Program Provides Inquiring Undergrads With Research Money and Mentors

Collage of various illustrations

Program Provides Inquiring Undergrads With Research Money and Mentors(Illustration by Alexandra Angelich, University Communications)

What happens when you give 40 inquisitive University of Virginia students as much as $4,000 apiece to pursue their research interests over the summer, and assign them faculty mentors?

That’s what the Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards have done every year since 2001, introducing students to the intellectual joy of creating knowledge and launching them toward an array of careers.

This year’s research topics span from researching the development of coronary artery disease to investigating non-traditional drugs to treat seizures and epilepsy to studying a female mystic of the late 14th century.

In total, 38 proposals involving 39 students received 2019 Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards, while one other student has 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, by creating and advancing new knowledge,” said Brian Cullaty, director of UVA’s Office of Undergraduate Research. “The program aspires for these student-faculty collaborations to make an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.”

Students, working with a faculty mentor, develop and submit detailed research plans for funding. In January, a Faculty Senate committee selected the winners. 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 Office of Undergraduate Research received 94 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.

“Many of the proposed projects were worthy of funding, but, like last year, this year’s selection process was also very highly competitive,” said the committee’s co-chair, Mircea Stan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “The winning proposals addressed a clearly stated hypothesis and showed careful preparation and planning.”

The work the researchers do will help them in their future endeavors, Stan said.

“Many Harrison awardees prove that knowledge has no bounds, going on to present their project outcomes at national conferences and publishing their work in peer-reviewed journals,” he said. “The experiences and new knowledge that they develop during their Harrison projects provide a significant early boost in the development of research careers for some of the awardees, but even for those who don’t pursue research careers there are significant benefits due to the close faculty mentorship and the unique opportunities that the awards provide.”

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 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.

“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:

  • Rita Anane-Wae of Glendale, Arizona, a second-year biomedical engineering major, who is researching a gene that influences the development of coronary artery disease.
  • Robin Bai of Yorktown, a third-year neuroscience and math major, who is using computational biology to examine the interactions between the brain and immune system using single-cell data to understand how the underlying mechanisms of immune inputs affect brain activity.
  • Sasha Bilal of Vienna, a third-year biology and Spanish double major, who will research fruit flies in outdoor cages to study how different genes act in different environments.
  • Grace Breiner of Chesapeake, a second-year English and chemistry major, who is researching stabilizing compounds that could have the potential for storing hydrogen, a promising alternative energy source.
  • Jordan Bridges of Knoxville, Tennessee, a third-year majoring in philosophy and in political and social thought, who is researching whether victims of oppression have an obligation to resist their oppression.
  • Tina Chai of Falls Church, a third-year biochemistry and English major, who will examine the relationship between hypertension and breast cancer, two diseases that demonstrate comorbidity, to determine an overlapping signaling pathway.
  • Krystyna Cios of Richmond, a second-year neuroscience and economics major, who is researching the ways in which feeding behavior is regulated by the brain because of the far-reaching medical and public health implications of obesity.
  • Caroline Conlan of Bethesda, Maryland, a third-year student majoring in biology and biostatistics, who will research using a genetics approach to make chemotherapy more effective against the most aggressive subtype of breast cancer.
  • Anna Cuddeback of Medford, Massachusetts, a first-year computer engineering major, who is researching machine-learning techniques to improve the detection of novelty data in large datasets in particle physics.
  • Nisha Dabhi of Richmond, a third-year neuroscience and foreign affairs major, who is researching the role of the meningeal adaptive immune response, specifically T-cells, in Alzheimer’s disease, studying two receptors which are required for T-cell activation in the brain and another which usually inhibits T-cell activation, and their role in amyloid beta plaque formation in Alzheimer’s. 
  • Morgan Dakota DeLong-Maxey of Buckingham, a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences focused on biology, environment and ecology, who is researching what processes are responsible for maintaining genetic diversity in natural populations.
  • Astrid Escobar of Houston, a first-year student interested in economics and commerce, who is researching parent involvement in their children’s education and the educational success that stems from it, in an effort to improve education in the U.S. for minority students and marginalized groups.
  • Noah French of Madison, New Jersey, a third-year psychology and computer science double major, who will research the relationship between anxiety and “depersonalization” and why some anxious people experience frequent or persistent depersonalization when others do not.
  • Brett Goerl of Gainesville, a third-year human biology student in the interdisciplinary distinguished majors program focusing on neuroscience, who is investigating non-traditional drugs for the purpose of treating seizures and epilepsy.
  • Andria Li of Charlottesville, a third-year Spanish and biology major, who will research the Pou6f1 gene and its effect on the formation of germinal centers in the adaptive immune response.
  • Chelsea Li of Oakton, a third-year neuroscience major, who is researching populations of neurons in the brain, stimulating them and observing their pathways and functions in mice, particularly in terms of pancreatic secretions to understand the implications for the treatment of diabetes.
  • Alyssa Montalbine of Findlay, Ohio, a second-year chemistry major specializing in biochemistry, who will be fabricating an artificial stromal cell network for use in an ex vivo, microfluidic model of lymph nodes, critical in providing medical researchers with a reproducible model that can be specifically tailored to research on the workings of medical disorders, the effects of pharmaceuticals in these contexts, and/or specialization to individual patients.
  • Ben Neubert of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, a third-year biomedical engineering major, who will be researching the metabolic capabilities within the mouse gut to better understand the microorganisms there.
  • Elsa Nylund of Reston, a third-year neuroscience major, who is researching the development of a first-in-class, drug-inducible gene therapy for the treatment of temporal lobe epilepsy.
  • Rachel Olson of Virginia Beach, a second-year religious studies major and pre-med student, who is researching that macrophages, a white blood cell that digests particles such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites, can control calcium levels within the mitochondrial calcium uniporter complex, a transmembrane protein that allows the passage of calcium ions, in an effort to manipulate the calcium intake and lessen the effects of inflammation.
  • Lasyapriya Pidaparthi of Blacksburg, a third-year neuroscience major, who will research how exercise during abstinence can help reduce the risk of relapse among addicts and help develop treatments or interventions that are more accessible to people.
  • Airi Price of Burke, a second-year global public health major on a pre-medical track, who is researching the interaction between stem and immune cells, and how that relationship can help reduce immune cell-induced kidney injury in individuals with autoimmune disorders.
  • Josy Raheem of McLean, a third-year English and medieval studies double major, who is researching body imagery in the texts of 14th-century female mystic Julian of Norwich, and the effect the built environment had on female piety in Julian’s work.
  • Nushaba Rashid of Ashburn, a third-year chemical engineering major with a business minor, who is researching the movement of bacteria in response to an acid gradient mimicking the stomach environment. Predicting this response will be pivotal in future research for treating certain illnesses such as cholera, that are prevalent around the world.
  • Anahita Sharma of Fairfax, a second-year biomedical engineering major, who is researching the 3-D bioprinting of UV light-induced self-healing elastin-like protein hydrogels for use as a conduit for tissue regeneration.
  • Jacob Shaw of Roanoke, a third-year double major in sociology and economics, who is researching the differences in divorce rates between Italy and the United States, focusing on individualism in the U.S. versus a more patron-client system in Italy in regard to the family, the economy and politics.
  • Jacqueline Siegel of Virginia Beach, a third-year art history major, who will research art activism.
  • Neil Singh of Brockport/Rochester, New York, a second-year engineering major, who will research aircraft flight path trajectories and ways to make them more efficient, to ease the environmental impact of jet planes, lower flight costs and create a safer flight experience.
  • Carlin Smith of Warrenton and Jessica Copeland of Virginia Beach, both third-year global development majors, who are analyzing how Sub-Saharan music, poetry, arts and culture interact with activism to nurture community bonds and cultivate societal change in Makhanda, South Africa.
  • Abigail Staub of Richmond, an art history and archaeology major with a Latin-focused classics minor, who is researching long-ignored, non-elite Romans and how their domestic worship of household gods functioned differently than Roman elites.
  • Samantha Strohm of Virginia Beach, a third-year neuroscience and psychology double major, who will research a specific form of SCN8A encephalopathy, a rare form of epilepsy.
  • Rohan Taneja of Vienna, a second-year computer science major, who will research how a technical, machine-learning-based approach could be used to tackle issues in other fields of science, allowing scientists to make use of machine-learning methods to find hidden insights on the unique properties of monolayers or 2-D materials.
  • Charlotte Lena Troyan of Berlin, a third-year history major, who is researching the nature of the French colonial presence in the Indian Ocean during the 19th century.
  • Eric Wang of Boston, a third-year biochemistry and computer science major, who will research the mechanisms of juvenile myoclonic epilepsy, with a focus on the role of a specific protein named the intestinal cell kinase, in hopes that this research will aid the discovery of medical solutions for epilepsy and other diseases.
  • Elizabeth Wat of Fairfax, a third-year neuroscience major, who will research how autism-like traits are linked to interactions among brain regions during social reward processing to determine whether autism’s social characteristics result from a deficit of neural connections or, instead, a difference in connections.
  • Connor Wynkoop of Fairfax Station, a second-year mechanical engineering major, who will research creating a concrete solution in order to print structures.
  • Isabelle Witteveen of Leesburg, a third-year neuroscience major, who will research how waste in neurons is destroyed, as problems with degradation can lead to diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, among many others.
  • Wenxuan (Sharon) Zheng of Beijing, a second-year biomedical engineering major, who is researching the development of a hydrogel for the delivery of oligodendrocyte precursor cells for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Stull family research award recipient:

  • Connor Haynes of Richmond, a third-year neuroscience and economics major, who is researching how each of the senses’ own unique circuits form, which will help discern the mystery surrounding the brain’s responses to stimuli.

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