Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium funded student research this year

Brianna Bembenek, left, Ian Murray

A grant from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium funded two student research projects this year. Christina Othon, associate professor of physics, applied for the grant aimed at contributing to NASA’s research program “Examining Hydration Mechanisms of Osmolytes for Food Stabilization.”

The $9,500 award funded projects by Brianna Bembenek ’22 of Campbellsport, Wisconsin, who worked on a protein simulation study to study molecular interactions; and Ian Murray ’23 of Madison, Wisconsin, who worked on an automation programming project.

Othon offered the project opportunity to physics and computer science students.

“Brianna Bembenek is conducting a molecular docking simulation that tests for interactions between small molecules, known as compatible osmolytes, and protein systems,” Othon says. Bembenek used Autodock Vina, developed by researchers at the Scripps Research Institute. Her simulations were run on the MUC3 cluster at Hope College, part of the Midwest Undergraduate Computational Chemistry Consortium of which Ripon College is a member, and which is partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

“This is my first experience with the computational modeling of larger molecules, such as proteins and carbohydrates, as well as with writing scripts using coding programs,” Bembenek says. “By allowing me to expand the fields of research that I have worked with, this opportunity has provided invaluable experience that I hopefully can apply in graduate school and use in the future with a career in drug design. Currently, we have started data collection using Autodock after optimizing the research procedure and computer scripts. We also hope to begin data analysis very soon once this data is collected.”

Murray programmed mechanical stages and coordinated the data acquisition hardware to create an automated data acquisition program for ultrafast spectroscopy experiments. He says this work has improved his skills in programming by developing an algorithm with little outside help, as well as integrating different pieces of hardware. “Continuously trying a wide variety of methods to accomplish the tasks assigned to me was challenging,” he says.

The project also provided experience in programming in an independent environment, and he says this will be helpful for future projects.

The physics department’s research program provides research experiences in diverse academic interests including students interested in physics, chemistry, material science, biomedical research and computational sciences.

“COVID restrictions have allowed us to push the computational elements forward to complement the experimental research that has long been the focus of our program,” Othon says.

Jillian Heidenreich ’21
Monroe, Wisconsin