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An earthquake rumbles through, leaving noticeable destruction in its wake – crevices in the earth, toppled vehicles, crippled roadways and, of course, crumbled buildings. But what of those left standing, the buildings positioned on shaky ground still at risk of collapsing?

A solution to that damage is the subject of a collaborative study among Trustee Scholar Trish Sumpf ’07 (Perkasie, Pa.) and several faculty members.

Sumpf is working with Laurie Caslake, assistant professor of biology, and Mary J.S. Roth ’83, professor and head of civil and environmental engineering, as part of Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Caslake and Roth received a National Science Foundation grant in 2004 to support this research. Their project, titled “Exploratory Research in Microbial Remediation of Liquefiable Soils,” is examining what happens when bacteria are introduced into the soil beneath buildings weakened by earthquakes. The research is proof-of-concept, meaning that the researchers are unsure whether their work will yield results that will fortify earthquake-damaged structures.

The possibilities, however, are promising.

“What I really like about it is it’s a lab research project that is very applicable, which is why I’m a biology major in the first place,” says Sumpf. “So much of biology can be applied in real-world settings like that.”

They are introducing bacteria into groundwater to investigate if they will form biofilms within the sand beneath the buildings and strengthen them. Biofilms form when bacteria attach to surfaces exposed to water. They are conducting their experiment in sand-filled tanks. Sumpf’s responsibilities include growing the bacteria, adding them to the tanks, and measuring the strength of the final product.

Roth says the project is proceeding with great potential.

“It was progressing very well for the first three trials, though we had contamination issues for the fourth trial,” she says. “We’re certainly looking to publish a paper on the results.”

The experience will benefit Sumpf when she attends medical school and fulfills academic and career goals. Caslake points out that extensive lab work is critical for students hoping to attend medical school.

“She’s terrific – very dependable and very conscientious,” Caslake says. “She’s a good team player.”

For Sumpf, the opportunity to participate in the EXCEL Scholars program has been challenging and rewarding.

“I think the EXCEL program is a great opportunity,” she says. “It was one of the things I remember noticing when I was visiting here as a high school student. You really have a chance to get involved in a research project, not just observe it. We’re getting to do independent work while still having a close relationship with the faculty as mentors.”

Sumpf tutors Hispanic children with the Landis Community Outreach Center’s Inglés Número Uno program. She also is a hospice volunteer, member of Alpha Phi sorority, and part of the Health Day committee. As a writing associate, she tutors her peers to help them develop strong college writing skills. She is a graduate of Pennridge High School.

Caslake has included more than a dozen Lafayette students in her research since joining the faculty in 1999, with a number of projects focusing on microorganisms found in polluted bodies of water. Several students have coauthored papers with her that have been published in academic journals, and many of her student collaborators have shared their research at conferences such as the annual meetings of the American Society for Microbiology and the Pennsylvania Academy of Science.

Roth was recently named an ACE Fellow by the American Council on Education. She received a Fulbright grant to study with scientists at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, Oslo, in 2000-01. In 2002, she received an NSF grant for research on improving methods of investigating sites located in sinkhole areas. One of Roth’s top priorities as an educator is including students in her research projects. She has co-authored more than 15 articles and conference papers with student researchers. Roth was named Engineer of the Year for 2000 by the Lehigh Valley chapter of the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers and 1999 Engineer of the Year by the Lehigh Valley section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. She received Lafayette’s Marquis Distinguished Teaching Award in 2002 and James P. Crawford Award for excellence in teaching in 1999.

Selected from among Lafayette’s top applicants, Trustee Scholars like Sumpf have distinguished themselves through exceptional academic achievement in high school. They receive from Lafayette an annual minimum scholarship of $7,500 ($8,000 effective with the Class of 2009) or a grant in the full amount of their demonstrated need if the need is more than $7,500.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty students have been accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News