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No horsing around for Research Rookie

April 5, 2011
Sarah Stuebing and her horse, Raisin

Sarah Stuebing and her horse, Raisin

Many researchers find a way to combine their passion for science with love for their hobbies, but few get the chance as a 17-year-old college freshman.

Count Sarah Stuebing among the fortunate.

Thanks to NIU’s Research Rookies program, Stuebing spent her first year in college conducting an independent research project that tested her hypothesis that massage could improve the performance of the horses she rides in saddle-seat riding events.

Stuebing, who has been competing in such events since the age of 11, was certified in equine massage about a year ago.

Personal experience had shown that the horses perform better after a massage, but she had not been able to test her theory. Research Rookies provided that opportunity, and helped the biology major keep her sights set on her long-term goal of becoming a large-animal veterinarian.

“Since NIU doesn’t have a pre-veterinary program, I was looking for something to ultimately give me an edge over students in those programs, and this seemed like a good fit,” says Stuebing, a native of DeKalb. “It also allowed me to combine my love of horses with science.”

Stuebing is one of 17 NIU students participating in the inaugural Research Rookies program at NIU.

The program allows undergraduate students to assist faculty with an aspect of an ongoing research project, or attempt original research. Students in the program this semester are tackling projects ranging from designing a new class registration system, to studying the development of fetal anatomy to devising new cancer treatments. Most universities typically reserve such opportunities for graduate students.

Working with NIU kinesiology professor Pamela Macfarlane, who specializes in studying human gaits, Stuebing designed an experiment in which she videotaped six horses crossing a carefully measured 10-meter course before and after a massage.

She then processed the tape using technology familiar to viewers of Olympic skiing. It allowed her to simultaneously view images of different runs by the same horse, side-by-side, and then take precise measurements of the angles at which their joints bent.

The process was as painstaking as it was illuminating.

It took 24 hours of filming just to capture enough usable video footage, and many hours more to find just the right clips for analysis, and yet again more hours to study them.

Helping make the effort manageable were Macfarlane and another mentor, Moira Jenkins, a professor from the Department of Biological Sciences. The two provided encouragement, suggestions and advice that helped Stuebing find her way through the process – all the while adhering to strict academic standards.

“My mentors have been absolutely fabulous,” Stuebing says. “As an incoming freshman, I was a little intimidated, but they have been nothing but helpful and have gone above and beyond every step of the way.”

Macfarlane, who was recruited to the project by Stuebing, was thrilled to participate.

“It was exciting working with Research Rookies,” she says. “You don’t see enough students interested in research when they first come to campus, and that’s too bad, because they miss the opportunity to be involved in research for four years. I think it’s a great program.”

In the end, while Stuebing saw individual improvements, statistics showed that the findings could not be applied to the general population.

However, she plans further testing in the future, working to better manage some of the many variables she encountered. Ultimately, she believes she will be able to produce a paper worthy of publication in a scientific journal.

Still, she found the experience to be invaluable.

“I would highly recommend Research Rookies to any undergraduate student. It has been great – from the experience you get, to the people you meet, to the fun you have.”