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UNI Museum and Rod Library Partners with Chemistry Students on Tusk Research

UNI Museum and Rod Library are supporting student success in a chemistry course this semester by helping students do groundbreaking research on an object held by the museum. An 11-foot long mastodon tusk discovered near Hampton, Iowa in 1933 is the object of study. Students in Dr. Josh Sebree’s Instrumental Analysis course were asked to be part of the museum's project to conserve the tusk. The class conducted primary research to answer specific questions to aid in the understanding and restoration of the object. This assignment to study and preserve the tusk is part of a 3-year project funded by a grant awarded to UNI Museum by the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust. The project has also been made possible by the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology through the use of their anthropology lab.Mastodon tusk

The Research Process

Early in the fall 2017 semester, Nathan Arndt, assistant director and chief curator of UNI Museum, introduced the students to the tusk and discussed the history and importance of the tusk at UNI. Anne Marie Gruber, Rod Library instruction & liaison librarian for the chemistry/biochemistry department, helped students develop strategies for literature searching to gather background information to inform their projects. The published sources students used came from a wide range of dates and disciplines, including historical scholarly articles about the UNI tusk as well as recent books about art restoration techniques.

Students individually prepared outlines and written proposals to describe their intended research project. Anne Marie met with each student during the outlining process to provide suggestions along the way. Students also used the new Culture Lab at UNI Museum, which allowed students to experiment with new technology, primarily X-ray fluorescence, (XRF) which enabled UNI students the ability to conduct non-destructive elemental analysis on the tusk and the conservation materials used to preserve it over the last 80 years. Nathan was able to provide study samples of the tusk, historical references, conservation and historical photographs, and provided direct access to the tusk itself as the students progressed in their research.

Once proposals were complete, students participated in review panels in small groups, each led by a chief reviewer which included Dr. Sebree, Anne Marie, Marcy Seavey from the UNI STEM office, and Dr. Alexa Sedlacek, earth science faculty. This panel process emulated a grant review process similar to one that would take place in a government or nonprofit agency. The panel conducted in-depth discussions about 3-4 proposals and graded them on a standard rubric. Dr. Sebree's grading process will include feedback received from peer and chief reviewers.

Following the completion of the projects, students presented their research at a poster session. The event was open to the public, and attendees were able to view the students' work and vote for their favorite poster.

Display boards with student projectsStudent Learning on Display

This project has opened students’ eyes to various aspects of the research process, from literature searching to hands-on lab work in support of a grant. Having a public audience for the project enabled the students to practice explaining their projects to others and allowed them to increase their learning and retention of material. Additionally, the students’ posters will be put online via UNI ScholarWorks and exhibited in various buildings across campus. Knowing that their projects will be viewable by the public for years to come raised the stakes and encouraged the students to work even harder.

As UNI Museum continues the conservation of the tusk, the studies done by these students will aid the conservator considerably in her progress. An essential piece was the work students did to identify the chemicals best used to remove varnishes and in examining the condition and composition of the dentin layer inside the tusk. Over the next three years, the partnership between UNI Museum and the Department of Chemistry will expand upon these specific projects and possibly change what historians and scientists currently know about Iowa mastodons.

Gaining access to the tusk and valuable resources through UNI Museum and Rod Library has been an enriching experience for students, who expressed their excitement at this opportunity.Student Clare Laubenthal with her poster project

Clare Laubenthal, senior biochemistry and biology major

"This project has given me real life experience and has allowed me to use the degree I’m working toward. It has pushed me to work cooperatively with other departments and work creatively to solve problems. Whenever I came across a roadblock, the excitement of having access to the tusk got me through it.”

Joshua Prybil, junior chemistry and mathematics majorStudent Joshua Prybil with his poster project

"The library provided me with valuable resources, such as search engines, that I might not have found otherwise. These resources helped me find the specific information that led me to discover that there are nucleobases present in the tusk.”

As UNI Museum continues to research and preserve the tusk, new studies will be needed providing years of hands-on research for UNI students. The ultimate goal is to develop partnerships with not only chemistry, but geology, history, anthropology, and any other interested department into the final product.

For More Information about Research Being Done on the Tusk:

  • Student posters will be on display in McCollum Science Hall, UNI Museum on the first floor of Rod Library, and outside of Scholar Space on the third floor of Rod Library.

  • Northern Iowan article about this semester’s component of the tusk project

  • Ongoing digital archive of tusk project materials, including original photos and articles, in UNI ScholarWorks. Students’ proposals, posters, and data sets will also be archived here. Visit often as the collection grows!

 

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