Three people talking together
The Graduate Research Symposium and Exhibit and the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity are centerpiece events for VCU Research Weeks every year, highlighting the work of student researchers. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

From smoking to scenic rivers, VCU students spotlight their insight at research symposiums

Graduate and undergraduate researchers showcase their creativity and welcome the feedback.

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Pravisha Ramesh, a senior in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, stood in front of a poster with information about her research. She talked about it to other students and faculty.

That was the easy part.

“It was pretty nerve-racking the first few times people came up to me, but it was harder presenting to my parents,” Ramesh said. “They couldn’t make it today. They asked me to do a Zoom presentation” the previous night.

Ramesh studied fibrosis and the relationship with small hairs in cells. Her parents are researchers, too, and they asked questions that kept her on her toes. She had presented material in high school, but the new experience was a “lot more intense.”

A woman standing in front of a poster with research information
Pravisha Ramesh (James Shea, VCU Public Relations)

Like Ramesh, dozens of VCU students presented their research last week in the University Student Commons when the Graduate Research Symposium and Exhibit and the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity were held on back-to-back days. The events showcased the diversity and creativity of research across campus.

Dana Kneisley, a pharmacology and toxicology Ph.D. student in the School of Medicine, studied the impact of certain brain receptors and their role in quitting smoking, with an eye toward pharmacological advances that support cessation.

In addition to the research showing promise, Kneisley said she enjoyed its collaborative aspects. She partnered with researchers at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

“It is really cool to have people with very different expertise on the same subject working together,” Kneisley said. “They are looking at the same interaction that we are, but they come at it from the opposite side. We are able to combine forces.”

Grace Lumsden-Cook, a master’s student in environmental studies in VCU Life Sciences’ Center for Environmental Studies, also pointed to the collaborative nature of her research. She designed a way to help students and governments work together and gather information for designating part of a Virginia waterway as a scenic river. Her collaborators included the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

A woman standing next to a poster with research information on it.
Grace Lumsden-Cook (James Shea, VCU Public Relation

During the symposium, some of Lumsden-Cook’s visitors said they had lived or floated on sections of the river in the project area, which highlighted how people feel connected to her work and the environment.

“I realize that rivers are sort of a boundary object, and there are people who know about this research that I have been doing,” she said.

For some student-researchers, standing in a crowded room and discussing their work was difficult. Undergraduate student Sethu Lingineni studied the potential of ketamine as an antidepressant. The drug is often used in pain management and anesthesia, but it shows promise for treating mental health disorders.

He admitted that participation in the symposium was hard, as he prefers the research more than the public eye. “This is a little crazy,” Lingineni said. “It’s out of my comfort zone. I am not that extroverted.”

A man standing to the right of a poster with research information on it.
Sethu Lingineni (James Shea, VCU Public Relations)

Many students thanked their advisers and others who supported their research. Jennifer Nguyen, a health, physical education and exercise science major in the College of Humanities and Sciences, studied the impact of COVID on caregivers of people with Down syndrome. She had never conducted formal research.

“At first, I was scared, but my adviser guided me through this whole experience and made it a bit easier,” she said.

Nguyen’s research included interviewing caregivers and people with Down syndrome, which gave her a broader understanding of their experiences and qualities.

“I learned a lot,” she said, including how their attributes run deeper than any intellectual challenges. “They have a lot of factors in them. They are more empathetic to people.”

A woman standing to the right of a poster with research information on it.
Jennifer Nguyen (James Shea, VCU Public Relations)

Symposium participants noted that one benefit of the event was fielding questions that prompted them to think differently about their research.

Phillip Glass, a Ph.D. student in physics in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, 3D-printed small hairs that act as sensors. Applications of the technology could include the study of wind and air movements or reading Braille. The approach is innovative, and Glass welcomed people’s thoughts on the research.

“This has been a lot of fun. It’s really nice listening to other people talk about their research and getting different eyes and ears on your research,” Glass said. “I’ve liked getting feedback on what people think is the most interesting about the stuff we are doing.”

A man standing in front of a poster with research information on it
Phillip Glass (James Shea, VCU Public Relations)

Belle Buzzi, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience in the School of Medicine, studied psychedelic mushrooms as a treatment for opioid withdrawal. The drugs have been used in mental health research but not drug dependency. She said discussing her work gave her angles to consider and potentially different approaches.

“People have asked a lot about the clinical applications,” Buzzi said. “They ask about mechanisms. They have been asking me about things I don’t think about.”