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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Biology Graduate Works on Research Projects with Faculty from Two ODU Colleges

By Brendan O'Hallarn

The world of research isn't glamorous.

For Blake Steiner, who will graduate May 6 from Old Dominion University with a degree in biology, research means getting off an airplane from a conference after midnight and being at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens early that morning to record observations.

It means missing out on social opportunities, spending weekends analyzing data or writing up research findings - material that won't even help him pass any of his classes. It takes a particularly motivated student to dive into research as an undergraduate. Motivation isn't a challenge for Blake Steiner.

"I LOVE this," Steiner said, surrounded by pungent aromas and plant samples at ODU's Arthur & Phyllis Kaplan Orchid Conservatory. "I feel so fortunate for the opportunities I have been given."

Most of those opportunities arose through hustle. As a transfer student from Tidewater Community College who originally wanted to be an engineer, Steiner looked up faculty members doing research that interested him. Then paid them visits, unsolicited, asking how he could join their projects.

"Undergraduate students just don't do this," said Tatyana Lobova, senior lecturer of biological sciences and one of Steiner's mentors. "He has been brave enough to just go and talk to different faculty."

Two years later, Steiner is not only graduating with honors; he also has worked actively on research with faculty members in two academic colleges - Lobova and Sandeep Kumar, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Steiner has made five research presentations at four different events, winning best presentation at the recent Virginia Collegiate Honors Council Conference in April. Steiner was also the only undergraduate who presented two very different projects during Old Dominion's Undergraduate Research Symposium in February.

"I was in engineering my first year at TCC. I thought it was the quickest way to get a job and make money," said Steiner, 22, who is from Chesapeake. "But when I took biology, I really found my passion. I want to do research that helps protect the environment."

At Old Dominion, he works with Lobova on a phenology project that has been running at Norfolk Botanical Garden since 2009. Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal life stages of plants and animals.

Lobova's study, one of the first launched on the East Coast, tracks natural markers like the first bloom of particular plants, then cross referencing the information with weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Norfolk International Airport, looking for evidence of plant behavior being altered by climate change. She said Steiner has been a motivated research assistant.

"We need students to learn to think as real scientists do," Lobova said. "It's hard to find undergraduate students who have Blake's very good analytical thinking skills."

Steiner also works in the biofuels lab directed by Kumar, leader of the energy cluster in the Batten College of Engineering and Technology.

He presented research in Salt Lake City in early April, studying the use of free ammonia to minimize the population of zooplankton in algae cultures. If not controlled, the tiny organisms can eat away at the algae mass, reducing the yield that can be used to make environmentally friendly fuel.

Kumar has been impressed with Steiner's diligence as he has worked alongside Ph.D. student Caleb Talbot. "Blake is a self-motivated and passionate undergraduate researcher who is not afraid to take extra steps and learn new things to stay ahead," he said.

In addition to the free ammonia study, Steiner has assisted with Kumar's National Science Foundation CAREER research project "and excelled on the projects that he tackled," Kumar said.

Steiner is looking for a research internship, and he is planning to apply to graduate school. He hopes to find more ways to marry his love of biology with other disciplines.

"For many of the students in the program, the goal is to go into medicine, which is an excellent field," Steiner said. "I'm hoping to be more involved in environmental issues, to help save the earth."

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