February 24, 2009

SIUC student wins select invitation to Capitol Hill

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE -- A zoology student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will travel to Washington D.C., as part of an elite group of young scholars invited to participate in the annual Posters on the Hill competition.

Andrew Dennhardt, a senior from East Moline, will present his research on the peregrine falcon May 5 before lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He is one of just 60 undergraduates chosen nationally to present his research.

The Council on Undergraduate Research and the U.S. Congress tapped Dennhardt for the honor after reviewing his research and application, which also included recommendations from faculty members. Out of 440 applicants, just 60 actually present their research to their home state representatives and other members of Congress.

The son of Eugene and Beri Dennhardt, Andrew Dennhardt is a two-time Goldwater Scholarship nominee at SIUC. He also received a REACH scholarship in 2008.

Laura A. Bell, assistant director of the University Honors Program, said Dennhardt is a hard-working student who showed particular promise upon arriving at SIUC as a freshman.

“In our program, we start working with promising freshmen and slowly bring them along and guide them in taking advantage of academic opportunities,” she said. “Andrew is very deserving of this honor. He’s worked very hard, has a great attitude and a strong work ethic, and he’s really taken advantage of his opportunities here.”

Bell said Dennhardt’s success reflects SIUC’s commitment to involving undergraduates in research opportunities.

“We encourage students to get involved with research when they’re freshmen, and with the recent addition of other programs, like Research Rookies, this really makes a statement that SIUC is very serious about involving our undergraduates in research. This is a research institution, and we’re making the effort to give undergrads every opportunity to be involved.”

Dennhardt’s appearance follows that of SIUC graduate student Sara N. Reardon, who presented her research at Posters on the Hill in 2007.

Dennhardt said Bell has been an invaluable resource as he assembled his undergraduate research record.

“(Bell) has been a wonderful mentor and friend of mine since I was a freshman here at SIUC, and she introduced me to the competition,” he said.

Dennhardt’s research involves peregrine falcons in the United States, and looks specifically at how the bird moves and disperses after its birth. Prior to the 1950s, Dennhardt said, the bird was well established in Southern Illinois, where it used natural cliffs as habitat.

“Peregrines were a prevalent raptor species in the area,” Dennhardt said. But the use of pesticides hurt their numbers, as well as that of other raptors.

A 1982 effort, called the Midwest Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project, sought to bring the population back, Dennhardt said. He used a database from that effort, containing information on more than 500 birds, and found 191 that had dispersed to other areas. He conducted further studies on this sample, such as details on each bird’s first breeding effort, to calculate the average dispersal distance. His work supported the findings of other researchers’ work, showing females disperse nearly two times as far as males.

“Other statistical components that I am hoping to add to this project include an age distribution analysis, a directional analysis, and an analysis among three different groups -- female and male birds, hacked and wild birds, and cliff-born and urban-born birds,” Dennhardt said. “With these results I hope to make a strong correlation between the recent population trend within the peregrine population in the Midwest and their subsequent dispersal diagnostics. Recent trends show that peregrines are nesting more frequently in urban areas throughout the United States, especially in the Midwest.”

As he continues work on his peregrine study, Dennhardt also is pursuing another study funded by his 2008 REACH grant, on the possibility of nocturnal raptors, such as owls, using ultraviolet radiation, although he ran into a roadblock when inclement weather spoiled all four of designated observation periods.

“I have taken this experience as a valuable one,” he said. “When it comes to researching in the field, you certainly can’t control weather conditions! With this learning experience, I hope to continue investigating this scientific question in the future.”

Dennhardt also hopes to earn an internship through the Student Conservation Association this summer, and get involved with more raptor research elsewhere.

“As a student at SIUC, I feel very fortunate to be a part of an institution that is dedicated to undergraduate research, and when I was first notified of receiving this honor, I felt that this accomplishment was another testament to that unique devotion that this university has,” Dennhardt said. “I am privileged to have worked with several faculty members and one very generous graduate student on this project, and I am appreciative of the time and effort that they have put into helping me reach my career goals.

“Ultimately, without the caring and diligent support of my dear friend, Laurie Bell, this pursuit probably would have never transpired into what it has today; Laurie has always been my greatest advocate throughout my quest for success here at SIUC. From all of these inspirations, I feel greatly humbled after receiving this opportunity to represent my university in our nation’s capital city, and I am deeply grateful to all of my supporters here in Southern Illinois.”