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SUNY Plattsburgh Students Earn Top Honors in Research Competitions

Three SUNY Plattsburgh students recently received top awards in two scientific research competitions.

The students — Michael Haynes, Justin Andrews and Mackenzie Kilkeary '12 — entered the competitions under the guidance of Professor Nancy Elwess and Lecturer Sandra Latourelle, both in the college’s biology department.

Haynes, a junior biology major from Brooklyn, N.Y., placed second in the ecology and evolutionary biology division of the international Sigma Xi Research Society’s 2013 Student Research Showcase, a competition for virtual presentations that was held in March.

Meanwhile, Andrews and Kilkeary placed first and second, respectively, in the Society of College Science Teachers’ poster contest in San Antonio April 12.

Haynes, Sigma Xi Showcase

For his project, Haynes worked with Edmund Adjapong, a 2012 graduate from the Bronx, N.Y., to extract DNA from the teeth of 25 skeletons, randomly selected from SUNY Plattsburgh’s ancient Maya skeleton collection. That collection, the largest of its kind in the world, includes about 580 Maya skeletons, excavated over the years by SUNY Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Dr. Mark Cohen.

According to Haynes, those DNA extractions contribute to current knowledge about the ancient Maya and help give insight into the migration routes that were taken to populate the New World.

Andrews, Society of College Science Teachers Contest

Andrews, a junior earth and environmental science major from Warrensburg, N.Y., started working on a DNA database of the Lake Champlain basin frog population in the summer of 2011. He entered this work into the society’s poster contest. Six other Plattsburgh students also entered their projects.

Andrews hopes the data he has collected will provide a starting point for other research.

“What other scientists can do is take the DNA that I’ve collected from the frogs here and compare it to the genes of different frogs all over the world,” Andrews said.

Kilkeary, Society of College Science Teachers Contest

Meanwhile, for his project, Kilkeary worked to determine the sex of juvenile ancient Maya skeletons.

A Plattsburgh native, Kilkeary, who helped train Haynes, graduated last December with a bachelor’s in biology. He believes his research and hands-on experience at SUNY Plattsburgh gained him entrance into the forensic science graduate program at Marshall University in West Virginia.

“The fact that we can even do undergraduate research is awesome because a lot of schools don’t offer that,” he said. “I had some weaknesses in my resume, but I think my undergraduate research is what really stood out in my application.”

The Importance of Student Ownership

Elwess and Latourelle monitor their students’ work and make sure the research topics speak to each student’s interests.

“If they have ownership over the project, it’s more meaningful,” Elwess said.

As the research evolves, the two step back to let the students become more and more independent — an approach both they and the students have found to be effective.

“They’re doing something by themselves for themselves,” Latourelle said. “It’s very worthwhile.”

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