New Course Allows Rutgers University–Camden Students to Perform Original Research

Kimberly Nguyen, Raveena Khokhar, and Tiffany Lutz (l-r) hold their tulip poplar plants in Rutgers University-Camden's greenhouse.

Kimberly Nguyen, Raveena Khokhar, and Tiffany Lutz (l-r) hold their tulip poplar plants in Rutgers University-Camden’s greenhouse.

A new course at Rutgers University–Camden is allowing undergraduate students to design and test their own original hypotheses and publish their work in an online journal for student research.

“Research is a significant component of undergraduate education and experiential learning,” says Kwangwon Lee, an associate professor of biology at Rutgers–Camden, who is teaching the course “Principles and Practices of Biological Research.”

“The course is about encouraging students to come up with an original research idea on their own and come to conclusions using statistical data,” Lee says.

Lee says the course is a new component of a revamped biology curriculum with a goal of developing and enhancing research, critical thinking, and problem solving skills.

“In this course, I want my students experience what is like to be a research biologist by coming up with a good research topic, generating data, and presenting their results to the general public,” Lee says. “It is an ambitious class that will serve as a hallmark learning experience for biology majors.”

If their research projects produce reproducible data, the research groups will publish their findings in the Journal of Biological Sciences at Rutgers–Camden, an online journal published by and for Rutgers University–Camden students that serves as a forum to showcase their work to their peers and faculty members.

“Research allows us to take what we learn in class and apply it to our experiments,” says Raveena Khokhar, a senior biology major from Willingboro. “We’re hoping to inspire other students to pursue research because it could end up having a significant impact on their career path or in their field.”

Tim Salkowski

Tim Salkowski

Khokhar’s group is comparing how seedlings from native plants grow in native soil to how they grow in invasive or non-native soil. The research team is growing 28 tulip poplar trees — typically found in New Jersey — in Rutgers–Camden’s greenhouse, planting about half of them in non-native soil.

The students found that the trees simply don’t grow as well in the non-native soil due in part to the difference in nutrients and microbial organization in the two soil samples.

“Invasive species can disrupt the diversity in plants that we see in ecology, and that can be a bad thing for insects, animals, and for other plants,” Khokhar says.

Tiffany Lutz, a senior biology major from Collingswood who is working with Khokhar on the project, says there are many different variables that can change the outcome of an experiment during the research process, so in many ways, their lab acts as a living classroom that teaches lessons along the way.

“I think that unpredictability helps you fine tune your methodology,” Lutz says. “Even at this point, we’re waiting for our results, but something always comes up. As we continue to do research, that can help us better answer questions that arise.”

Alyssa Soorikian

Alyssa Soorikian

Tim Salkowski, a junior biology major from Palmyra, is also finding how research can take unexpected turns. Salkowski and his research partner, Alyssa Soorikian, a junior from Medford, are closely studying the behaviors and characteristics of the German cockroach and the oriental cockroach to determine survival rate as both species compete for limited resources in controlled environments.

The project will help the students determine why one species thrives while the other declines, as the oriental cockroach was displaced by another species in the southwestern United States.

“We’ve found that the German cockroaches reproduce more and develop faster, but the species evolved to build up a resistance to glucose,” says Salkowski, who feeds them sweets to help them survive. “The Germans were dying at a higher rate, so we’d have to re-do the study by feeding them something different.”

It’s all part of the learning process, Soorikian says.

“It’s part of the reality of research because what you have in your head that you think you’ll discover isn’t necessarily how it will work out,” she says.

Salkowski adds, “A lot of people think we just sit in a lab and have this eureka moment, but that’s not how it works. You learn so much through making mistakes. The best thing about this class is learning how science is actually done. We get to make discoveries on our own.”

The students will also present their work to their peers and to prospective students during Rutgers–Camden’s annual Biology Day, to be held on campus May 8 and 9.

“We want to get the students to a point at which they are comfortable doing research and where they publish and share their own original work, just as a scientist would,” Lee says. “We can motivate students to study harder and push them a little further and from there, they can embark on their own independent research projects, support graduate or faculty research, or pursue an advanced degree.”

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