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By Jessica DeLeón

As University of North Texas Honors College senior Corina Gomez searched for a thesis topic in her Philosophy of Water class, she turned to her teacher, Irene Klaver, for inspiration.

Yong Tao

Honors College senior Corina Gomez, left, was inspired by Irene Klaver, professor of philosophy and religion studies and director of the Philosophy of Water Project, to investigate the effects of the Trinity River beautification project on the residents of Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood. The Honors Research Track pairs students with faculty mentors.

Photo by: Jonathan Reynolds

Klaver, professor of philosophy and religion studies and director of the Philosophy of Water Project, suggested that Gomez, whose parents are from Mexico, look at how the Latino population has been affected by water issues. “I never thought about the issue that way,” Gomez says.

The topic — in which Gomez examined how Dallas’ beautification of the Trinity River affected residents of the city’s Oak Cliff neighborhood — proved to be a good choice. She presented her findings with other undergraduates at the annual University Scholars Day, and her paper was published in The Eagle Feather, the annual research journal of the Honors College.

Gomez is just one of many Honors College students who are guided by faculty mentors in their research — a requirement of the Honors Research Track. Thanks to UNT’s professors, students have participated in research projects from beginning to end and gotten a head start on their future careers.

“Honors College students are talented, accomplished and motivated. They are seeking the best academic and intellectual experience,” Honors College Dean Gloria Cox says. “We believe that opportunities to acquire research skills and engage in scholarly work in their discipline are essential components of that experience.”

Water Issues

Gomez learned about the social, cultural and environmental effects of water in Klaver’s class. She says she was inspired by Klaver’s involvement in water issues, including her position as European ambassador for water and cultural diversity for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“She just works constantly to make things better,” Gomez says. In suggesting Gomez’s thesis topic, Klaver noted that when cities beautify rivers and waterways, the surrounding land often becomes more valuable, drawing in people with higher incomes and affecting longtime residents — in the complex process known as gentrification.

Gomez pored over newspaper reports and property values to study the impact of the Trinity River Corridor Project in Oak Cliff — once considered a “rough” neighborhood and now one of the hipper communities of Dallas.

She found that property values did not increase as much as she thought they would, but some businesses may have been affected negatively. For instance, the owner of a botanica, selling medicinal herbs and religious items to the Latino community, worried he would have to change locations after his neighbors were offered money to move away.

Klaver noted that Gomez’s interest in water issues has included recruiting students to clean up a Denton creek as part of a Stream Clean event sponsored by Keep Denton Beautiful. Gomez volunteers each semester as part of the requirements of her UNT Multicultural Scholastic Award.

“She hears about issues, researches them and creates an informed plan of action,” Klaver says.

After she graduates in the spring, Gomez hopes to pursue a master’s and law degree in environmental policy.

“I feel like I will make a difference through the work that I do,” she says.

Breakthrough Drugs

Clifford Morrison and RobbyPetros, assistant professor
of chemistry, work on a better process for synthesizing therapeutic molecules

Clifford Morrison and Robby Petros, assistant professor of chemistry, work on a better process for synthesizing therapeutic molecules.

Photo by: Jonathan Reynolds

Robby Petros, assistant professor of chemistry, told Clifford Morrison that if his research didn’t go the way he thought it would, he could learn from it. In fact, they may have stumbled on a molecule that could help develop other drugs.

“We just opened the door for something new and exciting,” says Morrison, a senior majoring in chemistry and biochemistry.

Morrison and Petros were investigating a process for synthesizing a prodrug form of the molecule Sunitinib, which can keep pancreatic cancer tumors from easily bringing in new blood vessels to support their growth. Prodrugs are inactive compounds that, when introduced to the body, can turn into medicinal drugs.

But along the way, the researchers found a better way to synthesize another type of molecule, medium-ring diaza heterocycles, than had previously been reported.

“Instead of just synthesizing one therapeutic molecule, we are hoping this synthetic process could lead to a variety of therapeutic molecules that could each potentially serve a different purpose,” Morrison says. “These could be the next cancer cure, the next aspirin, the next useful medicine.”

As a McNair Scholar, Morrison logged 400 hours of work in Petros’ lab over the summer, and he served as president of Alpha Chi Sigma, the professional chemistry fraternity, and as a peer mentor for chemistry students. He also has earned a Terry Scholarship and is part of the Emerald Eagle Scholars Program.

Morrison plans to pursue a doctorate after he graduates in 2014 and a career in metabolic engineering. Petros believes Morrison has the right characteristics for that field.

“He is very persistent,” Petros says. “That’s one of the major traits you need to be a researcher.”

Binge Drinking

“We don’t just collect data. We participate in every step of the research process.” — Alexandra Ruuska, junior psychology and biology major in the UNT Honors College

Junior psychology and biology major Alexandra Ruuska’s thesis began with an email that “proved to be a golden ticket.”

Cox sent out a list of research opportunities that included a project with Victor Prybutok, Regents Professor of decision sciences, about how effective three videos with varying presentation styles — comic, serious and informational — were in persuading students not to engage in binge drinking. Ruuska was eager to work on a study from inception to publication.

“We don’t just collect data,” she says. “We participate in every step of the research process.”

The study, conducted under the guidance of Prybutok and his wife, Gayle Prybutok, a doctoral student in the College of Information, examined how likely students were to change their drinking behavior or share a particular video with friends.

Alexandra Ruuska and Victor Prybutok examine binge drinking among college students

Alexandra Ruuska and Victor Prybutok, Regents Professor of decision sciences, examine binge drinking among college students.

Photo by: Jonathan Reynolds

Ruuska will use the data for her Honors College thesis, specifically comparing Honors College students to non-Honors College students. Mark Vosvick, associate professor of psychology and director of the Center for Psychosocial Health Research, where Ruuska is an undergraduate research assistant, is mentoring her for that study.

Ruuska reviewed the existing literature on college binge drinking, chose the videos and obtained the approval of the UNT Institutional Review Board, which authorizes all studies at UNT that involve human subjects. She also recruited 560 participants.

“There’s an intellectual curiosity and alertness that makes her unique,” Prybutok says. “She works hard.”

Ruuska, an aspiring psychiatrist, is presenting her findings at the Southwest Business Decisions Institute regional conference.

“The ivory tower casts a big shadow, but once you walk up to it with all its standards in mind, it’s not as daunting as it once appeared,” she says.

Developmental Physiology

Junior biology major Camilla Smith always has been a go-getter. She volunteered to help Dane Crossley, assistant professor of biological sciences, in his developmental physiology laboratory and he later agreed to mentor her for her Honors College thesis. “She’s committed and she’s interested in the outcome of the research and the day-to-day work,” Crossley says.

Camilla Smith and Dane Crossley study incubation conditions affecting alligators’ development.

Camilla Smith and Dane Crossley, assistant professor of biological sciences, study incubation conditions affecting alligators’ development.

Photo by: Jonathan Reynolds

Smith will be examining how different incubation conditions affect alligators’ growth, development and metabolic rate after they hatch. In particular, she will examine if oxygen consumption changes because of incubation conditions. Because the work may apply to vertebrates as a whole, it could lead to a better understanding of human diseases attributed to stress during fetal development. Smith will finish gathering the data this spring and plans to write her thesis this summer.

She previously worked with a research team from the study abroad organization The School of Field Studies, tagging and taking genetic samples of sharks in Turks and Caicos. As a freshman, she produced an informational booklet about bats while interning at the Houston Zoo.

That experience inspired her interest in conservation. Smith hopes to pursue a doctorate in marine biology with a specialty in shark biology and eventually work with animals at a zoo or aquarium. She says she appreciates Crossley’s patience, especially since she asks so many questions.

“I hope this project will give me the education, experience and skills I will need not only to get into graduate school, but also to be successful there and in my future career,” she says.

HONORS COLLEGE

Research with faculty mentors is just one of many elements of the UNT Honors College experience. The college, which with an enrollment of 1,900 is the largest in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is open to students with a high grade point average, class rank and SAT score. They take challenging courses and can choose to live in Honors Hall, a residence hall reserved for Honors College students.

Those who choose to participate in the research track may present their findings at conferences and at University Scholars Day in the spring, or be published in The Eagle Feather, the college’s annual journal, which celebrated its 10th issue in fall 2013.

Dean Gloria Cox notes that most Honors College students are committed to attending a graduate or professional school, and undergraduate research experience is vital to their success. The students also become candidates for major national and international awards.

But Cox says the Honors College does much more than prepare students for graduate study and career development.

“Honors College students take with them from UNT a fine academic record and a great intellectual experience, which are rewards in themselves,” she says, “and go out to realize their hopes and dreams.”

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