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2002 - 2003 University Scholar
Mentor: Henri Van Rinsvelt
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
John Kuharik thinks variety is the spice of life. Which might explain why he explored art
and criminal justice before settling on physics as a major. What he likes most about his
USP project is that he doesn't have to do the same tasks again and again each day.
"People are always telling you to narrow your options, but I like to keep mine open," he
says. "My USP project lets me do a little bit of everything-chemistry, physics, data
analysis and even hard manual labor like repairing pumps. I actually go home at night
with grease on my pants. It's great."
John works in Professor Henri Van Rinsvelt's lab in the Department of Physics, analyzing
metal content in alligator tissues. The research is part of an ongoing study by the Florida
Museum of Natural History, investigating the alarming mortality rate of alligators from
Lake Griffin, near Ocala. According to a survey conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Association, almost 400 dead alligators have been found in Lake Griffin since 1997, and
the hatch rate of alligator eggs in the area has fallen well below 30 percent, though 80
percent is the normal rate.
"A couple of years ago, people started reporting a number of dead alligators on Lake
Griffin, and we haven't been able to figure out what is causing it," John says. "The
theories are water pollution, poor nutrition, toxic algae or viruses, but the normal
screenings haven't turned up anything yet. So we hope to find something in the elements
to help further the research and help the cause."
Through Particle Induced X-ray Emission (PIXE) analysis, John investigates the
concentration of elements in liver, kidney and spinal cord tissues collected from healthy
and sick alligators. The samples are digested by nitric acid and then placed in the path of
a proton beam that is generated using a tandem particle accelerator. John then analyzes
the spectrum of x-rays emitted from the sample to gather detailed information about the
concentrations of elements found in each sample.
"John has done a great job in the laboratory," says Van Rinsvelt. "Starting with almost no
experience, he has designed an experiment, taken and analyzed the data, and written a
John presented his USP paper at the international Conference of the Application of
Accelerators in Research and Industry (CAARI) in November at the University of Texas in
Denton. He graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in physics and plans to take
a short break before deciding if he wants to return to college for an advanced degree,
work in industrial or governmental research, or teach high school.
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ï¿½ University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611; (352) 846-2032.