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DSU students will be attending the Gordon Research Conference on the origins of life. Pictured are: Lucas Leinen (front left), Hope Juntunen, Vaille Swenson, Alexis Vander Wilt, Briann Pitts, along with. Dr. Gaylor, DSU chemistry professor, (back center).

Five DSU undergrads invited to Gordon Research Conference

Academics, Admissions, Beacom College of Computer and Cyber Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences

Five Dakota State University undergraduate students are starting 2018 with a rare opportunity, attending an international Gordon Research Conference on the Origins of Life.

Gordon conferences are based on the principles of free and open discussion of research at the frontiers of science, said Dr. Michael Gaylor, assistant professor of chemistry. The conferences maintain a set of core principles, including a “no publication” policy on ideas discussed at the meetings.

“The idea behind Gordon Conferences is to create an environment where scientists can freely think and talk about the most extreme possibilities in a number of scientific fields,” he stated.

Scientists, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows typically make up the 30,000 attendees at the 300 Gordon Research Conferences held each year around the world. A Gordon conference, he pointed out, “is generally not a venue for undergraduates.” However, after Gaylor participated in the 2016 Origins of Life conference, he was invited back to chair a session at the 2018 event, and was asked to bring some of his undergraduate students.

“Growing the Origins Research Field” is the title of the session he is leading at the conference, held in Galveston, Texas on January 14-19. Participants in this session will include Dr. Stephen Benner, distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, and Dr. Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s astrobiology program.

The session will also reference research from the five DSU undergraduates: Lucas Leinen from Aberdeen, S.D., Hope Juntunen from Hayti, S.D., Vaille Swenson from Nederland, Colo., Briann Pitts from Colman, S.D., and Alexis Vander Wilt from Mitchell, S.D.

The students all have different disciplinary backgrounds, Gaylor said, noting that four of the five students changed their majors to biological or physical science from other disciplines. This diversity is a benefit to the nature of origins research.

“The study of the origin of life occurs at an intersection of chemistry, physics, biology, geology, astronomy, and other fields,” reads the conference description. “Conversations between these fields yield new insight and correct biases that are often invisible to individuals operating within a single discipline.”

Leinen and Swenson discovered their past training in cyber fields helped with the computer modeling programs they use in their origins research.

“It feels like I’ve made a giant circle coming back to the skills of my first major,” Swenson said. “I didn’t think those cyber operations skills would come in handy, but if I hadn’t had the background in computing, I would not have known where to start with the modeling programs.”

Using his experience from network security, Leinen now sees how computer technology fits with scientific principles such as thermodynamics. “They come together almost seamlessly in the actual experimental realm,” he said. VanderWilt, a freshman computer science and math major, is also helping with the modeling.

The origins research is also expanding the students’ knowledge about research goals in general. Juntunen’s previous research experience has had a singular direction, while origins chemistry is a “wide-open frontier,” she said. The benchtop experiments that she and Pitts have worked on show how different projects can have a different focus.

“As we keep running samples and collecting data, we keep coming to new conclusions and new answers, which provoke new questions and a refocusing of your direction,” Juntunen said. This is a lesson in “how to narrow my view of research to one thing to get data.”

The scope of origins chemistry made an impression for Pitts, a former education major. “I did not realize how big the field of origins chemistry is.”

“Doing origins work in the undergraduate world is novel,” Gaylor said, but he has found a way to expand that opportunity to DSU students who will not attend the conference. Students in his fall organic chemistry lab performed some origins experiments. These served a double role, as a teaching tool for organic chemistry techniques, and as a method to generate useful data. “If this work develops into a paper, we will include all the lab students as authors,” said Gaylor.

Theoretical research can also reap benefits for society in general. Gaylor noted that “amazing things” such as LEDs (light-emitting diodes), artificial limbs, and infrared ear thermometers are technologies that resulted from NASA space program research. The same may be true of origins research.

“We initially ask the question of ‘how did life on Earth begin’ because we are curious beings and need to know how life evolved,” Gaylor said, “but all new knowledge and technologies serve a greater societal good, and can bring about practical benefits.”