U.Va. Undergrad Researchers Present Work to Packed House

September 10, 2009

September 9, 2009 — University of Virginia undergraduates presented research on modern music, fat stem cells and a social services project in Nicaragua – among many topics – to a full house on Sept. 4.

The Center for Undergraduate Excellence, which administers many undergraduate research awards, sponsored the presentation and reception for research-award recipients at the auditorium at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library in the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture.

"We want to bring the students together to talk about their experience," said Lucy Russell, director of the center. "This is also an opportunity to introduce new students to research and to talk with other students about it."

The 108 chairs set out for the audience were nearly full for most of the demonstrations, with students, mentors and guests applauding enthusiastically after each of the five presentations.

Richard Grove Miller, a fourth-year Spanish and music major who received a grant from the University Undergraduate Award for Arts Projects, explained his electro-acoustic composition and the computer programming and hardware necessary to create it.

Elizabeth Bendycki, a fourth-year psychology major, co-editor of the Oculus, the undergraduate research magazine, and recipient of funding from the College Science Scholarship Program, spoke about her work on empathy.

Blair Stocks, a fourth-year biomedical engineering major and recipient of the Stull Family Award, described his work in using fat stem cells to treat problems with blood flow in and around the heart.

Thushara Gunda, a fourth-year environmental sciences major, Harrison Research Award recipient and winner of this year's Udall Prize, outlined her work tracking mercury in the environment. Gunda will also be one of three students representing U.Va. at a Universitas 21 undergraduate research conference in Scotland in October.

Courtney Mallow, a Double 'Hoo research grant recipient and a co-recipient, with 2009 graduate Evelyn Hall, of the Davis Projects for Peace award, explained her project to empower women in a community in Nicaragua.

Other researchers presented their work on posters and explained their findings in the back of the room during the reception. Among the presenters were Michael Downer and Kate Abshire, who are working on sustainable stormwater management; Jacqueline Hodges, who is exploring membrane protein reconstitution; Ashley Keller, who is studying membrane proteins in bacterial pathogenesis; Colin McCrimmon, who is delving into macromolecular space group frequencies; and Beth Morris, who is investigating a technique in teaching clinical skills.

"It helps to speak with others for the feedback and the reinforcement," said Bendycki after her presentation. "It's rewarding to share what you do with others."

"This is a great opportunity to show what you do," said Stock, who spent time after his presentation speaking with John Stull, whose family funded his research. "You spend so much time in the lab – this gives you a check point to reflect. This also gives me a chance to present to a diverse group."

Stull, who has had three children attend the University, said he liked what he heard – not just from Stock, but from all the researchers.

"I was very impressed with projects the students have taken on." he said. "I think they did a very good job presenting their work."

Stull, a civil engineer in Dallas, and his wife Drew have endowed a scholarship to fund undergraduate research.

"We wanted to do something for the community and thought this would be a good way to do it," he said.

Bendycki, who said she entered research because of her own curiosity about human behavior, enjoyed the diversity of research presented.

"This is a really good interdisciplinary exercise," she said. "It helps to see things through other people's eyes. Here we are gathering people from across departments."

Bendycki encouraged younger students to get involved in researching something in which they are interested.

Russell said that first-year students were invited to the presentations to show them what is possible.

"There is a huge increase in undergraduate research," she said. "There is an increasing realization of the value of inquiry-based education. It is important for students to ask questions and actively participate in their education."

There has also been an increase in the number of undergraduate research grants and awards available to students at U.Va. The Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards contribute to about 40 students for research work; the Double 'Hoo awards fund research between an undergraduate and a graduate students; the Kenan awards fund research on the Lawn and the Academical Village; and, this year, the first University Undergraduate Awards for Arts Projects were presented to five students to assist with their creative projects, from composing to story writing to art installations. Various departments also have funds they disperse for undergraduate research-related expenses.

"Research is not limited to science," Russell said. "We are encouraging endeavors in all fields because students have a curiosity and a drive to learn more about their field and the world in which they live."

— By Matt Kelly