Local students participate in hands-on research

BIG RAPIDS — While a few weeks over a summer aren't enough to develop lighter, more flexible body armor or cure cancer, two local Ferris State University students are working toward those goals.

Jeffery Dickerson, of Reed City, and Kylee Jones, of Big Rapids, are two of 15 Ferris students spending their summers involved in student research fellowships. They have been able to work on collaborative research projects with faculty members, getting first-hand experience in lab work and techniques which function as a paid internship for their academic programs.

Dickerson is working with Matthew Yang, of the College of Engineering Technology, to develop a way to utilize rubber engineering technology to create fabrics that are more resistant to punctures. By treating Kevlar strips with shear thickening fluids, Dickerson and Yang have made the Kevlar harder to pierce than it was before treatment.

For Dickerson, who moved to Reed City with his wife and daughter while studying at Ferris, the applications of the experiment are apparent.

"I was in the military for five years," said Dickerson, who was a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. "I was deployed to Afghanistan, and the body armor doesn't allow a lot of movement and was very heavy. Guys were worn down quickly in a fight from the weight and heat."

Shear thickening fluids are fluids that react to a force being applied to them, Dickerson explained.

"Think of it like corn starch and water," he said. "When you mix enough corn starch into water, it acts like a runny goo, but if you do something to it quick, it hardens up. If you filled a little pool with corn starch and water, you could actually run across it."

Dickerson and Yang aren't pioneering the field. When he began looking into flexible body armor, Dickerson researched a lot of work done by Eric Wetzel and Norman Wagner, two leaders in the field for the past 20 years. The difference is Yang and Dickerson are adapting rubber engineering technology to complete the process, which Yang feels is more suited to mass production than Wetzel and Wagner's technique.

The summer research fellowship has given Dickerson more hands-on time in the rubber lab and one-on-one instruction than he normally would have received in a classroom setting, he said.

"This has definitely been a game-changer," Dickerson said. "It's opened my eyes to a lot of applications this material could be used for, working in the rubber industry."

Across campus, Jones is working with Felix Amissah, Ph.D., of the Ferris College of Pharmacy, on an experiment studying the combination of painkillers and fish oils on K-Ras positive cancer.

Jones, a graduate of Morley Stanwood High School, now lives in Big Rapids with her husband and two daughters. She's majoring in biotechnology and plans to pursue graduate studies after completing her bachelor's degree. Ultimately, she wants to work in cancer research, a lifelong interest of hers.

"I grew up the fourth child to a mother whose third child had leukemia," Jones said. "I believe that's the reason I'm here. My sister passed away when I was about 11 months old and she was about 3. My family didn't really talk about her, but you still feel the pain. As a kid, I researched leukemia and different diseases. Why do they happen, what goes on genetically to cause this thing to happen?"

Medicines used as painkillers and certain compounds in fish oils are both known to prevent cancer, but individually they have serious negative side effects when given in doses high enough to attack the disease, Amissah explained. The research he and the students are working on involves using both compounds together to find out if the beneficial results can happen with lower dosages of each ingredient.

K-Ras positive cancers affect the body in such a way that they are very difficult to treat, he continued. However, the painkillers and fish oil compounds which are known to prevent cancer also make K-Ras positive cancers more susceptible to treatment.

"There are two ways to do cancer research — what causes the cancers and how do you treat them," Jones said. "Working with Dr. Amissah, I've learned the treatment field is really interesting."

As a result of her summer experience, Jones has decided to focus her future career in treatment research.

"Everybody is somebody's baby," she said. "Having my own children, and thinking about what my mother went through made me think, 'If you could find a way to keep that from happening, why wouldn't you try?'"

Jones, who will be a junior this fall, knows the research fellowship is an opportunity for her.

"I'm very, very fortunate because Dr. Amissah has his pick of graduate students, but he was willing to work with me as an undergrad," she said.

Regardless of her current education level, Amissah believes Jones to be a positive addition to his research team.

"Kylee is exceptional in that she is so meticulous," he said. "In research projects, you have a result you expect to get and when you don't, you have to ask why. When you research, you want to work with people who are curious and ask why instead of getting frustrated and throwing it all away."