Indiana State undergraduate students have ample opportunity to contribute to the world’s growing body of knowledge, while at the same time honing important skills and bolstering their resumes.
As she prepared to observe her first autopsy, Allie Christian felt a bit apprehensive.
But as the procedure got underway, Christian began to relax and take in all the hands-on knowledge she could from local forensic pathologist Roland Kohr.
“Throughout the autopsy, when Dr. Kohr was showing us the heart and the kidneys, I realized they didn’t really look like they did in the textbook,” said Christian, now a third-year nursing student at Indiana State. “It’s cool to put those connections together and see what you learned about on a real person and exactly how it affects them.”
Intrigued by the reactions and learning outcomes of students like Christian, nursing professors Emily Cannon and Renee Bauer set out to study the value of using autopsies as educational tools. The findings of their research were recently published in the Journal of Forensic Nursing.
Across campus, students are benefitting from their involvement in faculty research projects, both as subjects and as co-researchers. At Indiana State, students have ample opportunity to contribute to the world’s growing body of knowledge, while at the same time honing important skills and bolstering their resumes.
“The exposure to and participation in various stages of research is incredibly beneficial,” Cannon said. “Our students are able to examine research studies, perform some stages of research and, at times, serve as research subjects. The experiences that are provided to our students show them that research is not difficult and that they can study anything that is interesting to them.”
Nursing students at State have been attending autopsies conducted by Kohr for several years. Cannon and Bauer noticed students talked extensively about the autopsies afterward and realized they could conduct useful research into using the procedure as a teaching tool.
Several themes emerged when Cannon and Bauer analyzed the data they gathered from anonymous surveys. Students were often surprised by their own strong emotions, and many reported that the autopsy was a more useful tool for learning human anatomy than a textbook. The majority of Sycamores surveyed said they would recommend the experience to others.
Cannon and Bauer said they hope their findings are useful to other nurse education programs, as well as to working nurses who may benefit from observing autopsies.
“There are a lot of people who may not even be aware that there’s a pathologist or physician in their community performing autopsies,” Cannon said. “Nurse educators might explore some alternative learning opportunities.”
This project also highlighted to Sycamores the vast variety of topics they can explore through research. Cannon said she believes this study helped students realize that research can be creative and align with their interests — and that it’s not boring.
“Students may grasp that there are many ways to perform research and disseminate findings and that they can perform research on topics that are interesting to them,” Cannon said.
New therapy for stroke patients
Alberto Friedmann wants to reinvent stroke rehabilitation — and Indiana State students have the opportunity to help him achieve that goal.
Friedmann, an assistant professor of exercise science, is conducting groundbreaking research into a new form of therapy for stroke patients. Although stroke is the No. 1 cause of disability in the United States, Friedmann says there’s been very little research into helping patients who are in the chronic stage of recovery, which occurs more than four years after the stroke.
This new method, which is based on the dynamic systems theory for motor learning, essentially mirrors the way that children learn to perform complex movements.
“The bulk of this therapy is things like playing pattycake or tossing a ball back and forth — all the fun games we play with kids,” he said. “All of these games are about kids learning their physicality, learning how to move your body and control that movement, which is exactly what stroke patients need.”
Since the therapy doesn’t require its practitioners to be doctors or physical therapists, it will likely be cheaper and more accessible to stroke patients.
After publishing the results of a successful case study in the prestigious journal Medicine, Friedmann is now working on a larger study involving nine stroke patients and hopes to expand his work even further in the coming years.
Friedmann said he hopes to involve Indiana State students in his research by training them to administer the therapy as he measures its effectiveness with a much larger group of stroke patients. Depending on the results of future studies, Friedmann said he could see the method becoming part of Indiana State’s curriculum in the next decade.
“The idea is that someone could graduate from our program with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a certification in stroke rehabilitation and be able to do this method at a YMCA or local athletic enter,” Friedmann said.
For students, the benefits of participating in Friedmann’s research are abundant. They learn about the neurology and neuropathology of stroke, how the research process works and how to design a long-term recovery program. They also learn how to interact with patients, which can help them in their future health, wellness and exercise careers.
“Participating in research, working with researchers, getting into the field and working with patients, that’s where the passions come from and where you get an idea of what you want to do with your life,” Friedmann said.
Research as a teaching tool
Guoping Zhang, professor in the department of chemistry and physics, partners with student researchers on a number of different projects, working with three or four Sycamores each semester.
Students gain various technical abilities while working with Zhang, but they also learn a number of broader life lessons. He encourages them to present their findings at conferences, which helps them build confidence and public speaking skills that will prove useful at job interviews and in their careers.
Since much of his research is funded by federal research grants, he also implores them to be ethical, both inside the laboratory and out.
“This is taxpayer money,” Zhang said. “You always have to remember that. It’s important to be very ethical and responsible to society.”
Zhang also tells his students that with hard work and a good idea, anyone can succeed in research. As a pioneer in the field of femtomagnetism, which aims to revolutionize the speed of data storage, Zhang is proof that innovation can exist at any university, big or small. Case in point, the U.S. Department of Energy has awarded Zhang’s lab roughly $1.1 million over the past 12 years.
“It doesn’t matter who you are — if the project is unique, you can engage the students, get them excited. It’s really wonderful,” Zhang said.
Tyler Jenkins, a senior studying physics and computer science, has been working with Zhang to study the effects of olive oil on Alzheimer’s patients. Using a computer program, Jenkins designed a series of models to investigate this idea.
He presented his initials findings at an American Physical Society conference last year, as well as at a recent on-campus research event. Inspired by the Alzheimer’s research, Jenkins is considering graduate programs in biophysics after he finishes his undergraduate studies at State.
“It’s a good experience being able to learn from Dr. Zhang and give these talks,” Jenkins said. “It’s important to be able to communicate what I’m doing, why I think it’s important and what types of results I’ve gotten.”