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DSU undergrads are lead co-authors on scientific journal article

October 22, 2018

View SDPB's interview with the students

The research efforts of most undergraduate science majors are often noted with a passing mention in scientific journal articles, said Hope Juntunen, a Dakota State University senior majoring in physical and biological sciences.

The research that she and some of her classmates have conducted however, garnered them lead authorships on an article recently published in the science journal “Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres.”

Juntunen is the lead PI (principal investigator) on the paper published September 2018; Lucas Leinen and Briann Pitts are also main authors.

Juntunen said “I never thought it would happen in my tenure here at DSU.” The senior from Hayti, S.D. is set to graduate in May 2019, and said, “to come out of here with a lead author paper is going to be very helpful to my future as a scientist.”

Five undergraduate students, including Juntunen, Leinen, and Pitts, began prebiotic chemistry research before attending a Gordon Research Conference in January 2018.

“The Gordon Conference was a prelude to this research,” said Dr. Michael Gaylor, associate research professor of chemistry. The feedback received at the conference resulted in an amazing new collaboration with another conference attendee, Dr. Laura Barge, who is a co-author on the article.

Barge is an astrobiologist and planetary geochemist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology; she is working on NASA’s Mars and Icy Worlds exploration missions. “Finding someone with her reputation to work with us has been a huge validation of what we’re doing here,” Gaylor said.

Juntunen took the lead on this project, volunteering her time to do the research, Gaylor said, “producing new results that don’t exist anywhere on the planet.”

Leinen and Pitts also volunteered their time on the project, working in the lab, and with article reviews, and reviewing future grant applications that will further develop the research concepts.

“This experience gets them more involved in that process so they become independent thinkers and can run their own projects,” Gaylor said. This is something that will be expected of them in graduate school.

To be a project lead means “there is definitely more of an expectation to produce your own data,” Juntunen said. Pitts added “You also learn time management, and persistence.” Juntunen agreed: “You definitely have to learn to prioritize your time, and find the wherewithal to keep going, but it obviously paid off.”

The three seniors hope their experience pays off when applying to graduate schools. Juntunen is looking at doctoral programs in biochemistry, chemical biology, or pharmacology at schools on the West Coast -- Washington, Oregon, or the San Francisco bay area, including Stanford, UC-Berkeley, or UC-San Francisco.

Pitts and Leinen are looking further west. One of the schools Pitts is applying to is Victoria University in New Zealand for a master’s degree in marine conservation. A biology major from Colman, S.D., Pitts spent her summer internship at the University of Hawaii where she researched native Hawaiian cave insect species. Leinen, a physical science major from Aberdeen, S.D., is looking at attending a graduate school in Australia for a Ph.D. in organic, biology, or environmental science. 

For these students to be applying to well-respected schools in and out of the country says a lot about the program, Gaylor said. “Students at DSU often go to predictable places given the nature of our programs,” he stated, “but it will be interesting to see where the outward-bound migration takes these students.”