Can you do research at a small, undergraduate, liberal arts college? Yes! Grove City College has a flourishing research program spread among various programs in both technical and non-technical majors. Dr. Erik Anderson, a professor of Mechanical Engineering, is one of many professors at GCC passionate about engaging undergraduate students in research. Intrigued by the mechanisms by which fish move and the factors that drive ants to move in perfect harmony, Dr. Anderson’s research lab is focused on looking at living systems to motivate new technology. Alex Voris, a senior Mechanical Engineering student, is one of over a dozen students working in Dr. Anderson’s biomechanical lab.
How were you able to become involved in research at Grove City College?
The summer after my sophomore year I was hired as an intern at a manufacturing plant. The experience, while valuable, was not what I was looking for and I decided that I wanted to explore the research side of mechanical engineering. Upon returning to school at the beginning of my junior year I talked to various mechanical engineering faculty about potential research opportunities, and after an informal interview process, I was offered a position in Dr. Erik Anderson’s lab.
What is the research you are conducting?
I work in Dr. Anderson’s biofluids lab conducting research on remora fish in collaboration with Dr. Brooke Flammang from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Our research is focused on the adhesion mechanisms of remora fish, which use a suction disk to attach to other fish in turbulent conditions. Using videos to analyze the attachment and detachment of a remora fish, we hope to be able to understand the mechanisms used by remora fish in order to create a better method of suction for whale tags. The research we are conducting is novel, as this is the first time that there has been a concerted effort from an engineering group looking at the suction disks of remora fish. A video that I took of the remora attaching and detaching to a surface is shown below.
Do you receive any form of compensation for your work, such as class credit or monetary compensation?
Grove City College awards mechanical engineering elective credit by considering the class as an independent study. Generally, research counts as one to two credits per semester. In order to receive class credit, you are required to develop a syllabus with your professor outlining what your goals are for the semester. Additionally, you must give an end of the year presentation to faculty and students to communicate your results.
What has been the hardest part of your research?
The hardest part of my research was the process of getting started, particularly learning to work and communicate with new people, as well as learning new software programs.
What has been the most rewarding part of your research?
The most rewarding part of my research was breaking new ground. It is exciting to see results, which I could then show to Dr. Flammang and together we would come up with a conjecture as to what was occurring and why. It makes the work I am doing in the lab applicable to real world problems.
What technical skill have you used most during your research experience? What non-technical skill have you found yourself using frequently?
The technical skill I have used the most is developing an understanding of the mechanics of how a fluid interacts with a surface and developing a logical process describing what is occurring. Specifically, I have had to learn how to write code in MatLab to analyze the movement of animals, the corresponding fluid reaction and to predict what would happen when similar events occur in the ocean.
The non-technical skill that I have used frequently is communication. I have learned more about public speaking and writing throughout my research experience than I have learned in any of my classes as a result of practice and experience through presentations and conferences.
Have you had the opportunity to present your research?
In addition to presenting my research at Grove City College I was selected to present my research at a biology and biomechanics conference in the fall of 2015. Using the communication skills I developed through this research experience, I was able to tailor my presentation to a biology focused audience and make it less technical. In doing so, I won the undergraduate presentation award.
My research has also been mentioned in numerous other conferences, and it is in the process of being published.
How does your research align with your classes?
Conducting research has allowed me to apply my knowledge that I have gained in the classroom to real world examples and problems. My classes helped me develop logic skills to think through problems and develop solutions. For example, I have learned how to apply the scientific method to a research question, I have learned how to determine and test different variables, hypothesize potential solutions and analyze variables.
Has your research experience shaped your plans for graduation?
My research experience assisted me to get a position at one of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) program at the University of Alabama the summer after my junior year. Moreover, it persuaded me to attend graduate school to pursue my Ph.D., which I will begin in the fall of 2016 at the University of Alabama. This research experience has opened many doors for me. And similar experiences are possible for any student at Grove City College.