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Summer in the lab yields personal, research results

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN – For some Bethel College students, a great summer meant staying in the classroom.

Well, more accurately, the lab – and for these four, the labs were found at major research universities in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Seniors Daniel Ratzlaff and Chase Stucky of Moundridge were at Baylor University (Houston) and the University of Kansas, respectively, while Heath Goertzen, sophomore from Goessel, was at Texas A&M University, College Station, and junior Brianna Newport, Wichita, was at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater.

All of them had secured competitive REUs – Research Experiences for Undergraduates, organized under the auspices of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

All four are science majors and, as such, are part of the STEM Learning Community at Bethel. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Ratzlaff lived at Rice University and worked in a lab at the Baylor University College of Medicine. He was part of Baylor’s SMART Program (Summer Medical Research and Training), with mentor Dr. Joel Neilson in the department of molecular physiology and biophysics.

“My project was investigating EMT, epithelial-mesenchymal transition, a process of cells transitioning from epithelial to a motile, or mesenchymal, state,” Ratzlaff says. “This has been shown to be related to cancer, possibly the metastasis of cancer.”

Ratzlaff, a double major in biology and chemistry, is “interested in medicine,” he says, “but more interested in the practice of medicine.

“I enjoyed what I did this summer,” he continues, “but I realized research is not something I want to do with the rest of my life. My eyes did not light up the way others’ did when they talked about their research.”

Finding that out is important, he acknowledges – and he knows the summer will benefit him additionally “because of the lab experience and making me more confident in the lab.”

Stucky is also a chemistry major, minoring in biology, but with more interest in research as a career.

“Right now, I’m planning to go to grad school,” he says, “but I don’t know if I’m interested in academia or industry.”

At KU, he worked in “bioanalytical chemistry, using chemical methods on a biological sample.” His research mentor was Dr. Michael Johnson, who has done studies on Alzheimer’s disease but recently switched to looking at “chemo brain” – how the brain is affected by chemotherapy.

In Johnson’s lab over the summer, Stucky “did bioanalytical chemistry, studying how the brain works – using rat brains or zebra-fish brains. I would make electrodes and measure neurotransmitters in the brain to see how chemo affects them.”

Stucky has worked with zebra fish in the Bethel lab, but he enjoyed having “the materials to make the electrodes, and access to a lot of cool equipment. That was maybe the best part of the summer.”

He will also be listed as a co-author on KU graduate student Mimi Shin’s paper about the “chemo brain” research.

Goertzen is a biology major who’s thinking about adding a second major in chemistry. His research mentor at Texas A&M was Dr. Shari Yvon-Lewis, whose field is atmospheric and oceanic chemistry.

When Goertzen heard the discussion of summer REUs in a STEM Learning Community meeting, he thought “it seemed like a reasonable thing to be doing for the summer.” However, he discovered that most REUs required students to be rising juniors or seniors.

But there were a handful that accepted sophomores. Oceanography wasn’t the first field that would have jumped into his mind otherwise – “but as an ecology-minded person, I’m interested in how systems work, how they produce and use nutrients.”

His work in Dr. Yvon-Lewis’ lab was a microbiology project that looked at methane production in the lower oceanic crust, the one that is generally the hardest to access because of its depth.

“We studied samples of rock, looking at the microbes there at the time of in situ collection and their responses to different nutrient additions.”

Like the others, Goertzen says it wasn’t necessarily “a relaxed summer. We logged some intense lab days.”

But also like the others, Goertzen found kindred spirits in the other students in the REU, who came from all over the country, and enjoyed exploring the greater Houston/Gulf Coast area with his new friends on weekends.

Long-term, the experience made him “interested in analysis of water systems. That’s important for measuring the general health of a place.”

Newport, a double major in psychology and biology, was still smiling over “spending an entire summer doing graduate-level research and getting to talk to people with degrees in psychology and biology, or working toward them.”

She says her summer experience was a bit different from that of the other three in that she did less focused work in one area.

“I got to help out on several different projects, a ‘floater,’” she says, “getting a variety of experience, but not a lot in one place. I got interested in a personality study with facial recognition. I’m going to run a study here for fun, but I’m kind of thinking about turning what happened in the first study into my senior seminar project.”

In that one, she “got to work on my people skills by recruiting people for a mother-infant stress study.

“We would run the recruits through the experiment [in which the mothers filled out an extensive survey]. It included gathering spit samples and testing saliva for cortisols [a stress hormone]. The theory is that just a mild separation, or lack of attention, will increase stress levels for both mother and baby.

“Other studies have used skin conductance or heart rate. [Cortisol] is becoming more of a biomarker for personality traits.”

As a first-generation college student, Newport says she valued some of the nuts and bolts she learned about graduate school almost as much as her research experience.

An REU, she says, puts you “through two months of intense research, along with literature review and practice making bibliographies. There was a [weekly] lecture series [where] we would hear stories from professors about how they chose their fields, the different paths that take you to the same place.

“There was a lot of information we wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere. We got to talk to a lot of Ph.D. students who weren’t that much older than us. I found out that with as much research as we do at Bethel, I could go straight into a Ph.D. program and wouldn’t need to do the masters first. We were told how much it costs and what you get in return. I had never heard that you might get paid to go to grad school.”

Newport was part of a national gathering earlier in the year where Bethel students were among undergraduates from all over the country presenting research posters.

“It’s good to see what happens on the larger scale,” Newport says, “and how Bethel compares to other schools — which is quite well, I think. We’re just not as fancy.”

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2016'17 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.