Undergraduate Summer Research

The following undergraduate research opportunities were available for Dordt students for the summer of 2018.


Mentor:  Nick Breems – Computer Science

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems become more powerful, it becomes more important for the creators of these systems to exercise a careful responsibility when creating them. However, because of the large distance between action and consequence when programming, it can be difficult for the programmer to feel like they are responsible for the results of their efforts, even if they intellectually agree that they are. This research project will research how programmers currently interpret their responsibility for the consequences of their programs, how to best encourage them to feel that responsibility more keenly, and whether or not such an internal sense of responsibility actually makes a difference in the resulting products.  Activities will include: library and internet research, arranging and conducting surveys or interviews with working AI programmers, development of a philosophical framework of responsibility, development of testable hypotheses about programmer responsibility, and writing/presenting the results. Experience with programming is not required for this position, and students from any major could be a good fit. Students with an intellectual style that enjoys looking at things from multiple perspectives, including philosophically and psychologically, are especially encouraged to apply.


Mentor:  Carl Fictorie – Chemistry

The purpose of this project is to develop course-ready lab materials that utilize our new analytical instruments: the HPLC and the GC.  This involves getting to understand the instrument yourself and then designing, testing, and refining procedures for various experiments designed for our 100-level chemistry courses.  A notable benefit to you is gaining experience on these tools and techniques that are used widely in research and industry throughout the sciences, not only chemistry.  You would then write up these experiments into guided inquiry procedures ready for classroom use.  Beyond the basic concern of getting a particular experiment to work will be the consideration of the logistics needed to accommodate a lab full of users trying to run analyses at the same time and designing the overall experiment to have some interesting variations that utilize a guided-inquiry approach.  In the fall semester, the intent would be that you would work in the chemistry department as a teaching assistant for one of the courses for which you developed these experiments so that we can try it out in a real setting. The ideal student must have had Chem 111; will have had either or both of Chem 212 (Chemical Analysis) or Chem 225 (Organic Chemistry); possess good writing skills; and have some interest in pedagogy (but no expectation that you are an education student).  Aptitude with hand tools or the equivalent is helpful.  Experience as a TA is helpful, but not required.  The position is open to any major but will give preference to chemistry majors.


Mentor:  Kayt Frisch – Engineering

In a recent regional survey of female high school volleyball players, 40% of respondents reported that they had experienced shoulder pain not due to a traumatic injury. The survey found correlations between pain and self-reported ball contact volume, which is consistent with baseball, which has a well-established correlation between throwing volume (usually tracked via pitch count) and arm pain. My research group is exploring connections between shoulder pain, swing counts, and the biomechanics of hitting a volleyball for middle school, high school and college female volleyball players. We hope to eventually establish connections between shoulder overuse injuries, training volume and training techniques and use that knowledge to create best practices for injury prevention. During the summer of 2017 we collected data on approximately 12 high school volleyball athletes. This summer we will be analyzing that data and refining our experimental techniques. This summer’s focus will be on creating computer models for analysis, so some programming experience would be beneficial.


Mentor:  Tony Jeslma – Biology

This internship involved participation in three projects.

  1. Inflammation is an important component of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease. We are investigating the role of fatty acid regulation in the inflammatory response of cultured liver cells. We have identified candidate genes involved in the regulation of inflammatory responses. Your project will be to use siRNA and qPCR technology to test the importance of these genes in inflammation.
  2. Genetically modified mice serve as valuable tools for the study of human diseases because they can often reveal insights not apparent at the cellular level. In collaboration with Sanford Research, we are studying two mouse disease models. Batten disease is a genetic disease that causes an accumulation of protein and lipid deposits in the brain. Thioredoxin is an antioxidant protein that plays a role in the response to environmental toxins. Using histological techniques, you will examine organs of mice containing mutations in these genes, to determine how the gene mutations affect them.
  3. The monarch butterfly population has been declining since 1994, largely due to the dramatic loss of milkweed across the Midwest.  Roadsides containing milkweed constitute some of the last remaining habitat for breeding monarchs.  Mowing milkweed during the summer attracts egg-laying females and potentially extends the breeding season.  One day per week, you will use field techniques to measure milkweed condition and monarch egg and larval density in rural roadsides to determine the effect of mowing.


Mentor:  Jeff Ploegstra – Biology

Successful applicants worked as a team on 2 research projects and assisted with prairie outreach and management.

The two projects are described here:

The majority of crops produced in the world today are annual grains (e.g., rice, wheat, soy, maize; FAOstat, 2014). However, overly myopic goals in agriculture have contributed to many contemporary challenges in our agricultural production models. These annual grains have substantial ecological and economic disadvantages (e.g. nutrient loss, increased need for fertilizers, increased erosion, loss of organic matter in soil, susceptibility to drought) as compared to perennial grains. Despite potential advantages of perennial grains, substantial progress is needed to domesticate, improve and understand perennials before they can become a mainstream crop. Substantial barriers to progress are insufficient genetic characterization and a lack of agronomic and agroecological models for perennial grains. One of the most promising perennial grains being developed with this mindset is Intermediate Wheat Grass (IWG; Thinopyrum intermedium), a perennial alternative to wheat (Larson et al. 2012, De Haan et al. 2016).  In this project we will not only develop the tools to improve crops but also train and develop students to consider holistic models of agricultural production and understand the connections between genetics and agroecological considerations.

Dicamba has been used as an herbicide for more than 50 years in weed management.  It is a volatile, non-selective herbicide and can damage other crops, however, there is a new formulation and resistance system that has increased farmer interest and environmental concern regarding the herbicide. The objectives of this proposed work are to screen the new formulation of Dicamba for its effects on soil microbial biomass, diversity and community structure. The study site will be located on the Broek farm, a part of the Dordt Agricultural Stewardship Center. Soil samples from soybean and intermediate wheatgrass plots will be collected 24 hours before and after Dicamba application, then weekly for 4 weeks for fatty acids analyses of microbial biomass and community structure. Data from this study should provide new insights into the response of soil microbial community to full rates of Dicamba and to reduced rates, as may occur with off-site movement, so that management changes can be prioritized to address agricultural practices that present the greatest risk to soil and microbial functions.


Mentor:  Jay Shim – Theology

Kumi University (Uganda) is an example of a young Christian university that used the “education for mission” model. Now they are changing to an “education that enables mission” model. The former education model represents a dualistic worldview and purpose of mission as “soul-winning” based on a narrow understanding of salvation. In that model, education and mission are loosely connected, even teaching secular education. The latter model represents a holistic Christian education and mission based on a comprehensive understanding of salvation. Right at the center of the change is biblical foundations: recognizing God’s comprehensive creation and redemption. This comprehensive understanding of the Bible shapes the content and direction of Christian education, and Christian attitude toward world and life. As a team we are trying to complete a book “Biblical Foundations” using Dordt’s Biblical Foundations as a model for the use of Christian colleges in the mission fields.


Mentors:  Kristin Van De Griend – Sociology & Deb Bomgaars – Nursing

A team of nursing and public health researchers is conducting a research study on hopelessness among patients with coronary heart disease (CHD). Hopelessness is associated with increased morbidity and mortality in patients with coronary heart disease (CHD). Little research exists describing hopelessness and its relationship to exercise in CHD patients and no research exists specific to rural patients, a known health disparate group. The purpose of this project is: 1) to describe hopelessness in rural CHD patients and 2) to evaluate the validity and reliability of the survey in this population. We are looking for two friendly, motivated students to help our team with this research study during the summer of 2018 by gathering participant data, helping faculty analyze the data, and assisting in writing preliminary reports.


Mentor:  Justin Vander Werff – Engineering

During the summers of 2015 and 2016, Dordt undergraduate students worked with me on research work related to the seismic performance of precast connections for bridges that are subjected to vertical and horizontal earthquake ground motions. This work was primarily conducted using OpenSEES, an open source earthquake simulation tool that was developed at the University of California-Berkeley. The data from this work has been analyzed enough to provide clarification on certain portions of the behavior of the various models. However, a considerable amount of work remains to provide a cohesive summary of the results and to do additional analytical work to fill remaining gaps. You will have the opportunity to work with me to continue to flesh out these results. In addition, we will likely incorporate RISA-3D to corroborate the OpenSEES results. You will also have the opportunity to contribute to a paper that is likely to be published in a scholarly structural journal and included in subsequent reports to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) as part of ongoing parallel work at Iowa State University.



Mentor:  Kathleen VanTol – Education

I would like to write an electronic textbook for use in teacher education programs that will cover a range of special education topics. I would like to make the book available in both English and Spanish for use both with my students here at Dordt and for use in Spanish-language settings.


Mentor:  Joshua Zhu – Chemistry

Bivalirudin is a therapeutic peptide for preventing blood clotting. With Angiomax as its brand name, it has been approved by FDA as anticoagulant. However, this drug has a short half-life in the therapy process. How to increase the half-life is a research area of this drug. Our method for this research is stabilizing the drug with glycosylation (adding sugars on Bivalirudin with chemical method). Moreover, using glycosylation to increase the efficacy of peptide/protein drugs is a new technology in recent years. In the coming summer research, we want to start the initial step, which is synthesis of glycosylated Bivalirudin. In order to synthesize it, we will synthesize the building block first and then assemble that building block into the whole peptide. Then we can go further to test the stability of glycosylated Bivalirudin and drug efficacy. Basic synthetic organic chemistry skills, such as setting up organic reactions, literature research, separation skills with HPLC chromatography and identification tools with NMR and MS Spectrometry, will be used in this summer research.


Mentors: Mark Christians, Luralyn Helming, Psychology; Mark McCarthy, History; Nathan Tintle, Statistics

This international Research Experience for Undergrads is funded by the National Science Foundation.  Students will participate in a cutting-edge research experience in the current health of the developing country of Ukraine. Students will travel for 2 weeks to Ukraine with a faculty mentor. They will then spend 8 weeks on Dordt’s campus where they will be in multidisciplinary groups to develop research questions, carry out literature reviews and iterative data analysis, and disseminate research findings under the mentorship faculty. 


Mentor: Nathan Tintle – Statistics

Click here for an external link to this project.