Backed by Money and Mentors, Undergrads Embark on Research Adventures

Looking over a railing to students sitting at round tables working on their laptops

Ever wonder how a zebra finch learns how to sing? Or how sea grass adapts to its environment? Or how the brain fights infection?

University of Virginia students do. And now 41 of them have received undergraduate research grants to explore these and many other topics of their choosing during the summer.

The awardees receive as much as $4,000 apiece to pursue their research interests, along with a faculty mentor – a process that has gone on every year since 2001, introducing students to the intellectual joy of creating knowledge and launching them toward an array of careers.

In total, 39 proposals involving 40 students received 2020 Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards, created through a gift from the late David A. Harrison III and his family. An additional student had her research underwritten by the Stull family of Dallas.

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

Working with a faculty mentor, students develop and submit detailed research plans for funding. In January, faculty members reviewed applications and selected the winners. Faculty mentors who oversee the projects receive up to $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. “When students engage in mentored research with faculty at the University, they begin to ask their own questions and explore new directions. The Harrison Award provides an opportunity for students to receive funding to pursue these ideas.

“In some cases, this involves providing a stipend for living in Charlottesville over the summer; in other cases it covers travel expenses, and some students use the award to purchase materials and supplies needed for their projects.”

The Office of Undergraduate Research received 106 grant applications, which were reviewed by more than three dozen faculty members, including the members of the Faculty Senate’s Research, Teaching and Scholarship Committee, who scored the proposals on the strength of their inquiry and the soundness of their methods.

“The Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards provide fantastic opportunities for UVA undergraduate students to experience the excitement of original research – generating new knowledge while attempting to answer questions that each individual has an intense interest in,” said Kevin Lehmann, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Research, Teaching and Scholarship Committee. “I have reviewed Harrison proposals many times and always greatly enjoy reading the research ideas of our students, many of which are amazingly creative and original.”

Lehmann said the award winners this year include students from the College of Arts & Sciences, the Curry School of Education and Human Development and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. They include students who are performing research in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and engineering disciplines, spanning additive manufacturing and anatomy through social entrepreneurship and social neuroscience.

“Due to their popularity, the awards are highly competitive, and many more deserving projects are proposed than can be supported,” Lehmann said. “Winning applications require the student propose a clearly stated research question that can be answered by the project, explain how that question relates to larger questions of their academic field and society, have a detailed research plan that describes how data will be obtained and analyzed, and demonstrate that the students will have the time and resources to complete the project and that the student demonstrates academic preparation for the project through course work and other experiences.”

The faculty mentor must commit to supervision of the student’s project. Project results are often presented by students at research conferences, including national and international academic meetings, and in research articles that include the student as a coauthor. 

Lehmann said winning the Harrison Award, and the research experiences it allows, often encourages students to pursue a Ph.D. or other advanced degrees and substantially strengthens their applications for such programs. The skills a student hones in the application process and in the subsequent research projects are highly valuable, regardless of where their post-UVA lives take them.

“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,” Lehmann said.

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

“The benefits of doing independent research have been well documented,” Cullaty said. “They include developing critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and intellectual independence.

After working on their projects over the course of the summer and the subsequent academic year, the Harrison recipients will present their work to the University community at an Undergraduate Research Symposium in spring 2021.

This year’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, featuring the presentations from last year’s Harrison Award recipients, as well as an expected 200 undergraduate presentations, will take place April 15 at Newcomb Hall.

“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 recipients are:

  • Fatima Ahsan of Abingdon, a third-year neuroscience major, who will research how zebra finch songbird chicks learn the songs of their species from their elders.
  • Phineas Alexander of Brooklyn, New York, a third-year anthropology and studio art major, and Emma Karnes of Ithaca, New York, a third-year English poetry writing major, who will research the structure and successes of community-based social enterprises in Intag, Ecuador, where they will work with for-profit organizations to better understand how community businesses work as vehicles for environmental activism and alternative economic development.
  • Chase Amos of Roanoke, a third-year biochemistry major focusing on biophysics, who will research the molecular origins of the lipid influence in insulin exocytosis, a process by which the beta cells in the pancreas release insulin in response to high glucose levels in the blood.
  • Hira Azher of Virginia Beach, a third-year global development studies and medical anthropology major on a pre-med track, who will collaborate with a South African women’s group formed to provide mutual support for members’ chronic health conditions in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, to research the effects of previous activist research done by a UVA team that focused on assisting in creating relationships with local Cape Town businesses.
  • Spencer Barnes of Davidson, North Carolina, a second-year aerospace engineering and additive manufacturing major, who will research 3-D printing of organic material, entailing printing various soil and seed mixtures to make geometry applicable for vertical farming and architectural fixturing.
  • Madeline Brence of Stafford, a second-year psychology major, who will research children’s developing understanding of fairness and adoption of fairness-related norms, revolving around society’s ideas about the distribution of resources and how children come to understand fairness – particularly how merit influences children’s perception of the severity of causing unfairness.
  • Luke Cavanah of Pittsburgh, a third-year biochemistry and psychology major, who will research event-related potentials, or ERPs – small-but-distinct changes in the voltage recorded by an electrode in electroencephalography that arise due to specific events or stimuli. Examination of ERPs can be used to gain insight into emotion perception and how various factors alter it, particularly components that occur after the initial processing of a stimulus.
  • Mary Margaret Chalk of McLean, a third-year history and Italian dual major, who will research the establishment of liberal institutions in Italy following its fascist period and World War II, with a specific interest in the formation of its Constitutional Court.
  • Daniel Chen of Fairfax, a third-year neuroscience major, who will research regeneration of sensory hair cells of the inner ear that are vulnerable to damage from loud noise, which can lead to hearing loss.
  • Gabrielle Costlow of Virginia Beach, a third-year biomedical engineering major, who will research amplifying specific types of immune cells to prevent the destruction of insulin-producing cells, leading to Type 1 diabetes.
  • Ryley Crow of Springfield, a third-year biology and environmental sciences major, who will research two populations of seagrass to understand local adaptions in seed germination in response to ocean acidification and marine heat waves.
  • Julia Dressel of Centreville, a third-year chemistry and environmental science major, who will research using a nickel catalyst to transform carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide or formate, which are valuable building blocks of fuels and chemicals.
  • Ashley Ewing of Apopka, Florida, a third-year neuroscience major, who will research metabolism regulation and feeding motivation in the fruit fly to better understand metabolic reaction in the human body.
  • James “Jimmy” Ferguson of Falls Church, a third-year history major with a minor in religious studies, who will research Rabbi Baruch Korff for the support that he gave then-President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Ferguson will explore how Korff, who worked for a variety of Zionist and Jewish rescue organizations, fits within broader trends and tendencies in political conservatism in American Judaism.
  • Logan Harper of Virginia Beach, a third-year biology major, who will research the relationship between metabolism and immunity in macrophages, specifically how the inhibition of metabolic proteins affects macrophages’ ability to kill bacteria and yeast. This could reveal how macrophage metabolites/enzymes contribute to fighting off infections.
  • Ingrid Kenyon of Barrington, Rhode Island, a third-year neuroscience major, who will research a genome-wide association study to determine genes that contribute to variation in locomotor activity in the fruit fly, compare flies with high activity to those with low activity, and search for genetic mutations that may be associated with this differential.
  • Dillon Lue of Great Falls, a second-year biomedical engineering major, who will research the effect of vascular smooth muscle cells in mice on various phenotypes and their relationship to coronary artery disease.
  • Aaria Malhotra of Haymarket, a third-year Spanish and neuroscience major with a pre-med concentration, who will research the effects of cesarean deliveries on the social perceptual abilities of infants.
  • Max Markon of Alexandria, a third-year history major, who will research Justice John Marshall Harlan, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1877 to 1911, and his jurisprudence, placed into the context of his competing views on African American and Chinese constitutional protections.
  • Ann Mathew of Chantilly, a second-year neuroscience major, who will research neuropathic pain caused by Paclitaxel, a taxol class of chemotherapeutic which functions to prevent cell proliferation of cancerous cells.
  • Emmy Monaghan of Oak Park, Illinois, a third-year art history and anthropology major, who will research Gloria Petyarre, a contemporary indigenous Australian artist from Alice Springs, exploring the cultural and market-driven techniques present in her painting while connecting Petyarre’s career trajectory to the broader conditions of aboriginal artists emerging into the international contemporary art world.
  • Siana Monet of Falls Church, a third-year distinguished religious studies major, who will evaluate the pervasiveness of astrological recommendations in Bhutanese medical treatments and outcomes by working with the Bhutanese Ministry of Health.
  • Tammy Moscovich of Fairfax, a third-year global public health and biology major, who will research factors in memory T cell self-renewal, an immune mechanism essential for the effectiveness of vaccines, since it provides long-term protection against secondary infections from the same pathogens.
  • Joanna Moy of Hong Kong and Houston, a third-year neuroscience major, who will seek to classify and characterize different subtypes of cells in the retina and examine how they change in various glaucomic mouse models.
  • Caroline Osborn of Springfield, Ohio, second-year anthropology and economics major, who will research Maya K’iche’, an endangered Mayan language, focusing on the written language and conducting an intensive analysis of the linguistic landscape.
  • Brian Pfeifer of Middletown, a third-year archaeology and biology major, who will research using archaeogeophysics, a sub-discipline of archaeology that aims to non-destructively identify buried features at an archaeological site, at the Aphidna Survey Project in Greece.
  • Adam Rayburn of Columbus, Ohio, a third-year history and anthropology double major, who will research the experiences of incarcerated laborers on the Virginia Convict Road Force and how those experiences were shaped by the geography of the state, and create an interactive digital map highlighting every road in Virginia built by the Road Force in order to demonstrate the visible geography of modern forced servitude.
  • Mahima Reddy of Pittsburgh, a third-year biology major, who will research the role of the extracellular matrix remodeling gene galectin-3 in phenotypic transitions of vascular smooth muscle cells and the stabilization of atherosclerotic plaques.
  • Kaila Ross of Herndon, a third-year biology major, who will research design a decision aid to help future chronic rhinosinusitis patients make more informed, empowered decision about their treatment options.
  • Kelsey Schoeman of Charlottesville, a third-year student double-majoring in history and Chinese language and literature, who will research whether the Chinese Communist Party successfully reformed or decentralized the role of the family during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
  • R.X. Schwartz of Denver, a third-year systems engineering and Latin American studies major, who will research the development of new device-based methods to help individuals gain control of their use of digital technology – specifically, investigating methods that reliably modify usage in very minor ways.
  • Ish Sethi of Chantilly, a first-year prospective neuroscience major, who will research at the intersection of the fields of neuroscience, immunology and parasitology, looking at how the brain fights infections using the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which is capable of infecting almost all warm-blooded animals, including about one-third of the global human population.
  • Katherine Stephanie Silis of Fairfax Station, a third-year neuroscience and Spanish major, who will research the use of non-psychoactive molecular components of cannabis to alleviate the onset of epileptic seizures through a mechanism that acts on rhythmic electrical activity in the hippocampus.
  • Karlie Sivetz of Lincroft, New Jersey, a first-year kinesiology/pre-med major in the Curry School of Education and Human Development, who will research the severity of laryngeal injuries and the risk of developing a serious condition called posterior glottic stenosis due to such injuries.
  • Ravi Suresh of West Lafayette, Indiana, a third-year global public health pre-med major, who will research the way women cancer survivors use a novel mental health mobile application to meet their needs.
  • Amanda Talalaj of Chicago, a first-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences, who will research the accuracy of a survey to predict whether or not surgery is the most effective option to treat chronic rhinosinusitis.
  • Tuyet-Minh Tran of Manassas, a third-year human biology distinguished program major, who will research a better understanding of the protein RalA and its role in mobilizing fatty acids during nutrient starvation. Understanding these processes will provide a basis for better understanding tumorigenesis and obesity, both of which rely on lipid metabolism.
  • Ann McKenry Valentine of Richmond, a third-year history distinguished major and religious studies minor, who will research the connections between American pacifism and imperialism from 1914 to 1945 through the actions, accomplishments and relationship of two brothers – one a prominent pacifist and the other a prominent imperialist.
  • Zhiwen Xu of Hangzhou, China, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, a first-year biochemistry and studio art major on a pre-med track, who will research how the susceptibility to type-2 diabetes differs between females and males partly due to the different patterns of body composition and fat distribution.

The Stull Research Award winner is:

  • Margaret Van Cleve of Jacksonville, Florida, a third-year human biology distinguished major program on a pre-med track, who will research chronic kidney disease in premature infants.

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