The Art of Science: Student/faculty artwork enhances science building

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager at Penn State Behrend

Science and the arts might seem to be very different disciplines, but the scientific method and the creative process are quite similar; inquiry is at the heart of each.

“People sometimes think science is about memorizing facts, but it’s really about making discoveries and wringing answers out of nature,” said Dr. Pam Silver, associate dean for academic affairs and distinguished professor of biology. “When you have a scientific question, it takes a lot of creativity to find the answer to it.”

Scientists are, by nature, creative individuals and the School of Science has recently added two works of art that visibly illustrate that.

Ties that bind

A colorful quilt, titled “A Way of Knowing,” was created by Silver and hangs in Hammermill Hall. Each color in the quilt represents a scientific discipline taught at Behrend—biology, chemistry, environmental science, nursing, physics, and mathematics and mathematics education. A spiral in the quilt represents the net movement of scientific discovery from observation to hypothesis to testing to understanding.

Furthermore, the underlying geometric design “symbolizes that the building blocks of science are not individual disciplines, but rather the discoveries to be made by merging diverse ideas, points of view, and approaches to form a strong and unified way of knowing with the goals of wisdom and the power to enact that wisdom,” Silver said.

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“A Way of Knowing,” by Dr. Pam Silver, associate dean for academic affairs and distinguished professor of biology, hangs near the stairwell in Hammermill Hall. 

Math in flight

High overhead at the entrance of Roche Hall, is another work of art—a stage-5 Sierpinski tetrahedron that models a fractal with infinite triangles—created by the School of Science Math Club under the direction of club president Thomas Galvin  and Dr. Joe Previte, associate professor of mathematics.

“A fractal is a self-similar structure with recurring patterns at progressively smaller scales,” Previte said. “Fractals are useful in modeling natural structures such as plants, coastlines, or snowflakes.”

Some natural objects appear to be completely random in shape, but there is an underlying pattern that determines how these shapes are formed and what they will look like, according to Previte. Mathematics can help us to better understand the shapes of natural objects, which has applications in medicine, biology, geology, and meteorology.

Students built the fractal using Zometool construction parts. It consists of 2,050 white balls and 6,144 red and blue struts. Learn more about fractals at www.mathigon.org/world/Fractals

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A stage-5 Sierpinski tetrahedron created by the School of Science Math Club hangs above the entrance to Roche Hall. 

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Guest Post: Alternative Spring Break in Puerto Rico

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Last week, two dozen students and four advisers from Penn State Behrend participated in an Alternative Spring Break service trip to Puerto Rico. The group helped residents recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Maria, a category 5 hurricane which devastated the area in 2017, causing billions of dollars in damages and claiming nearly 3,000 lives in Puerto Rico. Here is a reflection on the week’s activities from one of the participants.

By Alex Siernerth

Junior Marketing major, ASB board member and ASB trip participant

On our first day in Puerto Rico, we stopped at a local BBQ for lunch and had our first taste of Puerto Rican cuisine, which was wonderful! We stopped at a local Walmart for some supplies, then headed to the camp to get settled. We stayed at Campamento Yuquibo which was in the El Yunque National Forest.

On the second day of the trip, we began our service. We headed to a part of the El Yunque where Hurricane Maria had stripped the natural canopy from parts of the forest. Strong grasses and vines took over the hiking trails. We worked to remove the excess brush to expand the trails.

On the third day, we split into teams to paint houses that had suffered external damage from the hurricane. One team rolled a fresh coat of orange onto a home, while another worked to paint a new house, which was built after the hurricane destroyed the original home.

The fourth day was spent finishing up the painting of the orange house and cleaning up. Another team painted the kitchen of a nearby home where the walls had been re-plastered due to water damage. The final group spent the day working on landscaping.

Our last day of service was spent at the Natural Reserve Cabezas de San Juan. We learned lot about the post-hurricane reforestation efforts that are being undertaken to revitalize the plant and wildlife in the area. We helped to tag young trees and tend to the newly planted ones by spreading mulch and watering them.

On our cultural day, we were able to explore coral reefs and learn about the ecosystem that they exist in. Snorkeling in the beautiful Puerto Rican waters allowed us to get an up-close-and-personal feel for the sea creatures and other wildlife. A friendly dolphin even paid us a visit.

We had a few hours before leaving for the airport, so we explored Old San Juan.

It was such an amazing experience being able to meet and interact with the kind, resilient people of Puerto Rico. The Behrend students took every opportunity with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts.

We are grateful to all the donors and others who made this service trip possible.

 

Student puts marketing claims to the test

Are “eco-friendly” ice-melting products really better for the environment?

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Dr. Sam Nutile, assistant professor of biology, left, and Megan Solan, a senior Biology major.

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

Most consumers want to do the right thing. Marketers know this, which is why they use words like “eco-friendly,” “organic,” and “all-natural” on packaging and in advertisements for the products they are selling. But, unless there are government standards attached to those labels—and, in many cases, there are not—these claims can be misleading at best, flagrantly false at worst.

Case in point: Megan Solan, a senior Biology major, recently completed a study of the effects of road salt products on aquatic insects. Solan compared the toxicity of traditional road salt to three other products that are marketed as being more “eco-friendly.” Her research produced some surprising results.

“We conducted a series of ten-day tests with midges, an invertebrate that spends its larval stages in freshwater ecosystems,” Solan said. “Midges are commonly used when testing chemicals that have the potential to contaminate freshwater habitats because they are generally pollution-tolerant. So, if something affects midges, it will likely affect all of the more sensitive species as well.”

Solan worked on the project under the guidance of Dr. Sam Nutile, assistant professor of biology.

“Interestingly, Megan found that the eco-friendly formulations as harmful or worse for the aquatic insects than traditional salt were,” Nutile said. “Megan’s research is interesting because it represents a disconnect between scientific study and application of the results in society, demonstrating the need for scientists to learn how to bridge this gap.”

Solan recently presented her work at the 39th Annual National Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Conference. She along with Nutile, and Dr. Adam Simpson, assistant professor of biology, and two other students attended the gathering in Sacramento, California, where Solan’s poster presentation won first place in the undergraduate division.

Not only did Solan return to Behrend with the top poster award for her work, but she also made several new professional contacts in her field.

“I met many wonderful scientists and spoke with some of them about the graduate programs at their schools,” she said.

Solan plans to pursue a Ph. D. in environmental toxicology, which represents a slight curve from her original career plan.

“I initially chose biology because I was going to go to medical school, but after getting involved in this project, I realized that I am passionate about researching environmental issues.”

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Dr. Sam Nutile, assistant professor of biology, left, and Megan Solan, a senior Biology major. 

When You Give an Engineer a Problem….

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

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Valerie Zivkovich and Olivia Dubin, seniors majoring in Plastics Engineering Technology.

Engineers are problem solvers by nature. So it should come as no surprise that when faced with a recycling conundrum, students in Penn State Behrend’s School of Engineering saw an opportunity.

The quandary

China, which is the largest consumer of recycled material from the United States, has significantly reduced the amount and types of material it will accept and introduced strong restrictions on contamination, i.e. trash mixed in with recyclables.

This has forced a wave of changes in the U.S. recycling industry.

“Waste Management has had to adjust the way it recycles materials to ensure those materials pass through numerous quality checks and has also found it necessary to pass on increased costs to customers, including Behrend,” said Randall Geering, senior director of business and operations. “The impact of these changes is being felt everywhere, not just on our campus.”

The bottom line: Recycling is becoming harder and more expensive for consumers and businesses to do and unprofitable for material recovery facilities.

It is not hard to see how this could lead to complete breakdown in the recycling system.

Seeds of change

Recycling and the waste generated by landscaping containers is what led Valerie Zivkovich, a senior from Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, to the Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) program at Penn State Behrend.

“I worked at a vegetable farm in high school, and we were constantly throwing out plastic containers that the plants were in,” Zivkovich said. “We couldn’t reuse them because of potential contaminants in the soil, and I understood that, but I thought there had to be a better way. I wanted to develop a better plastic for agricultural use.”

Zivkovich and her capstone project partner, fellow PLET senior Olivia Dubin, had heard the uproar from the Penn State Behrend community about the prospect of no longer recycling and realized the campus could recycle its own plastic bottles.

At a campus-wide meeting with Waste Management officials, Zivkovich and Dubin presented a proposal to collect, clean, and pelletize bottles into raw material that could then be used to create new products.

“Basically, we’ll collect plastic bottles—primarily PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and PP (polypropylene) such as pop bottles, Starbucks cups, etc.—then grind them up into tiny pellets and use or resell them to a vendor,” Zivkovich said.

They worked on their initial plan with Jason Williams, assistant teaching professor of engineering.

“I think this could work because we already have most of the equipment and skills in our plastics department,” Williams said. “We are unique in that we have both a plastics factory and a research facility. This combination of resources makes Behrend a great place to test something like this.”

Waste Management agreed and awarded the students a $3,000 Think Green grant to help get the program going.

“The recycling industry is changing, and it’s going to take projects like this one to help identify different markets for material,” said Erika Deyarmin-Young, public affairs coordinator at Waste Management.

Williams is excited about the possibilities.

“I think this initiative is a valuable teaching tool and a demonstration of how engineers can make things better,” he said. “It will also give us tools we can use to study ways to handle post-consumer waste. I think there is a lot of research opportunity in developing automatic sorting technology and material handling of plastics.”

“As PLET majors, we learn about the impact and importance of recycling,” Dubin said. “We are excited to have come up with a solution that our whole campus could be involved in.”

It takes a village

The first step, Zivkovich said, is spreading the word about what can and can’t be recycled and the importance of rinsing containers before tossing them into the recycling bin.

“There definitely needs to be a campus-wide education campaign,” she said. “We need to teach others how to recycle properly with information sessions, posters, and clear signage on the collection containers.”

“We want students to get involved with every aspect of the recycling process,” Dubin said.

Other priorities include finding more funding and securing workspace. “We need a new grinder and that’s $45,000,” Zivkovich said. “We’re applying for grants to find that funding. As for lab space, we think the Merwin building in Knowledge Park would be ideal.”

Another important part of the equation: volunteers from all four schools.

“We don’t want this to be a project only for PLET or engineering students,” Williams said. “This is an opportunity for students across the college to get involved with these recycling efforts.”

Zivkovich plans to reach out to the college’s sustainability program and Greener Behrend club for help securing volunteers to sort and collect plastics.

“Whatever major you are in, you’ll deal with recycling somewhere—at home, at work, in your community,” Zivkovich said. “This effects all of us whether you work in the industry or not.”

United Way Internship Offers Communication Major Experience, Career Confidence

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

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Carlie Bright, far right, a senior communication major, did a summer internship at United Way of Erie County.  Also in the photo are, from left, Jana Ranus of Wegmans, Donald Snyder of Curtze Food Service, and Lisa Fischer, United Way campaign accounts manager. The three women were awarding Synder, a United Way donor, with a “prize surprise” Wegmans shopping spree.

Carlie Bright, who was born and raised in Erie, thought she knew her hometown. Then she did a summer internship at United Way of Erie County.

“I developed a whole new understanding for the community I grew up in,” Bright said. “It was very eye-opening for me. There are a lot more people struggling than I ever knew.”

Bright, a senior communication major at Penn State Behrend, worked as a marketing and communications intern for the nonprofit agency, which serves as a coalition of charitable organizations. Bright won a stipend from Behrend’s Academic and Career Planning Center, which made the three-credit experience free for her.

“Unpaid internships, like the one that I did at United Way, can be difficult for students to manage, so the stipend really helped,” she said.

Bright worked three days a week from May to August and said every day was different.

“There was no typical day because nonprofit communications departments are usually run by a few people who are faced with a wide variety and number of tasks,” she said. “But no matter what I had on my plate on a given day, I was almost always involved with website updates, scheduling social media posts, and clipping or collecting any media mentions United Way had received.”

She got to try her hand at designing flyers and creating content for electronic newsletters. She also assisted in the planning and preparation of many community events, including National Night Out, an anti-violence community initiative that took place in twenty locations on one night.

“Many of the events and activities that I was involved with were moving and inspiring,” Bright said.

The experience was also enlightening.

“Overall, the internship tied in very well with my career goals and objectives, as well as with my degree and coursework,” Bright said. “I was able to see firsthand how communications and marketing tie into every department in any business or organization. I also learned that communications professionals wear a lot of hats. Personally, I loved constantly having so many things to do.”

Students Save a Seat for Women in History

Lilley Library art exhibit invites remarkable women to the table

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

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“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

This quote by author Virginia Woolf sums up the invisibility of women in the collective history of the world. Overshadowed by the accomplishments of men, few females have made it into the history books. And, yet, women have made their presence known in every aspect of human existence from art to banking to the military to the board room and beyond.

In 1979, feminist artist Judy Chicago gave thirty-nine women a seat at the table in her masterwork “The Dinner Party,” a giant sculpture that imagines famous women from myth and history engaged in conversation.

The installation art, which took more than five years to produce, is composed of thirty-nine ornate place settings on a triangular table with thirteen plates on each side. An additional 999 women’s names are written in gold on the floor. The piece toured the world, gaining an audience of millions; it is now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum.

Closer to home, you’ll find another dinner party happening in the John M. Lilley Library.

Students in last spring’s WMNST 106 Representations of Women in Literature, Art, and Culture taught by Dr. Sarah Whitney, assistant teaching professor of English and women’s studies, painted plates to honor a women from a wide variety of backgrounds. The students’ work is on display in the gallery space near the entrance to the library.

“For this project, students researched a woman of their choice who made significant contributions,” Whitney said. “They designed and painted on china as Judy Chicago did, using color and shape creatively to demonstrate the chosen figure’s importance. Students also wrote a reflection paper exploring their figure’s historical, and personal, impact on the artist.”

Some of the plates honor women you might expect, such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author Maya Angelou, and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony.

Others are more surprising.

Molly Boniger, a junior English major, chose to honor Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

“The purpose of ‘The Dinner Party’ was to recognize women who history had forgotten and I wanted someone who was unconventional, even by today’s standards,” Boniger said. “Pavlichenko has an incredible story. She is a young woman from a Ukrainian village who became the Soviet Union’s greatest sniper during World War II. She showed that woman can be hard and strong, and they don’t have to be the delicate, soft things that society would prefer we be.”

Boniger is an aspiring screenwriter who took WMNST 106 to learn what she suspected she was missing.

“The class was amazing,” Boniger said. “I could not believe the amount of exposure I received and just how much women’s contributions to art and culture have been excluded from the narrative we’ve all been taught.”

Whitney was pleased with the range of women and topics that students picked.

“The plates reflect a diversity of choices, which is wonderful,” Whitney said. “I especially enjoyed learning about new women from our international students whose choices spanned the globe. Furthermore, some students chose mythical or fictional figures, such as Shakti, which were also quite enlightening.”

Among the women represented are: Coco Chanel, Cleopatra, Julie Andrews, Lynsey Addario, Ellen DeGeneres, Chihiro Ogino, Miley Cyrus, Emma Watson, Pasang Lhamu, Athena, Amy Winehouse, Billie Jean King, Marilyn Monroe, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, and Janis Joplin.

Not all of the plates honor people.

Junior biology major Caitlin Kent, chose to celebrate the essence of womanhood and give a nod to her future career as an obstetrician/gynecologist.

“I painted a uterus as the center of the universe to represent a feminine divine force or a female creator,” Kent said. “All life stems from women. On my plate, one ovary is painted as the sun and one as the Earth to center the uterus as the birthplace of the universe.”

The plates are simple porcelain and students used a china paint, just like Judy Chicago, to adorn them.

“Using hands-on materials to make historical events come alive is a key part of my teaching practice in general,” Whitney said. “I think using manipulatives is particularly important in studying ‘Dinner Party’ both because it is a visceral, intense piece, and because Chicago was intentional about using traditional women’s art practices, like china painting and embroidery, to honor forgotten female artists. By doing it, you sort of experience Chicago’s process.”

Kent and Boniger gave the project, and the entire course, high marks.

“I think WMNST 106 is a class that all people can benefit from,” Boniger said. “These women’s histories are all of our histories. The class covers such a range of subjects, I can guarantee that any student taking it will learn something new, and enjoy doing so. It’s about time we start bringing women into the conversation and including them in the history they have helped create.”

“My Dinner Party” will be on exhibit in the Lilley Library until October 26. Whitney would like to acknowledge the help of the Lilley librarians, and Scott Rispin, assistant teaching professor of art, who helped to assemble the display.

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Curiosity leads to opportunity for nursing student

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

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Efua Crentsil, senior nursing major

Has your curiosity ever led you down a rabbit hole? It starts with reading something online and then you have a question, so you open another browser window and Google it. Next thing you know, you’ve lost forty-five minutes of your life researching how almonds grow (on trees!) or how spiders survive winter in northern states (in eggs!).

An inquisitive mind is an asset for students when it’s channeled toward topics in their field of study. A need to know more can lead to opportunity.

It did for Efua Crentsil, a senior nursing major, whose interest in a class project spilled into independent summer research work, which led to an invitation to present her work at two different industry events.

Crentsil, a native of Ghana, began researching whether nurses preferred to work with nurse practitioners or with physicians and what impact that had on their job satisfaction for her NURS 200W Principles of Nursing Research and Evidence-Based Practice class. The project piqued her interest and she continued working on it after the class was over.

“I wanted to know more and look deeper at the subject,” she said. “Dr. Alison Walsh (assistant teaching professor of nursing) had been asking if any nursing students wanted to develop a research project, so I told her I’d be interested.”

Walsh says Crentsil exceeded expectations. “She took her evidence-based class project and continued to develop it into a systematic review—Job Satisfaction in Registered Nurses: The Effect of Working with Nurse Practitioners Compared to Physicians.”

While Crentsil did not receive academic credit for her research work, she was rewarded with an invitation to present her work at the Annual Scientific Sessions of the Eastern Nursing Research Society in New Jersey.

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That invitation, in turn, led to a second opportunity to speak at UPMC Hamot Hospital’s Research Symposium in Erie where Crentsil won the Student Award for her work, which came with a $250 education scholarship.

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Crentsil said she used existing data from four online databases to do her research work, but that next she would like to collect her own research data.

“I did informal polling and observation while I did an internship at The Cleveland Clinic this summer, but I primarily relied on existing data,” she said.

Crentsil said her research showed an 80/20 percent split with the majority of nurses reporting higher job satisfaction working with nurse practitioners than with physicians.

“This was mostly due to communication,” she said. “Nurses felt that nurse practitioners listened to them more and gave them more independence and respect. Those who reported higher satisfaction in working with physicians said they preferred doctors because they tended to be straight to the point, more confident, and more knowledgeable than nurse practitioners.”

Crentsil has reason to be interested in nurse practitioners and research: She sees both as potential career paths.

“I wanted to be a nurse practitioner, but now I’m considering being a nursing researcher because if institutions can see why they should make changes, they’re more likely to do so,” she said. “The research has to be done first.”

Crentsil, who graduates on Friday with a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing and a minor in women’s studies, is currently considering several job offers. She plans to stay in the United States for a few years and return to graduate school after she gains nursing experience.

Crentsil is a recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship, the Penn State Behrend Chancellor Scholarship, and a Special International Grant-in-Aid (SIGIA). “I am so thankful,” she said. “I truly would not be here if not for this financial support.”