Meet the Makers: Faculty-mentored research

The sled used in the Barrow, Alaska field study.

The MakerSpace facilities and Radford University faculty allow for unique mentored-research projects and ideas to take shape on campus and beyond.

One such faculty-mentored research opportunity was a trip in summer 2015 that centered around monitoring the micro-climate that affects birds in the arctic.

The proposal for the trip was authored by Associate Professor of Biology Sara O’Brien and physics Professor Rhett Herman. A Radford physics major and biology major joined the two professors on a class trip to Barrow, Alaska, to study quantifiable properties of the Arctic Sea ice.

“O’Brien had done some of her Ph.D. work in northern Alaska and was familiar with the non-quantitative aspects. Thus, it was time to quantify things,” Herman said.

The microclimate sensor designed originated from Herman’s sea ice work.

“I designed and built version 0.01 of the sensors,” Herman said. “Sarah asked if I could adapt it for bird studies – I did. It turned out to be a good starting point for continuing the microclimate sensor design.”

Herman’s research lab, now one of Radford’s MakerSpaces, was the focal point for the creation of the sensors.

O’Brien also worked on another faculty-mentored research project with Biology Professor Jason Davis and Conner Philson, a Radford student.


The micro-climate sensors, originally developed by Dr. Rhett Herman.

Davis received a grant to develop a Smart Nest – a computer-controlled blue bird box designed to monitor interactions between bird behavior and various environmental conditions.

“Its ability to monitor 24-7 should let us discover things we couldn’t otherwise find out," Davis said.

MakerSpace serves different purposes for different majors; at times, it is the end-point of the project. For others, it is just the stepping stone down a different path.

“For us as biologists, building a new tool isn’t really the point – but it’s a great way to get an answer to whatever your actual question is,” Davis said. “That’s the best part of ‘making’ – it lets you get around the problem of novelty - even if no one else has done anything, you can still do it.”

The Smart Nest project is still ongoing, and the team has expanded. The team still consists of Davis, O’Brien and Philson, and now includes student Drew Wolford, faculty member Judy Guinan and adjunct instructor Sarah Foltz. Philson worked with Alex Xu, a visiting high school researcher and Mike Ellery, an engineering consultant, to create two prototypes of the next box, as well as a prototype feeder that can monitor and interact with wild birds.

“We’re hoping to have four feeders and four nest boxes by the end of the semester and then roll all of that into some serious data collection next spring,” Davis said.

Because of Philson’s work on this project and his overall work ethic, Davis chose him as the recipient of his Dedmon Teaching Award he received at the Fall Convocation.

The MakerSpace resources enables students to create pathways in their research that allows them to conduct better research.

“I have another student, Erin Dudley, who is working on a project to see if hormonally-modified insects can be used to recycle food waste,” Davis said. “She’s using printers, electronics and the computer-numerical-control (CNC) machine to build a 6-by-3-foot ‘BioTransformer’ computerized terrarium with a treadmill that will let her see how much waste a colony of roaches can eat. Skyler Carrell, another student of mine, couldn’t find cages to house his colonies of social spiders, so he built them using CNC and 3D printers.

“The MakerSpace really lets them be more versatile in what questions they try to answer – plus, they get a bunch of new skills in the process,” Davis said.

Sep 23, 2016
Max Esterhuizen
(540) 831-7749