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Research in the Rotunda event challenges students, offers valuable experience

Nine from UW-River Falls will join others to present their work at state Capitol March 8

March 2, 2023 - When Yihong Deng decided to get involved with a high-level research project to develop a biodegradable film used in packaging, she feared she might be getting in over her head when she agreed to participate in the Research in the Rotunda event. 

With only one year of chemistry classes under her belt, Deng, a UWRF senior from River Falls majoring in food science, didn’t think she had the lab experience to take on such a challenging endeavor. She knew the project would require more work than any of her previous coursework. It would also require a higher degree of independent research and problem solving than she had previously experienced. 

“With my previous experience level, I didn’t know if I was up to this,” Deng said as she discussed the process she and fellow student Sierra Kolodjski, a food science major from Bethel, Minn., partnered on for their Research in the Rotunda effort. “I really didn’t know if I could do it.”

Now, eight months after starting their project last summer, Deng and Kolodjski and seven other UW-River Falls students will join others from across the University of Wisconsin System at the state Capitol in Madison on March 8 to showcase their Research in the Rotunda projects. Students, joined by their faculty mentors, will discuss their research in the rotunda with lawmakers and others who attend the public event.

Other UW-River Falls students doing research projects include Diego Theisen, Cierra Kirkwood, Dylan Jensen, McKinley Davis, Emma Etten, Beth McIlquham, and Sophia Cobian.

The annual event is intended to communicate some of the high-level research that UW System students and faculty do on campuses across Wisconsin. UW System educators and Board of Regents members praise the event as a great way to showcase the important research of students and faculty, work that often has real-world implications. 

That could certainly be the case for Deng’s and Kolodjski’s project. The duo combined a part of plants that gives them structure with whey, a leftover waste product in the production of cheese, and glycerol to form a biodegradable film for packaging. If it can be more fully developed, the product could be used to replace plastic film commonly used in packaging. The packaging film could even be an edible product and could be antibacterial. 

“It’s pretty amazing to be working on a product that could one day have such a major impact in our society,” Kolodjski said. 

Developing the film was anything but easy, Deng and Kolodjski said. They worked repeatedly to create the best conditions to develop the film, a painstaking process that at times required them to check on it hourly. Monitoring their project while maintaining their busy class schedules was a challenge that required near-constant communication and teamwork, they said. 

Another difficulty involved the extremely precise measurements that were needed for their project. Especially when monitoring water vapor, “we were measuring very, very small amounts,” Kolodjski said. 

In addition, the time-intensive, research-heavy project at times stretched the students’ schedules, they said. 

“Doing this project with all of our already busy schedules was a lot,” Kolodjski said. “We had to stay on top of things and make sure we were balancing it all.” 

Youngmi Kim, agricultural engineering technology associate professor, and Grace Lewis, food science assistant professor, watched Kolodjski and Deng work arduously on their research project. The faculty members said they admire their students' commitment to their work. 

“This is certainly a more in-depth experience than a typical class,” Kim said. “It is much more work. It is graduate-level research. To see Sierra and Yihong work so hard, and be so exacting, it has been really remarkable.” 

High-level work 

Student advisers for other UW-River Falls students participating in this year’s Research in the Rotunda event offered similar sentiments about the diligence and high-level research of their mentees. 

On Wednesday afternoon Psychology Professor Travis Tubre talked with Thiesen about the poster he created to share depicting his research project.

For his project, Theisen, a psychology and business administration major from Minneapolis, researched the impact on job reviews/ratings of an employee informing their employer that they have a diagnosed mental health condition. He measured that impact on both low- and high-performing employees. 

His results show that while a mental health revelation has little impact on how bosses treat high-level workers, it provides employees who tend to produce lower-quality work a higher degree of grace. That result contradicts most past research on the topic, a factor Tubre attributes in large part to growing awareness about and acceptance of mental health concerns. 

“You’ve done some really outstanding work on this,” Tubre told Theisen during their discussion. “This research has the potential to start to change thinking about this topic.” 

Like other UW-River Falls students participating in the event, Theisen said the project has ramped up his research skills, his ability to multitask amid a heavy class load, and allowed him to look more deeply into a topic. The project also has helped prepare him for future research and graduate school, he said.

“Being able to lead a research project like this showed me the initiative that would be necessary to succeed in a graduate program. I feel much better prepared going into graduate school having research experience,” Theisen said. 

Kirkwood, a UWRF senior from St. Cloud, Minn., expressed similar sentiments. The high-level work required of research projects – hers measured the amount of lead, copper and zinc in western Wisconsin wetlands – has prepared her well for a job after graduation or for graduate school, she said. 

“This project was a lot of work, and it is high-level work beyond what you would normally expect in the classroom,” said Kirkwood, an environmental science major. “These projects are a credit to the kind of work going on at the campuses across Wisconsin. UW-River Falls is small, and that’s exactly what I love about it. Because of its size, we get to know our professors on a first-name basis. We get to work closely with them on quality research projects like this, on graduate-level work as an undergrad.”

Another valuable lesson Kirkwood and other students said they learned was that oftentimes research doesn’t yield expected results. Students said their research often presented challenges in the form of results they didn’t anticipate or challenges in simply obtaining data. 

“There are all kinds of unexpected challenges that come up, and you have to learn how to get around them and be a problem solver,” Kolodjski said. “Along the way you realize that not getting the answer you were looking for is a big part of research. But that has value too, because it leads your work in other directions.” 

Jill Coleman Wasik, environmental science associate professor, served as Kirkwood’s adviser for Research in the Rotunda. Among the most valuable parts of the project is the personal growth she sees in students who are part of it.

“I’ve definitely seen growth in (Kirkwood’s) presentation skills, in her confidence in presenting the material,” Coleman Wasik said. “I’ve also seen her start to ask the important questions, the kinds of questions you need to ask to do important research. It’s really important for students to see themselves that way, to understand that they too can ask important research questions, and that is what this program helps develop.”

‘Excited for the opportunity’

Students who are part of Research in the Rotunda said they have had opportunities to present their research to various groups in recent months. But next week’s stage at the state Capitol will be bigger, with an audience of state lawmakers who could enact policies based on students’ research. 

Some of the UW-River Falls students who will be there said they have never visited the state Capitol. They said they’re excited at the prospect of being a part of the event and grateful for the opportunity to discuss their research. But most acknowledged at least some trepidation at discussing their work with politicians.

“I have mixed feelings,” Deng said when asked how she feels about discussing her project with others in Madison. “I am definitely excited to present my work. But I am nervous, too. I don’t know what kinds of questions to expect.”

Kolodjski acknowledged nervousness as well, saying “when it comes to the political side of this, I haven’t discussed it to that audience before.” Still, she said she is excited about the opportunity to educate others about her work. “I think it will be a good learning experience,” she said. 

Theisen said he is motivated by the chance to present to legislators “who might find this information very relevant.” He has presented his work many times previously, to many different groups. But this time feels different, he said. 

“This is a very professional event where I feel like I have to bring my A game,” he said, “and I’m very excited for the opportunity.”

Photo: UW-River Falls students Sierra Kolodjski, left, and Yihong Deng conduct work on their Research in the Rotunda project. The duo seeks to develop a more resistant biodegradable packaging film that could be used instead of plastic on a mass scale.

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