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Major research going on right here at PSU: Susannah Gal

By Susannah Gal
Posted 4/12/17

When I was in school, I did a research paper on the wild mustang horses living on the Western plains of the United States. I found statistics on the numbers of horses and how that had changed over …

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Major research going on right here at PSU: Susannah Gal

Doctoral student Debolina Ray, Susannah Gal, technical assistant Nancy Monteith, and master’s student Yuanyuan Wang worked on projects at Binghamton University in the early 2010s, examining a cancer protein and determining how it functioned.
Doctoral student Debolina Ray, Susannah Gal, technical assistant Nancy Monteith, and master’s student Yuanyuan Wang worked on projects at Binghamton University in the early 2010s, examining a cancer protein and determining how it functioned.
Contributed photo by Susannah Gal
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When I was in school, I did a research paper on the wild mustang horses living on the Western plains of the United States. I found statistics on the numbers of horses and how that had changed over time, as well as articles explaining what was affecting their decline.

It was a great topic for me as I loved horses; I still have that paper with the comments from my teacher — “I almost cried when I read about people shooting the wild horses from airplanes.”

Well, getting information from a variety of sources is research, and that’s some of what I do as a professor at Penn State University. Research is, essentially, trying to answer a question, figuring out what’s going on, or trying to understand a topic better. Research on what’s been done or learned in the past can become a review article (like a synopsis for a long book) for people in my discipline of biology. That helps me and others see the lay of the land and what needs to be worked on next to help the field or research area proceed to the next stage.

You might have heard the terms “applied research” or “basic research.” Applied research is often done by engineers who are specifically trying to improve something. It could be to make a car that has better fuel efficiency or to create cellphone batteries that last longer or to develop stronger materials to hold up a bridge. Applied research occurs in companies all over the world. It’s important to consider where the knowledge came from to create the first gasoline engine, cellphone battery, or bridge material. That knowledge developed from basic research.

Basic research is learning new things in an area or discipline without a predetermined goal. One type is to observe a situation or an object and see what you learn. Basic research might involve monitoring how students learn a concept so that you can create a lesson that assists them in understanding a topic. Another example could be to count the plants and animals in a forest and see how that has changed since a power plant was installed nearby. That research might help people understand what organisms are more sensitive to changes in the environment.

One could find out the types of materials Michelangelo used to paint the Sistine Chapel, which could provide insights into what compounds were available to him during the Renaissance in Italy. These are only a few examples of the many types of basic research that have been or could be done. Sometimes, basic research can lead to important discoveries that can change the way things work, or are done, in profound ways.

Basic research is conducted in many places, though a significant part of what university faculty do involves research. In fact, that’s usually how they advanced their education and careers. I received my doctorate degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in biochemistry (basically a combination of biology and chemistry). For that, I had to do original, basic research in an area of biochemistry that no one had worked on in the past.

My research was conducted at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. For my research, I took something my adviser had discovered about cancer cells and tried to figure out what that meant for those cells. I remember getting one definitive result at about 11 p.m. at night. It was my “Eureka moment.” I was so excited to share with my adviser, so I called him. Normally an “early-to-bed” kind of person, he said: “That’s nice Susannah; let’s talk in the morning.” After getting that result, I could map out the rest of the work needed for my PhD degree.

Basic research is usually creating new knowledge by figuring out what’s not known so that the next most important questions can be asked. You might ask why is basic research done at a university or college. Well, it is part of a faculty member’s contribution to the greater understanding of our world. It provides a framework for learning about subjects that shows students what’s important for a discipline or subject area and puts the work into context for the larger world view.

Faculty members are creative and show their passion for the topic of their work and try to translate that excitement for learning to their students. In doing so, faculty members are helping students gain problem solving and critical thinking skills, plus learn how to present an idea in writing or speaking.

All of these skills are useful for students no matter what field or job they eventually get. Students sometimes can do research with faculty members which can enhance their classroom learning. At my previous university, I was able to host about 80 students in my research laboratory and found it to be a rewarding experience for me and them.

What does this topic have to do with you and Middletown? There are more than 380 faculty members at Penn State Harrisburg who are doing research in all types of areas, sharing their passion for a subject and their curiosity with students and you. Faculty regularly present on their research at our campus, events you are welcome to attend. You can also look up the faculty expertise on our web pages and see if anyone is working on things you’re interested in. You have a wonderful resource right in your own backyard! Check out the possibilities.

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in July 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.

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