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Washington State University Graduate Student Research

The Doctoral Program of Endless Possibility

2017 Ph.D. graduate Mason Burley finds ways to improve mental health treatment

By Amir Gilmore

Graduate School Evening of Excellence event at the Banyan’s event center on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016 in Pullman.

Imagine the endless research possibilities and complex problems you could solve in a flexible graduate program tailored to your individual interests. Spokane native and 2017 Ph.D. graduate Mason Burley realized the possibilities in WSU’s individual interdisciplinary doctoral degree program (IIDP), where he researched mental health treatment through the lens of epidemiology, biostatistics, health administration and policy, and public health.

“The IIDP allows students to draw upon the strengths and resources from three different departments,” says Mason. “We can ultimately address critical problems that may not be unique to a single discipline.”


Mason graduated May 5 at the Spokane campus commencement ceremony.

When considering a Ph.D program, Mason talked with Kenn Daratha associate professor in the College of Nursing and a 2004 WSU IIDP graduate, and decided the IIDP program would be a good fit for his research interests.

“The program is designed to be flexible,” says Mason. “There is a lot of balancing between engaging with your committee members and communicating your research goals— but that is the nature of interdisciplinary research.”

Mason’s interest was mental health treatment. He recognized that only about half of the individuals with mental health conditions were receiving psychiatric treatment, so he focused his dissertation research on improving acute in-patient psychiatric treatment by developing a risk profile for individuals who face recurrent psychiatric hospitalizations over a short period.

“I am interested in access and availability and engagement in mental health treatment,” says Mason.

In addition to the flexibility of the program, students also benefit from strong academic support from faculty that span the three disciplines. Mason’s mentor and committee chair, Kenn Daratha, advised him on scholarly research and authored several publications with him. John Roll, vice dean for research in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, was a staunch supporter of Mason’s research, and Mel Haberman, professor in the College of Nursing, helped with grant development and research writing. Jae Kennedy, professor and Chair of Health Policy and Administration, gave Mason the opportunity to teach statistics to his graduate students. Graduate School Associate Dean Patricia Sturko and Associate Dean Lisa Gloss were essential in guiding Mason through interdisciplinary research and providing a space to cultivate ideas. With the support of his committee, Mason was the recipient of the 2015-16 Russ and Anne Fuller Fellowship.

“The IIDP gave me the opportunity and confidence to pursue research without any preconceived constraints,” says Mason. “During my time in the program, I really valued the expertise of my committee members and looked to their suggestions about how I could apply discipline-specific knowledge to address overarching issues affecting behavioral health policy and treatment access.”

Last December, Mason began working for Premier, Inc., a hospital-owned quality improvement organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He works specifically for a division of the company called Premier Research Institute, which interfaces with foundations, university researchers and federal agencies to complete health outcomes research.

For more information about IIDP, and what students are researching, visit the IIDP website.


Big Cats, Big Grants, Big Future

By Amir Gilmore

Graduate student Travis King

Imagine, if you can, a world with no cougars. That thought worried WSU graduate student Travis King because he understands the risk extinction would have on our ecosystem.

The extinction of big cats like cougars and jaguars could have a giant impact on our ecosystem—a worldwide risk aggravated by the degradation of the big cats’ habitat and conflict with humans. Travis took up a passion for studying animals in their natural habitat at a young age, and came to WSU as an undergrad in 2011 to focus his research interest.

Under the mentorship of his WSU advisor, Dr. Daniel Thornton, Travis has been conducting a statewide occupancy survey of the Canadian Lynx in Washington state for his master’s degree. For his Ph.D., Travis will be conducting a landscape genetic study across Honduras on jaguars, cougars and ocelots.

Thornton runs the Spatial Mammalogy Lab at WSU, working with different large animals on large scales in their natural habitat. What Travis enjoys about Dr. Thornton is the support he gives and the freedom he allows for students to create ideas.

“Dr. Thornton has been very supportive in finding opportunities for his students and allowing us to push forward and come up with our own unique ideas to fascinating,” says Travis. “And we have the potential to do amazing work in different areas of the world to answer these questions.”

Travis was an undergraduate when he first met Thornton, when looking for an opportunity to create a research project on big cats and apex predators. The mentorship began when Travis found out that he and Thornton had similar interests. Finding funding through multiple sources at WSU, Travis and Thornton spent a summer studying ocelot behavior in Costa Rica with members of Panthera – a non-governmental organization that conducts international big cat research and conservation. From that initial project, Thornton approached Travis about being a graduate student in his lab.

Travis is working on his master’s and doctoral degrees simultaneously in natural resource sciences and wildlife ecology. To collect the data for his master’s project on the Canadian Lynx, he places trail-cams throughout the mountainous forests of Washington state to detect their movement. Trail cams are small cameras placed on trails and roads that automatically take photos when an animal moves past it. By the time the pictures are collected, there are typically thousands—including not just lynx, but also mule deer, wolves, black bears, and cougars.

Grants, Awards, and Hard Work

Since arriving at WSU, Travis has won a number of prestigious awards such as the Fulbright Fellowship for U.S. students, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP), and the Kaplan Graduate Award.

“Attending the NSF-GRFP workshop here at WSU really helped during the funding process,” says Travis. “The workshops on campus allowed me to meet and talk to past winners about the ins and outs of the process and how you should go about applying for grants.”

With his passion for international research, these funding sources are going to allow Travis to travel around the world and conduct research. So far he has been to Belize, Costa Rica, and will be going to Honduras for the next four years on his jaguar, cougar and ocelot project.

“My advice on getting funded is to be persistent,” says Travis. “The door may shut in your face along the way, but students should start going after these grants that can fund their graduate career. Being able to find even small funding sources allows you to continue to move forward that can help open doors for other sources of funding for your research.”

A North Dakota native, Travis chose WSU because of its research emphasis and great community atmosphere. He completed his undergraduate degree in zoology from WSU in 2015.

“I found that WSU had a community that allowed me to get involved with research at an early stage in my undergraduate career, but also had a support network to continue my career on into my graduate work,” says Travis

With the help of financial support through grants and awards, strong faculty mentorship, and the ability to conduct research abroad, Travis can foresee multiple options for his future.

“I can imagine staying within academia doing a postdoc, or working for a private organization to find ways to balance apex predator conservation and societal needs,” says Travis.

Whatever his choice, Travis’s journey at Washington State University has provided him a way to make a big difference in the world.

A Passion for Predators: From T-Rex to Insects

By Cheryl Reed

Doctoral student Joseph Taylor lights up when he talks about bugs.

From his undergraduate work at Washington and Lee University in Virginia to his graduate work here at Washington State University, his research on insect predators has already resulted in some substantial success, including the recent award of a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Although he is passionate about insects now, Joseph’s journey initially started with excitement over a much larger predator.

“When I was a kid I loved dinosaurs, especially the T-Rex,” he said. “I wanted to become a paleontologist until I disappointingly found out that dinosaurs were extinct. I wanted a career that involved live animals, not dead ones.”

Joseph carried his interest in animals to Washington and Lee University—but he quickly became frustrated that most of the introductory-level biology courses were pre-med focused. It wasn’t until he took a course from his advisor, Dr. Lawrence Hurd, that he gained a fascination with insects. He realized that insects are diverse and numerous and their systems operate similar to most other animals.

“I had no idea how much I would love insects,” said Joseph. “I was completely converted.”

Joseph earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with a minor in Russian language and culture from Washington and Lee. While there he conducted three years of research, which resulted in two publications with a third well underway. His research was on the praying mantis, a feisty little predator with a triangular head that pivots like a cat. The upright position and folding forearms of the insect led to its nickname, which is a bit of a misnomer for a creature known to practice cannibalism and prey on animals larger than itself.

“I saw a video once of a praying mantis attacking a snake,” says Joseph. “During my research, I had to raise scores of them, and they’re actually kind of like tiny kittens when they’re young.  They groom themselves like a cat, and can see you from about 20 feet away. But as adults they’re more like a T-Rex. Honestly, if I shrunk down to the size of an adult praying mantis, it would happily eat me.”

Now a doctoral student in Dr. William Snyder’s lab here at Washington State University, Joseph is studying Carabid beetles, commonly known as ground beetles. A group of formidable and ravenous predators, the ground beetles’ role in agriculture is extremely beneficial, feeding on insects that can potentially destroy crops. However, ground beetles can be very indiscriminate, consuming smaller crop-friendly beetles. Joseph is looking for ways to help these insect predators do their jobs better in order to eventually move away from broad spectrum pesticides. His NSF grant proposal focused on this research.

The Grant Proposal

During his first semester at WSU last fall, Joseph talked with his advisor about writing a proposal for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship—a program that supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing graduate degrees in STEM fields. Joseph received significant guidance from his advisor on writing the proposal, and felt confident of its strength when he mailed it off. In March he was excited when he received notification of the fellowship award.

In addition to the NSF Fellowship, Joseph was also awarded an ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) scholarship. This scholarship, supported by the ARCS Seattle Chapter, supports the best and brightest doctoral students in STEM disciplines at both WSU and the UW. Washington State University has been a member of the ARCS Foundation since 2000 and currently helps fund 36 doctoral students. Students for this scholarship are nominated by their department.

Why WSU?

In 2015, the Graduate School invited Joseph to visit WSU on its Research Assistantship for Diverse Scholars (RADS) program, which is intended to increase graduate student diversity. The RADS awards are funded through a partnership of the Graduate School and the department/program of the prospective student. Hurd, Joseph’s advisor at Washington and Lee, had been Snyder’s undergraduate advisor and was familiar with his research in the Department of Entomology at WSU. He encouraged Joseph to consider a doctoral program here. After Joseph reached out to WSU and expressed an interest, he was invited for a RADS visit based upon his prior academic achievement.

“When I arrived in Pullman for the visit, I instantly liked the campus,” said Joseph. “The people in Dr. Snyder’s laboratory were all really friendly—I was surprised that a university the size of WSU seemed like such a close community. I was also ready to do something different—to get away and trying something new.”

Although born in California, Joseph spent the majority of his life on the east coast. His mother was in the Army, which moved the family fairly regularly. He and his twin brother played football in high school and also for Washington and Lee University, where they both played safety. Because of his athletic background, Joseph enjoys being at a university and a community full of sports fans—but he also enjoys sitting in the stadium seats instead of playing on the field.

“My body is much happier. It’s nice to see someone get tackled on the field and know it won’t be me hurting the next day,” he laughed.

But to assuage his competitive drive and vigor, Joseph has taken up fencing, something he’s always been interested in. “It’s been a lot of fun and helps get rid of that excess energy,” he said.

What started as a passion for dinosaurs has evolved into an exciting career in entomology for Joseph. Ultimately, his fully funded research may help create more efficient and less invasive solutions for farmers resulting in a healthier and more reliable food supply for the world.

Joseph hopes to work for the USDA on pest management after earning his doctoral degree. Eventually, he would like to return to academia and continue to broaden his knowledge about the complex interactions between insect predators and their prey.

Research & Mentoring: A Dynamic Duo that Spells Success

By Amir Gilmore

With 13 scholarships and awards, four peer-reviewed journal articles, and 24 conference presentations to her name, Spokane local and recent doctoral graduate Chrystal Quisenberry exudes hard work, commitment, and dedication. Because of her devotion to scholarship and public service, Chrystal was recently the recipient of the Harriett B. Rigas Award, presented to outstanding doctoral students who emanate exceptional performance in their academics, teaching and mentoring, and service to the community.

As a first-year graduate student, I found Chrystal’s experience at WSU impactful. Her focus on research paired with her devotion to mentoring are characteristics that many students inspire to.

Chrystal began attending WSU for her undergraduate degree in 2008, when she met Dr. Nehal Abu-Lail, the professor who would later became her mentor. Chrystal attributes her success to Abu-Lail’s mentorship.

“She encouraged me to work on my PhD with her on a project I had expressed interest in,” said Chrystal. “Not only is she an academic advisor, she encourages me to figure out what I want because she believes I can achieve what I want. It’s individuals like her who can really make a difference in a person’s life.”

Chrystal graduated this spring from the School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering. Her research aims to progress joint disease treatment by focusing on articular cartilage tissue engineering. By growing adult stem cells into cartilage cells in a bioreactor, Chrystal was able to create tissue that has the same mechanical and functional properties as native tissue. This research is crucial because of the number of people who suffer from joint disease.

“Although more than 27 million people in the U.S. suffer from the joint disease osteoarthritis, current treatments do not restore the full functions of that tissue,” Chrystal said.

As an undergraduate student, Chrystal was a Cougar of Color Ambassador, where she worked with underrepresented undergraduate prospective students. As a graduate student, she informally mentored students who expressed interest. For example, while in the laboratory Chrystal provided guidance to Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering undergraduates. Through her servant leadership, she convinced students to further their education and attend graduate school. She also volunteered for events that encouraged science and research, such as the Seattle Science Festival. She was also a judge for the Future Cities Competiton and sat on a career panel for the Cougar Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE), which is research tutorial program designed to help undergraduates pursue a career in research.

For more information about the School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering click here.

About the writer
Amir Gilmore is a doctoral student in Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education and a graduate assistant in the Graduate School.

When Black Holes Collide: A graduate student’s role in the detection of gravitational waves

By Cheryl Reed

Washington State University graduate student Bernard Hall was part of a team of WSU physicists who contributed to the recent detection of gravitational waves in space, confirming a theory posed by Einstein about 100 years ago. The gravitational wave detection is significant because it provides a new window into space, telling the story of the origins of the universe and the nature of gravity. The wave is believed to be the result of two black holes, 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, which collided in the southern hemisphere about 1.3 billion years ago. The energy generated from the collision was about 50 times that of the entire universe, rippling through space and creating a blip on the radar of a Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) in both Washington and Louisiana in September of 2015.

Formed from the collapse of stars as they burn out, black holes pack immense gravitational pull, and continue to grow while consuming dust and gases from around them. Black holes range in size from small to supermassive—the ones that are believed to hang at the center of every galaxy, including the Milky Way. Although black holes are invisible because their gravitation pull is too strong for light to escape, their presence can be detected through their interaction with other matter, sometimes creating some of the most brilliant objects in the universe. Astronomers can determine the size of black holes by measuring the path of the stars orbiting around them, and have thus estimated the supermassive black hole at the core of the Milky Way to be about 4.3 million solar masses.

When Einstein developed the theory of relativity—which basically predicts that a sufficiently compact mass can deform space-time to form a black hole, he believed that two black holes orbiting each other would lose energy through gravitation waves, drawing them together to finally collide. During that brief, powerful explosion, a portion of the black holes’ mass is converted to energy, creating a powerful thrust that forms gravitational waves that ripple across space.

Hall is excited to be part of the team who first detected the gravitational wave. Originally from Georgia, Bernard moved to Post Falls as a teenager and was home schooled. After graduating, he attended IT Tech and earned a bachelor’s degree in video game design. He worked in broadcast television for 12 years, then joined the Army Reserve as a medic for nine years. In 2003 he was deployed to Syria. After learning that President Obama had initiated a post-911 GI Bill for those who had been on active duty during the Gulf War, Hall decided to take advantage and study astrophysics. He attended Spokane Community College for two years, then transferred to WSU in 2012, where he began working with Dr. Sukanta Bose.

The Graduate School talked with Bernard about the gravitational wave discovery.

Graduate School: First, can you talk how you became interested in physics and why you chose to attend WSU?

Hall: There’s actually a lot of physics involved in video game design, which was my first bachelor’s degree, because you have to understand gravity and how things collide to make the games realistic. I have experience in programming languages and was really interested in the physics of how things move based on my video game design experience—but I wanted to learn more. When I researched universities that offered programs in physics, I found that WSU has one of the best.

Graduate School: How did you begin working with Dr. Sukanta Bose and his Relativity Group?

Hall: I looked Dr. Bose up when I arrived at WSU as an undergraduate student, and after meeting with him, he invited me to work in his lab. I was able to work with the relativity research group for two years as an undergraduate student. The team was searching for gravitational wave signals that could be present in the LIGO. I wrote my senior thesis on that research, then kept working for the group for a year after I graduated. I started the Ph.D. program just this year. Right now Dr. Bose is part of an effort to build a LIGO in India, so we communicate via Skype.

Graduate School: Tell me about the LIGO and what your role has been in the discovery of gravitational waves.

Hall: The LIGO that is located at Hanford was built in about 2002, but was eventually shut down a few years ago because nothing had been detected. We’ve been working on upgrades to it since then, to make it more sensitive. I’ve been working on developing two new tools: one that detects non-linear couplings and another that compares environmental channels. The LIGO is so sensitive that it picks up thousands of environmental channels, including its own thermal noises. Half of the job of analyzing the data is figuring what is a real signal and what is not. The tools I built help discriminate false signals from real signals by filtering out the false signals.

Graduate School: How did you feel when you heard about the gravitational wave detection at both Hanford and Louisiana last September?

Hall: I was cautiously optimistic. When I first heard, I looked to Dr. Bose to see if he was excited, and he was. But we had to keep the information secret until it was thoroughly researched. There has to be two sites that pick up the signal, otherwise it is usually considered a false reading. When the Livingston, Louisiana LIGO also detected it 2,000 miles away, we believed it could be real.

Graduate School: I’m really curious about the gravitational wave that was detected. It seems like we were lucky because we happened to have the LIGO turned on at the exact right moment in time.

Hall: That’s right. You might say we were lucky because we were actually just testing our LIGO when the wave was detected. It was functioning fully, but we were still performing an engineering run with it.

Graduate School: I read that the scientists believe the wave was created from two black holes colliding. Can you tell me about that theory and why they believe this?

Hall: In a nut shell, the wave forms look different according to the event that caused them. There have been models built based on Einstein’s theory, so we know that the wave was caused by a collision of phenomenal force.

Graduate School: I understand that the gravitational wave was actually detected in September of 2015. Why has it taken so long to be made public?

Hall: We needed to make sure that it was a real signal. There were large teams of scientists studying the data to make sure it was not a false detection. We didn’t want to make an announcement only to find out later that it was false.

Graduate School: What are the implications of this discovery?

Hall: Gravitational waves can tell us about the origins of the universe. Light emitted after the Big Bang only goes back 300,000 years, but these waves go back even further. The patterns we can study originally came from quantum fluctuations and can help us come closer to quantum theory and to identify the forces at work. It can help us bring quantum mechanics and relativity together. We can conduct a lot of science with this data—from that very small detection.

Graduate School: What is your ultimate goal after you earn your PhD in physics?

Hall: My ultimate goal is to be a scientist because I am fascinated with cosmology. I enjoy talking to my sons about science and my work in the field of gravitational wave detection.

Polymer Engineering: Creating Batteries that Keep Going

By Cheryl A. Reed

Will Wang Poster

Doctoral graduate Yu “Will” Wang believes that polymer—a ubiquitous material made from hydrocarbons and other elements bonded together—may play the most important role in our daily lives. His undergraduate degree in polymers and desire to earn a doctoral degree in the area is what drew him to travel from China to study in the Materials Science and Engineering program at Washington State University.

Natural polymers are things like tortoise shells and antlers, whereas manmade polymers, which are ever-present in our daily lives, are things like plastic, rubber, and synthetic fabrics like rayon. Polymers have increasingly taken the place of natural materials, and the polymer industry is one of the fastest growing in the world. Engineers interested in producing new polymer materials are constantly searching for ways to manipulate the molecular structure of the polymer by introducing fillers, reinforcements, and additives to expand its uses and possibilities.

“The possibilities for applications of new polymers is immense,” said Will, who has created a gum-like electrolyte for use in high-performance lithium batteries. Will works in WSU researcher Katie Zhong’s laboratory. The material, which looks like black tar, can significantly extend the life of lithium batteries, and has gained global attention. An article in the Advanced Energy Materials journal in December 2013 about the electrolyte says that rechargeable lithium ion batteries are expected to dominate the marketplace for the foreseeable future. Think electric cars, aircraft, and pacemakers—technologies that could benefit from a higher energy and safer battery.

“The material is very special,” said Will, reaching for a jar of wax beads used in the mixture. “Instead of liquid, the electrolyte is a mixture of several components that makes it sticky like gum so that it can adhere well to the other battery components.”

Batteries work by converting chemical energy to electrical energy. There are three components to most batteries: the anode, cathode, and electrolyte. The electrolyte is the chemical medium that facilitates the flow of electrons between the cathode and the anode. Put simply, during a discharge of electricity, the chemicals from the anode and cathode make contact in the electrolyte medium, transforming chemical energy to electrical energy. Over time, the anode and cathode will stop producing electrons, and if the battery is not rechargeable, is disposed.

The electric car industry is one that could benefit from a longer-lasting battery. Some of the newest electric cars will run for about 80 miles with a charge—although some of those miles will be exchanged for cabin heat or air conditioning. The recharge time for electric car batteries ranges from 2 to 8 hours, depending on the outlet. A standard 110 volt outlet could extend recharge time to 16 hours.

“Right now electric cars are not popular because of the limited distance they can travel,” said Will. “Our gum-like electrolyte holds a charge longer than the liquid electrolyte—but we need to redesign the entire battery to maximize the storage capacity for the electrolyte. To store more energy, we will need to store more of the high-capacity material.”

In addition to longevity, safety is another major goal for the new battery electrolyte. The liquid medium in current lithium ion batteries is a strong acid that can leak and create fire or chemical burns. “People believe if we want safety, we need to replace the liquid in the battery,” said Will.

Will’s work with Professor Zhong has attracted attention and publication in Advanced Energy Materials.

Will graduated with is doctoral degree from Washington State University in the summer of 2015 and is now Assistant Research Professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. He earned his B.S. and M.S. in Polymer Science and Polymer Processing Engineering at Sichuan University in China.

“The quality of education in the U.S. is best, and Pullman is a beautiful and quiet place for students to study. It is small, but everything you want to do is here,” he said.

From Las Vegas to Cuba: Studying Life History Theory and Immune Behaviors

By Cheryl Reed

When Tiffany Alvarez studied women’s health through the lens of life history theory as an undergraduate student and McNair Scholar at UNLV, she didn’t know how far it would eventually take her. Now a doctoral student at Washington State University in evolutionary anthropology, she is planning to study in Cuba next summer with her advisor, Edward Hagen. The two will be investigating the effects of acute immune activation on components of pregnant women’s behavioral and biological immunity—or life history.

Life history theory seeks to explain aspects of an organism’s anatomy and behavior in reference to the way its life histories have been shaped by natural selection. The theory depends on principles of evolutionary biology and ecology and is widely used in other areas of science.

Alvarez explained how recent discoveries show that immunity appears to have behavioral components, often referred to as sickness behaviors, which serve to reduce exposure to pathogens and conserve energy. The features that characterize immunity are uniquely distinguished by their relationship with biological processes and also environmental contexts ranging from the socio-political to cultural and ecological. An ecological immunity perspective acknowledges that culturally mediated, class- and sex-specific patterns of activity, resource access, and reproduction are sources of significant diversity that affect immune response. She also explained that pregnancy is a reproductive state of unique immunity and a period of dynamic changes to immuno-competence.

In Cuba, Alvarez and Hagen will collect baseline levels of biological and behavior immunity from a sample of 100 pregnant women. After the data is collected, the researchers will randomize it into treatment groups that will receive different vaccines. It is predicted that the treatment group who receives the influenza vaccine will report markedly higher behavioral immunity than the groups who received the placebo.

Alvarez’s and Hagen’s research will determine if acute immune activation alters the behaviors of pregnant women in ways predicted by life history theory. Specifically, whether or not acute changes in pregnant women’s health status trigger a suite of compensatory behaviors that contribute to pathogen avoidance and mitigate energetic immune costs. These findings will contribute to larger theoretical and empirical discussions regarding context-specific variation in host-pathogen interactions and behavioral sickness symptom expression.

Alvarez is a first-generation college student from Last Vegas, Nevada. She is now on a streamline track to earn a master’s and doctoral degree in 5 years. As a McNair Alumna and teaching assistant, Alvarez has the opportunity to spread her research passion to other students.

“My work is so exciting,” says Alvarez. “My advisor is training me to be a peer, and I find that to be so valuable.”

Washington State University’s graduate degree in evolutionary anthropology has a strong record of research funding, and students are regularly involved in research and teaching from their first semester. Most students gain research experience at field and laboratory sites early in their careers.

Find out more about WSU’s graduate degree programs and where your research will take you at

Saving the Frog

By Cheryl Reed

Doctoral student Erim Gomez has a driving interest in saving endangered animals. From his undergraduate work with the flat-tail horned lizard of California and the Colorado fringe-toed lizard to his graduate research on the leopard frog and redband rainbow trout of Washington State, Erim is now looking beyond borders to work in Latin America, where he hopes to analyze the spread of disease in amphibians.

“I study where amphibians live, what spaces they occupy, and how we can develop a conservation plan and restoration effort for them,” said Erim.

When he came to WSU in 2007 to earn a master’s degree, Erim was surprised to discover a supportive, diverse community where he could thrive and pursue his love of environmental science. For that reason, he decided to remain at WSU for his doctoral degree in Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences, where he has worked in the Endangered Species Lab under Dr. Rodney Sayler, an associate professor in the School of the Environment.

“As a graduate student it’s important to have an advisor who supports your goals and allows you to be involved in other things,” said Erim. “Dr. Sayler has been ideal because he treats me like a colleague. He goes out of his way to find opportunities for me and has written me countless letters of recommendation for scholarships and encouraged me to attend conferences to help me grow as a leader.”
With strong support and research experience, Erim branched out to teach biology and ecology courses and advise the Ritmo Latino dance group—where he sometimes teaches salsa dancing—and MEChA, an organization dedicated to better education and representation of the Chicana/o community. He began giving keynote addresses—sometimes in Spanish—to share his experiences and encourage students to pursue research and graduate school opportunities.

“I am passionate about teaching and employing research and hands-on experience to aide students in the learning process,” said Erim, whose ultimate goal is to teach at the college level and work with underserved and underrepresented communities. “I tell my students that I would like to see equal representation of all races in all fields.”

Among Erim’s accolades, he was awarded a $100,000 Bullitt Leadership Fellowship in 2011 and is now on the board of trustees for the organization. The Bullitt Foundation aims to protect and restore the environment of the Pacific Northwest and is widely respected for its vision and strategic sensibility in pursuing a sustainable future. As the youngest board member, Erim works among renowned environmentalists, attorneys, and business owners of the Seattle area. As a successful fellow, Erim has also helped the last two Bullitt fellowship winners prepare their applications.

As a leading research institution, Washington State University has been a good fit for Erim. He grew up in a small Oregon town that had a state-funded salmon hatchery operated by high school students. There he gained firsthand experience on conservation and natural resources and the cultural implications of political, economic, and environmental decisions. Following high school, he attended Southern Oregon University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in environmental biology with a minor in economics and political science. He was invited to visit WSU during his undergraduate studies at SOU, and was interested not just because of his desire to conduct research in the Pacific Northwest, but because of the kindness shown him by WSU recruiters.

“WSU treats you special,” said Erim. “It’s a rural campus, but that strengthens the community. I’ve been at airports across the country wearing Cougar gear and hear someone yell, “GO Cougs!” I was even hiking in the Cascade Mountains one time and heard it!”

Erim attributes much of his drive to his parents, who were both born in Mexico in the 1950s. “My mother always told us that she expected my brothers and me to go to college. She says she used to whisper in my ear as a baby, ‘you are going to be a doctor,’” laughed Erim. Soon he will be a doctor of Environmental and Natural Resources Sciences.

Because Washington State University has a thriving McNair program, Erim has had the opportunity to work with McNair undergraduate students and be part of the energy and ongoing success of its program.

Erim’s success as a leader, scholar and researcher is a testament to the powerful synergy of determination, opportunity, and the supportive community of Washington State University.

Carbon Nanotubes Make Lighter Body Armor

By Cheryl Reed

Kathryn Mireles has always been interested in math and engineering—an early indication that she might be a good fit for Washington State University’s graduate program in Materials Science & Engineering. Following her academic work at New Mexico Tech, Kathryn looked to WSU to carry her deeper into the world of polymer composites research in the laboratory of Professor Michael Kessler in 2013.

“Materials Science and Engineering is the marrying of chemistry and engineering. It is a really broad area,” says Kathryn.

Her research in Kessler’s lab is focused on working with carbon nanotubes, tiny cylindrical molecules with novel properties that are useful in many applications.

“Functional carbon nanotubes are over 100 times stronger than steel,” says Kathryn, who is using them to replace certain parts of body armor that will make them lighter, less expensive, and able to withstand higher impacts. Kathryn was able to participate in an internship at the Weapons and Materials Research Division at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, at the Army Research Laboratory located in Aberdeen, Maryland. Mechanical testing of the nanoparticle composite showed less brittle fracture as compared to current body armor materials. It also possessed a “trapping” type behavior.

In March, 2015, Kathryn was the first runner-up at the annual Materials Science and Engineering Research Exposition. Her poster, titled “Ballistic performance of poly-diclylcopentadine (p-DCPD) polymer,” explains her research and the benefits of using carbon nanotubes in body armor.

Current body armor is made up of polymer composites with reinforcing fibers. The reinforcements are meant to increase mechanical properties such as strength and toughness by transferring load from the surrounding matrix to the fiber without increasing the weight. However, mechanisms such as delamination of fibers and micro-cracking exist in current epoxy matrixes. The use of nanomaterials could overcome these issues. Carbon nanotubes boast exceptional mechanical properties with strengths over 150 times stronger than steel with a very low density—thus not impacting the weight of the armor. Nanotubes can also be functionalized to provide covalent bonding with the matrix by polymerization reaction.

Kathryn likes Washington State University’s versatility and that students can target a professor they want to work with. She also appreciates the research collaborations, like the internship she was able to participate in at the Maryland Aberdeen Research Laboratory.

“Graduate school is not isolated—we are always connecting with other students,” said Kathryn, who is also teaching two classes this year.

Her future plans? “I’m kind of torn between teaching and research” she said.

Find out more about the Graduate School’s versatile Materials Science and Engineering program at