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Research opportunities allow deeper dig into student passions, ideas

Devika Prasanth was taking a course in physics last year, looking at the properties of cancer cells when she realized something.

“I found I really enjoyed physics,” said Prasanth, a senior biology major in Creighton University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “And I wanted to find a way to combine the biology major with what we were doing in physics with those cancer cells. That’s where I discovered the Translational Biomedical Physics Research Group.”

And it’s how Prasanth came to present at her second St. Albert’s Day/University Research Day Forum on March 22, with a topic assessing the biophysical properties of nanoparticles in an anti-retroviral drug. The study is part of the Translational Biomedical Physics Research Group led by Andrew Ekpenyong, PhD, in the Department of Physics.

It’s high-level research for undergraduates, but it’s also become a standard at Creighton, where US News & World Report has recognized the University’s commitment to undergraduate research for four straight years.

“I talk to my friends at other institutions and tell them what I’m doing, and they’re pretty amazed,” said Anna West, a junior psychology major presenting at her first St. Albert’s Day a project looking at self-ideal associations and well-being. “There aren’t a lot of places where you can say, ‘I want to look into this idea some more,’ and you can get right into it — the research, the grunt work, setting up the experiment, putting it all together and presenting the findings. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to do that and to be here at St. Albert’s Day.”

West, senior Kylie Brown and sophomore Shelby Smith, with guidance from faculty mentor Corey Guenther, PhD, in the Department of Psychology, devised a study looking at standards comprising the ideal self and how people measure themselves and their well-being based on character traits like competence, intelligence, honesty, kindness and responsibility, and traits of disposition like being outgoing, sociable, imaginative, conscientious and agreeable.

Using an online assessment tool, the researchers discovered the character traits outweighed the dispositional traits when it came to overall happiness and well-being, and that the ideal person rates highly in each of these character traits. High scores in these traits also correlated with higher overall happiness and vitality. Researchers also looked at what it meant for people who consistently rated themselves high in character traits versus those who rated themselves lower on the scale.

“It was interesting to see where people see themselves and how they are thinking about these traits,” said Smith, a mathematics major. “We’re hoping to expand this and look at some other areas when it comes to self-judgment and what it means for well-being and vitality. The project, overall, has really been a great way to see how day-to-day feelings can play into an overall outlook.”

Smith, West and Prasanth all said they hope to pursue graduate education and careers in the health sciences and the grounding they’ve received in doing undergraduate research has reinforced that desire and laid the groundwork to show what they can do in future laboratories.

“I’m really glad I came to Creighton and had this opportunity,” Prasanth said. “I started as a strict pre-med major, but once I got into the lab and saw what translational science does and how it helps clinicians, I wanted to know more and be able to keep a hand in the research, along with a medical career. Being at Creighton and working with Dr. Ekpenyong has really broadened my outlook.”

St. Albert’s Day/University Research Day also took time out from a packed schedule of student presentations to recognize faculty contributions to the University research community.

Earning this year’s University Research Awards for faculty are Gail Jensen, PhD, Dean of the Graduate School, and professor of physical therapy, and Todd Salzman, PhD, professor in the Department of Theology. Jensen’s research centers on educational research, particularly conceptual frameworks of physical therapist education. Salzman studies Catholic moral theology, particularly sexual ethics.

Two new awards were given to faculty mentors for budding researchers. The Dr. Robert Heaney Graduate Research Mentor Award went to E. Jeffrey North, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacy sciences in the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions. The Dr. & Mrs. Randolph Ferlic Undergraduate Research Mentor Award went to Juliane Soukup, BS’93, PhD, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship.

Tasneem Arsiwala, a master's degree student in the Pharmaceutical Sciences program, won this year's Three-Minute Thesis competition, besting 11 other graduate students in putting the clearest, concisest spin on complex research.

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