VCU graduate students show ingenuity and innovation at 20th Annual Graduate Student Research Symposium & Exhibit

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Students tackled complex topics such as improving maternal health care in India and extending medication shelf life last week at the 20th Annual Graduate Student Research Symposium & Exhibit.

The Graduate Student Association-sponsored event showcased projects from more than 70 researchers as part of the seventh Annual VCU Research Weeks. Fields across multiple disciplines in the sciences, arts and humanities were represented.

VCU News interviewed* several researchers about their work: 

* Interviews are in the student’s words with edits by VCU News for clarity and brevity.

Living green

Project: “My personal footprint calculator”

Researcher: Karthik Mummidisetti, mechanical and nuclear engineering, School of Engineering

Mentor: Sama Bilbao y León, Ph.D., associate professor and director of nuclear engineering programs

What was your goal?

We wanted to promote the sustainable lifestyle by making people more cognizant of how they impact the environment. Nature is the most beautiful thing on this earth. I love the environment and I want to be part of preservation efforts. So, I decided to build an app that calculates a person’s ecological footprint that can be used on both Android and iOS [Apple] devices.

The app also provides a forum where users can discuss ways to reduce their contribution to CO2 emissions. There are other footprint calculators out there, but we want to complement them. We are a small, but important, drop in a mighty ocean working to make a change.

I'm incredibly thankful to VCU’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering in the School of Engineering, and The Dominion Foundation, for providing funding and support throughout the project. I also want to thank Dr. Bilbao y León for her patient guidance and encouragement. She is someone I consider a friend and a mother and I’m so appreciative of that.

What was your methodology?

The app measures a user’s impact through a survey that assesses their daily choices in five categories: transportation, food consumption, trash disposal and water and energy usage. App users are asked about 10 questions or more, depending on initial responses within a category. For example, if a respondent answers that a car is her primary mode of transportation, she will be asked how many miles she drives on average and to provide the model and year of the car. If an individual bikes, as I prefer to do, his or her level of CO2 emissions within a given category will be less. I have programmed the app to calculate an individual’s CO2 emissions based on his or her survey answers. The aim is to allow the user to focus on the areas that need the most improvement.

How can this app reach a wide audience?

I am working on getting this app out to the public for free. I want it to be free because I want as many people as possible to adopt the sustainable lifestyle.


Creating healthy moods

Project: “Effects of optogenetic activation of ventral tegmental area neurons on locomotor activity and temperature in TH-cre rats treated with amphetamine or raclopride”

Researcher: Remington Rice, health psychology

Mentor: Joseph Porter, Ph.D., tenured professor of psychology, College of Humanities and Sciences

What is optogenetics?

Optogenetics is a novel research tool that enables a researcher to excite or inhibit groups of neurons, with light. Optogenetics stems from multiple fields of science and discoveries throughout several decades. It all started in the 1970s, when researchers discovered a light-sensitive protein in green algae, named channelrhodopsin (ChR2). Green algae use this protein to dictate where it is in the water based on sunlight levels, which informs movement. 

Judges recognize work at Graduate research symposium

Judges from multiple disciplines noted the work of four outstanding researchers.

-First place: Tarah Raldiris, College of Humanities and Sciences, for “Mindfulness attenuates self-serving performance attributions”

-Tied for second place: Emil Iqbal, College of Humanities and Sciences, for “Ribosomal incorporation of backbone modified amino acids via an editing-deficient aminoacyl-Trna synthease”
Shani Levit, School of Engineering, for “Electrospinning to extend shelf-life and stability of nanomedicines”

-Third place: Ryan Mischel, School of Medicine, for “Microbiome-induced mediators in the gut wall modulate morphine tolerance development in dorsal root ganglion nociceptors”

A major breakthrough came in 2005, when researchers from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology utilized the genetic codes for ChR2 to express the protein in mammalian cells. Scientists can now replicate this procedure to produce light-sensitive neurons within numerous animal models. A fiber optic cable can then be implanted into the brain and a specific wavelength of light is pulsed through the cable into the brain region that expresses ChR2. The light activates ChR2, which depolarizes the light-sensitive neurons. Depolarization is a process neurons use to send messages to other neurons in the nervous system.

How does optogenetics work in people?

It doesn’t yet, but research with optogenetics can further humanity’s understanding of the nervous systems. Gene therapy needs to progress further for direct application in human beings. A major concern is that humans would reject the genetic codes, which would be delivered via an engineered virus, and have an immune response within the brain. 

However, this research tool offers insights into neurological disorders in ways that were never before possible. For example, in the ’50s and ’60s, when antipsychotic drugs were being developed, it was inferred that dopamine activity is intimately involved with schizophrenia. However, those drugs exert their effects all over the brain. With optogenetics, a researcher could potentially inhibit specific brain regions, and then observe downstream effects. This could perhaps reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia.

But in the future, once those gene therapy obstacles have been overcome, imagine pulsing light into a brain and shutting off the pleasure a drug addict receives when he or she uses. Or, if an individual has depression, you could excite his or her reward circuitry to boost mood. If someone has PTSD, you can shut off those painful memories. There has been some work done with optogenetics in modulating memories in rodents. Another application is Parkinson’s disease. We could do deep brain electrical stimulation and that would reverse the symptoms for a short while.

What was your methodology and results?

So far, our results are preliminary, since it was a first-of-its its-kind study at Northern Michigan University, where my research team and I began this work. New plans are being developed to produce a colony of mice that can assist further research. We have found that if you use optogenetics to excite dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the brain [a cluster of neurons that conduct dopamine to other parts of the brain, especially the reward center] in rats, you will have an increase in locomotion and body temperature. 

We also observed a similar effect when the animals received amphetamine. Amphetamine releases dopamine over the entire brain and has been shown to increase the severity of symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. To a much less extent, light pulsed into the VTA produced behaviors similar to treatment of amphetamine.

How did you get interested in optogenetics? 

When I was a junior at Northern Michigan University, I heard a presentation about optogenetics and I was fascinated. I was amazed. I learned everything I could about it over the next three years. Once I was accepted into the graduate program at Northern Michigan University, my mentor Adam Prus, Ph.D., head of Psychology at NMU and a VCU alum, helped supply funding for equipment and animals. I am eternally grateful for his assistance. This was the first project with optogenetics conducted at Northern Michigan University and it was my master’s thesis. I joined the health psychology doctoral program at VCU in the fall of 2016, and I am currently developing my dissertation.


Colleges and concealed carry

Project: “Concealed carry on campus: from politics to policy”

Researcher: Melissa Lee, School of Education

Mentor: Katherine Mansfield, Ph.D. assistant professor of educational leadership in the School of Education

What are you investigating?

I wanted to determine the political and social factors that led to the passage of Texas’ “campus carry” law, which allows individuals to carry concealed handguns on public college campuses with a proper permit and lists exemptions for certain buildings.

What sparked your interest?

I was working at Texas A&M in 2014 when their state legislature was debating the proposed campus carry legislation. My colleagues and I thought this bill was bad news for campus safety, and assumed there was no way it was going to pass. So, I was really surprised when I heard on the news in 2016 that the “campus carry” law successfully passed. I was compelled to investigate why it was successful. I was very interested in the players involved. There were a lot of campus protests throughout the state. I was shocked the bill was actually codified, despite all of these protests. 

What were your findings?

Texas lawmakers had been trying to pass similar legislation as early as the 1990s, to no avail. When the Virginia Tech shootings took place in 2007, lawmakers saw that it was the prime time to renew the effort to pass campus concealed carry legislation. College campuses were not as safe as previously assumed.

While the Virginia Tech shootings were a culminating event that contributed to the passage of the campus concealed carry law, various interest groups also influenced the outcome. Texas lawmakers received the political support of constituents and political action groups such as Students for Concealed Carry. They were given political and financial support from the state and national rifle associations. Additionally, a change in Texas Senate voting rules made it easier to pass the legislation under the Republican majority legislature. The senators voted to change the majority required to pass a law from 23 out of 31 senators to 19 out of 31.

What was your methodology?

I conducted my investigation through the lens of John Kingdon’s multiple streams theory, which states that the policymaking process is made up of three different streams: political, problem and policy.

The theory seeks to identify the variables that interact to result in specific policy decisions. The problem stream includes issues that can be solved through political policy, in this case the idea that college campuses are not safe. The policy stream indicates when a political solution presents itself, such as the proposal of the campus concealed carry bill. The politics stream defines the approach, beliefs and actions of lawmakers leading up to policy changes — for instance, the political proceedings leading up to the passage of the campus concealed carry legislation.

There isn’t a lot of published research on the law, so I relied heavily on news articles in student publications or general media. I went through text and recordings of the proceedings to get a sense of what happened that year that allowed successful passage of the law. Texas is the first state to pass a law of this kind and Arkansas passed similar legislation a couple months ago. I think it would be interesting to see if other states will follow in allowing concealed weapons on campus, with the hope that it may make colleges safer.