As part of a joint program with Cal State San Marcos and the University of California San Diego, nearly two dozen undergraduates spent their summer working in research laboratories conducting scientific studies that could have long-term significance in areas such as improving treatment options for osteoporosis patients to avoiding turbulence experienced during airplane flights.

“Turbulence has been described as the last great unsolved problem of classical physics,” explained Dennis Wilson, an applied physics student at CSUSM who spent hundreds of hours analyzing the phenomenon as part of Frontiers in Science — an intensive 12-week paid summer internship program providing undergraduates with hands-on, original research experience.

Offering research opportunities at CSUSM and UCSD, Frontiers in Science brought together more than 10 faculty experts in the fields of astronomy, biomechanics, bioengineering, chemistry, physics and molecular biology to mentor undergraduates in their respective labs.

“It is such an incredible opportunity to be able to contribute to science,” added Patty Velasco, a junior studying biological sciences at CSUSM. Over the summer, Velasco worked with a team of three undergraduates in Dr. Betsy Read’s molecular biology lab at Cal State San Marcos, studying the mechanism for calcification in a strain of marine algae, known as Emiliania huxleyi. Their extensive research could one day lead to the treatment of patients suffering from osteoporosis or bone degeneration.

Across campus in the biomechanics lab, three other undergraduate researchers worked with kinesiology professor Dr. Jeff Nessler, putting science in motion to test athletic performance and the effectiveness of a knee brace made by DJO Global, Inc. which helps prevent and rehabilitate injuries caused by hyperextension of the knee.

Operating eight optical motion capture cameras valued at over $8,000 each, student researchers placed reflective markers along specific points of the athlete’s body to capture repetitious frames of the subject in motion as the participant exerted physical force by running and jumping. Some participants were then instructed to wear the knee brace when exercising for a week, while others in the control group were asked to continue the same exercise regimen without the brace. After one week, participants returned to the lab to perform the physical test once again. Student researchers then compiled the data and analyzed the results, which were presented at a campus-wide symposium in late August.

For physics undergraduate Trevor Long-Anastasia, the summer internship with Dr. Nessler was his first in-depth exposure to biomechanical research. One of the key objectives of Frontiers in Science is to introduce undergraduates to the broad spectrum of scientific research available at CSUSM and UCSD, encouraging students to explore the sciences. During the first three weeks, students participate in technical skills training, tour campus laboratories and attend informational seminars to become acquainted with methods and approaches researchers use in each field. Students are then assigned to a lab based on their interests.

“Science today is becoming more interdisciplinary and it’s increasingly important for students to be exposed early to different fields of study,” said physics professor Dr. Michael Burin, who co-leads the internship program with UCSD’s Christopher Smith, director for the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics.

Smith explained that the National Science Foundation, which funds thousands of research initiatives each year with its $7.4 billion budget, has expanded its granting priorities from initially encouraging graduate student involvement in academic research to now including, and even emphasizing, the value of undergraduate participation in research. And although the trend is only now sweeping across the nation, CSUSM has long been a leader in offering its undergraduates hands-on, extensive research experience.

“The scope and depth of undergraduate research performed on our campus is a real strength of CSUSM,” added Burin.  “If a university even offers undergraduate research, chances are it’s reserved strictly for senior-level students. In Frontiers in Science, we go one step further by structuring the program as an introductory internship, giving sophomores and juniors, as well as seniors, opportunities to gain first-hand lab experience.”

Now approaching its third year, the rigorous summer internship program requires each undergraduate researcher to dedicate 40 hours a week in a specified lab for two months. In exchange for logging at least 320 hours of original research, each student receives a stipend up to $3,200.

“I feel honored to be among the researchers pushing the frontier of scientific knowledge,” said Carlos Solorzano, who studied the transition between turbulent flow and laminar flow in Dr. Burin’s applied hydrodynamics laboratory, a process critical to improving the efficiencies of alternative energy technologies. “It’s surreal to think that my work could be used to progress science and ultimately better mankind.”

In 2010, physics major Lydia Saucedo, who is now a senior at CSUSM preparing for graduate school, was among the first cohort of interns to participate in the summer program. In 2011, she participated once again, this time joining Dr. Wouter-Jan Rappel at UCSD to develop a software system using mathematical equations to simulate the reprogramming of stem cells.

“Conducting original research is so much different than being in a classroom environment where you duplicate classic scientific experiments,” she said. “In a lab, you find out what works and what doesn’t. You explore, problem-solve, troubleshoot and rely on your critical thinking skills, and you’re not intimidated by expensive equipment. Research is undoubtedly challenging, but the confidence and real-world training I’ve gained has been simply invaluable.”

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Picture of Dr. Jeff Nessler

A Walk with Dr. Jeff Nessler

When it comes to walking, it’s all a matter of science to kinesiology professor Dr. Jeff Nessler. As an expert in biomechanics, he is advancing scientific understanding of human movement and enhancing rehabilitation treatments for patients suffering from neurological diseases and injuries.

In his latest research sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Nessler collaborated with scientists from Cal Poly Pomona and Ohio State to evaluate the effects of a robotic step-training device used to rehabilitate muscles after a spinal cord injury. Prior research indicates that weak muscle tissue is the greatest significant barrier for patients in physical recovery. In the study, Nessler and his team used a robotic device and weight support system to help patients practice stepping. Traditional forms of walking therapy require therapists to manually move the patient’s leg forward, one step at a time. Because some of the patient’s weight is supported by an overhead harness, their muscles are not loaded as they would be under normal conditions. The robotic device used by Nessler is designed to perform the function of the therapist and is smart enough to apply extra weight to the leg while it is standing and can remove the extra weight when it is time for the limb to swing forward. According to his initial findings, the ability to make and eventually increase those subtle weight changes during step training improves muscle mass and strength, likely leading to enhanced recovery and mobility.

Nessler’s next step in research will focus on studying the synchronization behavior that inherently occurs when people walk. For example, when a person listens to music, unknowingly they will often walk to the beat. His study will focus on understanding the mechanical and sensory contributions to this unintentional synchronization that occurs when individuals walk side by side. This behavior may be useful in rehabilitation treatments, in which an unsteady patient is paired with a healthy individual. His findings could enhance therapy options available to individuals with Parkinson’s disease, a disease that can greatly impair walking.

Looking ahead, Nessler hopes to one day open a research gait lab to improve rehabilitation treatments and help to prevent falls in older adults. Changes to walking that occur with aging can be so subtle that a person may not realize their impairment until they fall. Some of the latest techniques in gait analysis will allow for a detailed evaluation of fall risk and can potentially be used in the early detection of certain neurological diseases.

“As both a teacher and a researcher, I enjoy working in the lab with my students and providing them with hands-on research experience,” he said. “A different level of learning occurs when students can actually participate in data collection and take ownership in a research project.”