Undergraduate Research Shines at Illinois Wesleyan 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 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.”
View highlights from the conference and recent campus performances.
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.
“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
“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