Engineering Undergrad Research Tackles Real Problems

May 1, 2009 — A selection of University of Virginia undergraduate engineering students presented research ranging from reducing sonic booms to aerodynamic design to interrupting the mutation of influenza viruses at a symposium held Wednesday in the Dome Room of the Rotunda.

"All of these presenters are doing work equal to that of graduate students," said James H. Lambert, a research professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering and the moderator of the 22nd annual Undergraduate Research and Design Symposium.

The students presented individually and in teams, using graphs and charts and photographs projected on a screen. An appreciative audience that ebbed and flowed with friends and family members filled rows of wooden chairs. A question-and-answer period followed each presentation, with queries coming from judges and spectators. When they were finished, the researchers received a round of applause.

"This is my third presentation, and it keeps me on my toes," said fourth-year systems engineering and environmental sciences major William Carson, who presented his research on a diagnostic device that indicates how cancerous prostate tissue should feel. "I want to sound convincing."

To sound convincing takes practice, as biomedical engineering majors Shokoufeh Dianat and Jenna Zhang found in preparing their presentation on influenza mutations.

"It takes a lot of rehearsal," Dianat said. "We even had to rehearse when we would click the button to change the picture."

The students said they had to learn how to mesh their presentation styles. Dianat said she tended to oversimplify details of the research when trying to get the central point across, whereas Zhang said she was a stickler for accurate detail, sometimes to the detriment of presenting a clear overview. But as they rehearsed their individual and joint presentations, they said, the process evolved. They came to understand each other's strengths and who should do what.

"Eventually we get into a groove, delegate tasks and get more efficient," Zhang said. "We complement each other."

They have also learned from each other.

"It’s a good experience to work with someone who is different from you," Zhang said. "You learn to think about something from a different perspective."

Their practice paid off. The duo placed first among five team presenters for their work
on how to disrupt the mutation of flu viruses. They acknowledged that the serendipitous headlines about recent H1N1 (swine) flu outbreaks gave their research added immediacy.

"This pandemic has me scared," Dianat admitted after their presentation. "I realize how poorly our vaccines are made and how quickly influenza mutates."

Zhang said the current flu carries elements of swine flu, avian flu and a strain of human flu, and it was proving more dangerous to age groups traditionally less affected, such as young adults.
James H. Aylor, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, noted that the research presentations focused on real-world problems.

"It's always a pleasure to see that timely problems are being addressed and the truly innovative engineering solutions that are used," he said "The 2009 URDS represents another strong showing from our top undergraduate students in the 22-year history of this event."

Timothy E. Allen, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and chairman of the symposium committee, announced the winners of Wednesday's competition at a reception following the presentations. First-place winners received $500 and second-place winners netted $250.

The winner in the individual categories, out of seven finalists, was Jonathan Merrell, a biomedical engineering student who presented his research on "Stabilization of aortic aneurysms via delivery of ascorbic acid and retinoic acid through polymeric nanoparticles." The runner-up was Jesse Quinlan, an aerospace engineering student who presented research on "Minimization of sonic-boom via fuselage shaping for the preliminary design of a supersonic commercial aircraft."

The runners up in the team category were Linh Nguyen, Margaret Rush and Yihwa Yang, who presented their research on "Novel nanofibrous scaffolds with adipose-derived stem cells for tissue regeneration."

"All of the finalists gave outstanding presentations," Allen said. "The competition was especially close this year."

— By Matt Kelly