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Undergraduate Research: From Cancer Treatment to How Birds Recognize Songs

Mar 26, 2015 |

From examining the genes in the monkey flower, to exploring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s political, social and theological beliefs, to epilepsy therapies, to sustainable tourism, 38 University of Virginia undergraduates will pursue 36 grant-funded research projects this summer.

Ron Londen

Thirty-five of the proposals received Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards and another student has had his research underwritten by the Stull family of Dallas. This marks the 16th year of the program, which helps further a key component of the U.Va. student experience: hands-on research.

The research awards support students who present detailed plans for projects that have been endorsed by a faculty mentor. In February, a Faculty Senate committee selected the winners, who receive up to $3,000. Faculty mentors who oversee the projects receive $1,000.

“The Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards provide an opportunity for undergraduate students to participate in a core purpose of the University by contributing to the advancement of new knowledge,” said Brian Cullaty, director of undergraduate research opportunities at U.Va.’s Center for Undergraduate Excellence. “The program aspires for these student-faculty collaborations to make an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.”

The center received more than 50 grant applications, which were reviewed by nearly 50 faculty members, including the members of the Faculty Senate’s Research, Teaching and Scholarship Committee.

“The winning applications are compelling evidence of the ability of our best undergraduates to pose significant questions and design research to answer them,” said committee chair Bruce A. Williams, Ambassador Henry J. Taylor Professor of Media Studies. “As one of the highest awards an undergraduate at U.Va. can earn, the Harrison Award allows students to work with faculty mentors who help them hone their research skills and produce findings that often lead to publications or presentations at national and international scholarly conferences.”

The grant recipients, drawn from a wide array of disciplines, will engage in cutting-edge research guided by world-class faculty, Williams said.

“This year the center received applications from a variety of different fields from the humanities, social sciences and sciences,” Cullaty said. “In their applications, students had to formulate a research question and propose methods for analyzing it within a disciplinary or interdisciplinary framework. The faculty reviewers carefully scored the proposals on the strength of their inquiry, the soundness of their methods and the feasibility of their project.”

“Undergraduate research has been identified as a high-impact educational practice,” Cullaty said. “The process moves students away from passive learning and furnishes them with the ability to demonstrate mastery of disciplinary concepts and then apply their knowledge to the process of research and discovery.”

More than half of U.Va.’s undergraduates engage in some form of research during their educations, including classroom and independent work. Students who conduct research make better candidates for fellowships, graduate and professional school admissions and career placement, Cullaty said.

Charles L. Brown Science & Engineering Library in Clark Hall
Jane Haley / University Communications

“I’m grateful to the Harrison and Stull families for supporting this wonderful program, and providing a valuable opportunity for students to pursue their scholarly inquiries,” Cullaty said.

This year’s Harrison Undergraduate Research Award winners and their research topics:

  • Katherine Aracena, 20, of Harrisonburg, a third-year biology major, is researching the flowering gene regulatory network in the monkey flower.
  • Alexandra Berr, 21, of Charlottesville, a third-year biomedical engineering major, is researching how certain subtypes of cancer stem cells modulate their microenvironment and respond to common clinical treatments.
  • Andrew Biedermann, 19, of Baldwinsville, New York, a second-year chemical engineering major with minors in engineering business and materials science, is researching new theories for optimizing membrane technology in desalinization applications.
  • Maura Carey, 20, of River Vale, New Jersey, a third-year philosophy honors major, is researching the relationship between German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s work in political philosophy and metaphysics.
  • John Connolly, 20, of Wilmington, Delaware, a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences, is conducting archival research to investigate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s political, social and theological beliefs, and how they influenced his public ministry.
  • Pasha Davoudian, 21, of McLean, a third-year neuroscience major, is researching the role the thalamus plays in epilepsy therapy.
  • Elizabeth Duffield, 21, of Atlanta, a third-year foreign affairs and global studies environments and sustainability double major, is researching sustainable tourism development in northeastern Brazil, specifically with an aquarium project in Fortaleza.
  • Will Evans, 21, of Sewanee, Tennessee, a third-year political and social thought distinguished major, is researching an effort to preserve Belize’s Chiquibul National Park.
  • Grace Finley, 20, of Raleigh, North Carolina, a third-year economics and global development studies double major, is researching the intersection of economics and global development by exploring the sustainability of medical clinics in Iquitos, Peru.
  • Hayes Fountain, 19, of Charlottesville, a second-year environmental science major, is researching the distribution and abundance of biological soil crusts, the thin layer of living soil near and on the soil surface, which plays a major role in facilitating all life that comes from the soil.
  • Sarah Glier, 21, of Manassas, a third-year distinguished major in neuroscience, is researching autism and related mental disorders.
  • Megan Harper, 21, of Fairfax, a third-year neuroscience and computer science double major, is researching a form of epilepsy called “absence seizures,” which result in small lapses of consciousness. She will focus on thalamacortical circuit activity and how changes in thalamic ketone body concentration affect absence seizure activity.
  • Emily Ji, 20, of Fairfax, a third-year double major in neuroscience and economics, is researching mutations in the gene encoding for Mecp2, a protein that may be connected to Rett syndrome, an extremely debilitating neurodevelopmental disorder.
  • Mardeen Karim, 20, of Sterling, a third-year neuroscience major, is researching the mechanisms of how axons degenerate and how this relates to neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Caroline Kerr, 19, of Ashburn, a second-year chemistry major, is researching the synthesis of boron-based nanoparticles used for oxygen sensing and optical imaging in cells. 
  • Emma Kitchen, 21, of Herndon, a third-year distinguished history major, is researching the 19th-century naturalist Louis Agassiz, who helped popularize science in America, in order to shed light on the relationship between science and society during an important period in both American science and the history of the theory of evolution.
  • Shelby Lipes, 20, of Roanoke, a third-year biochemistry major, is researching correlations between the physical properties of detergents and their effect on the solubilization, fold and function of membrane proteins.
  • Angela Liu, 20, of Leesburg, a third-year biomedical engineering major, and Anne Archer, 21, of Leesburg, a third-year biology major, are researching bacterial interactions within the lung microbiome and their implications in public health and infectious diseases.
  • Usnish Majumdar, 20, of Alexandria, a third-year neuroscience major, is researching a combination of neuroscience and genetics.
  • Debbie Pan, 20, of Herndon, a third-year biology and Spanish double major, is researching the stability of microDNA, small extrachromosomal circular DNA found in various tissues, in order to characterize this newly discovered type of DNA.
  • Bansi Patel, 20, of Ashburn, a third-year biology and global public health double major, is researching whether wild-type versus knockout dendritic cells of a particular receptor will cause a difference in T-cell response, and thereby induce tolerance without compromising immune function.
  • Justin Peruzzi, 20, of Northfield, New Jersey, a second-year chemical engineering major, with minors in materials science and business, is researching whether sonification of data can be used to detect differences in the swimming behavior of a chemotactic bacterial population.
  • Aarti Purohit, 16, of Stephens City, a second-year neuroscience major, is researching dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure, and its role in maintaining and modifying circadian rhythms, 24-hour rhythms influenced by light but which may have non-photic influences as well.
  • Tyler Robbins, 20, of Keokee, a third-year cognitive science and statistics double major, is researching how birds learn to recognize songs and computer models for brain systems.
  • Shannah M. Rose, 21, of Cape May, New Jersey, a third-year a double major in art history and studio art, will research the last narrative cycle of paintings created by major African-American artist Jacob Lawrence at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
  • Elisabeth Schott, 20, of Leesburg, a third-year biology and psychology double major, is researching how altered brain morphologies affect the process of learning in social behavior.
  • Mary Kate Skalitzky, 19, of Oak Park, Illinois, a second-year student in the College, is researching a tele-translation program that takes into consideration cultural knowledge of both Latino and medical research cultures in order to improve the Latino population’s understanding of, and participation in, clinical research.
  • Adam Sykes, 21, of Richmond, a third-year distinguished history and Russian language and literature double major, is researching how American radicals and conservatives in the early 20th century perceived and responded to the 1917 Russian Revolution.
  • Daniel Naveed Tavakol, 19, of Vienna, a second-year biomedical engineering student, is researching angiogenesis, or blood vessel growth, in the mouse cornea and retina, distinguishing key factors in support-cell recruitment and location in vascular networks.
  • Ty Vanover, 21, of Clintwood, a third-year art history major, is researching nationalistic art in Budapest created by students who trained at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna during the latter half of the 19th century.
  • Yiqing Wang, 20, of Beijing, a third-year biochemistry major, is researching the function of chandelier cells and how their deficits lead to schizophrenia.
  • Orion Williams, 19, of Puyallup, Washington, and Sarah Koch, 20, of Kansas City, Missouri, both second-year anthropology majors, are researching how girls perform on a science exam based on the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment test results, specifically comparing how high-school-age girls perform in the classroom internationally.
  • Christopher Yang, 20, of Fredericksburg, a third-year neuroscience major, is researching how the sympathetic nervous system governs fat metabolism and how it can be manipulated to aid weight-loss.
  • Michael Zhou Zhang, 20, of Roanoke, a third-year chemistry major, specializing in biochemistry, is researching how a glutamate transporter homologue interconverts between two conformations, which is important for understanding its mechanism of transport.
  • Taylor Zimmerman, 20, of Vinton, a second-year biology major, is researching the fat metabolism process.

The winner of the Stull Family Research Award is:

  • Peter Trombly, 20, of Acton, Massachusetts, a third-year distinguished history and economics double major, who is researching the prosecution of Nazis following World War II, specifically comparing trial processes between British and American zones – evaluating them as instruments of justice and how they contribute to understanding the Holocaust.