Undergraduate researchers bridge the disciplinary divide
Michael Erspamer didn’t envision himself working in a health sciences lab when he decided on his metalsmithing major.
The Peck School of the Arts senior was conducting research in digital fabrication with associate professor Frankie Flood when Jay Kapellusch found him. An assistant professor of occupational science and technology, Kapellusch recruited several undergraduates from Flood’s Digital Craft Research Lab to work on a joint project with his students at the Occupational Therapy Research and Development Lab.
Students can become involved in research at UWM as early as the summer before their freshman year, and there are plenty of cross-disciplinary opportunities.
The charge: Redesign the garden-variety wheelchair to ease the transfer of patients out of it. Kapellusch was looking for collaborators who could approach a project in assistive technology from a different perspective.
“Students in art and design, in particular, are great observers of society and often recognize problems that are easily overlooked,” he says. “Having a diversity of skill sets fosters creativity and typically leads to true innovation and more robust solutions.”
Increasingly, undergraduates majoring in one discipline are able to apply their skills by participating in the research lab of a faculty member in a completely different field.
For Erspamer, the experience was transformative.
Fabrication of materials like metals and plastics is a staple of the Digital Craft Research Lab. “We are used to working with these materials every day,” Erspamer says. “Although we wanted to achieve functionality, our biggest motive was to do it at a lower cost.”
Students can become involved in research at UWM as early as the summer before their freshman year, and there are plenty of cross-disciplinary opportunities, says Kyla Esguerra, associate director of the Office of Undergraduate Research.
The interdisciplinary aspect of undergraduate research is also a goal of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Because new discoveries in biology demand more quantitative analyses, NSF funds initiatives across the U.S., including one at UWM, that give undergraduates exposure to both math and biology.
Mathematics major Kimberly Siegler and Tyler Raphael, a double major in biochemistry and biological sciences, were among this year’s cohort in UWM’s Undergraduate Biomath Initiative. The program brings together students from each discipline to explore freshwater research questions.
“This sounded like what I wanted to do with my career,” says Siegler, when she learned about the program. “It’s the age of data. We have more information than we know what to do with.”
Siegler worked on building a mathematical model to simulate harmful algal blooms in Lake Winnebago that involved associations among various environmental conditions.
Raphael participated in a different modeling project, one that tracked quantitative data on lake conditions to find clues to a biological mystery: the phenomenon of cell death in phytoplankton.
“Phytoplankton are single-celled organisms,” he says, “so we don’t understand why cell death happens in this creature.”
The program has yielded a year of “firsts” for Raphael.
“I had never been on a boat on Lake Michigan before and didn’t know how to take water samples,” he says. “I learned a little about differential equations. And I went to my first research conference where I could share research with other students.”
Alexa Jones was looking for a research experience that would be relevant to her interests. The double major in anthropology and Spanish found it by teaming up with Raoul Deal, a senior lecturer in art and design.
Jones helped to stage Deal’s bilingual art exhibit of woodcut prints inspired by stories of recent Latino immigrants in Milwaukee. Called “Ni de aquí, Ni de allá / From Neither Here, Nor There,” the exhibit relates tales of border-crossing, family transitions and discrimination.
Jones’ role was to translate the text so that it appeared in the exhibit in English and Spanish.
Along with translation, she is building new skills in coordinating a large public event. “It’s interesting to see how you can use all the pieces in just one project,” she says. “It gives you experience in organizing research.”