Students conducting summer research at Northern State University

Male college student in white lab coat conducting scientific research

ABERDEEN, S.D. – Summertime in Northern State University’s Jewett Regional Science Education Center is anything but quiet – inside the labs of the cutting-edge facility, students are hard at work on undergraduate research projects.

That includes Ryan Clay.

Clay, a non-traditional student majoring in biotechnology, initially planned to just complete his degree in two years and never thought about conducting research.

Now, he’s spending his summer creating proteins.

“It’s easy to get excited about all the stuff that’s possible when you start digging into it,” said Clay, of Aberdeen. “That’s how it started to snowball.”

For Clay, it snowballed into a project that earned him an Undergraduate Competitive Research Grant: “Expression, Purification, and Characterization of a Novel Insect Cuticle-Like Protein with Chitin and Graphene Binding Domains." His work aims to use a specially designed protein that binds to chitin and carbon nanotubes in a way that allows for the formation of biomaterials without the need to chemically modify them.

Clay said chitin is prevalent and resilient but difficult to work with directly, so he’s attempting to grow something that binds chitin to make it easier to work with. His project has several practical applications, as the material he grows will be lightweight, durable and nontoxic, making it a viable option for medical devices or protective equipment.

NSU Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Jon Mitchell said Clay’s research, based on his own idea, is completely novel and has a lot of potential.

“I think it has a really good shot of working, which is really exciting,” Mitchell said. “There are all kinds of potential uses and avenues he can do while he’s here and after.”

Mitchell is working with Clay on the project this summer. At NSU, faculty members don’t lead student research projects, he said; students and faculty work together as colleagues.

“It’s the benefit of Northern,” he said.

Summer a Great Time for Research

Clay isn’t the only NSU student working on research this summer. Olivia Rud will be studying biofilm formation on breathing devices, and Laurie Rogers will be looking at bacteria and biofilms associated with plaque formation, Mitchell said. Both are Honors Program students. There are also five students screening mosquitoes for the West Nile virus in Brown County, an ongoing project with the S.D. Department of Health.

Mitchell said summer is a great time for research.

“During the school year is hard because we’re teaching and there’s the pull of other things,” he said. “It’s hard to spend time one on one.”

This type of experiential learning gives students a competitive edge, and not just because it looks good on a resume.

“It puts all the stuff you’ve been learning together in an applied way,” Mitchell said, adding, “That’s the premise of biotechnology. It’s the premise of learning.”

Clay’s research is set to last through the summer and into fall; Mitchell said it’s difficult to pinpoint how long it will take.

“Things could happen unexpectedly that you have to chase,” he said. “That’s the fun part about research. Because once you get a little bit of data, it just feeds more. It’s always exciting.”

‘Easy to Get Excited’ about Science

Clay chose Northern because he was looking to make a career transition, and attending NSU allows him to get an education that will result in a job without having to relocate his family. Clay and his wife, Associate Music Professor Dr. Audrey Miller, have a 1-year-old son, Hugo. He hopes to work at a local lab after graduation.

Now as a Northern student, Clay is really enjoying the science programs, the state-of the art science center – and faculty like Mitchell who fuel student excitement in the sciences.

“You get to know the core concepts of science, then you start digging into advanced concepts, and it really gets the ball rolling for getting excited about science,” Clay said. “Once you start looking into how it works, it’s easy to get excited.”

For more information about student research at Northern State University, visit NSU Undergraduate Research.

About Northern State University

Northern State University is a student-centered institution that provides an outstanding educational experience, preparing students through the liberal arts and professional education for their future endeavors. A regional university, Northern offers rigorous academics; diverse civic, social and cultural opportunities; and a commitment to building an inclusive environment for all points of view. Northern also offers a broad-based athletics program, sponsoring 15 NCAA Division II intercollegiate varsity sports that compete in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (NSIC). The university strives to enrich the community through partnerships such as its Educational Impact Campaign, which opened a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired; new athletic and recreation fields; and, soon, an on-campus regional sports complex. With the $55 million campaign, NSU has been the recipient of more than $100 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions