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Juntunen to advocate for science on Capitol Hill

April 22, 2019

Could there be life on other planets?

Hope JuntunenDakota State University senior Hope Juntunen looked at this age-old question, and her origins of life research on the topic has been chosen by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) to be included in the annual “Posters on the Hill” session April 29-30 in Washington, D.C.

The mission of the Council on Undergraduate Research is to support and promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship, says its website cur.org. At this event and its related activities, members of Congress and their staff members learn about the importance of undergraduate research by talking directly with the student researchers involved in these programs.

“Undergraduate research at Dakota State University seeks to support and promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research, and scholarship,” said Dr. Pam Rowland, assistant professor of computer science and undergraduate research coordinator.

In addition, Juntunen sees herself as an advocate for science at this event. She has spoken to educated but non-scientifically trained audiences around South Dakota, but at Posters on the Hill “I will talk to people from all across the country about science, not just people from my hometown or people that I know.”

She will explain that her project is “a way to look at life on other planets,” said the Hayti, S.D. native. She was able to produce a compound that could be biologically active in different early-life settings, for example on Mars, and was able to show that a very simple system -- two compounds interacting at different temperatures -- was able to use this biologically-relevant compound.

For this project, she collaborated with Dr. Laurie Barge, a research astrobiologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Barge will be on campus April 23-25 to talk with students, and at a public presentation on April 24 at 6 p.m. in the Habeger Science Center Auditorium.

“DSU is proud of Hope’s determination, dedication, and excitement in the field of natural sciences. Hope is an exemplary representative of DSU’s undergraduate program,” said Rowland, a program which provided Juntunen with the opportunity to work on a variety of projects, giving her a broad skill set.

“The general scientific method is the same, and all projects require you to be creative and analyze data,” Juntunen stated, “but I have a very unique perspective on science compared to students at other major universities,” she explained. “With my diverse skill set, I’m able to interpret data and design experiments and projects on different types of science.”

Juntunen will be taking those broad-based skills to the University of California – Merced for graduate school this fall, working towards a Ph.D. in the chemistry and chemical biology division. After graduate school, she would like to spend some time working in industry, but her end career goal would be to teach at a smaller undergraduate institution “and inspire the next generation of young scientists.”