Scholar Profiles

Rebekah ErnatRebekah Ernat

Title of Project: New Miocene sea cow from the island of Nosy Makamby, northwestern Madagascar

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Karen Samonds

Abstract: In 1927, a team of French paleontologists conducted a dig on the island of Nosy Makamby, off the northwest coast of Madagascar.  Their research primarily concerned invertebrates, but they also found a fragmentary and undiagnostic portion of a sea cow braincase.  However, following this initial discovery and report, there was little interest in the specimen until Dr. Karen Samonds and her team found a sea cow jaw and other skeletal remains at the same site between 2005 and 2014.  These remains, believed to belong to the same species as those discovered by the French, are notable for being some of the only mammal fossils described from within the 65-million year gap in Madagascar’s fossil record.  As this time period represents a critical and largely obscure interval in Madagascar’s past, this specimen is potentially highly significant for reconstructing sirenian [sea cow] evolutionary and biogeographic history. This project will enable me to contribute to this gap in knowledge, leading to a greater understanding of not only the history of sirenian species, but also of Malagasy fauna during the Miocene epoch.  By comparing the specimens in France with those in Dr. Samonds lab at NIU, as well as other specimens in the collections at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar, I hope to determine whether or not these fossils represent a new species.

Program of Study: Biology and Anthropology with a minor in French

Year of Graduation: Spring 2017

Future Plans: I would love to eventually work in a natural history museum such as the Field Museum, a national or state park, or somewhere where I could teach people about what I love, while continuing to learn.

Hometown: Lombard, IL 

Fun Fact: When I studied abroad in Madagascar last summer, my research project was actually about an extant lemur called the aye-aye.  Although I really enjoyed the project, my passion for paleontology was rekindled (I used to “dig for dinosaurs” when I was little) towards the end of the trip, and I’ve been hooked on bones ever since.


Megan Haduch

Megan Haduch

Title of Project: PAINT Expressions: Effects of an Art Program on Cognition, Communication, and Quality of Life for Individuals With Dementia

Faculty Mentor: Jamie Mayer, Ph.D.
Graduate Assistant: Tertia (Abby) Jeppson

Abstract: Dementia is an umbrella term for a number of neurodegenerative processes affecting multiple aspects of an individual’s life and significantly impacting cognitive skills, including memory, attention, and executive function (Howland, 2014). Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of neurodegenerative dementia, affecting more than 35 million people worldwide (Bayles & Tomoeda, 2014).  Although pharmacological treatments (for example, acetylcholinesterase inhibitors) exist, these are able to manage symptoms only, with nominal effects on the degenerative processes. Therefore, behavioral management and enhancing quality of life are paramount (Emre & Hanagasi, 1999).

Among many cognitive interventions, cognitive stimulation is an approach that speech-language pathologists use to treat patients with dementia. Cognitive stimulation can be described as individuals who participate in group activities to improve their cognitive function while encouraging socialization (ASHA, 2005; Bahar-Fuchs, Clare, & Woods, 2013; Clare, 2003).  Art therapy is a method of cognitive stimulation that has been found to produce positive health outcomes in individuals with dementia. The process of creating art capitalizes on areas of the brain that tend to be spared until very late in the disease process. Art therapy additionally encourages independence, self-control, and self-worth (Miailidis et al., 2010).

Participants in PAINT Expressions will reside at Lincolnshire Place in Sycamore, IL. Our research team is going to observe the impact of participation in a structured weekly art program on indicators of cognition, communication, and quality of life for individuals with mild to moderate dementia living in this care facility.  Our team will be providing the art program to a local nursing home as a method of engagement with three to six residents. Researchers will observe and collect data using an observation tool while residents are painting.  During painting sessions, researchers and volunteers will engage with the participants. All sessions will be both video- and audio-recorded for off-line analysis. Offline data will be recorded on an observational tool designed to examine indicators of communication, cognition, and affect including positive/negative words used, attention, interest, self-esteem, and reminiscence. My portion of this project will focus heavily on language transcription analyses using Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts (SALT) software. After transcribing the participants’ language samples, SALT will aid in the analyses of the mean length of utterance, number of different words, speaking rate, verbal fluencies, omissions, and errors. It will show the targeted speakers strengths and weaknesses.  The software will allow us to hone in on areas of concern, which will allow better interpretation of how participant language use has, if at all, changed (Salt Software, 2016).

Program of Study: Communicative Disorders (Minor: Family and Child Studies)

Year of Graduation: Spring 2017

Future Plans: After I earn my undergraduate degree in Communicative Disorders, I want to apply and gain entrance into a competitive masters program in Speech-Language Pathology.  As a University Honors Scholar, I plan to dedicate my summer to hands-on research.  This will mark the start to the research I intend to continue at a master’s level. Participation in this project will allow me a significant amount of hands-on experience working with individuals with dementia, which will benefit my future work as a graduate clinician and as a professional.  The language transcription analyses I will be performing this summer will also allow me to master SALT software, which will benefit my future work as a speech-language pathologist.

Hometown: Park Ridge, IL

Fun Fact: I was NIU’s Homecoming Queen in 2015.

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