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Dakota State student presenting at international science conference

November 1, 2016

Dakota State University student Hope Juntunen has been invited to present her undergraduate research work at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) World Congress/North America Meeting in Orlando, Fla., scheduled Nov. 6-10.

Her presentation — “Characterizing Toxic Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Emissions from Sewage Sludge Wastes Disposed in the Temperate Rainforests of the Puget Sound Watershed Under Environmentally Relevant Temperature Regimes” — will report findings of her research aimed at understanding environmental impacts of large-scale land disposal of municipal sewage sludge wastes within the sensitive rainforests of the Puget Sound watershed.

The international scientific conference will include about 5,000 scientists and 3,000 posters and presentations, according to Dr. Michael Gaylor, assistant professor of chemistry and Juntunen’s research mentor at DSU.

“It is a rare opportunity for an undergraduate to be invited to give a platform paper at an international scientific meeting of this stature,” Gaylor said. “This is an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity for Hope. Her work shines a light on DSU and our science programs on a truly global scholarly stage.” said Gaylor.

Juntunen, who is part of the General Beadle Honors Program at DSU, worked last summer as an undergraduate research fellow at The Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Chemical Evolution in Atlanta, where she tackled cutting-edge research problems in chemical evolution and pharmaceutical chemistry.

A junior from Hayti, Juntunen describes her research interest in pharmaceutical chemistry by drawing an analogy to making a cake.

“I told my grandmother that she mixes together ingredients to bake a cake. I mixed together ‘ingredients’ to make medicine,” Juntunen said. “It’s extremely complex science. Comparing to a cake in everyday terms helps people understand the basics.”

Juntunen chose DSU with plans to play intercollegiate volleyball, to complete a bachelor’s degree in biology education and to teach at a high school. She started working in the university’s science labs and discovered a new passion and a new career path.

“I’ve always been interested in how things work and making new discoveries,” she said. “Working in the labs fuels my curiosity.”

The signature moments as an undergraduate student have included an environmental chemistry and toxicology course and a chemistry class project that created acetylsalicylic acid, commonly known as aspirin.

The new career path points to graduate school and a Ph.D. in science, perhaps in environmental or organic chemistry. Today, she continues her work in the science labs and also serves as a tutor for all of the DSU science and math classes.

Juntunen last month was named second runner-up for her presentation of two distinct research posters at the Sioux Valley American Chemical Society (ACS) Annual Undergraduate Chemistry Research Symposium Poster Competition at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. She was the only student among 15 to present more than one poster. The award includes $500 intended to defray the costs of her travel to present her research findings at a major international ACS research conference.

Juntunen’s posters were entitled “Study and Synthesis of Sialic Acid RNA Precursors” and “Assessing the Utility of Low Density Polyethylene Plastic Strips to Passively Sample Product-Associated Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Emissions to Indoor Air.” Both presentations detailed the findings of her experimental efforts in two very distinct areas of chemical inquiry.

The competition attracted outstanding chemistry undergraduate students from the region, many of whom will be applying to graduate schools and medical schools, Gaylor said. He described Juntunen’s studies as “contributing significantly to our understanding in these areas.”

“Her first poster presented corroborating evidence that simpler nucleic acid polymers could have plausibly preceded the emergence of ribonucleic acid (RNA) as the first information coding molecules in the earliest cellular life forms,” Gaylor said of the first poster topic. “Her second poster presented evidence that volatile organic chemicals with known and suspected toxicities are emitted from building materials to indoor air within DSU buildings.”