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Summer Program Promotes STEM Studies

Community College Students Study Black Widow Spiders to Impacts of Seismic Shaking

Aug. 1, 2014

two women and a man in engineering lab

Alexandra San Pablo, left, from Cypress College works with Cal State Fullerton students Patrick Pandey and Sneha Upadhyaya to install accelerometers on the "shake table" to measure the movement of sediment. Their collaborative work is part of a National Science Foundation-funded earthquake engineering research project led by Binod Tiwari, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

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Inside Merri Lynn Casem's biology lab this summer, community college students are counting black widow spider eggs, investigating venom production and even witnessing cannibalistic behaviors in the tiny creatures often feared.

Across campus, inside a civil engineering lab, another group of community college students is working on research to reduce the shaking effects on buildings during an earthquake, as well as how rainfall triggers landslides.

These are examples of some of the research projects that 39 community college students are working on with 19 Cal State Fullerton faculty members, undergrads and graduate students from the colleges of Engineering and Computer Science, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

The eight-week summer research experience for students from Citrus, Cypress and Santiago Canyon community colleges is made possible through the Strengthening Transfer Education and Matriculation in STEM program, funded by a nearly $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Goals for the program are to foster the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, increase the number of Latino and low-income students graduating with STEM degrees, and boost the number of community college transfers to four-year universities, including Cal State Fullerton, said Maria V. Dela Cruz, project director. Twelve of this summer's students will join the University this fall, with others planning to transfer here next year.

Ly Nguyen and Erica Escobar, both Cypress College students, have been working with Casem, professor of biological science, on her black widow spider research. Like most of the students in the program, this is their first experience in the lab.

Nguyen has been researching the point in time when venom production can be detected in a developing black widow spider. Escobar is examining the protein profile of the spiders' ovaries, in hopes that this work may give insight into the mechanisms regulating spider reproduction. Escobar also has learned to tell when a female spider is ready to produce eggs — hundreds at a time.

"Being exposed to research has opened my mind," said Escobar, an Anaheim resident who said the experience has solidified her goal to continue studying science, even possibly becoming a researcher. "It's broadened my mind about the opportunities."

In the lab of Binod Tiwari, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, Alexandra San Pablo from Cypress College, is working with the faculty member on his National Science Foundation-funded project relating to earthquake engineering.

"It's been a lot of hard work," said San Pablo of Norwalk. Participants spend eight hours a day, five days a week in the program. "But I'm learning about everything that goes into doing research."

Julio Alvarez from Citrus College and Davan Heark from Cypress College also are working with Tiwari on his rainfall-induced landslide project.

The program gives community college students the opportunity to work in a university setting with undergraduates and faculty, to read scientific papers and to learn how to think critically — all skills that will help them to be successful at a four-year institution, Casem said.

"It's a very authentic research experience that shows them what's possible, and hopefully, gives them motivation and a sense of accomplishment."

Capping the program, students will present their research projects at the Aug. 8 STEM Summer Research Symposium in Dan Black Hall. The 11 a.m.-1 p.m. event will feature student projects from nine undergraduate research programs.

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Tags:  Academics & Research