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Grant puts undergraduates in field for hands-on study

POSTED: July 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Hall County sisters Brittany Peck, left, 21, and Amanda Peck, 18, test the water quality Wednesday at Wilshire Trails Park in Gainesville. Both take part in undergraduate research at North Georgia College & State University.

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A professor at North Georgia College & State University is trying to lure students out of the classroom and into research laboratories.

Mark Spraker, professor of physics at North Georgia College & State University, founded the school’s first Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities last year. And in June, he received a $25,000 grant from the University System of Georgia Board of Regents to support the fledgling research center.

Brittany and Amanda Peck, sisters from Gainesville, already have seized the research opportunities at NGCSU. Both graduated from North Hall High School and are biology majors at the university.

Brittany Peck, 21, has spent the past year studying water quality in the Chattahoochee River near Helen. And this fall, Amanda Peck, 18, will begin researching the mathematical relationship between human social networks and disease propagation.

A handful of students like the Peck sisters are currently conducting research under the NGCSU center’s guidance in the fields of biology, mathematics and physics. But Spraker said the center also will support research in the arts field that could include the study of progressive techniques in fiber art, photography, weaving or dyeing.

"Undergraduate research is a fundamental part of developing education for the next generation," Spraker said. "The class work is absolutely important, but learning what to do with it is equally important, if not more important."

He said the school in Dahlonega of about 5,000 students is not likely to be a top-tier research institution, but offering students the opportunity to collect and publish their own research is a thrilling part of undergraduate education now available.

Amanda Peck said she hopes to become a doctor after college, and engaging in field research now may give her an edge over the competition when applying to medical school. She said she will spend about 10 to 12 hours on research outside the classroom this fall.

"It will help me to be more focused on my studies," she said. "I’m not going to just read about it; I’m actually going to get to do it."

Brittany Peck, who has her sights set on pharmacy school, said she believes offering students the opportunity to research water quality in North Georgia is crucial to preserving the environment.

She said in her research, she discovered E. coli levels in the Chattahoochee River that exceed EPA standards. Brittany Peck said it’s up to the scientists of her generation to explore these environmental issues and to find solutions to restoring the tainted water sources increasingly valuable to the survival and economy of Georgia.

She added that many other students at NGCSU would seize the opportunity to spend time outside of the classroom if more funding was available to support undergraduate research.

"I do believe the interest is there and the desire is there, but if the funds aren’t there, there’s really not much the faculty can do," Brittany Peck said.

Spraker said he’s working on that.

Currently, Spraker said he is waiting to hear back from the NASA Space Grant Consortium regarding his proposal for a $25,000 grant to support the university’s work in astronomy, X-ray physics and other science fields.

He said the grant would allow the school to invest in equipment to build a radio telescope, which would enable students to view radio waves as they are generated from stars and planets.

With the ability to track the movement of radio waves, students could study the structure of the universe.

Spraker said students would be able to initiate and publish new research with such equipment.

"It’s very cool," he said. "Eighteen to 22-year-olds will be able to put their hands on equipment they’ve only seen in movies. They’ll be able to do something that actually contributes to human knowledge."



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