyan students’ evaluations of the Hart Career Center’s services such as resume writing assistance, individual career counseling and practice interviews.

Wesleyan students are not unique in underutilizing the services of their campus career center. Woodruff’s research indicated a majority of college students are aware of career center services, but do not use them to a high degree.

When Wesleyan students do use the services, however, their satisfaction with the Hart Career Center is high, Woodruff said.

 “My scale had students rating services from 1 to 6, with 6 being best,” she explained. “All the responses were right around the 5 point mark, and often they were straight sixes. This was definitely not true of the literature I surveyed of results at other schools.

“They (the survey results) were just astoundingly positive and that was really surprising to me,” she added. 

“We were thrilled to partner with Anna to actively support her research,” said Robyn Walter, career consultant at the Hart Career Center. “While we’ve always received positive feedback about our services from students, we’ve not had the resources to effectively gather and analyze qualitative data to this degree. Anna was instrumental in creating a useful survey for us, collecting and interpreting the data. We're impressed with her work and have incorporated the survey as a standard part of our practice.”

Setting Poetry to Music

For the first time, the musical compositions were showcased at the conference luncheon rather than at the end of the day. Conor Strejcek’s  Le Dormeur du Val (poetically translated – “Asleep in the Valley”) was performed for the first time Saturday, and is the first piece he has completed for a choral ensemble. The composition sets a French poem to music, and this is the first time Strejcek ’14 has attempted to do that, too.

Strejcek browsed French poetry in the public domain, and selected Le Dormeur for its imagery and moving content. In the poem, a young solder lies sleeping in a bed of green grass. The description of the sunlit valley of flowers, complete with a gentle stream, paints an idyllic picture until the last few words of the poem, when the reader learns the solder rests so deeply because he is dead.

“My goal was to portray as accurately as possible the meaning of the words through the accompanying music,” explained Strejcek. “For example, the rising lines which accompany the description of the sun shining on the mountain, the military rhythm in the bass when the solder is introduced, and the ‘rocking’ motion when the poem speaks of cradling with warmth.

“I just ended up liking the poem a lot after reading it, and it seemed it would work well with music,” he added. Strejcek’s advisor was David Vayo, Fern Rosetta Sherff Professor of Music and co-chair of the John Wesley Powell Conference. 

In addition to Vayo, Nillas and Plazak, the 2013 John Wesley Powell Research Conference Committee included: Stephanie Davis-Kahl, Scholarly Communications Librarian and Associate Professor; Jeungbo Shim, assistant professor of business administration; and Michael Seeborg, Robert S. Eckley Distinguished Professor of Economics.

Contact: Kim Hill, (309) 556-3960