The future of STEM is here: Meet Lafayette’s innovators in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They are creative thinkers and persistent problem-solvers whose contributions are vital in helping us navigate the challenges of our ever-changing and complex world. Here are their stories.

Deciphering Genetic Puzzles

The genetic testing company 23andMe can reveal details about your ancestry, genealogy, and if you have an increased genetic risk of developing certain diseases. The consumer test does not reveal information about stroke risk. The research Kelsea Chang ’19 is doing with her adviser, Eric Ho, assistant professor of biology, could one day change that.

Chang is combining her lifelong love for biology with her newly acquired computer science skills to uncover genetic variations that can predict someone’s risk of suffering a stroke. She started the project as a summer EXCEL Scholar, and she’s continuing her research for her senior honors thesis. The genetic link to stroke could be of particular value to those seeking to understand why young people suffer from strokes. Older victims tend to have health-related risk factors, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It’s possibly more likely that younger people are genetically predisposed.

Chang, a biology major and computational methods minor, is “web scraping” to compile genetic data for analysis. “A lot of unstructured information is out there in websites, but it goes unutilized,” she says. “There much potential if you can pull the relevant information and store it in a way that can be easily accessed for research.” It’s work that Chang initially didn’t think she was cut out for. “I always thought I wouldn’t be good at computer science,” she says. “I was intimidated by it. But I tried a class, and it just clicked for me. I found it so intellectually stimulating. Now I plan to incorporate coding and biology into what I do in the future. I could see myself doing something in health care. The idea of helping people and contributing to new advances in medicine appeals to me.”

Bridging Disciplines

Engineering is a liberal and creative art, differing from playwriting or sculpting or any manner of traditional art forms only in its material, says Benjamin Cohen, associate professor of engineering studies. “It uses different kinds of materials but is fundamentally creative,” he says. “It’s not surprising then that we in engineering studies have a strong affiliation with arts and humanities departments, that we are interdisciplinary in nature, and that we graduate a number of double majors each year who themselves represent engineering as a creative art through their education. There need not be a divide between engineering and other disciplines.”

For his part, Cohen’s work organizing Lafayette Forum on Technology and the Liberal Arts has further amplified that message. The forum is just one vehicle to bring speakers to campus from around the world who embody the creative and interdisciplinary nature of technologies as they relate to broader social issues. Course offerings are another vehicle for that mindset. In some specific classes, like Sustainable Solutions and Technology and Nature, students come from a wide range of majors to create intellectual diversity in the classroom.

Since arriving at Lafayette in 2011, Cohen has been an active collaborator in programs that advocate for food justice and sustainable technology such as Lafayette’s Veggies in the Community, LaFarm, and Greening Lafayette. He’s also been involved in environmental justice projects and helped develop the Office of Sustainability, which connects the campus to the Lehigh Valley region through climate change planning and food policy development. “We’re always working to think about technology and society and to help students break the false divide between engineering and liberal arts.”

Putting Engineering on Center Stage

When the Grinch slides down a chimney in Whoville, he’s counting on engineers with strong theater backgrounds, like Eli Cooper ’19 and Chris Ramprashad ’20, to make sure his nefarious operations go smoothly. As the inaugural Theater Technology and Engineering Fellows, a new program to support interdisciplinary collaboration between engineering and the arts, Cooper and Ramprashad (both mechanical engineering majors and active in tech theater for years) are strengthening their appreciation of the close connections between science and theater set design.

“We’re looking at technical theater as a good intersection between visual arts and engineering,” says Cooper, who is also majoring in art and worked on last year’s production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas at Weiss Theater. “Engineering helps the set stand up and not fall over, but you also need an art background so the set fits the aesthetics of the production. Not only are you building a fireplace that the Grinch can poke his head through, but it also has to look like a Dr. Seuss fireplace.”

Ramprashad was looking at different jobs on campus when he came upon a theater shop position, which involved building sets. “Alexander Owens (technical director, theater department) started to talk to me about the idea of bridging the engineering division and theater department, and he aligned a pilot program to see how it would and opened it to the rest of the campus,” he recalls. “It’s about the process of going about designing the theater. It resembles the design process on projects in engineering classes. It’s the same process—sketch a drawing and use CAD to model it—to approach problem-solving whether it’s an engineering project or a set design.”

Making Sure Everyone’s Counted

Chawne Kimber, professor of mathematics, knows attracting more women and minorities into science, technology, engineering, and math fields is only part of the equation. Efforts to diversify STEM are only successful if new recruits are welcomed into an inclusive culture, an environment that provides equal opportunities for all to learn and thrive.

Kimber has been a champion of inclusivity long before it became a buzzword. Her Summer Program to Advance Leadership (SPAL) is just one example. For the past nine years, she has led this six-week program for incoming first-year students from underrepresented groups. Coming to campus early gives them a jump start on classes, familiarizes them with the campus, and enables them to engage with Gateway Career Center. Kimber extends ongoing guidance and support over their four years.

As valuable as individual programs like SPAL are, Kimber knows there is power in numbers. She has teamed up with a group of interdisciplinary faculty members to create the College’s Inclusive STEM initiative. Their goals are to shift the demographics in STEM classes, create a more inclusive environment for both students and faculty members, and conduct research about the process along the way so they can develop a better understanding of STEM culture. “We are not only focusing on students, but also faculty, recognizing specific needs there,” she says. Kimber has played an active role in developing a group for non-male faculty in STEM fields (called Minerva) as well as a group for male faculty members (Allies) who are committed to supporting their colleagues.

In recognition for all of her contributions, Kimber received a prestigious Clare Booth Luce Scholarship to attend the HERS (Higher Education Resource Services) Institute in July. The program provides a leadership development experience to help women in STEM advance in their careers. Kimber was only one of six scholarship recipients from across the country. “I had the opportunity to share our inclusive STEM initiative, and many of the people there were surprised that a college of our size would be doing something like this—it’s groundbreaking,” Kimber says. “It was good for me to confirm that I’m doing the right thing and that I am on the right path.”

Protecting the Environment

Anna Golub ‘19 arrived at Lafayette not sure of her major, let alone her eventual career path. After traveling to Hawaii on a short-term study abroad trip and then taking an introductory course in the discipline back on campus, her future came into focus. “I found what I was passionate about,” Golub says. “I love that if you are presented with pieces of a puzzle, geology can put them all together and enable you to solve a problem.”

The world needs problem solvers, and Golub is gathering as much knowledge and experience as she can to be someone who can contribute scientific solutions. She spent the 2018 spring semester participating in SEA, an internationally renowned study-abroad environmental studies program. After six weeks of oceanographic research work in Woods Hole, Mass., Golub set sail for a “totally immersive” six-week experience aboard a research vessel in the Atlantic where she conducted research on sargassum seaweed, a habitat for many forms of marine life. Shortly after that program concluded, Golub set off for Colorado, where she spent five months working at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. There, she started analyzing fossilized leaves from 35 million years ago—research she is continuing back on campus now as her senior thesis.

Through her coursework and these experiences, Golub knows she’s on the right career path. But whether she focuses on oceanography or paleoecology is still up for debate. She plans to gather even more fieldwork experience after graduation to help determine which field she should study further in graduate school. This upcoming summer will take her a step closer to knowing: She will be back at sea sailing on a vessel off the coast of Chile, helping a research team recover and study sediment cores from the seafloor. “Those samples will help us understand climate change over the last 140,000 years,” she says. “We can learn from the past and apply it to our future. That’s why I love geology so much.”

Communicating with Cancer Cells

The immune system has a complicated relationship with cancer. Sometimes, it fights it. Sometimes, it misses it completely. Other times, it can contribute to the cancer metastasizing and spreading. To better understand the immune system’s response to cancer, Bob Kurt, professor of biology, studies cell signaling, the process in which cells respond to their environment and make a decision to proliferate or die. Working alone, Kurt could uncover the signaling process that occurs in one protein of a cell at a time. But that would only reveal a small piece of the big puzzle, and it would take several years. Thanks to a collaboration with Chun Wai Liew, associate professor of computer science, Kurt has been able to fast-track his research.

Liew created a program that runs virtual experiments to make predictions and give Kurt feedback so he can tweak his lab experiments in an informed and expedited way. “If there are 20 proteins in a cell talking to each other and involved in communication, and each one works differently, it is a very slow process to understand each one,” Kurt says. “If you have a good model that tells you what experiments you should be doing in the lab, it could save you 10 years.”

While Kurt is focused on cancer cells (breast-cancer cells, in particular), their collaborative efforts can have implications behind health sciences and biology. Liew, for instance, studies artificial intelligence and investigates how machines and humans can work together to communicate better. His work with Kurt informs that research. “The computer is an expert in modeling, and Bob is an expert in biology, and so you could say he’s my guinea pig,” says Liew, who in 2017 received a three-year grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. “Studying the collaboration between man and machine can be difficult and complex, but I like challenging problems. I like learning about new things and enjoy having collaborations. It makes it much bigger than computer science, and that’s part of the fun.”

Unraveling a Biochemistry Mystery

Biochemistry major Scott Berger ’19 has been working for almost three years with Justin Hines, associate professor of chemistry, to understand the mysterious process of how proteins fold. By studying how the strings of amino acids fold and what final structure they are likely to take, researchers can develop predictive tools that can have broad implications for improving human health. Cataracts, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, for example, are protein-folding problems.

“Essentially, not every protein automatically folds properly once it is made, and keeping proteins properly folded is a constant battle,” Berger says. “In cataracts, for example, the lens of the eye has the highest protein concentration in the body,” says Berger, who was nominated last year for a Goldwater Scholarship and, in addition to his work with Hines, is involved in biophysics research with Bradley Antanaitis, associate professor emeritus, and instructor Yiu-man Wong of the physics department. “If the proteins are damaged from UV light, for example, they can misfold, turning the lens opaque.”

Berger conducted publishable research this past summer at University of Wisconsin-Madison to characterize the interactions between proteins that are associated with the ribosome, the molecular structure that’s responsible for production of protein in all cells. Alongside Hines, Berger is also researching “prions” in yeast, another example of misfolded proteins that’s highly connected to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. They published a paper together last spring in the journal Molecular Microbiology.

Sharing Her Passion

Khadijah Mitchell tells her students you can have a job, a career, or a calling. The assistant professor of biology considers her work as a human geneticist to be her calling. “It’s what I was put on this Earth to do,” she says. “I would do this work for free. I love it.” She’s not exaggerating. Anyone who has interacted with the professorwho is exuberant with a capital Ecan attest to her enthusiasm and passion for teaching, mentoring, and researching.

Mitchell studies the links among genetics, the environment, and cancer. Much of her work has focused on lung cancer, trying to better understand why African Americans have higher rates of the disease and suffer from more aggressive tumors than Americans of European descent—even though they smoke less. Are menthol cigarettes a contributing factor? Is radon exposure responsible?

The scientific community is benefiting from her scholarship: Her research was published in four academic journals last year, and she has three more papers under review. In 2018, she presented her research at two American Association for Cancer Research’s conferences and was invited to join Pennsylvania Cancer Coalition and a federal health equity council, where she is sharing her expertise in health disparities. “I tell my students that it’s not enough for science to stay in the walls of the lab,” says Mitchell, who is mentoring six student lab researchers. “We’ve got to share our knowledge to help others.”

Envisioning a Clear Future

Stephan Geneus ’19, a neuroscience major, has always looked up to his mom, a hospital nurse, and spent many hours shadowing the general surgery team where she works at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. “I was able to enter the operating room and observe procedures, such as gallbladder removals, laparoscopic mesh implants for hernia repair, and coronary artery bypass surgeries,” he says.

The experience left a lasting impression on the aspiring surgeon. On the road to fulfill that goal, this past summer, through Lafayette’s LEARN Program, he worked with Melinda Duncan ’87, professor of biological sciences at University of Delaware, to focus on the lens of the eye and look specifically at age-related differences on the after-effects of cataract surgery. While the outcome of cataract removal surgery is usually positive, some patients develop posterior capsular opacification (PCO), a condition often referred to as secondary cataract, which requires additional treatment and can lead to poor vision in the long term. “We know elderly people are more likely to get cataracts, but younger people are more likely to develop secondary cataracts after surgery,” Geneus says. “How the body responds to the wound healing after surgery may cause secondary cataracts.”

He will share his PCO research findings at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in mid-Novemberonly two weeks after returning from San Diego, where he presented a different research project (diet’s effect on energy production) at the Society for Neuroscience conference. “I enjoy studying neuroscience because it presents opportunities to learn about how the physical structure and mechanisms of our brains influence our behavior and vice versa,” he says. “I feel really good about my research and the potential to help people.”

Creating an Innovative Collaboration

When a civil engineer and a microbiologist meet for lunch every week, the possibilities for interdisciplinary research are often on the menu. Since writing their first successful National Science Foundation grant in 2003, Mary Roth, head of civil and environmental engineering, and Laurie Caslake, head biology, have been overseeing innovative research involving the use of microbes to change the engineering properties of soils.

“In 2003, I was at a civil engineering conference where a group of us were talking about potential future areas of research and what innovations might be found if we partnered with researchers we don’t normally collaborate with,” Roth recalls. “Someone in the group wondered whether partnering with biologists might open up new possibilities. I replied that I have lunch with a microbiologist every week—I should talk with her about what we might do. And so Laurie and I began talking.”

Their original NSF-funded work looked at the use of biofilm-forming bacteria to improve the strength of soil and, more recently, they have received a grant to see if those same bacteria types might be used to control the seepage of water in soils. The goal is to determine if enough biofilm can be grown uniformly through the soil samples to reduce the flow of water tenfold or more. If they are successful, this approach could be used to help prevent the failure of earthen dams or levees and to help control groundwater flow in areas where the groundwater is contaminated.

Roth and Caslake’s 2003 grant was the first funded by NSF in support of a collaboration between a biologist and a geotechnical engineer. In 2015, NSF decided that the potential for new innovations resulting from such partnerships to be so potentially transformative that it funded Center for Bio-mediated & Bio-inspired Geotechnics. This new center has a multi-million-dollar annual budget and is a collaboration of four major research universities. Lafayette, because of the work of Caslake and Roth, is a recognized partner with the center.