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UW’s Wyoming Research and McNair Scholars Act as Science Initiative Ambassadors

February 27, 2018
woman and man talking to a group of people
UW students Delta Burchi and Logan Fairbourn give students from Steamboat Springs (Colo.) High School a rundown of the day’s schedule shortly before the high school students took a tour of the Michael B. Enzi STEM Facility. Some of UW’s Wyoming Research Scholars and McNair Scholars are acting as student recruiters and ambassadors for the university’s Science Initiative. (UW Photo)

University of Wyoming student-scholars are taking it upon themselves to act as university ambassadors and recruiters, and spread the gospel of UW’s Science Initiative.

Seven UW students -- who are either Wyoming Research Scholars or McNair Scholars (in one case, both) -- had that opportunity Feb. 22. They hosted 26 students from Steamboat Springs (Colo.) High School. The schedule included a tour of the Michael B. Enzi STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Facility; an opportunity for the high school students to break out into smaller groups that could choose to observe one of five science labs in action; and student and faculty question-and-answer sessions.

“I really fell in love with the people here. I didn’t feel like a number,” Logan Fairbourn, a UW senior microbiology major from Cheyenne, told the visiting Colorado students when asked why he chose to enroll at UW. “It felt like the faculty and staff who walked me around campus took the time to get to know me and help me find my place. It felt like home.”

Tatiana Rice, a freshman physiology major from Casper and a Wyoming Research Scholar, expounded on the undergraduate research opportunities at UW that are not always available at research universities.

“You get to know your professors well, and they help set you up for after graduation,” Rice says. “They help you from the start and see you all the way through to where you are going in life.”

The Enzi STEM Facility is for teaching laboratories for introductory courses such as general chemistry, general biology, organic chemistry, elementary physics and other large-enrollment laboratory courses involving more than 100 students per semester. The facility does not house research laboratories, which will be the focus of the $100 million Science Initiative facility that is under planning.

The high school students were given the choice of attending one of five labs in various campus buildings they were interested in seeing. Delta Burchi, a junior neuroscience major from Laramie, led a small group to view a lab in the School of Pharmacy Building, where she works with Ph.D. students Emily Jorgensen and Paige Dingess. There, Burchi explained the lab studies the effects of cocaine and a high-fat diet on the brains of albino rats. Much of the research translates to the same effects on humans, she says.

“I do a lot of the breeding,” Burchi says of her duties. “They’re so cute. They start to like you.”

In another lab tour, Rice showed students her work with tadpoles in a lab located in the Biological Sciences Building.

woman working with small container of tadpoles
Tatiana Rice, a Wyoming Research Scholar from Casper, explains her research with tadpoles to students from Steamboat Springs High School. The high school students each could choose one of five labs to observe where the UW undergraduate students conduct research. (UW Photo)

“I am hoping to find a correlation between the tadpoles’ choice in the light/dark test (if they prefer to stay on one side rather than the other) and the time of day,” Rice explains. “If there is a correlation, I can do dissections on the tadpoles and see if there are certain neurotransmitters that are active at that time, and what their significance is.”

Fairbourn, a Wyoming Research Scholar and McNair Scholar, and Natalie Thibault (pronounced Te-bow), a senior family and consumer sciences major and a McNair Scholar, led the tour through the Enzi STEM Facility. Both are from Cheyenne and are conducting research in which bacterial cellulose is converted into textiles such as keychains, watchbands and earrings.

“The biggest thing we’re hoping to do is recruit Colorado kids,” Fairbourn says of the event. “But, we’re also trying to get them excited and show them what a research lab is like.”

“When you apply to UW, you have no idea you can do undergraduate research,” Thibault adds. “We can show there are so many options to reach your goals. Like Logan said, we want to get students excited.”

Ashleigh Rhea, a senior wildlife biology major and Wyoming Research Scholar from Dillon, Mont.; Olivia Terry, a senior geology major and McNair Scholar from Edmond, Okla.; and Jeffrey Johnson, a senior microbiology major from Rock Springs, also led students on lab tours. 

The UW Science Initiative began in 2014 when Gov. Matt Mead and the Wyoming Legislature challenged UW to develop a plan to address outdated science laboratories at UW and improve the quality of instruction and research in the sciences. A task force, appointed by Mead and informed by faculty representatives, developed a transformational vision for UW's core science programs in botany, zoology and physiology, molecular biology, chemistry, and physics and astronomy.

The Science Initiative charts a clear course for these science programs to rise to top-tier status in the nation and builds upon Wyoming's STEM initiatives -- the location of the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne; construction of the Enzi STEM Facility; and the Wyoming Governor's Energy, Engineering STEM Integration Task Force.

Olivia Hobson, a senior at Steamboat Springs High School, says she plans to major in environmental chemistry and minor in journalism. She says she is looking at colleges in Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

“After what I heard today, I might apply here,” says Hobson, who would like a career in science that includes traveling abroad. “It seems like there is a really good science program here.”

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