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Exploring Undergraduate Research

June 6, 2022
woman in a lab
Mechanical engineering student Elizabeth Erickson works as an intern for Evoseer LLC, a startup company that seeks to commercialize a new generation of more energy-efficient lithium batteries.

Students gain hands-on experience by participating in real research across campus.

By Micaela Myers 

Junior physiology and honors student Danielle Ernste of Cheyenne, Wyo., hopes to become a surgeon. At the University of Wyoming, she’s already studying heart failure as part of her funded research via INBRE (IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence) in the lab of kinesiology and health Assistant Professor Nellie Bruns. 

Students at the UW enjoy unprecedented opportunities to take part in undergraduate research as early as their freshman year, gaining real-life experience, earning money toward school, building their resumes, discovering their passions and much more. 

“Undergraduate research is an invaluable experience,” Ernste says. “Not only has it taught me a lot about science, physiology, the function of the heart and therapies to heart failure, but it has also taught me a lot about myself and helped me recognize possible paths that I could take and the things that I truly enjoy!” 

A Big Heart

“I aspire to go to medical school, and I think this research really gave me insight into the behind-the-scenes work that goes into medicine,” Ernste says. “There are so many techniques that physicians use, and it is very enlightening to realize that those techniques could come from labs at our very own university.” 

As a member of Alpha Phi Women’s Fraternity, Ernste helped raise money for women’s heart health research. Alpha Phi hosted a Red Dress Gala, raising more than $10,000 for the Alpha Phi Foundation. 

“Heart disease affects one in three women,” she says. “And yet most of the research regarding heart health is focused on male trial groups. The Alpha Phi Foundation notices this gap in research and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars.” 

Never Stop Learning

Senior Elizabeth Erickson of Cheyenne, who is majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in biology, hopes to combine her love of the two fields under the umbrella of biomimicry—engineering inspired by nature. To prepare for her future career, she has spent time in both engineering and botany labs.  

“Research allows students to apply the engineering method from beginning to end, something that isn’t really done in class,” Erickson says. “The opportunity to advance our understanding of engineering topics and apply it hands-on is truly rewarding. For me, doing undergraduate research has made me realize I want a career where I never stop learning and don’t just sit at a desk all day. Even the smallest discoveries can feel like great accomplishments.”

In the engineering field, Erickson works as an intern for Evoseer LLC, a startup company that seeks to commercialize a new generation of more energy-efficient lithium batteries. Evoseer was created by UW Ph.D. student Kurt Stahlfeld and mechanical engineering Associate Professor Erica Belmont. 

“I have learned a lot about battery chemistry, laboratory best practices and effective communication,” Erickson says. “I can confidently say that reflecting on each mistake or unsuccessful path has made me more mindful of everything I do. This is a lesson that is shaping me into a pragmatic engineer that I believe will be beneficial in both graduate school and a career.” 

She also worked as a lab technician in botany Professor Brent Ewers’ lab, which taught her a lot about the scientific method and plants in general.

woman looking through a container of water and fish
Pre-veterinary student Emily Purifoy studies spinal cord regeneration in zebrafish at UW.

Future Vet Prep

As an incoming freshman, Emily Purifoy of Cheyenne joined the Wyoming Research Scholars Program, which pairs undergraduate STEM majors with faculty for funded research. Purifoy is now in her third year studying spinal cord regeneration in zebrafish in pharmacy Assistant Professor Karen Mruk’s lab and has presented at two conferences. 

“My hope is to go to vet school,” says Purifoy, who is majoring in animal and veterinary sciences and pre-veterinary medicine. “A lot of those programs really want to see undergraduate research. Having those experiences under my belt makes me a really good candidate moving forward.” 

Purifoy is a founding member of the Wyoming Undergraduate Research Coalition Club, where members practice presenting their research, visit labs and take field trips. 

“I would recommend undergraduate research because it really makes you think outside the box,” she says. “It teaches you it’s OK to fail. You don’t have to get everything right the first time. It also teaches you commitment to the process.” 

woman in a room full of control wheels
Petroleum engineering master’s student Gunjan Singh Tomar completed her undergraduate research in the Drilling and Completions Simulator Lab.

Graduate School and Beyond

International student Gunjan Singh Tomar of Madhya Pradesh, India, earned credit hours as an undergraduate researcher in the Drilling and Completions Simulator Lab with Senior Lecturer Tawfik Elshehabi. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in December 2020, she’s now working toward her master’s degree in petroleum engineering at UW and hopes for a career in machine learning to help the industry find more efficient and sustainable ways to increase productivity and solve challenges.  

Located in the new Engineering Education and Research Building, the Drilling and Completions Simulator Lab features the state-of-the-art DrillSim 6000 with dual cyber chair for offshore drilling, DrillSim 5000 for onshore drilling, and Coiled Tubing 5000 and Wireline 5000 simulators for well completion and intervention activities.

“During my undergraduate research at the simulator, I used the simulators to explore complicated drilling scenarios, well control problems and well completions problems,” Singh Tomar says, adding that the experience bridges theoretical classroom learning with practical experience. “I got to practice problems that are high risk when it comes to drilling and completions and find solutions to those problems. My undergraduate research helped me prepare for industry and graduate school.” 

Get Involved

There are many ways to get involved in undergraduate research. Some of the funding programs include INBRE, EPSCoR, McNair Scholars, Wyoming Research Scholars, Engineering Undergraduate Research Scholars and the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium. If you’re interested in undergraduate research, talk to your department, advisers, or professors to learn more.

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