The Value of Hands-On Research at Loyola University Chicago

By Erinn Connor, Anna Gaynor & Drew Sottardi, Loyola University Chicago

Jon Barber and Jason Moon conduct research on microgreens in the Ecodome greenhouse at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability (Photo by Heather Eidson)

Jon Barber and Jason Moon conduct research on microgreens in the Ecodome greenhouse at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability (Photo by Heather Eidson)

Throughout the year, Loyola University Chicago students conduct research to advance their education and gain valuable hands-on experience. This work is celebrated every April during the Weekend of Excellence, which includes a program of research symposia, awards ceremonies and a student performance. 

In virtually every corner of the University—from medical labs to outdoor gardens, and even art museums—Loyola students are making a difference with their research.

Taking on Cancer
The world of cancer research is constantly looking for fresh ideas in the ongoing fight against the disease, which is the second leading cause of death in the United States. For the first time last year, undergraduate students from Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus had the opportunity to contribute to research through the Oncology Research Institute’s internship program at the Health Sciences Campus.

Their internships involved intense lab work alongside graduate and Ph.D. students—valuable hands-on experience for science undergraduates still considering their post-graduation options.

“This was an opportunity to build strong bridges between campuses,” said Michael Nishimura, Ph.D., co-director of the Oncology Research Institute and professor of surgery at the Stritch School of Medicine. “We always think students from the Lake Shore Campus will never come here, but these are students who are motivated and [will] do what they need to do to get valuable experience.”

For their projects, students took on a small piece of ongoing research in their mentor’s lab. This ranged from learning more about the mechanisms behind a type of leukemia to figuring out how to harness T-cells.

Undergraduate student Thomas Bank worked in the lab of Wei Qui, Ph.D., an assistant professor of surgery in the division of surgical research. Qui’s lab focuses on hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer that causes an estimated 27,000 deaths each year.

Bank’s project involved studying the role of ATP6V1C1, a gene that helps to regulate the pH level of a cell. It is also thought to play a role in cell transformation, tumor formation, and cancer cell metastasis. Bank found that by knocking down ATP6V1C1, or reducing the gene’s ability to express its function, liver cancer cell growth and invasion could be decreased. This research could eventually lead to the development of a new treatment drug.

Internship organizers are hopeful that the program will eventually be available every summer.

“We really wanted to get together with the basic sciences students and improve their opportunities for research,” said Patrick Stiff, M.D., co-director of the Oncology Research Institute, division director of hematology and oncology, and Coleman Professor of Oncology. “We wanted them to be able to use the knowledge they gained in the classroom to do real-world, first-class cancer research.”

Jon Barber trims microgreens inside the Ecodome as part of his research for a STEP course (Photo by Heather Eidson)

Jon Barber trims microgreens inside the Ecodome as part of his research for a STEP course (Photo by Heather Eidson)

A Sustainable Solution
Research the problem—and then go solve it.

If it sounds challenging, that’s because it is. Yet students each semester in the Solutions to Environmental Problems (STEP) class study, develop and enact a service project to address a local environmental issue.

“It’s not like a lot of other classes I’ve taken in that it’s not really about taking tests or writing papers,” said Jon Barber, an environmental science major. “You have freedom to actually choose what you want to do and pursue that.”

During his freshman year, Barber noticed that much of Loyola’s outdoor urban agricultural spaces go unused during the cold months on campus. So he decided to research ways to extend the growing season into winter.

With a group of students, he experimented with simple crops like sprouts and microgreens to learn how they could grow in different spaces—from small indoor areas like a home kitchen to large greenhouses like the University’s Ecodome. The group hopes its research will shed light on easy and affordable methods to grow fresh produce at home during the winter.

“I don’t think there’s any other class, especially if you’re an environmental science major, that’s like it,” said Jason Moon, Barber’s group partner. “Most classes are lecture-based. [Here], you get to be more hands-on in creating change in the world because you get to do your own project to try and solve the problem.”

The class’s other projects include raising student awareness of Loyola’s composting initiative and developing a curriculum for a local elementary school’s healthy living program. Many changes on campus have originated from STEP, which has served as the catalyst for the Biodiesel Lab and the Loyola Farmers Market.

Tamara Franco, a student in Loyola’s Department of Anthropology museum studies internship course, works on the upcoming exhibition, Wayang: The Art of Indonesian Puppetry at Loyola University Museum of Art (Photo by Natalie Battaglia)

Tamara Franco, a student in Loyola’s Department of Anthropology museum studies internship course, works on the upcoming exhibition, Wayang: The Art of Indonesian Puppetry at Loyola University Museum of Art (Photo by Natalie Battaglia)

Bringing Art to Life

Thanks to the work of several students, the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) and the Department of Anthropology will make you rethink puppetry.

Most people think of children’s television shows when they hear the word “puppet,” but in reality, the Indonesian pieces on display at LUMA are part of a tradition dating back to the 10th century.

“It’s fun because this isn’t something, at least from my experience, most people really know about,” said Liz Bajjalieh, an anthropology major. “I’m taking this little shadow puppet from a little corner of the world, so an entire other world of people can experience it.”

In addition to shadow puppets, known as wayang kulit, the new LUMA exhibit will showcase wayang golek, hand-carved wooden puppets. Students have taken on every aspect of putting together the exhibit—from researching the pieces, writing display text, and designing displays.

“Part of me is excited because this is the first time that a project I’ve done in an academic space isn’t just within the confines of the classroom,” Bajjalieh said. “This is applied. This is somewhere where Loyola students and LUMA’s neighbors will actually see my work. I get to educate people.”

LUMA’s curator, Natasha Ritsma, first approached Catherine Nichols, Ph.D., a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, about having students create and develop an exhibit featuring pieces from Loyola’s May Weber Ethnographic Study Collection.

Christian Franck, a student in the Department of Anthropology’s museum studies internship course, holds a puppet that will be in Loyola University Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibition on Indonesian puppetry (Photo by Natalie Battaglia)

Christian Franck, a student in the Department of Anthropology’s museum studies internship course, holds a puppet that will be in Loyola University Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibition on Indonesian puppetry (Photo by Natalie Battaglia)

“This has been a wonderful opportunity for a nice partnership between our department, this collection and LUMA,” said Nichols, who instructs the course, Internship in Anthropology: Museum Studies. “Many of these objects have been displayed in museums before, but now our students have the opportunity to become the curators.”

The big challenge is what Nichols calls “contextualizing” each piece. That means understanding the character as well as its role in Indonesian culture and storytelling. Teaching lessons about history and morality, these performances are a normal part of social life in Java, the island where these puppets came from.

Meg Ruddy, an art history major who wanted to learn more about art conservation, hopes that she can make the wayang pieces more relatable to museum visitors.

“It’s very cool how much effort went into [their] detail and color—the color especially,” Ruddy said. “When they’re in use, you’re not going to see the color. You see the shadow that it gives. I love seeing that so much time and care went into the construction of something that viewers may not even ever see. I think that shows a real passion of the artist, which I appreciate.”