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Research fund helps students gain experience, knowledge

Nov. 15, 2007
By Katie Taybus and Mary Reed

When someone pops a piece of chewing gum into her mouth during class, most students wouldn't give it a second thought. However, for Megan Wenning and Lisa Lojek, chewing gum carries other implications -- a new way to investigate crime scenes.

Wenning, a junior, and her research partner Lojek, a senior, are forensic chemistry majors. Wenning received a $1,000 Provost's Undergraduate Research Fund award for their study, titled "Determining the Forensic Viability of DNA from Chewing Gum Undergoing Different Environmental Conditions."

Established in 2001, the PURF program funds students' extracurricular research and creative activity. The number and dollar amount of PURF awards has increased steadily each year, from 53 awards totaling $50,000 that first year to 83 awards worth nearly $88,000 this year.

All recipients use the funds to complete projects that can be stepping stones to future opportunities.

For their research, Wenning and Lojek will investigate the circumstances under which chewing gum can be used as a potential source for DNA to identify suspects and link them to a crime scene or victim. It is unknown how long DNA stays in chewed gum or what environmental factors may influence that length of time. Wenning and Lojek will expose used chewing gum in different environments, collect the samples and extract the DNA through a genetic analyzer. 

"Before we received the research funding, we were (struggling) to get the analyzer up and running," Wenning said. "Now that we have the money, we have been ordering the materials we need to start the project, hopefully right away winter quarter." 

This opportunity to use equipment and materials outside of an ordinary classroom experience is one of the benefits of PURF, said Executive Vice President and Provost Kathy Krendl. In addition, the projects funded allow student researchers to interact more closely with faculty.

"(Faculty) willingness to dedicate time to overseeing PURF projects helps to explain why the level of student-faculty engagement on our campus is so noteworthy," Krendl said. "It's clear from the numbers of students who apply for PURF awards that there is an ever-growing interest among Ohio University undergraduates in becoming part of the production of knowledge."

This year, PURF applications totaled 139, up from 83 last year. Calling the increased interest substantial and welcome," Krendl said a review is necessary to determine the optimal funding level for PURF. This review will be conducted by Honors Tutorial College, which administers PURF submissions, and Krendl said she hopes to have recommendations by the end of winter quarter.

The types of research and creative projects funded by PURF are diverse. This year alone, funded projects include "Female Voices from the French Resistance" to "Fighting Wildfires: From Ashes to Zinc" to "Testing Galaxy Evolution in Early Cluster Environments." 

Students who win PURF awards are required to participate in Ohio University's Research and Creative Activity Fair, held each spring. The number of undergraduates participating in the fair also has risen -- nearly 50 percent since 2005. 

A number of students earning PURF awards have gone on to apply for and sometimes earn nationally competitive awards. Sophomore Honors Tutorial College chemistry major Ryan O'Donnell, who just received PURF funding for research on drug testing, also is in the midst of applying for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. "I think this looks good that someone else believes (my research) is good enough to fund, so I think it gives it a little more weight."

And that chewing gum? "If everything goes according to plan, we will end up publishing the results in a forensic journal," said Assistant Professor of Analytical and Forensic Chemistry Glen Jackson, adviser to Wenning and Lojek. "Since I started here, I have always had undergraduate researchers. Those who do well (at Ohio University) have the potential to go on to be leading scientists."

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