STEM Students Attend REU Workshop at BYU

Published: October 28, 2021 | Author: Savannah Byers | Read Time: 8 minutes

Cali Kucifer, Jessie Fischer Stenlund, and Katie Crowther, SUU chemistry studentsThree Southern Utah University undergraduates spent their summers in the science labs at Brigham Young University as participants in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF), REU offers undergraduate students the opportunity to work with research programs across the country on a variety of research projects.

Cali Kucifer, Jessie Fischer Stenlund, and Katie Crowther are all STEM majors at SUU planning to pursue careers in the sciences. This year, 10 students were selected for the program at BYU out of applicants from across the U.S. This trio was proud to represent SUU.

"A testament to the quality of our chemistry faculty and the students we get to work everyday is exemplified by three of our SUU students participating in a competitive REU opportunity at Brigham Young University,” said Dr. Mackay Steffensen, physical science department chair and professor of chemistry. “I was honored to have all three of these students in my organic chemistry course, and it came as no surprise they were accepted to this prestigious program. It is noteworthy that our SUU students comprised 30% of the students in BYU's program this summer. We have an excellent record of placing students into these types of programs, and they frequently obtain a peer-reviewed publication from their efforts, and many ultimately end up in top 20 chemistry graduate programs across the nation."

Throughout this 10-week program, each student has the unique opportunity to pursue a lab-based research project for the duration of the program. They work closely with a professor on their projects. In addition to conducting their own research, the group also attends workshops on leadership skills, visits local chemical and biochemical companies, works as camp counselors for BYU’s Chem Camp, and engages in different activities local to the area. At the end of the program, the group attends and presents at a national American Chemical Society meeting.

REU workshops also include perks like free housing, travel reimbursement, a generous stipend, and funding to attend and present at a national American Chemical Society meeting.

This year, SUU’s students completed some exciting projects:

Cali Kucifer

Cali Kucifer moved with her family from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Cedar City, Utah while she was in high school. This Cedar City-lover decided to stay in town for college and has been happy with her decision ever since. A junior majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry and psychology, Kucifer is planning to pursue graduate school and her Ph.D. to become a professor. She loves science and was thrilled to be an REU student this summer.

“SUU is a school that cares for its students and it shows,” said Kucifer. “Without the close connections I have made with my professors and other students, I would have no idea that the REU program and other opportunities existed. Being at SUU has opened many doors for me that would most likely be unavailable at bigger universities where you are just a number.”

Kucifer learned about the REU program through her organic chemistry professor, Dr. Steffensen, and her organic chemistry teacher assistant, Shardon Morrill, who was an REU student in 2019. She was pleased to be accepted as a biology major as the majority of the REU students are chemistry majors.

During the program, Kucifer performed biochemical research on the MS4A6A protein, which is largely associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and she conducted a comprehensive analysis of crystals that generate Terahertz light, which is known to have qualities of both infrared and microwave light. She enjoyed having the opportunity to conduct her own research on two different projects.

“I think the biggest takeaway from the REU program I had was that research and science are part of an ongoing process that is not perfect. Research takes a lot of time, so while I was able to get some results on what I performed, it contributes to an overall, bigger picture project which can take decades to perform. It really is about having patience and learning to enjoy the learning process.”

Things have come full circle for Kucifer as she is now the teacher assistant for organic chemistry. She has also been involved on campus through the Rural Health Scholars and the Student Programming Board/Thundercrew. In addition to being the teacher assistant for organic chemistry, she is also conducting research with Dr. Steffensen in organic chemistry.

Kucifer originally came to SUU for the pre-med program to study medicine, but has now decided to pursue a Ph.D. to become a professor. She is interested in pursuing studies in either neuroscience or organic chemistry.

Jessie Fischer Stenlund

Jessie Fischer Stenlund is a senior majoring in chemistry and minoring in pure mathematics. Her hometown being just 40 miles south of campus, Stenlund has always enjoyed southern Utah and was thrilled to attend SUU. Stenlund found herself in the chemistry major after falling in love with the subject in her first chemistry class her senior year of high school and in her first semester at SUU taking general chemistry.

Stenlund has enjoyed being involved on campus through various opportunities for undergraduate research. She has worked closely with Dr. Chris Monson, associate professor of chemistry, on a variety of research projects throughout her time at SUU. She first learned about the REU program at BYU from the teacher assistant of her organic chemistry class. He and Dr. Steffensen helped her through the application process.

“I applied to several REU programs but I was most interested in going to BYU because it was in state so travel to and from would be easier than going to the other schools I applied for,” said Stenlund. “I didn’t have high hopes of getting in because I knew it was a competitive program, so when I got the call from the director telling me I had been accepted, I was elated.”

For the duration of the program, Stenlund worked in the lab creating supported hybrid lipid-polymer bilayers, or artificial cell membranes. Supported hybrid lipid-polymer bilayers are created to be used for things like biosensing and drug delivery. She ran tests to see how they would respond to different environmental conditions.

“Overall, the REU experience helped me to become way more comfortable in a lab setting. I was able to develop skills and become proficient in dozens of common lab techniques. I also learned how to operate highly specific lab equipment that SUU currently doesn’t have access to.”

Stenlund plans to attend graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. She would love to become a professor or work as a science communicator for a nonprofit organization like Khan Academy or Crash Course.

Katie Crowther

Orem, Utah native Katie Crowther is a junior majoring in chemistry and minoring in physics and mathematics. Crowther also originally came to SUU for the pre-med program, but she became interested in research her freshman year and has decided to pursue the life of academia. Because of her admiration for research and her ambitions for attending graduate school, she fit right in with the REU program.

Crowther first learned about the REU program through the Chemistry Club at SUU. The club hosted a BYU professor to present about the REU program over Zoom. Crowther was immediately interested and decided to apply.

“I was applying to a lot of internships with the hope that I would be able to get one of them,” said Crowther. “BYU was definitely at the top of my list, especially because I grew up in Provo and cheered for BYU. I was definitely very excited when I got the call that I got the internship. This is the first internship that I have done.”

During the REU program, Crowther researched the protein APOE in mice hearts. Crowther examined the structure and proteins in the hearts of healthy mice to determine the differences between a heart that contains the APOE protein and a heart that doesn’t.

“My favorite part of the REU program was definitely getting to work in a research laboratory and having my own project to work on. The professors were also all so supportive and encouraging in helping us get some results in the short amount of time we were there.”

In addition to being involved on campus through the chemistry club, Crowther is also involved with the rugby and intramural sports clubs. She works as a tutor for chemistry, physics, and math in the tutoring center, and she enjoys interacting with students every day.

After she graduates, Crowther is planning on pursuing a Ph.D. in either biophysics or analytical chemistry. She would like to do research and maybe even become a professor.


All three students have enjoyed taking courses in chemistry from Dr. Mackay Steffensen, physical science department chair and associate professor of chemistry. Several of his students have gone on to not only complete REU programs, but also other exciting pursuits in the STEM fields.

SUU offers four bachelor’s degrees in chemistry including a forensic emphasis, health care emphasis, professional emphasis, and teacher education emphasis. Students study and research in modern, fully-mediated wireless classrooms and laboratory facilities that are equipped with a full range of laboratory instruments. Dedicated faculty do everything they can to help their students succeed in whichever direction they choose to take.

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