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College puts STEM to work for community
The Stephen and Harriet Myers residence in Albany, New York, played an important role in the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to the North, but there was little left inside for historical restoration. So students at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, created a virtual tour.
Dried yogurt is effective in treating severe cases of malaria, but how cost-effective is it? A Siena student conducted research to find out.
Other students analyzed data to help shelters better serve the homeless. One team studied contamination in a watershed.
“Our students are exposed to incredible research,” said Daniel Moriarty, Ph.D., director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (CURCA), one of the programs that gets students involved in projects. “In addition to fantastic techniques, the processes they look at have implications to make the world better and to impact people in a positive way. This ties in with the Franciscan mission of caring for the environment around us.”
Students in the STEM majors — science, technology, engineering and math — take on CURCA projects that focus on the sciences with an emphasis on the community, local and abroad.
Siena students in the Tech Valley Scholars program conducted research for the Radix Center, an organization that promotes ecological literacy, environmental stewardship and economic sustainability. Jodi O’Donnell, assistant professor in chemistry and biochemistry, supports those students through the cohort of experiences.
In one of them, chemistry major Elizabeth Smith, 22, of Kinnelon, New Jersey, studied “compost tea.”
“The idea is to brew compost like you would a teabag, then apply the ‘tea’ to your plants or use it to treat contaminated soil,” she said.
In a related community outreach, a soil/water project last year brought in youth from inner city Albany.
Ten students worked on the Patroon Creek Watershed research with Katherine Meierdiercks, Ph.D., of the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences. They collected and analyzed water samples in the field and laboratory.
Patroon Creek was contaminated with heavy metals from industrial practices, bacteria from raw sewage and road salt runoff. Despite improvements, bacteria levels and harmful concentrations still make it unsafe.
“One recent project examined the feasibility and environmental benefits of implementing green infrastructure such as rain gardens, porous pavements and green roofs through the watershed,” Meierdiercks said. “Another project summarized the safety of swimming and fishing in the creek. Current projects are looking at the impact of urban infrastructure and land use. Our hope is that this research will provide important contributions to the scientific community and to those who live and work in the watershed.”
Through the Siena Project Incubator (SPIN), staff and students from business, physics and computer sciences are developing a data base for CARES of NY, Inc. The non-profit provides administrative support to 100 community homeless services in 14 counties.
“These different shelters collect data separately and they get combined in one place, but there are quality issues,” Ruth Kassel, associate director for Siena’s Academic Community Engagements, said. “Some shelters do things with pen and paper and we would like to figure out a better way for everyone to communicate.”
Developing better algorithms and programs to understand case notes and patterns of homelessness can have a positive impact on long-term decisions and outcomes.
“Part of what happens in a project like this is that students realize that these are real people, not just numbers on a spreadsheet,” Moriarty said. “The work they’re doing helps someone who’s homeless, and that has a profound effect on all of us.”
The Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region took on the brick and mortar restoration of the Stephen and Harriet Myers home that in the 1970s was saved from demolition. The couple, who were African-American, were prominent in the network that helped slaves on their way to freedom.
There was nothing in the interior from the past, so Siena students stepped up to produce a virtual tour of what the home might have looked like inside.
The project began with Jennifer Dorsey, Ph.D., associate professor of history, and several of her students researching the home and life in the area during the 1850s.
“They read 19th-century mortgage records that included lists of objects owned by the Myers family,” she said. They searched museum and historical databases for relevant images and worked with curators and collections technicians. History major Taylor Flach, 20, from Voorheesville, New York, located many of the appropriate artifacts and furniture, wallpaper and curtains. That enabled five computer-science students to recreate what the interior might have looked like.
“My students were very excited about this for multiple reasons,” said Robin Flatland, professor of computer science. “They got to use some really cool technology they hadn’t seen or worked with, and some really neat software. They were excited to work for a real organization that was happy to get their help.”
Through his research, Flach discovered “some surprising information” about the history of abolitionism in Albany.
“Myers was one of the greatest abolition advocates in the state,” he said. “He was responsible for the safe passage of hundreds of fugitive slaves. Being able to showcase that history is especially relevant because they served the poor and the marginalized and were dedicated to seeing the end of slavery. They were unselfish and sacrificed much for those who so desperately needed their help.”
The cost of malaria
Biology major Veda Bhandwani, 20, of Sharon, Massachusetts, plans to be a doctor and, without leaving home, is helping people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her recently completed project under Scott Green-halgh, assistant professor of mathematics, looked into the health benefits and cost-effectiveness of treating severe cases of malaria with the gut microbiota found in dry yogurt.
“There are roughly 200 million cases of malaria a year and they spend about $4 billion trying to treat it,” she said. Severe malaria can cause death or, in the long run, shorten someone’s life. Current treatment costs about $40 a year per patient but doesn’t always work. Using dry yogurt costs between $75 and $100, she added.
“Our study basically shows that we can use gut microbiota as a supplement, and combined with current treatment it could reduce instances of severe malaria,” Bhandwani said. “By doing this research, I was able to help public policymakers determine if this intervention would be helpful and therefore improve the quality of life for many children with severe malaria.”
Greenhalgh has worked on several health-related projects that use math.
“I hope [Bhandwani] sees how data and math are used to inform public health,” he said. “Science can work for the good of humanity in all kinds of ways. When I was in grad school, I never thought I’d ever be using math in a way that could help save lives.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.