Annual Grants to Fuel 46 Undergraduate Researchers This Summer

Rotunda with Thomas Jefferson Statue and Z on the steps

Annual Grants to Fuel 46 Undergraduate Researchers This Summer (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Forty-six University of Virginia undergraduate students will tackle summer research projects, with subjects ranging from first-century Italian dwellings to 21st-century medicine, thanks to grant support awarded by the University.

Forty-four proposals, involving 45 students, received Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards and another student’s research will be underwritten by the Stull family of Dallas. The Harrison Awards program, in its 18th year, partners students with a faculty mentor for research.

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

Students develop and submit detailed research proposals for funding. In February, a Faculty Senate committee selected the winners, who receive up to $4,000. Faculty mentors who oversee the projects receive $1,000.

“In their applications, students had to formulate a research question and propose methods for analyzing it within a disciplinary or interdisciplinary framework,” Cullaty said. “The applications were reviewed by a committee of faculty members, who carefully scored the proposals on the strength of their inquiry and the soundness of their methods.”

The center received 78 applications, which were reviewed by nearly three dozen faculty members, including the members of the Faculty Senate’s Research, Teaching and Scholarship Committee.

“The Harrison Awards provide important opportunities for undergraduate students to work closely with faculty mentors in pursuing research projects that the students have designed,” said the committee’s chair, Linda R. Duska, a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “The reviewers read many applications that were worthy of funding, but this year’s selection process was highly competitive. The winning applications addressed a clearly stated question and showed careful preparation and rigorous design.”

The research the students conduct will help them in future endeavors, Duska said.

“Many Harrison awardees succeed in pushing forward the bounds of knowledge, going on to present their findings at national conferences and publishing their work in peer-reviewed journals,” she said. “For some awardees, the experiences and knowledge that they gain during their Harrison projects will provide a significant early boost in the development of research careers. But even those who go on to other careers benefit from the faculty mentorship and unique opportunities that the awards support.”

Cullaty elaborated on the benefits students accrue.

“Undergraduate research has been identified as a high-impact educational practice, and a number of studies have cited its role in cognitive development, building skills and knowledge, and leading to a sense of accomplishment,” he 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. This type of work prepares students effectively for their future endeavors, including graduate study and careers that require innovative leaders.”

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

“I’m grateful to the Harrison family for supporting this wonderful program, and providing a valuable opportunity for students to pursue their scholarly inquiries,” Cullaty said. “The Stull family is also an important supporter of making research an integral part of undergraduate education.”

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

  • Daniel Ajootian of Providence, Rhode Island, a third-year student majoring in honors politics and English, will research the antebellum writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Sumner to understand the disconnection between their praise of American liberty as a value worthy of adoption abroad and their doubts of the ability for Americans to honor liberty in the practical politics of emancipation.
  • Ngozi Damilola Akingbesote of Ondo State, Nigeria, and Sterling, a second-year biochemistry major, will experiment on a particular gene, the KLF14 gene, that contributes to the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
  • Patrick Andrews of Charlottesville, a third-year neuroscience major, and Vignesh Rajasekaran of Ashburn, a second-year neuroscience major, will research if the growth of new lymphatic vessels that traffic immune cells throughout the central nervous system aid in recovery after spinal cord injury and how this growth works.
  • Jordan Beeker of Chantilly, a second-year French and economics major, will explore the narratives and presence of women in Senegal’s informal economy to understand what this economy indicates about current and future labor policies.
  • Anne Katherine Brooks of Charlottesville, a third-year chemical engineering major concentrating on biotechnology, will research ways of developing hydrogels for neural tissue engineering in subjects suffering from central nervous system injury and disease.
  • Lisa Chen of Springfield, a third-year biomedical engineering major, will research coronary artery disease risk associated with non-coding genetic variants at the PHACTR1 gene locus.
  • Joyce Cheng of Springfield, a second-year human biology major, will interview elderly homebound patients to identify correlations between various physical, mental and social circumstances and their self-perceived quality of life.
  • Sarah Corning of Atlanta, a second-year foreign affairs major, will work with the United Nations International Organization for Migration in Mexico to determine the risks facing female migrants from Central America, the extent of sexual and gender-based violence these women face and how to aid and protect them.
  • Samantha Crowley of Virginia Beach, a second-year neuroscience and developmental biology major, will research how neural crest cells, at early stages in development, are able to engulf and degrade cellular debris that would otherwise interfere with normal development of the organism.
  • Shivani Dimri of Falls Church, a third-year history and environmental sciences major, will research Italian colonialism in East Africa, particularly the Italian Fascists’ use of aerial photography in the attempted colonization of Ethiopia.
  • Alexander Droesch of Brightwaters, New York, a third-year art history and commerce major, will research the trajectory of how Alexander Calder’s art was altered when Giovanni Carandente commissioned the artist to produce his very first monumental stabile for the Festival of Two Worlds in 1962.
  • Diogo Fortes of Lisbon, Portugal, a third-year neuroscience major, will research the hormone oxytocin, which has known effects on social behavior and which is thought to be mediated by its ability to increase the salience of social stimuli.
  • Sarah Garzione of Wynantskill, New York, a first-year student who intends to major in biochemistry, will examine the influence of short-term nutrition and feelings of fullness on executive functioning and learning in preschoolers.
  • Faye Giebink of Great Falls, a third-year biology and anthropology major, will research the metabolic mechanisms that underlie the obesity epidemic.
  • Adriana Giorgis of Milan, Italy, a third-year architecture student in the distinguished major program, will research the ruins of a large imperial dwelling built for Emperor Nero’s banker on an island in Tuscany, Italy, in the first century. Giorgis will document the ruins with drone photogrammetry and 3-D laser scanning to digitally recreate the structure and explore its original appearance.
  • Cameron Haddad of Atlanta, a third-year economics major, will investigate the relationship between traditional healers – such as herbalists, diviners and medicine men and women – and the social welfare in Limpopo, South Africa.
  • Madison Hecht of Cincinnati, a third-year neuroscience and English major, will research cortex development in the human brain to investigate and understand the biological basis of human behavior at a cellular level.
  • Abigail Johnson of Staunton, a third-year English and environmental thought and practice major, will research computational text analysis methods to study the evolution of populist rhetoric within 19th-century medical-botanical texts. Johnson hopes to better understand the role of politically charged language within communities that are generally considered to be “apolitical.”
  • Dove-Anna Johnson of Woodbridge, a second-year student planning to major in neuroscience, will research the metabolic mechanisms that regulate weight loss in response to dietary intervention.
  • Aman Kapadia of Richmond, a third-year neuroscience major with a bioethics minor, will research how a miniature fluorescence microscope can be used to visualize neurons in the thalamus of mice prone to seizures, hoping to lead to a deeper understanding of the thalamus’ importance in epilepsy.
  • Christopher Li of Winchester, a third-year biochemistry major, will research the synthesis of small molecules that inhibit a protein-binding interaction involved in the development of acute myeloid leukemia.
  • Christina Marlow of Midlothian, a third-year developmental psychology major, will research moral development, such as if young children, ages 3 and 5, can distinguish between cheating and rule-breaking without any advantage in a game.
  • Sara Martin of Harrisonburg, a third-year neuroscience major, will research neural development in mice, specifically the role of protein Kif20b in the developing mouse cortex.
  • Shreya Maini of Ashburn, a third-year history and philosophy major, will explore the impact of the large-scale protests in Paris in May 1968 and the resulting discussions on feminist thinking and French ideologies.
  • Mary Grace Milam of Roanoke, a third-year neuroscience major, will investigate the effect that meningeal lymphatic dysfunction has on outcomes of immunotherapy, specifically in an Alzheimer's disease mouse model.
  • Tuan Nguyen of Poquoson, a third-year biomedical engineering major, will research the construction of a DNA bacterial plasmid that tracks the Tbx5, a gene that is responsible for inducing heart development from stem cells.
  • Brendan Nigro of Cumberland, Rhode Island, a third-year history distinguished majors program and statistics major, will research the history and legacy of eugenics at UVA, illustrating how UVA faculty and research served as an intellectual node for a broader movement in American intellectual history.
  • Cynthia Ong of Richmond, a third-year biology and statistics major concentrating in biostatistics, will research the population dynamics of Daphnia pulex, an aquatic crustacean, across the growing season using fine-scale temporal sampling to provide information into rapid evolution within natural populations.
  • Rahul Patel of Charlottesville, a third-year neuroscience major, will research the physical circuits in the brain that allow the body’s internal clock to alter its metabolism throughout the day.
  • Jillian Randolph of Baltimore, a third-year global development studies and English major, will investigate the appropriateness of public health approaches to communicable and non-communicable disease prevention and mitigation in alleviating youth violence in a neighborhood in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa.
  • Courtney Roark of Virginia Beach, a third-year archaeology and environmental sciences major, will research a spatial statistical study on the prehistoric material culture of the Delmarva Peninsula. 
  • Alisha Sahu of Rogers, Arkansas, a third-year neuroscience major, will explore the role of the neuropeptide PACAP on breathing at the time of birth.
  • Dylan Schaff of Barboursville, a third-year biomedical engineering major, will attempt to identify the heterogeneous transcriptional states of small-cell lung carcinoma, using a genetically engineered mouse model, and will investigate how members of a family of genes play a role in defining these states.
  • Helen Stone of Acton, Massachusetts, a third-year biology major with an anthropology minor, will research the cold tolerance of the fruit fly.
  • Sarah Thomas of Annandale, a third-year psychology major also pursuing a master’s degree in teaching for special and elementary education, will examine how children view the fairness of collective (group) versus targeted (individual) punishment.
  • Andrew Jefferson Ton of McLean, a third-year computer science major with a Buddhism minor, will research the designs of real-time, flight-planning algorithms for autonomous quadrotors and will explore how machine learning can teach these autonomous vehicles to safely respond in adversarial and dynamic environments.
  • Melanie Turner of Darien, Connecticut, a third-year speech pathology and audiology and Spanish linguistics and philology major, will research ways to identify perceptual, acoustic, aerodynamic and physiological properties of vocal quality terms commonly used among singers.
  • Mythili Vigneshwar of Richmond, a second-year biology major, will research how the damage caused to the heart by inflammation after a heart attack can be minimized with personalized therapy, specifically the effects of anti-inflammatory drug Anakinra on circulating immune cells using innovative mass cytometry.
  • Karl Westendorff of Pfafftown, North Carolina, a first-year student intending to major in aerospace engineering and chemistry, will experiment with changing how to build crystals to modify their structure and shapes for different applications. Multipurpose materials provide unparalleled functionality and will become a necessity in the future.
  • Jenna Wichterman of Oakton, a third-year philosophy and foreign affairs major with a religious studies minor, will research Raphael Lemkin, a Zionist promoting the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and the man who coined the term “genocide,” largely in response to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
  • Jack Wilkins of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a second-year politics major, will research how Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat, won a landslide re-election in the rural 17th District of Illinois, a district Donald Trump decisively won in 2016.
  • Meghan Wingert of Keller, Texas, a third-year student in the history distinguished majors program focusing on classical history of Rome and Greece, will research Pompeian elections during the Roman Empire.
  • Ryan Wolfe of Chesterfield, a third-year student in the history distinguished majors program also majoring in foreign affairs, will compare state and public narratives in their coverage of the Russo-Chechen Wars, gauging how much influence the Russian public has in government policymaking during a long and brutal war.
  • James Patrick Woznak of Winchester, a third-year neuroscience major, will research using diffusion tensor imaging technology to assess the response of white matter to a novel, non-invasive surgical modality.
  • Stull Research Award recipient Calli Bellinger of Midlothian, a third-year neuroscience major, will research the sexual bias toward males in autism through the mouse model of autism and maternal immune activation.

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