Increasing Diversity in STEM Fields

Increasing Diversity in STEM Fields

Brianna Jones, Professor Grace Muna, Andrew Vila

During the summer of 2019, eight IU South Bend students spent their summer working with faculty as research scholars in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. The LSAMP program, funded by the National Science Foundation, provides opportunities for underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). LSAMP pays a stipend to students in the program, making it possible for them to spend their summer in the research lab.

“It fills my heart to watch students in the LSAMP program grow more confident and change from being students to research scholars.” said Associate Professor Grace W. Muna, the coordinator of the LSAMP at IU South Bend. “It opens their eyes to future career paths in STEM fields and instills the confidence they need to succeed in these fields,” said Muna.

Muna explained that undergraduate research fosters deep learning as students engage collaboratively under the guidance of a faculty mentor to create and solve a research problem. Students’ eight-week research projects build their knowledge of research and develop presentation skills. In the fall, students attend conferences and present their research at poster sessions.“LSAMP is an example of the efforts in the scientific community to address the imbalance of minorities in STEM fields,” said Jerry D. Hinnefeld, professor of physics and a faculty mentor to LSAMP scholar Angel Garcia-Simental.

After LSAMP students experience what academic research really can be. Muna encourages them to continue to advance research experience by applying to participate in Research Experiences for Undergraduates, a National Science Foundation summer undergraduate research program available in larger research schools. “The LSAMP program is the initial step,” she said. “It opens the door to doing research in bigger schools, where they will work with graduate students and gain an even richer experience.

After his summer experience as a LSAMP scholar working in the lab with Muna, then junior biology major Andrew Vila reimagined his career possibilities. “I found out I really like research and discovering new things,” Vila said. “I’ve decided in addition to being a medical doctor, I also want to be a full professor. I plan to pursue an M.D. and a Ph.D.”

Andrew Vila

Andrew Vila

Senior biology student Andrew Vila is working with Associate Professor Grace W. Muna in developing an analytical method to detect lead in soils and water using bismuth nanoparticles deposited on a glassy carbon electrode. “It’s an awesome project because it’s so practical,” he explained. “Lead is especially harmful to children. We are working on developing a lead detection method that is sensitive, affordable, and field deployable.”

Vila enjoyed working closely with Associate Professor Muna. “It seemed more like a partnership,” he explained. Muna helped him understand and embrace research, explaining that unlike lab experiments in his science classes, these methods are not established. The researchers put it together themselves. “She encouraged me to understand that not getting results is part of the process,” the Penn High School graduate said. “It’s not a bad thing.”

Muna’s encouragement and his experience in the lab has made Vila feel more confident as a scientist. “I’ve always loved science,” he said with a smile. “Maybe I’ve always been a scientist at heart.”

Angel Garcia-Simental

Andrew Vila

Angel Garcia-Simental, a senior physics major worked with Professor of Physics Jerry Hinnefeld. The main focus of Garcia-Simental’s research is using a simulation program to determine the source of carbon-12, picked up by a detection system built by Hinnefeld that detects products of nuclear reactions like those that take place in stars. “We expected to find nitrogen-14 and florene-18, but not carbon-12,” explained Hinnefeld.

Garcia-Simental has gained lots of new skills working in Notre Dame’s Nuclear Science Laboratory, where Hinnefeld carries out his research. “Learning how to do the simulations and determine the results is a steep learning curve,” said Garcia-Simental. “I had no knowledge of these programs before I began my research.”

Despite the steep learning curve, the Riley High School graduate, has enjoyed his experience in the Nuclear Science Laboratory and plans to continue his work beyond the summer program. “I gained a better understanding about how labs work,” he explained. “I was also able to work alongside a Notre Dame graduate student, who shared insights with me about graduate research in physics and programming languages.”

Both Garcia-Simental and Hinnefeld appreciate the opportunity to collaborate in the lab as well as run the first real experiment using the St. George recoil mass separator and the detection system Hinnefeld built for it.

Brianna Jones

Andrew Vila

Brianna Jones, a senior chemistry major and graduate of Elkhart Central, enjoyed working one-on-one with Associate Professor Muna and getting a more in-depth experience in the lab. In her summer of research, she compared the nutritional value of conventional and organic blueberries for a local organic farm.

“In my lab classes, everything is set up and the outcome is predetermined,” she explained. “In the LSAMP program, we are designing our own research protocols and we don’t know the outcomes.”

The stipend she earned from LSAMP made it feasible for her to participate in the program and she’s grateful for the opportunity. “It really changed what I think about research,” Jones said. “It requires lots of thinking, not just replicating experiments.” She was also surprised how many times she repeated the same experiment to insure the results were accurate.

From her research, organic blueberries appear to have more calcium and potassium than conventional blueberries, making them healthier. “We are repeating the experiment again to make sure our results are accurate,” she commented with a smile.


Grace Berney

Andrew Vila

“My experience in the LSAMP program opened my eyes to other options in research and gave me a head start in biostatistics,” said Grace Berney, a senior biochemistry major.

Associate Professor of Bioinformatics Murli Nair taught Berney’s genomics class. So when Muna approached Berney about participating in the LSAMP program, she asked Muna to contact Nair to be her mentor. “I never say no to students,” said Nair. “Grace is a self-starter and a motivated student.”

Berney worked with Nair on stem cells, to identify the differences in and between Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (IPS) from cord blood and skin. Using data from another lab, Berney used a lot of statistical methods to understand the differences between IPSs derived from embryonic cord blood and mature cord blood.

“It was intimidating at first,” said Berney, “because I hadn’t taken a course in biostats yet. Associate Professor Nair was very patient with me and recommended YouTube videos that would help me,” she explained. “As I became more comfortable, I found I really like research, and I’m interested in theoretical research.”

Nair also widened Berney’s view of career options. Planning to go to medical school, Nair suggested she could still do research while she is a medical doctor.

In addition to learning biostatistics, Berney will also be able to publish her research. “We are going to continue the project beyond the summer,” said Nair. “Grace will be able to write a manuscript from it.”