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Research Mentors

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North Dakota’s Regional and State Science Fairs serve as invaluable tools that allow younger students to pursue answers to their scientific questions and to have fun while doing so. For several students of Loretta Monson, a Valley-Edinburg high school science teacher, this year’s science fairs also provided the unique opportunity to work one-on-one with UND faculty and equipment.

“I have observed that students winning top awards often have the advantage of great mentorship,” Monson said. “I wanted my students from a rural area to have the ability to compete with the best.”

Sergei Nechaev and Othman Ghribi




Students in Monson’s applied science class are required to choose and independently research a topic that they will later present at the Regional Science Fair. One potential concern faced by high school science students—particularly those from rural areas—is a lack of equipment.

“Most of the time, our science lab and local resources are adequate, but sometimes we need to ask for help,” Monson said. “As a mentor, I identified projects that were beyond our laboratory resources and my expertise. When I know students are really motivated, I will do anything I can to make their project possible.

Monson sought out Charlene Crocker, a research scientist at UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center, and Karen Cisek, a project coordinator in the Department of Pathology at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, for the connections that would allow her students to succeed.                

“Without their help,” Monson said, “the projects would have been impossible.”

This is how Monson and her students became acquainted with UND SMHS faculty members Sergei Nechaev, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and Othman Ghribi, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Therapeutics.

“This was really a chance occurrence,” Nechaev said. “Karen Cisek had approached me during one of the local science meetings about a high school student working on a science project. She did not give me any details, but I still said yes because a high school student who is proactively seeking advice is a good sign.”

Kari Olson, the student who worked with Ghribi, was interested in studying the mutagenic effects of the herbicide Roundup, which is used extensively by local farmers including her father. According to Monson, Ghribi suggested the chemicals to be used for the assay of the herbicide and allowed Kari the use of his lab, where she was supervised by a graduate student over a number of sessions. Unfortunately, the first set of tests yielded results that were toxic in all concentrations, and Kari was unable to find time to redo the tests to find more meaningful results and was, therefore, unable to compete at the Regional Science Fair.

“She was very disappointed, as was I,” Monson said. “Dr. Ghribi was wonderful; it was no fault of UND because the assay had not been done on Roundup as far as we knew. Actually, what happened was very common in science. Often at first, one finds out what not to do so one knows what one might do the next time.    


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