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UROPs: Unlocking the Unknown

Unraveling the Secrets of Living Cells | Creativity and Language | Digital Composites and the Mysteries | Sweetened Beverages | Marionettes to the Muppets | Accuracy and Eye Tracking | Seeds and Climate Change | Micro-finance: Women in Kenya | Understanding Violent Media

Research at UMD translates into patents, licenses, new industry, and jobs. A large number of undergraduate students are taking advantage of these research opportunities.

UMD is ranked among the top universities in the country for its commitment to the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. Financial awards are offered to full-time undergraduates for research, scholarly endeavors, or creative projects undertaken in partnership with a faculty member. UMD receives more external research funding than all other Minnesota state colleges and universities combined, except for the UM-Twin Cities campus. Nearly every field of study offers undergraduate research: business and economics, education and human service professions, fine arts, liberal arts, and the sciences.

Unraveling the Secrets of Living Cells


Ahmed Heikal’s integrated laser microscope is one of only a few in the world. A laser beam, which increases clarity and sharpness, is used to illuminate the workings of miniscule living cells. Heikal has a second microscope in which a type of sophisticated strobe light allows a series of images to be taken. These pictures reveal what very few have ever seen before: how cells respond to drugs, toxins, and environmental stimuli. Heikal explains it this way, “We combine ultrashort laser pulses with our microscopes to view magnified human cells or tissues, as well as the molecular machines responsible for the survival and function of these tiny cells.” Jillian Bartusek, a senior majoring in biochemistry, has had the opportunity to work with Heikal during the past two years as an undergraduate research assistant. Their ground-breaking study examines a newly approved drug for multiple sclerosis to understand how it works on the single cell level. The drug has been synthesized with a fluorescent tag allowing Heikal and Bartusek to photograph in real-time and follow the activity of drugs in living cells under the microscope. Photo: Jillian Bartusek and Ahmed Heikal.

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Creativity and Language

Jean-Baptiste Quillien

Jean-Baptiste Quillien worked with children in the spring of 2011 to see if learning a language would affect their creative capacity. Working with his UROP advisor, Fay Maas, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Quillien tested a group of 8 to 12 year-old students before and after giving them 15 French lessons, then compared them to a similar group of students who weren’t given French lessons. The results were inconclusive but have laid the groundwork for Quillien’s future research on the subject, which he will continue while he pursues his doctorate at the UM-Twin Cities Campus. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Quillien.

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Composites and the Mysteries


Senior Ryan Holmquist, and his UROP advisor Joellyn Rock,  associate professor in the Department of Art and Design, have collaborated to create a spoof of a bonus DVD for a film that has never been made. The fake film is about the ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries.

The overall project is quirky. It is modeled after the mockumentary style using fragments of cinematic evidence: video clips, location stills, design sketches, storyboards, and more. Because they are inventing a special feature reel without a full-length film, Holmquist and Rock use a green screen, models, actors, and digital imaging software. “It’s a good opportunity to practice my video and editing skills,” said Holmquist.

Holmquist primarily works with the back-grounds, sometimes merging footage shot in two different places. Significant images came from Rock’s 2011 trip to Greece and other footage was  shot in Duluth, at Chester Creek, Park Point, and the waterfalls of Tischer Creek. Other times, he builds more detailed images from still photography or original footage. The project is expected to debut in 2013. Photo: Ryan Holmquist and Joellyn Rock.

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Sweetened Beverages

Kayla and Bedassa

Bedassa Tadesse, an associate professor of economics, helped UMD senior Kayla Engebretson take her study of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in hospitals from a qualitative study in health care management to a quantitative study in economics. Engebretson, a double major in health care management and economics, is interested in a trend by hospitals to combat obesity by eliminating or reducing the sale of SSBs. They are taking SSBs out of their vending machines, out of the cafeteria, and off the patient menus. Photo: Kayla Engebretson and Bedassa Tadesse.

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Marionettes to the Muppets

“Any inanimate object can become a puppet and anything can be a stage,” said senior Jenelle Bartelt. Her UROP “The World of Puppetry” explored the historical origins of puppetry around the world and detailed how that history benefits theatre and film productions for the current generation. Bartelt, an acting major with a minor in dance, was encouraged to take on this UROP by her advisor, Ann Bergeron, professor of theater

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Accuracy and Eye Tracking

Making use of cutting-edge technology, exercise science major Angela Pitan and her UROP advisor Professor Duane Millslagle, Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, are seeking answers to the question of gender differences in tracking moving objects. National studies indicate that men do better than women in coincidence anticipation timing, a skill used in activities like hit ting a moving target or catching thrown objects. The pair are testing whether different strategies used when following objects is a reason for the gender discrepancy.

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Seeds and Climate Change


Julie Etterson’s newest initiative, Project Baseline, will prepare a living seed bank that can be resurrected in the future to study how natural selection has changed wild plant populations. Etterson, associate professor, Department of Biology, was recently awarded $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation to collect seeds for a massive seed bank.
The four-year project will fund the collection of millions of seeds from a variety of wild plant species in the U.S. “In 10, or even 50 years, we’ll be able to grow ancestral seeds side-by-side with contemporary collections, showing how a species reacts to drought, insect invasion, or other changes,” Etterson said.

Etterson will orchestrate dozens of volunteers, as they collect seeds across the country. Seeds will be frozen in liquid nitrogen at a germplasm facility in Fort Collins, Colo. “It’s important to do this now so future evolutionary biologists can examine how differences, including climate change, have affected these species,” Etterson says. Etterson and UMD will manage $816,200 of the funding for the acquisition of seed samples from the Midwest for the next four years. Photo: Kristin Reed and Julie Etterson.

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Micro-finance: Women in Kenya

John Arthur and Danielle Rice

After a semester in Kenya working with women who had obtained microloans and started small businesses in rural areas, Danielle Rice came back to UMD with more questions than answers. “I wanted to know, were their lives better off?” she said. With the help of her UROP advisor Professor John Arthur, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, she designed a questionnaire that a Kenyan colleague administered. Rice learned that the women did believe their lives had improved. “They were breaking the cycle of poverty,” she said. Photo: John Arthur and Danielle Rice.

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Understanding Violent Media

Violent media sells well. Jessica Pospeck (’11), who is pursuing her masters in Business Administration at UMD, initiated a UROP last year to discover whether people respond to violence or separate stimuli, like music. Her research has practical applications in the field of marketing. “Consumers are less attentive to advertisements aired during violent programming,” she said. Pospeck and her UROP advisor Assistant Professor Aaron Boyson, Department of Communication, hope that by proving violence to be inconsequential to sales, its use in media will decrease, rendering advertisements more effective.

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