Isaac Anderson, Clay Bibby and Grace Oswald.
Isaac Anderson, Grace Oswald and Clay Bibby, left to right, spent summer 2023 advancing their studies through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs). They are Honors students at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).
Courtesy Isaac Anderson, Grace Oswald, Clay Bibby

Three undergraduate Honors students at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) – Isaac Anderson, Clay Bibby and Grace Oswald – spent summer 2023 advancing their studies through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs). UAH is part of the University of Alabama System.

The REU program, according to the UAH website, “supports active research participation by undergraduate students in any of the areas of research funded by the National Science Foundation. REU projects involve students in meaningful ways in ongoing research programs or in research projects specifically designed for the REU program.”

Isaac Anderson

Anderson, a junior physics, mathematics and aerospace engineering triple major, went to the University of Kentucky Department of Physics and Astronomy for his REU. His plan involved an experiment to measure the level of uranium in sapphires in support of an international physics collaboration called nEXO.

According to nEXO’s website, the project “is searching for a rare nuclear decay called neutrinoless double beta decay” in order to understand more about neutrinos, “tiny, nearly massless particles with no charge.” To achieve this, nEXO needs a new type of detector made from materials with as little radioactivity as possible.

Anderson’s experiment targeted one possibility.

“Even common metals which aren’t radioactive enough to cause any sort of damage to humans are too radioactive for this precise detector,” he explains. “That’s why we were called in to help them out by testing various materials. The specific material we wanted to look at was sapphire.”

Anderson began his 10-week program preparing the lab for the detector that would test the sapphires. He cut up copper, “known to be very isotopically pure, which means it’s not radioactive,” to make shielding to surround the detector when it arrived.

The detector never arrived, but that setback didn’t stop Anderson.

“I started looking at data that was coming in from another detector from a different collaboration. We managed to get remote access to some data through my advisor. I started analyzing that, and very quickly we learned that their detector wasn’t working properly. I spent about the second half of the project looking at the data to see if I could figure out why it was broken.”

Anderson identified the detector’s amplifier as the likely problem. Even after he returned to UAH in August, he was still working on the project remotely.

Anderson’s REU didn’t go quite according to plan, but he found it to be a valuable learning experience.

“It felt like my contributions meant something. I wasn’t just working on something by myself. I was working on something that was going to be helpful to more distinguished scientists who were planning to do something with it. It was directly pipelined into an actual, national experiment that was going on.”

Clay Bibby

Bibby, a junior biology major with minors in Earth ecosystems and chemistry, spent his summer in the NSF Division of Ocean Sciences at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. He focused on creatures that have received relatively little attention, a meiofauna phylum called gastrotrichs, microscopic worms that live in the sand in sea-water and fresh-water systems.

“I studied how they behave in that environment and how they move,” he says. “Gastrotrichs are a kind of worm that can react by sticking to sediment. I used an invention that was created by a grad student I worked with that lets you observe how the worms behave in that environment.”

This invention made their study of the worms’ movements possible and gave Bibby the opportunity to be part of the first such study of gastrotrichs. By controlling the water moving through the worms’ environment, they were able to observe changes in the worms’ behavior, and they made an unexpected discovery.

“We discovered a new behavior which we termed bungee or bungeeing,” Bibby explains. “The worm contracts its body inwards and then stretches out. My leading idea for why it happens is that they can get stuck in between sand grains, and then they perform this bungee maneuver in order to get themselves unstuck and reorient themselves.”

Bibby and his research partner noticed that the “bungeeing” behavior happened consistently across different individual worms and across almost all of their trials.

Meiofauna may be physically small, but, Bibby notes, they perform a big job in their ecosystem.

“They live at the bottom of the sea or the lake, and they play important roles in breaking down dead material that falls to the bottom so it doesn’t accumulate. That recycles the nutrients. They also play an important linking role because they eat a lot of really, really small things like diatoms and bacteria, but then they get eaten by slightly larger worms, which then get eaten by small fish, which then get eaten by larger fish that we can easily see every day.”

Grace Oswald

Oswald, a senior psychology and biology double major, went to Michigan State University to do research in sociomobility.

“We did a usability study on the city of East Lansing with goals to apply it to a national scale,” she says. “Persons with disabilities – anything from a mental disability to a physical disability – have more issues with leaving their homes but also navigating the areas around it. Built environments aren’t made for people with wheelchairs or people who use walkers or other mobility devices, so that impacts how they move around.”

The project explored barriers to accessibility in three ways:

  • How many barriers are in the area?
  • How difficult or dangerous are they to cross?
  • How do people with disabilities work around these barriers?

“We found that there were a lot of barriers in general. Because we did our research in Michigan where there’s a lot of temperature variability, sometimes the sidewalks end up being more cracked because of the snow and the wind and everything else that happens. Our goal was to be able to show people who build environments with similar barriers and weather issues the easiest way to make it more accessible for people.”

Oswald and her team didn’t rely only on their own perceptions of the sidewalks, roads and other possible barriers.

“We recruited persons with disabilities to move around this area and to point out barriers. We might think a barrier was super difficult for them, but then they would move over it and say that it wasn’t a problem at all.”

That experience highlights an important takeaway from their research.

“Persons with disabilities need to be included into these conversations. I have a very different perspective as someone who’s physically able-bodied when compared to someone who is in a motorized wheelchair and is dependent upon this wheelchair for movement. Going over a set of bumps drains the battery and increases their risk of getting stuck.”

Oswald plans to become a human factors engineer to make technology more accessible for everyone.

“My goal is to learn more about accessibility and designing things not just for persons with disabilities but for people as a whole. If it’s more accessible for the least able group of people, it’s most accessible for all.”