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Getting SMART

Summer stipends lead three students into very different research projects

Stuart Orr

Jacob Ratkiewicz

Alicia Zimmerle

Where do you go to get SMART?

Three IU South Bend students each followed a different, but SMART, route. One labored in front a computer studying fingerprint textures. Another knocked on doors and heard stories about Elkhart. A third spent time in fields examining native prairie plants.

Stuart Orr, Jacob Ratkiewicz and Alicia Zimmerle each received Research Fellowship Awards from the Student/Mentor Academic Research Teams Committee (SMART). Each received a $3,000 stipend and worked closely with faculty mentors to complete the 10-week research projects.

Stuart Orr spent his summer vacation in the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands Prairie restoration site in Newton County. The IUSB junior counted and recorded native prairie plants on acres and acres of land.

At one time in the 1830s, the Grand Marsh of the Kankakee River extended from South Bend to Illinois. It covered nearly 500,000 acres. Seas of waving grasses and wildflowers had only a few visitors.

Then people began to pass through. And they stayed and settled. With time, the marshes were drained and planted with corn, soybeans and wheat, until only a few prairie fragments remained.

In 1996, the Indiana Chapter of the Nature Conservancy acquired 7,200 acres in Newton County. The land is surrounded by nearly 15,000 acres that are already protected. The plan is to establish a high quality, natural prairie, restoring 500 acres per year.

Orr and others were involved in measuring the changes in the prairie. He identified and recorded the plants along a metered area. “It is gratifying to see how the prairie looks and how it has changed in the restored area.”

The Riley High School graduate has always been interested in plants and hopes to continue on that route. “There are pictures of me as a kid playing in the garden,” he said.

Orr said it is hard, hot work through the summer, but it is a rare chance to make a difference. He hopes to attend graduate school and continue in botany, possibly as a plant ecologist.

Jacob Ratkiewicz has been interested in computers since he was 10 years old. He later became involved in programming and different computer languages after his father brought home a few books on the subject. Spending the summer looking at a computer screen and working with a program that differentiates between minute texture variations seemed quite natural to him.

Ratkiewicz’s goal was to use artificial neural networks to help visualize the multiple statistical descriptors that are generated during the analysis of textures, which is an important component of computer vision.

The computer screen was filled with slight shifting colors of gray in a honeycomb pattern and numbers.

“These two areas are similar,” Ratkiewicz said, pointing to the screen. “These areas are different. This is creating a visual map of a texture. In the real world, this would be used to examine a fabric as it is being produced or fingerprints left at a scene of a crime.”

Ratkiewicz was home schooled by his parents.

“People ask me how I could adjust to classrooms. When they ask, I get very shy and withdraw to the corner,” he joked. “They are just new faces in a class. I like it here.”

Ratkiewicz said it is fascinating work with the texture research. He hopes his future will lead to graduate school in computers.

Alicia Zimmerle wanted to study her “backyard” for the summer. Her research was “A Local Ethnographic Excursion” with the goals of producing a multi-faceted anthropological and historical portrait of Elkhart. She worked with four themes: physical environment, cultural and ethnic groups, personal histories and unique characteristics.

“I wanted to look at my own environment in a critical way, look at the history and people of my own city, how the city developed, the ethnic groups, the industry and the changes,” Zimmerle said.

She spent the summer researching the history, knocking on doors and sitting in coffee shops, gleaning personal comments about the city. Part of the time was spent with a photographer documenting interesting sites that played a part in Elkhart’s industrial and business history.

“I gained an appreciation, a different perspective on local history and architecture. You can see which effects on a small town will have national impact,” she said.

For example, she cited the immigration into Elkhart of African-Americans and Italians, the impact of the railroad, car manufacturing, and later, the recreational vehicle manufacturing.

Zimmerle said she sees herself researching and doing more documentary work, possibly on race or poverty.

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Publication date: January 31, 2003
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