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UW-Stevens Point science students delve into research projects

As Jason D'Acchioli, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, spent his summer supervising a small group of student researchers, he was reminded of his 5-year-old son.

"He has no preconceived notions of danger," D'Acchioli said. "Students are very eager and have no preconceived notions of what chemistry is. They just kind of do stuff."

The stuff D'Acchioli's students are doing is meaningful. Alexandra Eschmann, Eugenia Wulff-Fuentes and Chelsea Mueller are contributing original research that could one day lessen humans' dependence on petroleum. They are three of the many UW-Stevens Point students working on summer research projects funded by a variety of grants.

"Summer is our most productive time because we can focus on the project. During the year we're trying to carve out five hours in a week," D'Acchioli said. "Every summer we learn from what the students have done before that."

Students apply theories and concepts learned in the classroom to find real-world answers in the lab.

"Undergraduate research is a transformative experience," D'Acchioli said. "A classroom is the place where we provide students with the tools for thinking. Undergraduate research is where we use those tools to build something extraordinary."

D'Acchioli conceived his project several years ago. He noticed that a certain combination of chemical compounds and water transforms the water. It produces hydrogen as a byproduct at room temperature with less energy than some industrial compounds. His research team is working to make the process catalytic, producing hydrogen gas that can be harvested and collected.

Eschmann and Wulff-Fuentes, both in pre-veterinary medicine studies, became part of the team when they signed up for their first lab experiences. Synthesizing osmium and ruthenium compounds has been a far cry from what they learned in introductory courses D'Acchioli teaches.

"In general chemistry, it's pretty basic stuff," said Eschmann of Kenosha, who like Venezuela native Wulff-Fuentes will be a sophomore this fall. "Now we're doing more complicated work in the lab."

Mueller, a senior majoring in chemistry, is working on a theoretical project involving oxidation states. They also are learning from each other.

"We have group meetings every Friday where we talk about what we have done for the week," said Mueller of Stevens Point. "I ask them 'What did you get out of this?' trying to help them understand the theory side of it.' It's fun."

Ruby Klish (pictured right) and Steven Kreul (pictured left), also of Stevens Point, have been tackling a different a research question posed by Heather Molenda-Figueira, assistant professor of psychology. Bisphenol S (BPS) has replaced the banned Bisphenol A (BPA) in certain plastic products. Her research team is exploring whether the replacement compound is harmful to mental health and how it affects rats in utero.

Klish and Kreul were part of a team that presented the project at this spring's College of Letters and Science Undergraduate Research Symposium, which highlights student research for campus and the community. They received good feedback from attendees.

"People were really interested because this affects everybody," Klish said. "With BPS, they're switching it out with something they don't really know the effects of yet."

Molenda-Figueira hopes to analyze data and compile results from the research project this fall. Until then, Kreul and Klish will continue to perform tasks such as cleaning lab rats' cages and testing the animals' reproductive cycles and anxiety levels. Both Klish and Kreul are interested in continuing to work in research and possibly teach after completing degrees in psychology.