UCA students present research at the state capitol

More than 67 science, technology, engineering and mathematics students from across Arkansas gathered at the state capitol to demonstrate their research findings for the annual Arkansas STEM Posters at the Capitol on Feb. 8. Eight students from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at University of Central Arkansas presented posters.

Since 2012 (with the exception of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), college students presented STEM-based research in poster presentations on the second floor of the capitol rotunda. Arkansas STEM Posters at the Capitol is open to the public with invitations to elected officials. 

“UCA has taken the lead in organizing this event over the past decade,” said Steven O’Connell, chair of the UCA Department of Geography and an organizer of the event. “The initiative is to get students in a position where they can present that research and the impact of that research to members of the legislature, constitutional officers and, to some degree, the general public who would not normally get to see that research so that they can see the amazing things our students are doing across the state.” 

Pat Desrochers, chair of UCA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, led the effort for Arkansas STEM Posters at the Capitol until 2020 and modeled it after similar events at other universities, namely Murray State University in Kentucky. The Council on Undergraduate Research promotes poster events at state capitols to mirror the Posters on the Hill events in Washington, D.C.

UCA Students Haley Cox, Elisabeth Hicklin and Nathan Taylor stand in front of a scientific poster during the Arkansas Stem Posters at the Capitol event.

UCA Students Haley Cox, Elisabeth Hicklin and Nathan Taylor stand in front of a scientific poster during the Arkansas Stem Posters at the Capitol event.

Haley Cox and Elisabeth Hicklin, two sophomore chemistry students, are conducting research they hope will lead to sustainable lab-created fossil fuels. 

“This type of research has been done before, but we’re looking at ways to increase yield,” Hicklin said. “We’ve found good results using a microwave reaction versus a reflux system, but one stipulation is that it will stick around. We’re trying to come up with creative ways to purify the staple and remove our solvent off.”

Cox, a sophomore from Vilonia, thought she wanted to be a lawyer until she took fundamentals of chemistry with Kevin Barber, a visiting assistant professor in UCA’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.  

“I fell in love with chemistry at that point and chose to be chemistry major,” Cox said. 

While this is her first time presenting her research at the state capitol, Cox has presented multiple posters as a UCA student. She left the capitol with new ideas. 

“I got a lot of good feedback from some chemists that I’m planning to take back and implement,” Cox said. “It was a good experience.” 

CNSM graduate student Willow Harper’s poster was titled, “Modeling Pre-Euro-American Settlement Forest Composition, Structure and Spatial Pattern in the Ouachita Mountain Ecoregion, Arkansas, USA.” 

“Modern forests have changed dramatically from what they were in the past, especially before the arrival of European settlers in the region,” Harper said. “My hope is that this model of historical vegetation can be used by land managers in restoring some of the historical ecosystems. 

Harper has been digitizing early surveys dating back to 1813 to map out topography and soil changes. She became interested in general land office surveys after she graduated with a bachelor’s in geography in 2021. 

“My advisor, Dr. Will Flatley, introduced this to me, and I find it fascinating that we have such an old and detailed record of vegetation,” Harper said. “It is really an underutilized resource, so that was part of my motivation. We have such good data, but it is a pain to make it available for this kind of research. As part of my project, I semi-automated the process of plotting all of these trees out in hopes that people can build off of it and use my data to do more historical reconstructions.”

Nathan Taylor, a sophomore biology major from White Hall, has been working on his research for a little less than a year.

“Dr. [Lei] Yang has been an amazing mentor for me. He taught me everything I needed to know to know about inorganic and organic history,” Taylor said. “He invited me to do research with him. I’m excited to work on this project.” 

Taylor, along with UCA graduate Dillion Rea, student Hanna Russell and Yang, is studying synthesis and characterization of copper complexes supported by binucleating ligands. 

“We’re hoping to reduce carbon dioxide and convert it into other products like methane or ethylene,” Taylor said. “We’re using ligands – think scaffolding – and a copper center to hopefully get the complex to react to CO2.”

The researchers combine the ligands with copper salts and other solvents to create new complexes and see how the complexes react with carbon dioxide. 

Each of the students was well prepared for their presentations and broke down complicated scientific terms for any lay person to understand. Hicklin said she was nervous at first but loved being able to apply the lessons she learned in her chemistry classes to research she can apply to improving the world around her. 

“It’s nerve wracking because you’re presenting to governing officials of Arkansas, and you wonder ‘Am I going to do okay?’” Hicklin said. “But after presenting a couple of times, I’ve found my groove. It’s nice because you get to go and share your work with the public and say, ‘This is what I have been able to work on because of your investment in us. Here’s how we’re trying to give back.’”