Learn how NAU student researchers are changing the world at the annual Undergraduate Expo and Symposium

April 18, 2019

At Northern Arizona University, research is open to every undergraduate in every discipline, and at the 2019 Undergraduate Expo, which runs from April 17-28, the NAU and Flagstaff communities are invited to meet students from every college as they present the results of their research projects.

The weeklong Expo is a showcase of undergraduate research in the arts, business, education and the humanities. The flagship event of the Expo is the 11th Annual Undergraduate Symposium from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 26 at the University Union/Fieldhouse, where more than 1,000 students come together to share their creative discoveries and present in-depth research and scholarly work. Symposium activities include poster presentations, exhibits, performances and demonstrations.

Come to the Expo and Symposium to meet students who are changing the world, one discovery at a time, including:

  • Anthropology and biology major Taylor Lambrigger, who uses isotopic analysis to identify human remains in forensic cases
  • Biomedical sciences major Jordan Ojeda, who works to prevent cancer by promoting screenings among men in the Hopi community
  • Nursing major Mia Ornelas, whose research focuses on protecting substance-exposed newborns and their mothers
  • Exercise science major Joseph Espinoza, who studies environmental toxins in the drinking water in his hometown of Yuma
  • Business management major Giulia Paulet, who develops simulation games to improve instructional design for management education

Taylor Lambrigger: Anthropology and biology major seeks to restore humanity through chemistry

Undergraduate researcher Taylor Lambrigger’s work is about using chemistry to restore humanity to unidentified individuals. Lambrigger, double majoring in anthropology and biology, works in bioarchaeologist Corina Kellner’s stable isotope lab. Funded by a Hooper Undergraduate Research Award grant, Lambrigger is testing unidentified human remains in collaboration with the Coconino County Medical Examiner’s office. When broken down to an elemental level, human remains can tell an origin story.

“You are what you eat, what you drink and where you’re from,” Lambrigger said. “Isotopes embed into your enamel and bone every time you eat or drink something. We can grind those up and look at the ratios of those isotopes and we can tell what you ate and where your water came from.”

Lambrigger is working with samples of human remains from the Coconino County Medical Examiner’s Office. The samples consist of small amounts of bone or tooth that she crushes and processes using different kinds of chemicals. Once they have been processed, Lambrigger can identify the amounts of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, strontium and lead in the samples. From that, she can extrapolate where the person was from. The carbon, oxygen and nitrogen analyses are being done in house at the NAU Colorado Plateau Stable Isotope Laboratory in Wettaw, while Lambrigger and Kellner are collaborating with Frank Ramos of the Department of Geological Sciences at New Mexico State University for the strontium and lead analyses.

“It works well with ancient populations because they were pretty stagnant,” Lambrigger said. “But with globalization, we’re testing the utility on these remains.”

The method has been used successfully. In 2005, human remains found in Ireland were tied to a missing man after isotopic evaluation showed he had emigrated from Africa. Governments use the process to identify the remains of soldiers.

Lambrigger, who is president of NAU’s Model United Nations club, hopes to someday work with mass grave excavation and remains repatriation.

“These people have had their humanity taken from them in horrible, violent ways, and if there’s anything I can do to give that humanity back or to help healing occur, then I want to help.”

The opportunity to write a grant and get funding for research as an undergraduate has been transformative for her.

“I’m unbelievably grateful for the chance I’ve had to do what I’m doing,” she said. “Where else can I get $3,500 for a project that I’m the principal investigator on? That’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

Jordan Ojeda: Biomedical sciences major takes cultural approach to cancer prevention

The first time he drove to the Hopi reservation, undergraduate Jordan Ojeda found himself in an unfamiliar landscape. Unlike the Phoenix suburb where he grew up, the reservation has no fast food restaurants or super stores, and the streets have only a single lane in either direction. But as soon as Ojeda began to interact with the Hopi men who are the focus of his research project, he realized they had a lot in common.

“It’s showed me that we’re not all that different,” he said. “We do things culturally different, but at the end of the day we’re all humans.”

He quickly bonded with one man over a love of boxing. Some of the elders reminded him of the wisdom of his grandparents. And many of the men displayed a familiar machismo.

“I come from a Hispanic background, so there’s definitely a level of machismo in my family,” he said.

Over the past two years, Ojeda has been part of a research project seeking to increase the rates at which Hopi men are screened for colorectal cancer. While Hopi men have some the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the country, they also have some of the lowest screening rates. As with most cancers, early detection saves lives.

The project, headed by public health researcher Priscilla Sanderson, is called Namitunatya—Hopi for “taking care of yourself.” Sanderson, an associate professor of health sciences, guides student researchers like Ojeda as they study Hopi culture and test different methods of reaching out to Hopi men to encourage them to undergo screenings.

Ojeda’s work included extensive background research into Hopi culture in addition to conversations with Hopi men. The more he got to know the men, he said, the more he was motivated to help.

“Hearing their stories just makes me want to work harder and try to get these cancer screening rates up,” he said.

Based on his research, Ojeda carefully crafted messages promoting cancer screening to use in radio advertisements and on posters that were placed around the reservation. He said the lessons he learned about culturally appropriate and respectful communication will be invaluable in his future career.

The biomedical sciences student plans to attend medical school and become an anesthesiologist with a sub-specialty in pain management. Ojeda’s ultimate goal is to open a pain management clinic where he can help people suffering from chronic pain find relief. In that capacity, he said, he’ll need the communication skills and the depth of understanding he developed as part of the Namitunatya project.

“My experience with undergraduate research has just been wonderful. I’ve loved every single second of it,” Ojeda said. “Being able to talk to people that are culturally different from me, and just being able to relate one-on-one, has been awesome. I’ve loved it.”

Mia Ornelas: Nursing major helps babies by helping moms

Initially, Mia Ornelas’s research project focused on problems faced by infants born to mothers who used drugs during pregnancy. Based on her findings, however, the scope of her research expanded.

During her first semester on the project with faculty mentor Laura Karnitschnig, she compiled health department data and found drug-exposed babies with expected low birth weights and developmental delays.

“Second semester, we addressed the correlation between maternal drug use, intimate partner violence and postpartum depression because we realized you can’t really help the baby until you address the factors that are causing the baby to be exposed,” Ornelas said.

The data she gathered repeatedly underscored the association between abused and economically disadvantaged women and drug use and depression and revealed the need for prenatal care for at-risk moms.

“I think we can all agree that the children obviously need help, but we also came to the conclusion that the moms really need help, which is a difficult thing for people to address because addiction has so much stigma behind it.”

Ornelas is a nursing major, and her research experience has underscored her belief that every patient deserves the same level of care and empathy. She hopes her research will lead to changes in care for pregnant women—care that will ultimately result in better outcomes for their babies.

“You can’t really help the baby by just treating it after birth,” she said. “Helping the mom leave a dangerous home environment and treating her own mental health—that can help the baby and the entire family dynamic can be changed by that.

Treating both the mom and the baby can make profound impacts. It’s not as easy as taking away these children because the mom uses drugs. These women have the potential to be amazing mothers; they just need help with themselves first in order to be good mothers.”

Joseph Espinoza: Mom’s cancer diagnosis makes research personal

Fate? Coincidence?

“I don’t know what to call it, but I feel like I have to do something about it,” Joseph Espinoza said. “ I have to try to find some answers.”

In 2018, Espinoza experienced an unexpected confluence of his personal life and his work as an undergraduate researcher. Espinoza, who grew up near Yuma, was accepted into the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program. He also learned his mother had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Espinoza had joined a research project—led by ecotoxicology professor Frank von Hippel and health sciences professor and founding director of the Center for Health Equity Research Julie Baldwin—focused on the effects of the chemical perchlorate in the Colorado River, Yuma’s source of drinking water.

Joseph Espinoza in a lab

Perchlorate is a chemical used in explosives, rockets, air bags and many other products that, in certain concentrations, causes hypothyroidism in people and animals. This project is investigating whether higher levels of perchlorate in drinking water could be connected to an increased incidence of thyroid disease.

When he learned of his mother’s diagnosis, Espinoza’s relationship to his research took on a new dimension. Though his mother is now cancer-free, the implications of the research project, for his family and people in his town, were profound.

“We’re collecting data on health issues from patients at the Yuma Regional Medical Center and the Regional Center for Border Health,” Espinoza said. “We’re trying to see if there are any issues with the thyroid in general, because in Yuma there is a history of contamination with perchlorate.”

While the research has not yet produced definitive results, the experience has underscored for Espinoza that his NAU education includes much more than amassing theoretical information. He’s doing real research that can have a tangible impact on the people he loves, his hometown and beyond.

Giulia Paulet: Business management major finds unexpected depth of learning possible through simulation games

Giulia Paulet has strong feelings about academic simulation games. Strong negative feelings.

“As soon as I find out there’s a simulation, I want to drop the class,” she admitted.

So it was ironic that when Paulet decided she’d like to do research, the management major found herself involved in a research project to assess the effectiveness of a business management simulation.

She is working with NAU instructor Geoffrey Dick in The W. A. Franke College of Business as part of the Interns-to-Scholars program. The research project surveys students when they complete a management simulation to assess what part of the program worked and what could be improved. Paulet distributes and collects the surveys and compiles the data for Dick, who can then refine the simulation based on feedback from the students.

Two years into the project, she’s also taking the course in which Dick uses the simulation. For her, it’s been a revelation into the potential power of a simulation.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I genuinely played it and I was like, ‘Yes! This is what needs to be in the classroom.’ Now it all has a meaning; it’s not just words on a paper.”

The experience has given her a unique view into how similar simulations can provoke drastically different responses. She credits Dick’s years of surveying and tweaking his simulation program with its success as a learning tool.

With a well-run simulation, she said, the learning happens at a much deeper level. Dick’s simulation involves putting students into groups with each group managing a virtual bottled water company.

“One person’s looking at financial statements, one’s looking at marketing, one’s looking at profit loss, one’s changing prices and looking at inventory—all of these things are being done at once. You’re making quick decisions and putting in place everything you’ve learned from previous classes; everything’s moving very fast. It felt awesome. Awesome.”

Based on the decisions of the group, the company either performs well or it doesn’t. But since it’s all virtual, there’s no downside, just a great opportunity to take risks, fail, learn and apply knowledge. Thanks to her research and her experience with the course, Paulet believes there’s hope for other simulations.

“I think if everyone who has a simulation in their class would look at this research, and see what they can modify in theirs, we could make it better.”

In March, Paulet traveled to an academic conference on business simulations in San Diego to present two papers based on this research.

Expo events are free and open to the public

All Expo events are free and open to the public, including:

  • April 17-19: Student Water Symposium, an annual student-organized event where undergraduate and graduate students from all disciplines have the opportunity to share their research and collaborate on water resources issues.
  • April 17-28: NAU’s School of Music presents the Student Artist Series, recitals and concerts performed by undergraduate and graduate students on instruments including violin, piano, oboe, trombone, viola, voice and more as partial fulfillment of their respective requirements for a degree in music.
  • April 18: Industry Engagement with Academic Researchers, a workshop featuring panel discussions focused on industry engagement.
  • April 24: NAU President’s Distinguished Speaker Series presents Jaime Casap, Google’s Chief Education Evangelist. The topic of the talk is “Generation Z and the Future of Work.”
  • April 26: The 11th Annual Undergraduate Symposium, which includes poster presentations, exhibits, performances and demonstrations.