From Politics to History to Medicine, UVA Backs 49 Undergrads’ Summer Research

student working in medical research lab putting liquid into test tubes

From Ann Richards’ politics in Texas, to diabetes in mice, to race riots in Reconstruction-era Louisiana, 49 undergraduate students will receive support from the University of Virginia this summer to pursue research projects of their own choosing.

Forty-six proposals, involving 48 students, received Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards, while one other student has had her research underwritten by the Stull family of Dallas. This marks the 18th year of the program.

“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 undergraduate research opportunities at UVA’s Center for Undergraduate Excellence. “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 February, a Faculty Senate committee selected the winners, who receive up to $3,000. 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 center received more than 80 grant applications, which were reviewed by nearly three-dozen faculty members, including the members of the Faculty Senate’s Research, Teaching and Scholarship Committee.

“The Harrison Awards provide important opportunities for undergraduate students to work closely with faculty mentors in pursuing research projects that the students have designed,” said the committee’s chair, Jeffrey T. Corwin, a professor of neuroscience and cell biology. “The reviewers read many applications that were worthy of funding, but this year’s selection process was highly competitive. The winning applications addressed a clearly stated question and showed careful preparation and rigorous design.”

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

“Many Harrison awardees succeed in pushing forward the bounds of knowledge, going on to present their findings at national conferences and publishing their work in peer-reviewed journals,” he said. “For some awardees the experiences and knowledge that they gain during their Harrison projects will provide a significant early boost in the development of research careers. But even those who go on to other careers benefit from the faculty mentorship and unique opportunities that the awards support.”

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:

Ashe Allende of Richmond, a third-year biomedical engineering major, who is researching a hypothesis that many obese cancer patients die from heart attacks caused by secondary tumors in the heart. He will examine specifically whether atherosclerosis, a cardiovascular condition associated with obesity, increases the ability of tumor cells to escape the bloodstream in arteries surrounding the heart.

Kyle Alexander of McLean, a third-year biochemistry major, who is researching mitochondria, which produce cellular energy and maintain cell health, and will examine if the transfer of healthy mitochondria can supplement the function of pre-existing mitochondria in recipient cells.

Joseph Burns of Harrisonburg, a third-year biomedical engineering major, who is researching a frequently mutated tumor suppressor gene in connection with breast cancer.

Claudia Calicho-Mamani of Gainesville, a third-year psychology major, who is researching the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and anxiety sensitivity on depressive symptoms, and whether anxiety sensitivity moderates the association between PTSD and depressive symptoms.

Erika Chu of Midlothian, a third-year archaeology and computer science double major, whose researchi will use 3-D imaging software to visualize the archaeological data at the Ismenion Hill in Thebes, Greece, to reconstruct relationships between artifacts and skeletons and reconstruct the cemetery’s chronological sequence of events.

Madeline Curry of Fairfax, a second-year Spanish major, and Nanki Kaur of Ashburn, a second-year global development studies and biology major, who are exploring the use of Ubuntu, an African humanist philosophy, to strengthen interpersonal interactions with health professionals in a local township clinic in South Africa. 

Tehan Dassanayaka of Burke, a second-year biomedical engineering major, who is researching the use of 3-D printing techniques to improve the muscle tissue-engineering process.

Curtis Davis of Charlottesville, a third-year civil and environmental engineering major with a minor in environmental sciences, who is researching emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, from wheat, maize and rice crop plants, and how different resource gradients, such as fertilizer type, light and temperature, affect those emission rates.

Bridgette Degnan of Alexandria, a third-year anthropology and economics double major with a minor in statistical analysis of social behavior, who will supervise an archaeological excavation of a stone tool workshop in the site of the Mayan city of Chan Chich to generate insights into the political and social economic interaction between Chan Chich and its expansive residential neighborhoods.

Nicole Demitry of Warrenton, a third-year foreign affairs major with a minor in anthropology, who is researching the intersection of private interests with non-governmental organizations in Haiti, and how those interests interact with and inform American policy decisions, particularly within the context of systematic multilateral development aid since the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. 

Jane Diamond of Fair Oaks, California, a third-year student in the distinguished history majors program, who is researching the federal recognition process of the Pamunkey nation, Virginia’s only federally recognized Native American tribe.

Joseph Ephrem of Salisbury, Maryland, a third-year neuroscience major, who is researching if diet-induced obesity has an effect on adipose-specific adrenergic signaling in mice, to see how things as simple as a choice of diet can potentially have an effect on sympathetic connections.

Zachary Flegal of Virginia Beach, a second-year student, who is researching macrophage biology, exploring fundamental cellular processes.

Weston Gobar of Fredericksburg, a third-year history and government major, who is researching race riots in Reconstruction-era Louisiana to determine how African-American communities at the time responded to mass instances of violence and terror.

Julia Graff of Hershey, Pennsylvania, a third-year biochemistry major, who is researching how a protein, Cdt2, interacts with human papilloma virus protein E6 to determine if this interaction is linked to how the human papillomavirus causes cancer.

Carolina Gomez Grimaldi of Poquoson, a third-year biology major minoring in women, gender and sexuality, who is researching the effect of a particular cell-signaling molecule on the progression of metastatic breast cancer.

Jesse Han of Seoul, South Korea, a first-year physics-astronomy and math double-major, who will participate in the Megamaser Cosmology Project, part of a collective effort to effectively encapsulate the spatially evolving universe – the study of space on its grandest scale.

Ji In Han of Allentown, Pennsylvania, a third-year biochemistry major, who is researching how to streamline a method for finding amino acid residues on two interacting proteins that won’t interfere with their binding. This work could help prevent the spread of cancer cells.

Julia Hartman of Charlottesville, a second-year biomedical engineering major, who is researching using liposomes as carriers for drugs that have been proven effective in fighting diabetes in mice and testing whether they provide equivalent gene regulation in cells that have known associations with diabetes, while avoiding some of the known side-effects that occur in other tissues when the drug is given orally.

Lucy Jin of Yorktown, a third-year neuroscience major, who is researching how members of the tumor necrosis factor receptor superfamily of proteins, through destructive signaling, shape the proprioceptive system, a sensory system required for knowing the relative position of a person’s body parts in space.

Khongorzul Khosbayar of Centreville, a third-year foreign affairs and Russian studies double-major, who is researching how much money, clothing, books and food the Mongolian expatriate community in the U.S. sends back to friends and family in Mongolia, through official and unofficial channels, and how this affects development and change in a low- to middle-income country.

Sarah Killian of Plano, Texas, a third-year political and social thought major with a minor in French, who is researching the policies of Ann W. Richards during her time as treasurer and then governor of Texas, as a case study of gubernatorial influence in politically hostile climates.

Deanna Knox of Woodbridge, a third-year distinguished history major focusing on 19th-century African-American history, who is researching how sexual exploitation affected female slaves’ relationships with others and how it shaped their own self-image.

Ziyanah Ladak of Chantilly, a third-year history distinguished major and women, gender and sexuality double-major, with a minor in Middle Eastern studies, who is researching how the emergence of feminist consciousness in Egypt influenced the nationalist struggle in the context of the 1861-65 cotton boom.

Attiya Latif of Hagerstown, Maryland, a third-year political and social thought major with a minor in Middle Eastern studies, who is researching intersectionality in the Muslim female experience, exploring the subjective experiences of Muslim women through ethnographic interviews to assess the ways in which they categorize and rationalize their experiences with discrimination.

Christina Lee of Winchester, a third-year biomedical engineering major, who is researching in epigenetics, which are modifications to human DNA or DNA-associated proteins that can influence gene transcription and replication.

Nancy Lee of Reston, a third-year biology major, who is seeking to identify gene expression differences between dexamethasone-sensitive and -resistant clonal leukemia cell lines, comparing RNA sequencing data from each cell line to determine which genes may play a role in conferring the resistance or sensitivity phenotype.

Alex Lupi of Stafford, a third-year neuroscience major, who is exploring a link between the central nervous system and the immune system and its pertinence in pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury.

Ashley Mehra of McLean, a third-year politics honors and distinguished majors program in classics major, who is researching the nature of emerging “spaces of hospitality” found outside of the refugee camps in Athens, Greece, and studying the various notions of “refugee reception” found in ancient Greek literature to help refine modern understanding of these spaces.

Madeline Morales of Leonardo, New Jersey, a third-year engineering science major with a nanomedicine concentration and minors in biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering, who is researching the potential failure mechanism for ceramic matrix composites that could be used for spacecraft, turbine engines and other applications.

Alina Nguyen of Mechanicsville, a third-year biochemistry major, who is investigating DNA damage-signaling pathways in working with diseases such as autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, early onset Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.

Jesse Persily of Marlboro, New Jersey, a third-year human biology major, who is studying pancreatic cancer metastasis, using a mouse model of the disease.

Thomas Parks Remcho of Corvallis, Oregon, a third-year biochemistry and neuroscience major, who is researching the role of signaling proteins in the nerves within adipose tissue and how these signals impact metabolic function and coordinate fat tissue loss during a diet.

Erik Roberts of Potomac, Maryland, a third-year history major, who is researching President Reagan’s foreign policy toward South Africa as a less-understood facet of the Cold War.

Talia Rosen of Arlington, a third-year distinguished major in history, who is researching the driving forces behind the desegregation of UVA’s undergraduate student body.

Nojan Rostami of Reston, a third-year political and social thought and foreign affairs double major, who is researching counter-extremist programs in Europe, particularly how ethnically diverse cities such as London balance social programs with policing and security initiatives to counter extremist ideology.

Megan Claire Routbort of Houston, a second-year English and prospective global environments and sustainability major, who is researching how the writings of John Muir can be used to inform future preservation and environmental policymaking efforts in the Yosemite region of California.

Sarah Russell of Charleston, South Carolina, a third-year double major in art history and Spanish, who is researching the six mythological paintings by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and a 1595 Spanish translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” in Velázquez’s library to gain insight into his treatment of mythology.

Miyabi (May) Saito of Vienna, a third-year biochemistry major, who is researching mechanisms of specific receptors in inhibiting growth of ovarian cancer cells.

Rose Sleppy of Atlanta, a third-year biochemistry major, who is researching prostate cancer biology.

Elizabeth Spach of Virginia Beach, a third-year history major focusing on urban history, who is researching the racial and political reasons why Virginia Beach merged with Princess Anne County in 1963, examining city politics and segregated housing changes on municipal lines.

Ethan Steen of Essex, Massachusetts, a third-year biochemistry major, and Barat Venkataramany of Ashland, Ohio, a second-year biochemistry major, who are studying the interactions of serum albumins with a variety of drugs across a variety of mammalian species, in an effort to create a data bank to further the understanding of animal models.

Estelle Teske, of Virginia Beach, a second-year art history and archaeology double major, who will study the grave goods of a Christian cemetery in Thebes dating to the sixth and seventh centuries in order to reconstruct some of the tombs and further the understanding of Byzantine burial practices and their attitudes towards “special dead,” such as lepers.

Ben Thomas of Alexandria, a second-year economics and mathematics double major, who is researching potential improvements in the low-income housing assistance voucher program.

Eli Whitney Blake Weiner of Washington, D.C., a third-year history major in the distinguished majors program, who is researching the relationship between 19th-century British national histories and the creation of collective self-identity, as well as the connection between historical writings and imperial ambitions.

Benjamin Scott Winter of Little Rock, Arkansas, a third-year biochemistry and neuroscience major, who is researching neurons and the transport protein dynein, which carries various other cargos throughout the cell and is believed is play a major role in guiding neurons’ growth, in an effort to understand how organisms develop and possibly to repair damaged neural networks.

• The Stull Family Research Award winner is Natalie Noble of Charlottesville, a third-year cognitive science major with a Spanish minor, who is researching the relationship between parents and autistic children involving emotion detection.

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