Research Exploration Connection

Short Research Opportunities for UNM Undergraduates

Sponsored by the Museum Research Trainee Program (MRT), the Undergraduate Research, Arts & Design Network, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Research Exploration Connection (REC) provides UNM undergraduate students with paid opportunities to engage in brief research projects led by Master’s and Doctoral students. 

These projects are designed to introduce undergraduates to various research methods and approaches, and to provide potential pathways for undergraduate and graduate students to further partner on the research.

Undergraduate students who participate in REC should expect to spend between 6 to 24 hours on their project and receive between $100 and $500 for participating, with the actual amount depending on the time commitment involved in participating on the project.

Check out the list of 2023-24 REC projects below.  If you are interested in participating, click the “APPLY NOW” button to the right.  You may apply for as many REC projects as you prefer.  Application deadlines vary by project, so be sure to read the full details below.

Past Opportunities

Travel 223 miles and 225 million years into the past at Petrified Forest National Park, home to scenic views, gorgeous petrified wood, and most importantly, incredible outcrops of Late Triassic fossils. Learn all about the earliest dinosaurs and their archosaur cousins, how to identify fossils and their features in the field, and take part in active scientific research to determine how fossil preservation and ancient ecosystems change along a distributive fluvial system (DFS).

APPLICATION DEADLINE: Monday, January 31, 2024

Participant Stipend: $500.  This amount will be deposited in your bursar account as a departmental award.  Department awards are considered financial aid, similar to grants or scholarships. 

Anticipated hours that participants will spend on the project: 20 hours, including 2.5 hours on campus and a two-day field trip to Petrified Forest in Arizona.

Project Lead: Alexandra Apgar, graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences

Student Learning Outcomes 

  • How to identify fossilized vertebrate bones
  • How to identify taphonomic features on fossils (i.e. bite marks, scratches, bore holes, etc.)
  • How to interpret environments in the past
  • How to develop scientific questions in the context of deep time
  • How to conduct scientific investigations outside a classroom environment

Starting date: March 18, 2024

Ending date: April 5, 2024

List of synchronous scheduled dates/times and events: (Most meetings to be tentatively scheduled based on students’ availability)

  • An initial 90-minute meeting to speak with students, introduce the project, and learn the basics of fossil bone and taphonomic feature identification, scheduled for a time within March 18th – 22nd.
  • A 30-minute meeting to go over rules, regulations, and safety for fieldwork at Petrified Forest National Park, scheduled for a time within March 25th – March 29th.
  • 4-6 hours of fieldwork on March 30th, followed by camping within Petrified Forest National Park and 4-6 hours of fieldwork on March 31st. Return students home by 6:00 p.m.
  • A 60-minute meeting for data exchange, debriefing, and program feedback, scheduled for a time within April 1st – 5 th.

Full REC project description:

Petrified Forest National Park is dominated by Late Triassic Chinle Formation outcrops (~225 – 200 million years old) that contain an incredibly diverse assemblage of vertebrate fossils from archosaurs, early dinosaurs, fish, freshwater sharks, and more. Previous studies have determined that certain exposures within the park were deposited primarily by a distributive fluvial system (DFS), a type of river characterized by a series of branching channels and streams that end in a distal megafan. While DFS represent the majority of modern-day rivers within sedimentary basins, they are just now being recognized in the geologic record. As a result, we currently have no way to predict the occurrence/preservation of fossils along a DFS. We have generated preservation hypotheses for eight different DFS subenvironments, and have begun to test them by both visiting known fossil sites within PEFO and describing collected fossils within the museum. Identifying how fossils preserve in different DFS subenvironments (e.g. which taxa, what size, level of weathering, level of abrasion, presence of predatory/scavenging marks, etc.) could serve as an excellent predictive model to help find well-preserved fossils in the future. Students involved in this project will learn the basics of fossil deposition and preservation, how to locate fossilized bones and describe them taphonomically, and how to think of scientific questions in the context of deep time, all while discovering new fossils, making new friends, and camping under the Arizona sky.

Required prerequisites:

No prerequisites are required for this program.

Number of undergraduate students who will be accepted into this REC project:


Description of project leader’s research:

Alex’s research focuses primarily on how vertebrate taphonomy and paleoecology is affected by depositional position within a distributive fluvial system (DFS). By using statistical analyses on vertebrate fossil co-occurrence, she has previously been able to shed light on how Late Triassic paleocommunities surrounding this fluvial megafan may have interacted. This project will supplement those findings with taphonomic and sedimentologic descriptions, in order to determine how fossil assemblages and their preservation styles change based on which DFS subenvironment deposits them. The lab group of Dr. Jason Moore (which includes Alex) has been conducting a companion study on modern animal bones deposited along the Pilcomayo River in Paraguay, allowing correlations to be made with findings in Petrified Forest. With results from both studies, researchers aim to construct a framework for predicting preservation and species occurrence for DFS successions within the fossil record.

In this REC project, you will become familiar with Lake Fryxell located in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of East Antarctica from a geobiological standpoint. Activities in the project will vary by student experience level, but include article-reading workshops, literature reviews of research topic, laboratory tours, sample preparation techniques, and compilation/interpretation of results.

APPLICATION DEADLINE: Monday, December 4, 2023

Participant Stipend: $375.  This amount will be deposited in your bursar account as a departmental award.  Department awards are considered financial aid, similar to grants or scholarships. 

Anticipated hours that participants will spend on the project: 25 hours, including scheduled meetings.

Project Lead: Sydney Shaner, graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences

Student Learning Outcomes 

At the end of this project, you will be able to digest and synthesize scientific articles, technically describe sediment cores, explain the use of stable isotopes and mineralogy in biogeochemistry and climate studies, and comprehend the importance of the field of geobiology. Holistically, you will gain valuable perspective on what research entails and have the tools to decide if it is for them.

Starting date: January 29, 2024

Ending date: May 3, 2024

List of synchronous scheduled dates/times and events:

We will have an in-person meeting during the first week of the project that works with everyone’s schedules. Thereafter, we will have biweekly group Zoom check-in meetings, with one midpoint in-person meeting.

Full REC project description:

If you have thought about participating in scientific research but have been hesitant for a variety of reasons, I would love to have you join my group for an introductory dive into Antarctic lakes regardless of seniority, background, major, or preexisting knowledge of the field. My field is geobiology, or the intersection between geology and biology. This includes topics such as how microbes and minerals impact each other, how Earth and life coevolved, how to detect life on other planets using extreme places on Earth that resemble those planets, and much more. Although I have spent time doing most of the above, my current PhD research is based in Lake Fryxell, McMurdo Dry Valleys, East Antarctica. Lake Fryxell is a very unique and extreme environment, covered year-round by 3-5 meters of ice yet home to many microbes that persist even in 24 hours of night in the winter. The McMurdo Dry Valleys overall is Earth’s most Mars-like place. Depending on where you are at coming into the program, you will be learning how to read technical scientific writing in the area of geobiology, notating and interpreting sediment cores from Antarctica, using microscopes to look at minerals from Antarctica, preparing Antarctic sediments for stable isotope analyses, or learning about how to interpret isotope results. During the last week of the program, every student will reflect on their experience with the group via their desired medium (PowerPoint, poster, podcast, essay, etc.) with the potential for presenting to a broader audience as well. My goal is to provide you with a metric for interest in research after the program ends, and to inspire an enthusiasm for geobiology!

Required prerequisites:


Preferred prerequisites:


Number of undergraduate students who will be accepted into this REC project:


Description of project leader’s research:

In the field of geobiology, Shaner looks at sediment cores from Lake Fryxell, Antarctica to decipher past climate and how different variables affect each other. She uses microscopes to look at redox-indicative minerals, which tell her how oxygenated the water was when those minerals were formed and interpret whether they have changed after being buried. She also uses microscopes to look at diatoms—microscopic protists that leave their hard shells preserved—which also indicate oxygenation, as well as lake ice cover thickness. She then observes carbon isotope enrichment as a dependent variable of the above. Does the carbon isotope signature change if minerals have been altered at depth? Does the carbon isotope signature change if the waters are oxic vs anoxic? How does the carbon isotope signature being ‘overprinted’ change our view of using carbon isotopes to interpret past climate? She then applies these questions to broader topics, such as preservation of biological material over longer periods of time.

As a student in this REC project, you will have the opportunity to view an expansive natural history research collection housed in the Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB). Biological specimens serve as a nexus for interdisciplinary research questions, as a plethora of valuable data accompanies each specimen. To delve into research done with mammalian museum specimens, students will tour MSB, learn about biogeography and phylogenetics, obtain hands-on molecular laboratory experience, and receive an introduction to bioinformatics. These skills will be transferable in a variety of STEM research settings.

APPLICATION DEADLINE: Monday, October 1, 2023

Participant Stipend: $450.  This amount will be deposited in your bursar account as a departmental award.  Department awards are considered financial aid, similar to grants or scholarships. 

Anticipated hours that participants will spend on the project: 30 hours.

Throughout the program, Danielle will be assigning scientific literature for you to read. We will then go through them the following meeting to discuss methods

Further, there will be additional resources and opportunities for interested students beyond the REC Program:

  • Multi-night fieldwork trips: These will not be required of students, but they will be invited to attend trips with the MSB Division of Mammals as events are planned.
  • Volunteer work with the Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB): Though not required, students who are interested in working in a division at the MSB will be directed to the appropriate staff member.

Project Lead: Danielle Land, graduate student in Biology

Student Learning Outcomes: 

1) Learn the role and significance that natural history collections serve in conservation of the natural world.

2) Understand how museum specimens serve as a nexus for multiple types of molecular, functional, and environmental research questions.

3) Obtain knowledge of safety, equipment, and techniques used in a molecular biology laboratory setting.

4) Understand how climate change and evolutionary processes have affected biodiversity both spatially and temporally.

5) Gain a basic understanding of bioinformatic skills and resources available at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Advanced Research Computing.

Starting date: October 30, 2023

Ending date: November 9, 2023

List of synchronous scheduled dates/times and events:

  • October 30, 2023 (12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.)- Museum Ethics and Voucher Specimens Lecture
  • October 31, 2023 (2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.)- Museum of Southwestern Biology Tour
  • November 1, 2023 (12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.)- Genetics and Biogeography Lecture
  • November 2, 2023 (12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.)- Introduction to Laboratory Safety, Equipment, and Techniques, DNA Extractions, and Introduction to Arctos Database
  • November 6, 2023 (12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.)- DNA Extractions and Introduction to NCBI GenBank
  • November 7, 2023 (2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.)- Polymerase Chain Reactions and Introduction to Bioinformatics
  • November 8, 2023 (12:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.)- Polymerase Chain Reactions, Bioinformatics Continued, and Introduction to UNM CARC
  • November 9, 2023 (12:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.)- Edit DNA Sequences, Create Phylogenetic Tree, Exit Lecture, and Resources


Full REC project description:

Through this REC Program, students will have the opportunity to see how natural history museums obtain and prepare specimens, learn basic phylogeographic concepts, and gain laboratory and basic bioinformatic skills. The program will start with a brief lecture about the ethics and significance associated with collecting museum voucher specimens. These lectures will outline the responsibility associated with collecting and maintaining specimens and accommodating other researchers' use of museum material through loans and database accessibility for the public. Following this brief introduction, students will tour various divisions within the Museum of Southwestern Biology, particularly the Division of Mammals. Here, I will outline the processes and procedures for creating a holistic voucher specimen. As a precursor to laboratory work, there will be a day dedicated to explaining basic genetic concepts and how we can view biogeographic history through sequencing different parts of genomes. After understanding what is happening from a molecular standpoint, students will get a tour of laboratory equipment, supplies, storage, and safety. Students will then get hands-on experience through a tutorial on how to use single and multi-channel pipettes. The following days will combine laboratory work and guided online research. Students will participate in all steps of DNA extractions, polymerase chain reactions, and cleaning cytochrome b sequences. However, these are lengthy processes with many breaks, so the students will simultaneously learn how to use the Arctos museum database to search for specimens, navigate NCBI GenBank, and learn the functionality of GBIF. To introduce undergraduates to bioinformatics, I will also show them how to use the terminal on their personal computers, the UNM CARC system, R Studio, and some basic programs to create phylogenetic trees.

Required prerequisites:

Since this is program serves as an introduction, students will not be required to have any prior knowledge of the topics discussed. However, students must be interested in viewing and possibly handling museum specimens. This includes but is not limited to skulls, skeletons, tissue, skins, and whole organisms. The Museum of Southwestern Biology practices holistic voucher preparation, which includes various measurements, organ/tissue subsampling, cleaning of skeletal material, creation of study skins, collection of internal/external parasites, and ethanol preservation.

Number of undergraduate students who will be accepted into this REC project:


Description of project leader’s research:

Danielle’s research primarily surrounds mammalian genetic diversity both spatially and temporally. Utilizing nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequences, we can view population expansion, contraction, and colonization events. Often, lineage diversification coincides with changing climate and glacial cycling, which structures genetic variation. To look at these patterns in depth, she studies shrews in Genus Sorex, which are small-bodied mammals notorious for their ability to thrive in multiple environments. Specifically, she looks at 13 species of shrew that range from Europe to the eastern edge of Russia, some of which expand to Alaska and Asian Pacific coastal islands. To investigate the complexity of genetic relationships and past colonization routes, she utilizes single genetic markers and reduced representation whole genome sequencing. From this, Danielle constructs phylogenies and paleodistribution models. The research she does is entirely thanks to collection efforts by natural history museums and international collaborations. Most of her summers are spent doing fieldwork to contribute to museum collections, whether here in New Mexico or going on expeditions to Alaska!

Antarctica is home to various lake systems that can help scientists understand how they have changed since the last ice age. At the depths of each lake, the sedimentary record and the minerals that precipitate from the water column can provide insight into the lake’s hydrology and climate in the past. In this project, you will use cores from Antarctic lakes, learn how to interpret them, and be introduced to geochemical methods to understand the evolution of these environments as a result of climate change.

APPLICATION DEADLINE: Monday, September 25, 2023

Participant Stipend: $250.  This amount will be deposited in your bursar account as a departmental award.  Department awards are considered financial aid, similar to grants or scholarships. 

Anticipated hours that participants will spend on the project: 15 hours, including scheduled meetings.

Project Lead: David Giovannetti-Nazario, graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences

Student Learning Outcomes 

  • Learn how to think like a scientist and be capable in research practices for future endeavors.
  • Have hands-on experience in working with Antarctic core samples and identifying changes in stratigraphy.
  • Be introduced to different geochemical methods, how they work, and how the data we acquire from them can be interpreted for our research questions.
  • Understand the components of an effective abstract.

Starting date: October 5, 2023

Ending date: To be determined, but prior to end of the Fall 2023 semester

List of synchronous scheduled dates/times and events:

Meetings will be arranged around participant work and class schedules.  Meetings will include the following sessions/topics:

  • Introductions & Background on the McMurdo Dry Valleys and Antarctic Research
  • Mackey Lab Group Introductions
  • Reading Exercise: How to Read a Journal Article
  • Antarctic Core Work
  • Intro to Secondary Electron Microscopy (SEM)
  • Intro to Stable Isotopes
  • Results & Reflections
  • What Makes an Effective Abstract?

Full REC project description:

The McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDV) in Antarctica host several lakes with permanent ice cover year-round, known as perennially ice-covered lakes (PICLs, for short). These systems have been the subject of scientific research for decades in order to understand their hydrology, their microbiology, and the overall geologic and climatic history of the MDV. They also have implications for understanding Martian paleoclimate. The Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at UNM is home to several cores from Lake Fryxell and Lake Joyce aimed at various research goals. In this project, we will ask one simple question: is there a record of environmental change in any of these cores?

To address this, students involved will have hands-on experience in working with these lake cores as we tackle two key components: stratigraphy and chemistry. First, students will apply observational skills to identify any changes in stratigraphy (i.e., are there any differences in sediment size, shape, color, composition?). Secondly, two geochemical techniques will be introduced as a way to familiarize students with analytical methods at a scientist’s disposal and how they can be used to address our research questions. By the end of this project, students will be more comfortable in research practices for future experiences.

Required prerequisites:

Open for STEM majors (Geology, Environmental Science, Biology, Chemistry, etc.), or any student with an interest in earth sciences. No special skills are required.

Preferred prerequisites:

General Chemistry is encouraged but not required.

Number of undergraduate students who will be accepted into this REC project:


Description of project leader’s research:

Giovannetti-Nazario’s research revolves primarily around geochemistry. The geology of Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys consists of glacial and lacustrine deposits, as well as modern perennially ice-covered lakes. Because lakes with a permanent ice cover are unique to cold arid environments, they involve processes different from glacial or other lake deposits and are capable of providing insight into past climatic conditions. Giovannetti-Nazario will be looking at carbonate facies of two lake systems, modern Lake Fryxell and the paleolake deposits of Miers Valley, to understand how these environments changed over time. Novel geochemical techniques will be used coupled with petrography and facies observations to assess changes in water balance in Lake Fryxell’s past. This work will also help elucidate the paleoclimatic context of Miers Valley where stratigraphic observations, along with stable isotopes and geochronology, will be used to investigate the evolution of Lake Miers since the Last Glacial Maximum.

The 2022/23 Major League Baseball season marked a new beginning in baseball technology at the highest level of sport: the use of the pitch clock technology. This REC project will provide you with various opportunities to build your understanding of new technology acceptance in professional athletics and apply research skills into its impact on the current season.

APPLICATION DEADLINE: September 25, 2023

Participant Stipend: $250.  This amount will be deposited in your bursar account as a departmental award.  Department awards are considered financial aid, similar to grants or scholarships. 

Anticipated hours that participants will spend on the project: 15 hours, including scheduled meetings.

Project Lead: Rashan Isaac, graduate student in Sport Administration

Student Learning Outcomes 

  • Application of research skills within academic contexts 
  • Application of research skills within private industry and sports contexts
  • Exploration related to future career interests 
  • Develop passion for research 

Starting date: Early October of 2023.  Meetings will be arranged around participant work and class schedules. 

Ending date: March 2024.

List of synchronous scheduled dates/times and events:

Meetings will be arranged around participant work and class schedules.  Meetings will include visits with UNM Baseball and Albuquerque Isotopes personnel.

Full REC project description:

Through the lens of the technology acceptance model, the purpose of this study is to describe the impact of technology innovations in Major League Baseball (MLB) on the satisfaction and commitment to consumption of MLB during in-person and TV viewing experiences. Fans will be surveyed through Amazon Mechanical Turk. To identify moderating factors of technology acceptance of the MLB’s pitch clock, structural equation modeling will be used to examine how technology innovation improves (or diminishes) satisfaction of implementation of the MLB pitch clock during 2023 season; additionally impacting consumption. It is hypothesized that highly identified fans will show high commitment to consuming MLB both in-person and on TV, despite not accepting the new pitch clock technology. Despite an attempt to speed up the pace of play (eliminating down-time between pitches) and add more excitement to the game, MLB pitching technology may not be well received and can diminish in-person and TV consumption of professional baseball. MLB league officials must critically analyze fan attitudes towards new technology before implementation, a result of which can diminish in-person attendance and TV consumption of MLB games.

Required prerequisites:


Preferred prerequisites:

Interest in sports, technology, and/or statistics. Interest in applying statistics to non-traditional research settings.

Number of undergraduate students who will be accepted into this REC project:


Description of project leader’s research:

Rashan’s research in the sports management discipline is settled on the acceptance of new technologies in sport and sport consumption. Specifically, he explores the issues athletes and coaches experience when incorporating new technologies within their practices; with a focus on sport consumption related to in-person and media-based sport events. Rashan’s industry experience stems from participation in the NFL’s 2023 Big Data Mentorship Program and MLB’s Diversity Pipeline Program (SABR Analytics Conference).

This REC project will allow you to take part in a comprehensive research experience related to environmental contamination and environmental justice. As part of REC, you will attend at least one meeting of UNM Metals Exposure and Toxicity Assessment on Tribal Lands in the Southwest (UNM METALS) Superfund Center, where you will learn about the interdisciplinary research occurring at the Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine site located at the Pueblo of Laguna (POL). After attending a METALS meeting, you will partake in a field day where you will meet POL Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) staff who will take us through. The Jackpile mine is an abandoned uranium mine, which is a current Superfund Site that is may be contributing uranium contamination to the POL that is causing considerable health concerns for the local communities. You will also assist in the field by changing out multiple passive air sampler filters that are deployed to understand airborne particulate matter within the mine site.  Once the air filters are collected, you will participate in a lab day where you will learn the basics of the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and how to identify metal-bearing particulate matter that is of interest in this research project and how it is significant in terms of the community’s concerns.

APPLICATION DEADLINE: Monday, September 18, 2023

Participant Stipend: $250.  This amount will be deposited in your bursar account as a departmental award.  Department awards are considered financial aid, similar to grants or scholarships. 

Anticipated hours that participants will spend on the project: 14 hours.

Project Lead: Andreanna Roros, graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences

Student Learning Outcomes 

  • Gain a better understanding of how research is conducted, and the different steps, disciplines, and people involved in conducting a successful project.
  • Analyze and interpret data related to the project by collaborating with others.
  • Understand the importance of communicating science and answering community-based research questions.
  • Become more confident in your ability to perform research, making connections with professors/grad students/government agencies, and in using scientific instruments.
  • Gain a better understanding of the type of major, career, or research you may be interested in pursuing.

Starting date:

Late September.  The actual starting date will be based on participant class and work schedules.

Ending date:

Early-December before finals

List of synchronous scheduled dates/times and events:

  • First meeting-get to know each other and explain the research and history of the mine site. Date and time to be arranged based on participant schedules.
  • Thursday September 21 st METALS Meeting 1-3 pm
  • Thursday October 19 th METALS Meeting 1-3 pm
  • Early-Mid November—SEM lesson and looking at the passive air filters collected in field. Date and time to be arranged based on participant schedules.

Full REC project description:

This REC project will give you insights into current multidisciplinary research being conducted at UNM in relation to the Metals Exposure and Toxicity Assessment on Tribal Lands in the Southwest (METALS) Superfund Center funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. There are thousands of abandoned uranium mines (AUM) throughout the United States, most of which disproportionately impact Native American communities. One of those mines, the Jackpile Mine which operated from 1952-1982, is located only 40 miles from Albuquerque and poses significant environmental and human health risks to the surrounding communities. This site has been designated as a Superfund Site, meaning that it represents one of the most highly contaminated areas in the country—with Pueblo of Laguna (POL) population centers ranging from 0.5-8 miles from the mine. This proximity to the mine site is of major concern when considering windblown contamination, the primary research topic for this REC.

After an initial meeting, where you will become more familiar with Superfund Site, the history of the Jackpile Mine, and what community-based research is, you will attend at least one monthly METALS meeting. At these meetings, you will meet trainees, like me, and research faculty who are working on multiple different projects related to human health, communicating science, water and air contamination, environmental engineering, toxicology, public health, biology, and botany. Most importantly, you will hear from those living at POL and gain a better understanding of the community concerns that the METALS research team is striving to address. A major longstanding concern of the community is the potential for exposure to toxic, windblown metal-bearing dust derived from the mine that may have significant detrimental effects on the health of local communities as a result of inhalation. . Particulate matter, especially particles less than 2.5 microns in size (PM 2.5) can travel deep into the respiratory track and remain in the lung tissue.  Nanoparticulates (less than 100 nm in size) are especially hazardous to human health, because they readily enter the bloodstream, and are transported throughout the body, and can also pass through the blood-brain barrier, causing chronic health conditions. Hearing from members of the POL community is extremely eye-opening and will help you understand the importance of this type of public health research and why this project is being conducted.

Once you understand the purpose of the research, you will then be able to attend a field day. During this field day we will be met by POL Environment and Natural Resources Department (ENRD) Staff members, many of whom live on POL land. ENRD will take us to each of the different mining sites—the main pit, north pit, and south pit. Legacy mining techniques were employed at these sites which included open-pit mining, erodible leftover till, and incomplete clean-up practices. This is extremely dangerous to the environment as it generates large amounts of dust containing heavy metal mixtures that can contaminate the air, water, and soil. Although previously remediated in 1995, continuous erosion for almost three decades has resulted in the exposure of radioactive materials and continues to increase the potential for uranium to be windblown. You will be able to see the extent of the erosion as we travel throughout the mine as well as see an area where exposed ore still exists. Ultrafine dust that comes from these sites becomes extremely mobile in the arid and windy southwestern climate of New Mexico. For that reason, passive air samplers have been set up at each of the mining pit locations which collect windblown dust and dust that settles from the atmosphere. As a result, you will also be participating in collecting these passive air sampler filters and replacing them with new ones since data is being recorded monthly. Please note that proper radiation safety precautions will be taken while we are out in the field.

After going out in the field, you will then learn how to use the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), which is an instrument that has the ability to image at a high enough magnification (sub micron) for us to identify and image any airborne uranium particulates that we collect. The SEM uses a scanning electron beam to collect topographical, compositional, structural, and crystallographic information about the specimen of interest. Not only will you learn SEM techniques, but you will also be taught how to find potential uranium-bearing particulate matter from the air filters that we collect out in the field. We will then be able to determine the size, composition of these minerals and if they fall into the category of particulate matter that is easily respirable and a potential threat to the community.

Required prerequisites:


Preferred prerequisites:

Interest in geology, environmental science, communicating science, environmental justice, environmental contamination, geochemistry, mineralogy, microscopy, or related topics.

Number of undergraduate students who will be accepted into this REC project:


Description of project leader’s research:

The Jackpile Mine, which operated from 1953 to 1982, was located within the tribal lands of the Pueblo of Laguna (POL), was one of the world’s largest uranium (U) mines. This open-pit mine operated by blasting and crushing uranium-bearing rock, and produced a large volume of waste rock from the mining process that was stored on the mine site. These mining activities led to the production and airborne transport of uranium-bearing particulate matter (PM 2.5). PM 2.5 is extremely dangerous to human health because it can travel into the respiratory tract and penetrate the lungs, where it is retained. The Jackpile mine has been designated a Superfund site, meaning that it is currently among the most contaminated places in the United States, and is eligible for federal funds from the EPS Superfund program for remediation. Despite the danger to human health, little is known about the fate and transport of uranium dust, formation mechanisms of U-bearing nanoparticles, pathways of uranium uptake into agricultural crops, human health risks from inhalation or ingestion, or how uranium contaminated mine sites should inevitably be remediated. The proposed research will address a number of questions to help fill this knowledge gap. We plan to (1) systematically sample sites on the POL and at exposed uranium ore outcrops within the Jackpile Mine, (2) analyze air and soil samples for U and other toxic metals through scanning electron microscopy (SEM), transmission electron microscope (TEM) techniques and trace element chemical analysis (ICP-MS), and (3) investigate if agricultural soils are being enriched in U as a result of windblown dust coming from the mine through radiogenic isotopic ratios. The abundance of U-bearing PM 2.5 in the air and soil surrounding the Jackpile Mine will be the baseline to understanding patterns of distribution throughout the Pueblo. This investigation can provide necessary data on how PM is being transported, inhaled, and ingested—potentially explaining pervasive chronic health issues seen in the communities of the Pueblo of Laguna. Empirical data collection is an important step in understanding the interactions that abandoned uranium mines are having on Native American communities, in mitigating the effects of potential exposures to metals, and in improving the overall health of the environment.

The mechanisms of chronic exposure, uptake pathways, whether the Jackpile mine site is producing contemporary U-bearing dust, and the overall human-environmental feedback relationships are yet to be fully understood. Many questions remain regarding the transport, origins, distribution, abundance, and physiochemical characteristics of U-bearing PM associated with AUMs (Lewis et al., 2017). Understanding these characteristics is extremely important to improve the knowledge of how U and other metal-bearing nanoparticles impact the environment and human health. This research is critical because not only does it encourage citizen-based science, but it also promotes relationships, social justice, and collaboration with longed ignored Native American communities. As a result of this research, new scanning electron microscopy (SEM) techniques will be explored and developed, contributing to more accurate mineralogical and geochemical identification of toxic metal-bearing dust. Furthermore, isotopic investigations have yet to be conducted and is necessary to verify if the source of uranium found in the soils at Laguna are coming from the mine. Importantly, these data will address specific concerns raised by community members of the Pueblo of Laguna allowing informed decisions to be made on how to mitigate health risks for those impacted. This project will also serve as a baseline to evaluate how effective planned remediation efforts for the mine, under the auspices of the EPA Superfund project, have been as they are completed over the next several years.

The current R packages for mixed model analysis, such as lme4 and nlme, have limitations that have caused setbacks in research and have hindered the ability to conduct analyses effectively. Given these challenges, this team of undergraduates will work a graduate advisor to to design and develop a new package for mixed models that addresses these limitations and provides new functionalities for conducting mixed model analyses in R and python

APPLICATION DEADLINE: Friday, September 22, 2023

Participant Stipend: $350.  This amount will be deposited in your bursar account as a departmental award.  Department awards are considered financial aid, similar to grants or scholarships. 

Anticipated hours that participants will spend on the project: 24 hours.

Project Lead: Sina Mokhtar, graduate student in Statistics

Student Learning Outcomes 

  • Improve technical skills in R and Python programming for data analysis and statistics.
  • Gain a better understanding of complex statistical concepts, such as fix and random effects.
  • Develop problem-solving abilities by tackling real-world challenges in data analysis and programming.
  • Learn teamwork and effective communication by collaborating on a research project

Starting date:  Monday, September 25, 2023

Ending date: November 13, 2023

List of synchronous scheduled dates/times and events:

  • The first meeting will be held the week of September 25, 2023. Time and date will be based on participant class and work schedules.
  • Additional group meetings and one-on-one meetings will be scheduled based on participant class and work schedules

Full REC project description:

Step-by-Step Plan for Concurrent Development in R and Python:

Investigate Existing Packages

  • Research and evaluate current R and Python packages for mixed model analysis (e.g., lme4 and nlme in R, and statsmodels in Python).
  • Identify limitations and weaknesses of these packages in both languages.

Package Design in R and Python

  • Based on the research and needs assessment, design a new mixed model analysis package in both R and Python.
  • Focus on addressing identified limitations and incorporating requested features in both implementations.

Core Algorithm Development in R and Python

  • Simultaneously implement the core algorithms and methodologies in both R and Python.
  • Perform rigorous testing and validation against known datasets for both implementations

Add Advanced Functionalities in R and Python

  • Introduce advanced features, such as support for nested random effects, handling of missing data, and model validation tools, in both R and Python(optional).

User Interface and Documentation in R and Python

  • Design intuitive and user-friendly interfaces for the R and Python packages.
  • Provide comprehensive documentation, tutorials, and examples for both implementations.

Testing and Debugging in R and Python

  • Conduct extensive testing in both R and Python environments to ensure stability, accuracy, and compatibility.
  • Address and fix any identified bugs in both implementations.
  • Collaborate with researchers to beta test both the R and Python packages and gather feedback for improvements.

Documentation and Distribution in R and Python

  • Prepare detailed documentation for both R and Python packages.
  • Make the packages available through relevant repositories and channels for easy access in both languages.

Ongoing Support in R and Python

  • Provide continuous support, updates, and maintenance for both the R and Python packages to enhance usability and efficiency


Required prerequisites:

No requirement. If you have no familiarity with Stat, R or Python, we can work together to build this background.

Preferred prerequisites:

  • Knowledge of programming
  • Basic knowledge of statical testing

Number of undergraduate students who will be accepted into this REC project:


Description of project leader’s research:

Sina’s focuses on how the risk of COVID-19 infection varied across different counties in the United States during the pandemic, and how the CDC's community risk level metrics were used to estimate this risk. These metrics helped guide decisions on infection prevention strategies. The CDC categorized counties into low, medium, or high risk based on factors like new cases, hospital admissions, and bed use. These risk levels determined actions like testing, isolation, masking, and vaccination.

The study aimed to understand how consistent these risk level assignments were over time and whether they changed frequently. To do this, you gathered data on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and bed occupancy from public sources. You analyzed how often counties' risk levels stayed the same or changed, and you looked at the speed of these changes. Additionally, you explored how the rate of risk level change related to factors like county population size, urbanization level, and the number of hospitals.

In this research, Sina also compared the CDC's metrics with an alternative metric that predicts risk similarly. This alternative metric adjusted the threshold for hospital bed occupancy to 5% instead of 10%.

Overall, Sina’s study contributes to understanding how COVID-19 risk was assessed at the county level, how consistent these assessments were, and how different metrics compared in predicting risk. This information could help inform public health recommendations and strategies for managing the pandemic's impact.

Link of the article:

Click here to see the REC Program Assessment Plan

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