Erickson grants fund PSWS student research that is now having an impact on health care, the opioid epidemic and the environment

By: Amy Gruzesky
With their research projects complete, students and their faculty advisors are now presenting their findings to campus groups and at conferences

Last spring, Penn State awarded a record-breaking 83 Erickson Discovery Grants to undergraduate students engaged in original research projects after receiving another record-breaking 219 applicants for those grants. 

Of those awardees, three were from Penn State Worthington Scranton and they used the money they received to help fund research projects that focused on a variety of interesting topics – from the effects of wildlife on a forest ecosystem to opiate addiction and recovery to chronically ill cancer patients’ relationships with their caregivers.

The three students, Nicholas Kremp, James McKenna and Katlyn Reynolds worked with PSWS faculty members on their projects, which they hope to see published in academic journals, and which they have begun sharing with campus and professional communities during research presentations this fall and at the campus’ upcoming 2018 Undergraduate Research Fair in the spring.

The Rodney A. Erickson Discovery Grant Program, named in honor of Penn State's seventeenth president, supports undergraduate student engagement in original research, scholarship, and creative work under the direct supervision of a faculty member.

The grants, each worth $3,500, are made available through the Office of Undergraduate Education and fund student-initiated projects in the arts, engineering, humanities, sciences, and social sciences that provide experience in all facets of the research, scholarship, or creative processes.

Money may be used to cover living expenses and project costs such as supplies, materials, books, specialized software, travel for the purpose of data collection, etc.

Kremp, a junior biology major from Clarks Summit, used his grant to help offset his living expenses this summer, allowing him to devote more time to his research project, “22 Years of Forest Regeneration in a Pennsylvania Sanctuary.”

His project studied the effects of Pennsylvania’s large and growing deer population on forest vegetation and its impact on the larger environment and eco-systems.

McKenna, a psychology major from Clarks Summit, compelled by the growing opioid epidemic, as well as addiction recovery both locally and nationally, decided to study the effects of opiate addiction for his project, "Predicting Opiate Abstinence: The Role of Social Support and Mental Health in Opiate Addiction Recovery."

Reynolds, a nursing/human development and family studies double major from Greentown, focused on the complex relationships between chronically ill cancer patients and their caregivers for her project: “Turning Points in Relationships between Cancer Patients and Informal Caregivers.”

All three students spent time “in the field” for their research, which was recently presented at the campus’ fall Advisory Board meeting, where they shared their projects and findings with board members, faculty and staff.

In Kremp’s case, he spent time in forested areas at Lacawac Sanctuary, a nature/environmental education center and biological field station located on 550 acres on Lake Wallenpaupack in the northern Poconos.

Growing up in a rural area outside of Scranton, Kremp said he’d always been exposed to the woods and deer, but never really gave them much thought, until he embarked on this project and learned just how seemingly simple things that most people don’t often think about -- such as deer grazing in a forest – can have a significant environmental impact.

However, last year, after working with PSWS Professor of Biology David Byman on his own research on this topic, Kremp’s interest was piqued and he set out to learn more about this issue.

His research objectives were to: 

  • Evaluate the effects of heavy-browsing on the herbaceous plant community and the regeneration of canopy-dominant tree species
  • Compare reproductive success by counting flowers/flowering stems and fruits/fruiting stems
  • Compare results to earlier work done at this site

He started by setting up a fenced-in area that deer could not get into, which allowed him to study the difference in vegetation growth, variety, and health in the protected area vs. the areas outside the enclosure where deer could freely graze.

Kremp discovered a largely negative impact on plant reproduction and the proliferation of fruits and flowers in the unprotected areas due largely to the native deer herd. The only species that were surviving were the kinds that deer don’t eat.

Most significant, he noted, was that the forest was being converted from one of native vegetation to one that was becoming populated with invasive species; and, it didn’t stop there.

There were impacts to other animals too – because of the deer’s voracious appetites, no vegetation was left for small animals such as hares, rabbits and voles to feed on or to take cover in – leaving them susceptible to prey or forcing them to move to other areas.

Kremp plans to publish a paper with Byman in an academic journal detailing what he learned and will be sharing it with Lacawac Sanctuary’s research station.

Byman, who has been studying this phenomenon himself for several decades, said that the impact had implications for people living in the area as well. “As more natural areas are developed into residential ones, there will be more deer than the forest can support,” he stated.

It is also his belief that the increase in disease-carrying ticks and Lyme Disease can be attributed to this over-population of the deer herd. Any mammal can be a host for ticks, he explained, but especially deer.

He has discovered that areas with large deer populations also tend to have a large, white-footed mouse population, which are another common host for ticks – further exacerbating the tick/Lyme Disease problem.

Kremp showcased his project at the campus’ Undergraduate Research Fair last spring and garnered Third Place in the STEM category at the University’s Eastern Regional Undergraduate Research Symposium for another research project he conducted: “Symptoms of Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) at Lackawanna State Park.” He also received the campus Library’s Information Literacy Award in Natural Science for that project.

This semester, he has expanded his field research, working with Dr. Meg Hatch, PSWS associate professor of biology and science program co-coordinator, and Dr. Robert Smith, associate professor of biology at the University of Scranton, studying birds at Lackawanna State Park. He also hopes to work at Lacawac Sanctuary again, as he enjoyed spending time there this summer and considers the area a great local resource.

Looking further into the future, Kremp expressed his desire to be involved in field research in “a big way” because he likes being outside in the woods observing what is happening. Another area of interest for him is studying fungi and fungal organisms.

If he does more research, he said, that would be his next area of interest – how deer are affecting the presence of different species of mushrooms in the forest.

“Most people don’t understand deer at all and don’t realize the devastation they cause,” Byman said, “which is why research like the kind Nick is involved with is important on a variety of levels, both in terms of the forest environment, and to people living in these areas.”

While Kremp was documenting the negative environmental and potential health impacts of an overpopulated deer herd, McKenna was focusing his research efforts on the local opioid epidemic.

Opioid addiction has garnered much attention recently due to the high percentage of people in northeast Pennsylvania suffering from addiction to these drugs and the rapidly increasing number of opioid deaths and arrests that have occurred locally.

To get started, McKenna attended a Heroin Hits Home program organized by the Lackawanna County District Attorney’s office. He also attended Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings to learn more about the issue of alcohol addiction, and developed surveys on abstinence and relapse that he distributed to individuals suffering with addictions.

He ended up with 77 currently sober, recovering opioid addicts who participated in the surveys – 83% were male with an average age of 26.73 years; 78% were Caucasian; 52% were Christian; and 82% had a GED or some college education.

“The goal of the surveys was to gain an understanding of people who have gone through treatment and find out what makes someone successful and what causes people to relapse,” explained Dr. P. Douglas Sellers, assistant professor of psychology at PSWS and McKenna’s advisor.

There was also a personal component as well. McKenna shared that he has a family friend that suffers from opioid addiction and so he has seen first-hand what it does to people.

His ultimate goal was to be able to use his research results to help inform future treatment of opioid addicts. “I think there’s important implications to this project,” he said.

What he was able to conclude:

  • Interventions that focus on stopping the transition from prescription pills to IV drug use can help reduce addiction.
  • Mental Health services focused on the addict are crucial to sobriety.
  • 12-Step programs can serve as a source of social support (and not mental health support) for recovering addicts and help them stay sober, especially when not receiving social support from elsewhere.
  • Recovering addicts should be encouraged to attend some kind of social support system meeting AND seek independent mental health services.

Another interesting element that came from his research is that there is a widespread lack of understanding about opioids, because oftentimes they grow out of an addiction to prescription drugs, which typically are not considered illicit substances.

“Therefore, many people don’t think of themselves as addicts, they just believe they [medically] need these drugs,” Sellers explained. “The drugs’ easy availability makes it an easy drug to abuse and tips a person’s usage of it from a medical use to a physical dependency or addiction.”

Sellers believes McKenna’s research has true scientific merit and can be published in professional journals, presented in a number of places and shared on a global level. “It’s also a great opportunity to involve local residents in something that can benefit the local community.”

In fact, McKenna has already garnered recognition for his work. He received third place in the Arts and Humanities category at Penn State’s Eastern Regional Undergraduate Research Symposium; won the campus Library’s Information Literacy Award for Social Science for "Opiod Abstinence: The Importance of the 12-Step Meeting Attendance," and was featured in the October 2017 issue of Happenings Magazine.

Initially, McKenna had his sights set on a career in clinical psychology. However, after doing research with Sellers, he changed his focus to experimental psychology, with plans to work in the area of drug and alcohol addiction/rehabilitation. “The experience I’m getting through this whole process would not be possible without a mentor like Dr. Sellers,” he said. “The one-on-one work has been an unbelievable learning experience.”

Going forward, McKenna plans to present new research data at next year’s undergraduate research fair, and after completing his undergraduate degree, going on to graduate school to earn master’s and doctorate degrees.

As a double Nursing/HDFS major, Reynolds wanted to work on a project that would combine aspects of both her areas of study.

For her project, “Turning Points in Relationships between Cancer Patients and Informal Caregivers” Reynolds reached out to a home health agency to recruit participants.

Typically, when someone is stricken with cancer or a chronic illness that requires ongoing, long-term or constant care, spouses or family members step in to help take care of their loved one, which has an impact on their relationship.

“In HDFS, we study family relationships,” said Dr. Raymond Petren, assistant professor of HDFS and Reynolds’ advisor. “This project took that area of focus, while also incorporating the nursing and medical aspects -- which perfectly bridged those two areas.”

Dr. Michael Evans, instructor in nursing and assistant chief academic officer at PSWS, collaborated with Reynolds and Petren as a co-advisor, and helped sort through and code the data Reynolds collected through open-ended interviews that allowed the team to gain insight on the study subjects’ perspectives of their situation.

In addition to her work with the home health care agency, cancer patients and their caregivers, Reynolds did a thorough literature review of the topic; however, the only literature she and Petren found was a Norwegian study on Huntingdon’s Disease, which only used information from caregivers, not the patients.

She then planned how she was going to conduct the project from start to finish, and got approval from the Institutional Review Board at University Park to make sure it was ethically sound.

After interviewing individuals, Reynolds, Petren and Evans worked to pull the essential meaning of what was shared during the interviews to look for commonalities and identify themes.

In order to collect the information and data she needed, Reynolds reached out to home-bound patients in advance, to make sure they would be willing to participate and then shadowed their home health nurse in the spring and into the summer, in order to see the home care aspect of health care.

When interviewing her subjects, Reynolds asked all of them the same questions and had both the patient and the caregiver in the room together. While the questions were the same, Reynolds found herself having to adjust the way she asked those questions to the individuals’ personalities and situations.

“You have to relate to each person as you meet them, and change the way you ask (each of) them the questions,” she explained. It was during this process that she was able to use what she learned in one of Petren’s classes – HDFS 411 – The Helping Relationship. The course combines theory and research related to interpersonal conditions that facilitate personal growth and intensive interpersonal competency training.

“I was terrified of that class,” she recalled. “I’m a very shy person, so it was a little nerve-wracking.” 

However, she was able to use what she had learned in that classroom two years prior to conduct her research -- and found it invaluable.

“It hasn’t been hard to talk to people,” she said. “All of them volunteered and were very open and willing to talk to me. Sometimes pulling information out of them could be hard,” Reynolds admitted, but she was able to use the knowledge she gained through her coursework to get what she needed for her project.

Another class that helped her with her project was Petren’s HDFS 312W -- Research Methods. “I’m always looking for a student or two to take on as a research assistant,” Petren explained, which caused Reynolds to chuckle.

“I initially turned him down,” she said. “I wanted to be a nurse.” However, she did decide to take the course, which required a Capstone Experience – either an internship or research project.

Katlyn chose the research project, with Petren’s encouragement, and she then chose him as her advisor. The two spent the summer working on the project and Reynolds recently presented her findings to the Penn State Worthington Scranton Advisory Board.

Her preliminary findings were that changes in patient-caregiver relationships varied by:

  • Tension resulting from stress and strain of the diagnosis
  • When the prognosis was better, couples experienced less strain around the diagnosis
  • Loss of patient functioning (e.g. ability to travel and sexual function)
  • Change in family roles

In October, she presented her findings at the Greater Pittsburgh Nursing Research Conference with Evans, and will be presenting at the Eastern Nursing Research Society’s 30th Annual Scientific Session in Newark, NJ in April.

She also has plans to submit her project findings for consideration to other nursing conferences, and/or submit it for publication in a professional journal.

“We do research because we want to solve some problem,” Petren said. “These relationships are important and Katlyn’s project is unique in that she is identifying the turning points in these relationships. The information is also useful, because these are points of potential intervention. People (such as nurses, social workers and counselors) working with these families can intervene to make things better and improve their care. To me, that is what makes her project exciting and one that’s worth investing in.”

Both Petren and Reynolds anticipate continuing their research after the completion of this initial project.

“Working on this was interesting,” she said. “I would definitely consider that area of nursing.”