Traveling Abroad: Next stop, Finland

Abigail Dingus with her poster detailing her research at the SETAC conference.

Obtained from

Abigail Dingus with her poster detailing her research at the SETAC conference.

Madison Graver

Traveling abroad is many people’s dream. The idea of experiencing a new culture, eating foreign food, and seeing famous attractions is on the top of a lot of bucket lists, but for one AU senior this trip wasn’t about sightseeing, it was about establishing herself in the world of science.

Abigail Dingus, a biology and biochemistry major, was given the opportunity of a lifetime this past summer when she went to Finland to present her scientific research at the meeting of the Society of Environmental Science and Chemistry (SETAC).

Although, Dingus’s trip to Finland didn’t just happen by chance. One of her mentors, professor of chemistry Dr. Jeffrey Weidenhamer, had previously worked with Finnish professor Dr. Aki Sinkkonen when he was a visiting professor at AU around 10 years ago. Weidenhamer and Sinkkonen had started various research projects during the Finnish professors time at AU, but never got around to completing them.

This is where Dingus stepped in. After approaching Weidenhamer about wanting to get experience with research under her belt during her sophomore year, he introduced her to a project regarding the growth rates and responses of plants in a soil containing copper. After learning the ropes of how the research lab and equipment worked, Dingus took the reigns and began fully developing this research project along with Sinkkonen.

“She’s very thorough. She plans very carefully and gets things done on time when she needs to and was very enthusiastic and took ownership of the project,” said Weidenhamer.

Through their research, they discovered that as the number of plants in the area of copper-filled soil increased, there was also an increase in a natural compound that would then bind to the metals to prevent it from being toxic to the plants.

Once Dingus completed this research last year, she decided to take what she had discovered and turn it into her honors thesis project which she argued last spring.

Little did she know when first joining the project, that getting involved would give her the opportunity to travel to Helsinki, Finland to present her research to a conference of largely PhD students.

“The conference was super intimidating because everyone knew everyone. I was actually one of the only undergraduates there,” Dingus said. “Most of the other students were PhD students so I was really out of my element.”

While in Finland, Dingus was able to meet Sinkkonen in person for the first time as well as one of his PhD students. Attending this conference gave Dingus more insight into other possible avenues of research.

“It definitely gave me a broader perspective of what research is out there,” Dingus said.

Having a student travel to another country to present research is also something that Weidenhamer hadn’t experienced before.

“That is a new experience for me. I’ve traveled internationally to present some work done by some of our students, but I’ve never had a student go do anything like that,” Weidenhamer said.

Following the completion of her research, Dingus began looking for internship opportunities for this past summer. She ended up securing an internship at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

The position with Danforth was one of the most competitive that she applied for and gave her exposure to highly advanced equipment and research labs.

Dingus was fully immersed in both her internship and her research project, but her interest in the sciences can ultimately be traced back to when she was in high school.

In her early high school days, Dingus thought she wanted to be a teacher but after getting “higher in my mathematical and science studies in high school, I found that I had a passion for more than just teaching and I wanted to do research,” Dingus said.

Being exposed to the idea of research and doing something to make a difference within our environment through science was something that Dingus discovered she wanted to be involved in.

“There wasn’t really a defining moment, but through my studies I discovered how cool agriculture is, and that’s something the world really needs,” Dingus said. “So I found a passion for plants and I want to do agricultural research, specifically small scale organic sustainable farming research to optimize the resources we already have.”

Pursuing a scientific dream is truly what Wiedenhamer says he wants for his students.

“What all of us in the sciences hope our students get from these research projects is to understand the process of doing research and that things don’t always turn out the way you expect,” said Weidenhamer. “You have to evaluate your results, modify your experimental plans, then keep going.”