Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives

Inquiry Initiative

Research Projects & Mentors

The SCOPE student-faculty collaborative research program involves all Natural Science departments and strives to promote student investigative learning, persistence, self-efficacy, and success.


SCOPE 2016 Mentors and Projects 


Methylphenidate Exposure during Adolescence and the Neuroendocrine Axis

Dr. Guarraci

Trademarked as Ritalin, methylphenidate (MPH) is one of the most common treatments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is often diagnosed and treated during early adolescence. Although previous work sheds light on the long term effects of adolescent MPH exposure in males, there is a paucity of research investigating the long-term effects of adolescent MPH exposure in females. Nevertheless, preclinical research suggests that female rats respond differently to adolescent MPH exposure than male rats. For example, chronic, MPH treatment throughout adolescence produces behavioral sensitization to cocaine in female rats, but not in male rats.  These results suggest that adolescent exposure to MPH increases sensitivity of adult female rats to drug rewards, which suggests an increased risk for addiction in young women with a history of adolescent MPH exposure. Little or no research has explored the effects of MPH on non-drug rewards like sexual reward in female subjects. However, we have found that adolescent MPH exposure increases sexual behavior in adult female rats. The present proposal will investigate the effects of twice-daily, therapeutic MPH administration during the peri-adolescent period on development of the neuroendocrine axis. 


Varieties of Apples (Snails): Harvesting molecular ecology projects that reveal the phylogenetic relationships and phylogeography of Ampullariidae in Uruguay

Dr. Burks

Molecular ecology (i.e. using patterns found in DNA to test questions about the abundance and distribution of organisms) adds tools to the arsenal for both preserving native species diversity as well as combating multiple stages of invasion. This project involves multiple molecular ecology projects focusing on several Pomacea species, commonly called apple snails. Phylogenetic studies can give insights to interspecific genetic diversity and may reveal cryptic species, while phylogeography studies can provide a clearer understanding of how and why intraspecific diversity is distributed across the geographic landscape. Student research will include DNA extraction, PCR of target genes, sequencing, and analysis.


Investigation of tight junction protein expression patterns in endometrial cancer tumors derived from women of different races

Dr. Todd

Whereas the incidence of endometrial cancer is similar for women of all races, the mortality rate of African American women is much higher than that of Hispanic and Caucasian women. The major aim of this project is to determine the role of tight junction protein deregulation in the development of different histologic subtypes and clinical stages of endometrial cancer in women of different races. Matched patient pairs of normal and tumor tissues from women with endometrial cancer will be analyzed for the degree of claudin-4 and occludin tight junction protein deregulation (under- or over-expression) in the tumor tissues relative to their matched normal tissues. These findings will be reviewed in the context of the clinicopathologic characteristics and race of the patients in order to identify possible correlations.


Epigenetic regulation of zebrafish development

Dr. Wills

Prior to the development of organs and skeletal elements, embryos must lay down a coordinate system that identifies tissue position along the anterior-posterior axis, a process known as axial patterning.  Establishment and maintenance of positional identity is critical during embryonic development and required for proper tissue shape and placement. Hox genes are critical for establishing positional identity along the anterior-posterior axis, but we know little about how this expression is regulated. Here, we will characterize a zebrafish mutant in the gene wdr82, which exhibits gene expression changes and craniofacial morphologies consistent with defects in Hox gene expression. wdr82 is a member of the SET1 histone methylase complex and has not been previously implicated in Hox gene regulation. SCOPE students will use in situ hybridization and targeted mutagenesis to understand the role of wdr82 and the SET1 complex in Hox gene regulation. 


Assessing antimicrobial peptides for selective induction of apoptosis in malignant mouse cells

Dr. Bruns

Cationic, amphipathic peptides first identified as antimicrobial compounds have recently been discovered to act selectively on malignant mammalian cells to induce apoptosis through a pathway that is distinct from a pathway associated with activation of Fas, a cell-surface receptor called a “death receptor”. The peptides appear to act by penetrating the cell membranes of mammalian cells, and after entering, affect the mitochondrial membranes to induce a distinct cascade of cysteine-aspartate proteolytic enzymes (called caspases) initiating apoptosis. Peptides and activators of the Fas receptor will be tested for inducing apoptosis in a malignant mouse cell line; specific fluorogenic substrates for different caspase enzymes will be used to indicate the apoptotic pathways that are induced. Novel peptides will be designed, synthesized, and tested for their activities relative to bovine lactoferricin, the control peptide.


In vivo studies on the stability of triplex DNA and its maintenance

Dr. Douglas

Non-conical DNA structures (triplex DNA) pose risks for the genetic integrity of an organism and are preferred sites of mutagenesis. To better understand the impact of oxidants and free radicals on the structural integrity of this DNA, an in vivo assay has been developed using the genetically tractable yeast Sacchromyces cerevisiae. The proposed in vivo studies will quantitate and characterize  reactive oxygen species (ROS) damage to these triplex DNA structures by various chemical and metabolic influences. These studies will exploit the properties of a yeast artificial chromosome (YAC) constructed to allow the direct selection of relatively rare mutations to a target reporter DNA that is associated with a well-documented triplex-forming DNA region. Detailed analysis will include PCR amplification of and sequence analysis of the target region and the molecular details of the impact of ROS on these hyper mutagenic DNA sequences.


Development of a Novel and Versatile Method for the Synthesis of Substituted Cyclobutanes

Drs. Gesinski and Perez

Cyclobutane-containing compounds represent an important class of molecules that are important to industrial, agricultural, and pharmaceutical sciences. This proposed work is aimed towards developing a novel methodology for the synthesis of cyclobutanes using 1,2-dicarbanionic organotitanium complexes. While considerable work has described the reactions of these complexes with esters to form cyclopropanols, little has been reported on their interactions with other electrophiles. We propose the expansion of this reaction by utilizing 1,2-dielectrophiles, including α-bromo aldehydes, to form cyclobutanes. This novel method has been validated with preliminary results and will allow access to a diverse set of substituted cyclobutanes that are not directly accessible through traditional methods. Eventually, this methodology can be employed in the synthesis of complex molecules of industrial importance.


Analysis of phenolic levels and antioxidant properties within Lamiaceae herbs

Dr. Niemeyer

Plants produce phenolic compounds throughout their growth for a variety of reasons and although these substances can vary widely in their structure and function, many are important antioxidants within the human diet. Some herbs contain higher phenolic levels than common fruits and vegetables, and many herbs of the Lamiaceae family are recognized for their potent antioxidant properties. During the SCOPE program, I will work with my students to analyze variations in phenolic levels and antioxidant properties among a large selection of Lamiaceae herbs. This project will ultimately culminate in one co-authored manuscript submitted to a peer-reviewed journal as well as at least two student presentations at a national scientific conference.


Flipping the organic chemistry prelab lectures: Does it work?

Dr. Velez

The laboratory component in a chemistry course plays an important role for students learning chemistry. In the organic chemistry lab, instructors are continuously facing challenges in the laboratory setting. One is the minimum understanding and readiness (preparation in advance) that students have in their chemistry laboratory courses. The second one is the disconnect students have of what they do in lab with the theory presented in lecture. In order to bridge that gap I plan on working with students to (a) Create prelab lecture videos tailored to the inquiry-guided experiments developed during the academic year 2015-2016 for the Organic Chemistry Laboratory Curriculum at Southwestern University, (b) Measure individual student understanding on topics covered in the prelab assignment via assessments embedded to Moodle, and (c) Measure student satisfaction with pre and post surveys. Results will be submitted to publication in peer-reviewed chemical education journals.


Synthesis and Characterization of Organometallic Complexes Using Ethylene Amine Ligands

Dr. Weigand

Copper, cobalt and nickel organometallic complexes continue to be of interest to our research group as these compounds may find use as anti-cancer, anti-fungal or anti-bacterial compounds. This project will explore the synthesis and reaction of novel ethylene amine ligands in the production of organometallic complexes of copper, cobalt and nickel. The initial stage of this research project will be synthesizing novel ligands based upon diethylenetriamine, triethylenetetramine and tetraethylenepentamine backbones.  A second project will be the synthesis of the thiadiazole ring with various substituents to explore that ligand as a viable ligand for metal complexation.  The new compounds will be characterized by NMR, IR, melting point and crystal structure determinations. Eventually the compounds will be tested for biological activity.


Unusual DNA Structures and DNA Damage

Dr. Zewail-Foote

The research projects in my laboratory are centralized around DNA damage induced by reactive oxygen species. DNA damage is thought to play a role in many human age-related diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegeneration and can arise from both exogenous factors and endogenous processes. The most common DNA conformation is the well-known B-form; however, DNA can adopt non-B form DNA structures such as such three-stranded triplex DNA structures. My research group is examining how damage can alter intramolecular triplex structures and stability and how these lesions affect mutation frequency in mammalian cells. 


Developing Artificial Intelligence for Video Games

Dr. Schrum

Video games are a popular testbed for many Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques because they are simulated, controlled environments, but have a level of complexity that makes optimal decision making by in-game entities difficult. Students will work in a team to design intelligent agents for a game of their choice using cutting-edge AI techniques such as Evolutionary Computation and/or Reinforcement Learning. This research will result in a peer-reviewed conference publication, with the potential for further expansion into a journal article. Depending on the game chosen, there is also potential for participation in one of many international game AI competitions. 


Pre-exercise Carbohydrate Consumption for the Average Exerciser

Dr. Crim

There is a high level of interest in how macronutrients impact sport performance outcomes. Studies have examined the use of carbohydrates prior to exercise in order to increase performance, and many studies have examined the effects of the amount of carbohydrates, the timing of intake, and the types of carbohydrates consumed. Unfortunately, there is a gap in the literature surrounding the benefits of macronutrient intake for the average exerciser. A current physical activity recommendation for adult health is 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week, but this amount of exercise may or may not benefit from pre-exercise intake. A pre-exercise snack may in fact increase daily caloric intake and negatively impact weight management. The purpose of this study is to identify if a carbohydrate snack prior to an average exercise bout impacts the performance of the participant. Students will conduct baseline assessments on participants, design exercise procedures and supplement plans for participants, and analyze resulting data.


Effect of Swimming Speed on Arm Kinematics

Dr. McLean

Arm movements during the recovery phase of freestyle swimming are easily observable due to them being performed above water. These movements may relate well to stroke changes associated with changes in swimming speed but such observations have not been reported in the research literature. The primary purpose of this study is to evaluate changes in stroke patterns during the recovery phase of the freestyle as swimming speed changes and to relate these changes in the force-producing capability of the underwater portion of the stroke. A secondary purpose of this study is to determine if similar observations can be made using a wearable motion-sensing device. Stroke patterns will be documented using a synchronized above and below water camera system. Stroke force will be measured using a hand force measurement system. A MOOV wearable motion sensor will be used during the trials to provide an indirect assessment of the stroke patterns.


Exploring Efficient Michell Trusses

Dr. Ross

This project will allow motivated students with any level of math background to explore the concept of a Michell Truss (which is a kind of mathematical suspension bridge). These are objects of interest to research mathematicians and have real-world applications in the field of structural optimization. The study of Michell Trusses can be done at a variety of levels: a background in trigonometry is enough to have a rich research experience, yet advanced mathematics can also be included. The problem lends itself to inquiry-based research: the first few weeks of summer will serve to ground students with the basic terminology, concepts, and techniques that we will use for the rest of the summer, and the final weeks will be spent exploring open problems that exist in the field.


Mathematical models with Difference Equations

Dr. Shelton

Difference equation models allow students to investigate any number of applied and interdisciplinary problems from multiple perspectives and paradigms, including analytic/graphical/numerical, applied/theoretical, deterministic/stochastic. For eight weeks of Summer 2016, students will be guided through their own investigations of mathematical models of interdisciplinary problems after studying some common introductory material. The specific applications and mathematical content will be adjusted to student background and interest.


Developing a Robot to Measure Soil Quality

Dr. Alexander

In this 8-week project a group of students will create a robot that can sample soil conditions along a predefined route – such as on a small farm. They will need to design and build some of the the hardware needed to perform this analysis as well as write some of the software needed to control their equipment and store their results. Once they have collected this data, they will then need to visualize it and to research how this information might be used on a commercial farm.


Estimation of Extreme Rainfall Frequency Using Radar and Gauge Data

Dr. Edwards

A study of the frequency of extreme precipitation events (defined as the upper 5th percentile of 24-hour precipitation totals) in several cities in the southwestern United States will be undertaken. Changes in the rates of extreme precipitation events have been observed in this region and are projected to continue becoming more prevalent in a warming climate. These events are often disruptive when they occur in urban environments, and can lead to the loss of life and property. Two types of data will be used to assess the frequency of extreme rain events: radar and gauge data. A comparison will be made between return periods generated using these two types of data to evaluate whether the improved spatial coverage of the radar product changes the resultant return periods. Both radar and gauge data will be obtained from the National Climatic Data Center. Return periods will be computed using the Peak-Over-Threshold technique. 


Let it go: The impact of suppression on cortisol and testosterone

Dr. Crockett

As part of the SCOPE program, I plan to work on 2 related projects. Past research suggests that suppressing emotions is associated with sizable health consequences.  Therefore, in the first project students will investigate the physiological consequences (i.e., cortisol and cardiovascular) of suppressing emotional responses to a laboratory-induced stressor. In the second project, I will explore the impact of pain suppression on testosterone levels. Research indicates that women are more susceptible to pain, and it is thought that hormones may modulate this effect.  Interestingly, testosterone has not received much consideration in the literature, despite gender differences in testosterone levels. These two projects will be at different stages during the summer research program, providing students experience with different research tasks including testosterone assays, data analysis, linguistic coding, scientific writing, and presentation preparation.