May 1, 2014
Celebrating creative thinkers: Research Weeks showcase student research and creative expression
VCU Research Weeks showcase student research and creative expression
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Kasalina Kiwanuka sat in the VCU Student Commons Theatre listening intently, completely enthralled with what she was hearing. As a graduate student in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, part of the School of Medicine, she knew the way she learned best was not through memorization, but by doing hands-on work and applying concepts herself.
“It was fascinating to see myself portrayed as she spoke,” Kiwanuka said.
“She” was VCU Research Weeks keynote speaker, Ainissa Ramirez, Ph.D., who calls herself a science evangelist. Ramirez is a journalist and scientist who has a passion for inspiring the next generation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, learners.
Ramirez said the pathway to STEM lies in a new goal – to have students become creative problem solvers. She believes that the 21st century requires a new kind of learner, a student who can solve problems resourcefully, not someone who can simply churn out answers by rote.
“I learn by doing,” Kiwanuka said. “I’m not good with rote memorization. When it comes down to solving the problem, I can do that, I can get an A.”
And with the keynote presentation by Ramirez, VCU Research Weeks kicked off – a celebration of research and creative expression featuring a series of events that brought together undergraduate and graduate students from across disciplines and campuses.
From students doing research in women’s health to engineering students designing the next new gadget, from student artists exhibiting their work to business students pitching a new company, VCU was overflowing with displays of student talent, ingenuity and creativity.
“VCU has created an environment where students have opportunities to engage with problem solving,” said Herbert Hill, coordinator of Undergraduate Research Opportunities in the VCU Office of Research. “They may have setbacks, but they learn to have ownership. I think that’s the real value of research.”
In its fourth year, Research Weeks has gone from a week of four events to more than two weeks of 14 events. The Undergraduate Research Symposium alone featured 300 research posters.
“This is indicative of the growth of student engagement in research at VCU,” Hill said. “It also exhibits the diversity of interests among students in research and creative expression.”
The following are just a few examples of student research and creative expression on display during Research Weeks 2014.
Engineering: Saving food
Through an idea sparked by Hurricane Sandy that ravaged the Eastern Seaboard in 2012, a team of engineering students developed a countertop freeze-drying appliance to preserve food.
Stephen Famer, Robert Muse, Parker Short and William Gerhardt, seniors in the School of Engineering, presented their device at the Engineering Design Expo (April 17-18) at the Science Museum of Virginia.
The freeze-drying machine uses lyophilization, a process of dehydration used to preserve perishable foods. Freeze-drying works by first freezing the food and then reducing the surrounding pressure. This causes the frozen water in the material to sublimate and change from a solid phase to a gas phase. The water vapor is then removed and the freeze-drying process is complete.
“This whole process was created for the medical field in order to preserve tissue samples without destroying them. As it turns out, it has applications with food preservation as well,” said Farmer, a mechanical engineering student. “We wanted to create a countertop model that could go in any kitchen and be affordable for the average consumer.”
According to Farmer, the amount of food thrown away in the United States every year is “mind-boggling.” He said that their device is an attempt to help with this problem.
Psychology: Dating violence
Elisabeth Alison, a VCU senior majoring in psychology and biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was interested in doing a research project examining dating violence. She teamed up with her peers, Chrissy Ammons and graduate students Rachel Garthe and Brandon Griffin in the VCU Department of Psychology, to explore relationships between sexual, psychological and physical forms of dating violence.
In their study, the team hypothesized that dating violence of all three forms would be a prevalent problem in the emerging adult population and dating violence would be associated with more internalizing outcomes, including depression and anxiety.
The research team found through multiple regression analyses that sexual and psychological forms of violence were associated with more internalizing outcomes, while physical violence did not have a significant association with depression and anxiety. The results have implications for understanding how different forms of dating violence may contribute to problematic outcomes in emerging adults.
Alison, who presented the study on behalf of the team with a poster during the Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium (April 23), said she enjoyed working on the research project.
“In my psychology and biology classes, we have to read a lot of literature. Through this research project, I could see firsthand how this is done,” Alison said. “Conducting research provides a completely new learning experience. Compared to the theoretical concepts you learn in the classroom, actually doing it is very different.”
Hosted by the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), the symposium also celebrated students selected as VCU Summer Research Fellows for 2014. For a complete list of fellows, visit Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows Announced.
Dentistry: Pain management during orthodontic treatment
Sara Schutte, a third-year dental student in the VCU School of Dentistry, presented her research project during the school’s Clinic and Research Day (April 10).
Schutte’s research investigated whether or not orthodontists can closely predict patients’ pain during treatment. Her research found that most orthodontists overestimate the amount of pain felt by patients. The research implied that more pain management protocol is needed.
Spending more than two years on the research, Schutte created her own project design and performed data collection and analysis. She completed a research article, which is currently being considered for publication.
“I think research is a great way to assimilate practice and didactic course work,” Schutte said. “It gave me a personal relationship with scientific data as I collected the data from patients. The experience also makes me more empathetic to my patients.”
Political science: Two presidencies
At VCU's Political Science Student Research Conference (April 11), students presented their research on topics such as super PACs, relations between the United States and Iran, stop-and-frisk policies, climate change, cyberwarfare and more.
The all-day event offered students a chance to present their research findings to their peers in an academic conference setting.
“Many of our students are thinking about graduate school and part of becoming a member of the academy is presenting your research in front of your peers,” said John Aughenbaugh, Ph.D., an instructor of political science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “This is kind of a stress-free, positive opportunity for them to do so.”
Andrew Ward, a senior sociology major, presented his paper, “Domestic Versus Foreign Affairs: The Two Presidencies That Address Them.” Ward’s presentation was on Aaron Wildavsky’s two presidencies theory, which argues that a single president is judged on two different presidencies – one centered on domestic affairs and one centered on foreign affairs.
“For foreign affairs, for the most part, the president generally has free reign and can generally make decisions without Congress. But in domestic affairs, he’s usually stopped along the way pretty frequently,” Ward said.
Ward concluded that Wildavsky's dual presidencies theory is "fairly sound,” though some presidencies have proven to be exceptions to it.
Health: Energy drink consumption
Kathryn “Kate” Polak, a graduate student in the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies, conducted research on energy drink consumption.
She presented her findings during the Graduate Research Symposium (April 22). VCU graduate students of all disciplines and departments were invited to present their work to members of the community.
Polak’s research of more than 3,700 eighth, 10th and 12th graders in the Richmond area showed a correlation between energy drink consumption and other drug behaviors in children, based on differences such as age and gender. She hopes her research will help create more ideological examinations of adolescent substance abuse.
“My research introduced me to working in the field and will hopefully open the door to looking at other analyses,” said Polak, who hopes her exploratory research will allow her to work on future research opportunities related to substance abuse.
Medicine: ALS research
Laura O’Brien, a third-year Ph.D. student, also presented her research during the Graduate Research Symposium. She did her research project in conjunction with the VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center.
O’Brien studies human neural stem cells, adding small molecules to the cells, and monitored their motor neural development. After three weeks, the mitochondria’s motor neuron transcription was faster. This research lays the groundwork for a potential greater understanding of ALS, which causes the loss of motor neurons, and the possible development of treatment.
Following graduation, O’Brien hopes to continue her research.
“I want to stay in research, working with developing treatments and moving research from the bench to an actual clinical study,” O’Brien said.
World Studies: ‘Carytown Jesus’
At the School of World Studies Senior Research Symposium and Poster Exhibition (April 25), students presented their research on topics including Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, burial practices during the 1918 flu epidemic and using 3-D scanning technology to learn more about the extinct passenger pigeon.
Jazmyne Fernandez, a senior religious studies major, presented her research project, "Carytown Jesus," in which she surveyed 25 people in Carytown on their perceptions of what Jesus looked like.
“My grandmother has that generic image of Jesus – where he has blue eyes, light brown hair and rosy cheeks – up in her house, and it got me wondering: Do people still think that Jesus looked like that? It's just so unrealistic. He was from the Middle East. He was a carpenter who grew up in Jerusalem."
Fernandez asked Richmond residents to describe what Jesus looked like, basing her questions off the FBI’s composite sketch guidelines. She enlisted the help of a VCU art student who drew a sketch of Jesus that incorporated the survey results, which showed that the respondents did not believe in the stereotypical portrayal of Jesus.
“I was curious what people really thought. I wanted to know if people thought the same way as I do. I wasn't sure if I was the one being outlandish,” Fernandez said. “I thought people were going to say Jesus had light brown hair and blue eyes. So they disproved my thesis, which was great.”
Social work: Restraint and seclusion
Megan Remaley and Lauren Weidner, both students in the Master of Social Work program, presented their research during the School of Social Work Research Symposium (April 25) on the use of restraint and seclusion in Virginia public schools.
Restraint, they said, is a type of hold that school officials can employ to hold down a child whose behavior has become unmanageable. Seclusion is the practice of putting a child in another room by themselves until they have “de-escalated,” they said.
“What we looked at was the level of understanding of attitudes in understanding for policies regarding restraint and seclusion in public schools,” Weidner said. “Throughout the United States, some states have policies regarding the use of these practices. However, Virginia just has guidelines and leaves it up to each district what type of policy they want to have.”
Remaley and Weidner found that in schools with policies on restraint and seclusion, teachers had a better understanding of the techniques and felt more prepared to use them.
“There's definitely a need for more clear guidelines in policies and training throughout Virginia,” Weidner said.
Art: Flexing creative muscle
Creative expression was on full display at the VCU School of the Arts Juried Design and Fine Arts Exhibition, which opened April 3 and was celebrated as part of Research Weeks. From paintings to large installation pieces, photographs to sculptures, art students flexed their creativity to produce a one-of-a-kind art show.
The exhibition featured works by undergraduate students in all fine arts departments, including communication arts, fashion design, graphic design, interior design and kinetic imaging.
Other Research Weeks events included the 10th Annual Women’s Health Research Day and the VCU Venture Creation Competition. For more on Women’s Health Research Day, visit Honoring excellence in women’s health research. For more on the Venture Creation Competition, visit Venture Creation Competition: Finding the next big business idea.
The VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, VCU Graduate Student Association, the VCU Office of Research and the VCU Office of the Provost served as sponsors for Research Weeks.
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