‘Double ’Hoo’ Awards Power Undergrad-Grad Student Research Pairs

This summer, pairs of University of Virginia student researchers will examine exoplanets, experiment with repairing brain and spine tissue and look at the history of Southern agriculture.The University has awarded six “Double ’Hoo” research awards, which fund pairings of undergraduate and graduate students collaborating on research projects. Each project is awarded up to $5,000 toward research expenses, plus $500 to compensate a faculty mentor. This year’s winners were selected from a pool of 47 pairs of applicants. The research grants were funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and the Ale family of Houston.

The funding will allow some students to continue research they have already started, and for others it will be an opportunity to expand what they have been doing or to start something new.

“The Double ’Hoo Award fosters meaningful interactions between the University’s undergraduate and graduate students,” said Brain Cullaty, director of undergraduate research opportunities at U.Va.’s Center for Undergraduate Excellence. “The graduate students gain valuable mentoring skills which will serve them well in their future careers, and the undergraduate students benefit from the learning that comes from serious scholarly inquiry.

“The relationships also provide an opportunity for the undergraduate students to learn more about the life of a graduate student and inform their decisions as they consider their own future education.”

Phillip A. Trella, assistant vice president of graduate studies and postdoctoral affairs in the Office of the Vice President for Research, agreed that both tiers of students benefit from the arrangement.

“The No. 1 credential for undergraduates seeking admission into a graduate program –especially a Ph.D. or research-based program – is probably research experience,” he said. “A high-quality research experience for undergrads trumps overall standardized test scores, because it demonstrates the qualities that faculty want in their graduate students – the ability to think of pertinent and important questions that can be addressed through research and scholarship; the ability to think critically and independently, and to marshal evidence in order to make an argument or draw a conclusion.”

Trella said the program gives graduate students experience in creating and designing a project, as well as mentoring another researcher.

“For those grad students looking to take the next step in academia, mentoring is a particularly important skill set to develop, and the ability to demonstrate it through these awards positions our students well for the next steps in their career,” Trella said.

This years awardees are:

• Matthew Sutcliffe, 21, of Cumberland, Rhode Island, a third-year biomedical engineering major in the Engineering School, and Philip M. Tan, 23, of Norfolk, a second-year biomedical engineering graduate student in the Engineering School and the School of Medicine, who are using computer models to research protein signaling in cardiac cells to better understand how the heart changes in size and shape in response to stressful conditions like a heart attack or high blood pressure.

• C.J. Norsigian, 21, of Flemington, New Jersey, a third-year biomedical engineering student, and Lauren Russell, 23, of Warrenton, a second-year graduate student in chemical engineering, who are researching neural regeneration. 

“Following disease or injury of the brain or spinal cord such as multiple sclerosis, stem cells are often unable to rebuild the damaged tissue,” Russell said. “Stem cell carriers such as biomaterials have exhibited some ability to help favor regrowth and repair of the damaged tissue and therefore help patients regain functionality. For the Double ’Hoo project, we will focus on further characterization of this cellular microenvironment.”

• Robin Leiter, 20, of Arlington, a third-year aerospace engineering major with a minor in astronomy, and Jake Turner, 26, of Walsenburg, Colorado, a second-year graduate student studying astronomy, who are researching the physical characteristics of exoplanets – planets orbiting stars other than the sun – by looking at light curves as they eclipse their star.

“I want to learn how astronomers remotely study celestial objects,” Leiter said. “Research on exoplanets is still really new, and there is a lot in the field that undergraduates like me can do.”

• Jenna Van Dyck, 20, of Alexandria, a third-year cognitive science major concentrating on neuroscience, and Meghan McDermott Puglia, 27, of North Wales, Pennsylvania, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in psychology studying social cognitive neuroscience, who are researching the factors that make individuals behave differently in social situations.

“Because social relationships play such a critical role in our lives, impacting both health and happiness, we hope that the results of our study may one day improve the lives of individuals with poor social abilities by revealing specific neurobiological markers critical for successful social functioning,” Van Dyck said.

• William Henagan, 20 of Atlanta, a second-year history major, and Benjamin Davison, 28, of Easton, Pennsylvania, a fifth-year history Ph.D. candidate, who are researching the development of industrial agriculture, particularly industrial chicken farming, in the American South.

“As a Georgian, this topic provides me an opportunity to understand the economic and developmental roots of my heritage,” Henagan said. “Long term, I am interested in developing policy solutions to build both an equitable and sustainable system of food production.”

• Declan McCarthy, 20, of Salem, a third-year environmental chemistry major, and Sonja Long, 32, of Reston, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in environmental science concentrating on geoscience, who are researching nitrogen isotopes through spectral analysis, while integrating a computational approach.

“I want to help researchers of biogeochemical processes, specifically nitrogen stable isotopes analysis, link laboratory-level analysis to larger spatial scales by investigating new methods and instrumentation that could perform out in the field,” Long said. “It is an interesting and challenging area since this project requires laboratory work, modeling, computer science and applied technologies.”

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