Senior physics major Lauren Samson (pictured at left) earned the Top Presenter Award at the 2021 Sigma Xi Student Research Conference for a summer research project tackling a pressing environmental concern.

Titled “Using Self-Assembled Monolayer (SAM) Peptides as Biosensors for Soluble Uranium-oxide,” the project was a collaboration when Samson and her mentor, Carolina Ilie (pictured on right) of Oswego’s physics department, participated in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Summer Research Program -- a  highly competitive Research Experiences for Undergraduate program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

The program allows talented students like Samson to learn more about research and academic work while tackling important problems, in this case potential uranium contamination of drinking water that impacts rural Western Nebraska and beyond.

“A lot of the water in this area is drawn from Ogallala Aquifer, a Great Plains aquifer that also feeds a lot of the Midwest and West,” Samson explained. “Existing methods of testing are expensive, and for a lot of farming families, it’s not affordable for them.”

“This uranium in the soil is natural, left over from glacial and volcanic deposits, but the concentration of soluble uranium-oxide is increasing due to the frequent use of nitrate-based fertilizers,” their research abstract noted. Ingesting more than 30 micrograms per liter can cause kidney damage and potentially cancer, the World Health Organization noted, so finding an efficient and affordable form of testing was the team’s goal.

“We decided to explore a proof of concept that used peptides that bind with uranium, and we found that it works,” Samson said. Peptides are naturally occurring short chains of amino acids, which are more plentiful for this use, and they successfully bonded with uranium in these tests to show the presence of the dangerous element.

In addition to Ilie, co-authors of the award-winning presentation included Esha Mishra, Cody Schultz, Rebecca Y. Lai and Peter Dowben from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Dowben once was Ilie’s mentor, so she is happy to continue paying it forward by having her students for several years take part in this experience.

“It is a big opportunity for undergraduates interested in going to graduate school and doing research as a career to get the flavor of it, to see if it’s something they want to do,” Ilie said of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln program. 

For Samson and fellow Oswego participant Katherine Shene, this opportunity meant learning many things inside and outside laboratory work.

“Graduate school is not just doing research but learning how to become a professional,” Samson said. “You have to learn how to present yourself, whether you’re going into academia or industry.”

Opportunities to succeed

An Oswego native, Samson has continued to see first-hand what an outstanding educator can do. In Oswego High School, her physics teacher Thomas Altman used a lot of objects and experiments that got her excited to study physics. The nearby college with its strong science program, Shineman Center facilities and opportunities for undergraduates has been a perfect fit.

Ilie said Samson has flourished in this atmosphere, thriving in additional opportunities such as presenting a poster at the Women in Physics Conference in October 2021 and potentially presenting to the American Physical Society Conference -- one of the largest physics conferences with more than 12,000 scientists from all over the world -- in March.

The Sigma Xi Annual Conference and Research Meeting, Nov. 4 to 7, themed “Responsible Research for a Flourishing Humanity,” is an annual celebration of student scholarship and research excellence at the national level, so Samson earning such a prestigious award is a testament to her abilities and the college’s academic excellence.

“I’m extremely proud of Lauren,” Ilie said. “Lauren is laser-focused, very grounded and knows what to do. And she does it extremely well. I see a big future for Lauren.”

“Carolina Ilie has been outstanding,” Samson said of Ilie as a teacher, advisor and mentor. “She has opened so many doors for me.”

Ilie is happy to open those doors whether with the program in Nebraska or with conference opportunities, where “I notice Oswego is ahead of many other places, and we clearly love our students and help them succeed,” she said.