University of Vermont

Office of Undergraduate Research

Conference Showcases Student Research

Zachary Schmoll
Zachary Schmoll presents his work to conference attendees. (Photo: Sally McCay)

By no means a comprehensive account of the more than 300 projects on display at this year’s Student Research Conference, the following five snapshots provide a glimpse at the sort of variety on offer at the April 23 event. Read on for examples of undergraduate and graduate work, accomplished with the guidance of faculty advisers from across the disciplines.

Zachary Schmoll, senior business administration major with a  concentration in accounting and statistics

Project title: The Impact of Compensation for NCAA Student Athletes on NBA Draft Decisions

Advisers: Barbara Arel and Michael Tomas III

Why this topic? What was your motivation? I chose this topic because I have always been a sports fan. I have been around basketball most of my life, and I particularly love the NCAA. When I noticed that Professor Arel and Professor Tomas had written a paper on NBA draft decisions, I knew that I wanted to expand on that. After a discussion with Professor Arel, we decided that this would be an interesting topic to pursue.

What was your key discovery? Essentially, the most important discovery I made was that if we assume that the players will make the economically rational decision, the NCAA proposal of paying college athletes $2,000 will have virtually no effect on this decision. The players who were going to enter the NBA before will still enter.

Any surprises along the way?  My results are not necessarily surprising because it does make sense that with million-dollar contracts on the table, a few thousand dollars will not make much of a difference. However, I think that the actual moment I ran my final model and discovered these results was the best moment. Even though it was my original hypothesis, it felt good to be able to empirically prove something that nobody has ever taken the time to do before.

Why does this research matter? I believe that this research matters because the NCAA is seriously considering policies regarding compensation right now. I think that people will be wondering what is the best way to keep these athletes in college, and this type of research could provide a new perspective on this problem.

What's next for the project? I think that this project has plenty of potential for future work. I am planning on taking this particular paper and ideally getting it published, but there's plenty of work, particularly psychological, that could be done on this topic in the future. For example, even though $2000 doesn't make any measurable difference in the number of players entering the NBA according to this model, is there any potential way that players will feel more valued by making even an insignificant amount of money and perhaps be more willing to remain in school? The psychological effect of money is certainly important in reality, and I think that would be a great extension of this research.

Sophia Howat, senior studio art major

Project title:
 Memory and Photographs

Adviser:
 William McDowell

Why this topic? I started taking these photographs based on this tension between trust in our memories and evidence outside of that. I found that using photography makes it more visual and concrete. When you take a picture you’re completely constructing a biased view on things despite this strong association we have of photographs as evidence -- you’re editing, you’re sequencing, you’re doing all these things that are contrary to fact. I think that aspect of photography, paired with that aspect of our memories that is potentially false or narrated, is what’s interesting.

What was your motivation?
 I did a project last spring that involved memories and physically manipulating printed photographs to make sculptural objects. That was a starting point. Broadly this interest in memory and reflecting about things I’m sure has to do with finishing college, living in places that are temporary, figuring out what’s next. I think that plays into why I’m photographing home spaces, trying to collect memories and create a narrative. I’m totally editing it. Maybe I’m not moving objects, maybe I am just documenting things around me, but I am choosing what to photograph, editing the sequence as a finished project, editing how the light reads on the paper. In one sense they’re documents of my life -- they’re what I want to see of the space around me. That’s comforting. Maybe it’s the search for something comfortable in this big area of transition.

What was your key discovery? 
I think that no matter how hard I attempt to photograph a particular subject or theme it’s that the photographs are going to speak, that they have wisdom over the photographer sometimes.

Any surprises along the way? In terms of logistics -- issues in the dark room or with film, figuring out this medium that I’m not incredibly comfortable with. I usually scan in my film because I work with color. So the dark room was a new area for me.

Worst moment/best moment? 
Worst -- repeated instances of film not coming out, being black or just not working. There’s this nostalgia with our film -- the feeling that the picture would have been great but it didn’t come through. Those are bummer moments. Best -- getting over the stress of what I’m supposed to be showing with my photographs or what I’m supposed to be and feeling excited about the project, feeling creative and being present with it.

What are the broader implications of the project? Through this project I’ve found other photographers who I’m interested in, I’ve found other visual interests in photography and subject matter and I have this feeling that it’s relevant. It’s a conversation with people. It’s widened my eyes on photography and art theory.

Why does this research matter?
 I think because it makes people stop and look. There’s a description but really it’s this viewer who will engage -- or not engage -- with the photographs. It asks people to stop and be present and think about this physical process (in a darkroom with silver gelatin prints) with this kind of airy feeling behind it. And maybe it’s a comment or question for people to reconsider the photographs they’re taking and to understand what kind of history they are building with their visual archived memories.

What's next for the project?
 Eventually I’m working toward more prints that will become a book.

Sebastian Downs, senior environmental engineering major

Project title: Bridge Scour Monitoring

Advisers: Donna Rizzo, Mandar Dewoolkar

What is your topic? “Scour” is the erosion of streambed sediment; it happens around obstructions in a river because the water is constricted there, creates vortices, and picks up the sediment. You’re left with a hole in the sediment that a bridge is built on. During floods, this destabilizes bridges and it’s the cause of sixty percent of bridge failures spanning waterways.

There are several existing scouring monitoring systems for bridges, but they all have severe limitations. Some are cost prohibitive -- somewhere in the order of $10,000 for a single sensor. Some less expensive sensors are only good for a single use. Physical probing is cheapest, but it doesn’t give you real-time data. Sonar and fathometers are pretty good but they are not capable of getting data in turbid conditions -- which is what you often have in a flood -- the most critical time to measure. So we came up with something that is more robust and cost-effective.

What did you create? We built a scour monitoring sensor -- a buried rod -- with a goal of being so low-cost that a transportation agency or bridge engineer would be able to install a series of them in an array across an area and interpolate that data in order to get a sense of what the hole looks like.

It works with vibration switches and resistors. The sensor gets buried in the sediment next to the bridge pier. All of the switches are still when they’re trapped by the sediment, but then, as the scour erodes the sediment around them, they become exposed to the flow of the water and start to vibrate. From that vibration, the switch is opened, forcing current through the resistor and -- from a wireless transmitter that goes back to a data logger -- we’re able to measure the presence of the current and can identify how many of the switches are exposed to the water.

This allow us to see how far the scour has reached down each rod and, overall, what the hole looks like. Hopefully, once we have the design finalized, it will be less than $100 per rod. The prototype we built has four switches, but we could put in as many as was deemed necessary based on the size of the river and bridge.

What was your key discovery? Figuring out that vibration switches would do the job. And, also that these same switches will detect deposition after a flood event -- because they stop vibrating.

Why does this research matter? A failure of a bridge can take place in a matter of hours. This could help with better bridge design, better preemptive remediation -- not waiting until it is at risk of failure before identifying problems.

Also, the scour after a storm event appears to be less than it is during the actual max scour point because there is deposition from all the suspended solids in the water. So if you wait until after a storm to go out and measure, you might not be measuring the full extent of the structural damage.

What's next for the project? This research is going to continue after I graduate. Ian Anderson, a graduate student, is going to do some scour monitoring around bridges in the area, and if our new system works out, then he’ll be able to construct more and test them in the field by the end of next year.

Stephanie Parente, senior social work major

Project title: Examining the Effectiveness of Services Provided to War Veterans as They Transition Back to Civilian Life

Adviser: Holly-Lynn Busier

Why this topic? What was your motivation? One of my classmates, Brent Reader, is an Iraq/Afghanistan War veteran and sparked my interest in this topic. Hearing his stories and listening to him talk about how difficult his reintegration experience was inspired me to do more research on this topic.

What was your key discovery? It is important to understand the prevalence and progress of mental health issues among returning war veterans. In order to better serve those who have served our country, the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs must take action. There must be an increase in trained mental health professionals working with war veterans in order to accommodate the escalating number of veteran intakes and claims. Improvements must also be made in regards to the mental health screenings and evaluations. Since it can take a significant amount of time for psychological injuries to manifest, veterans should be screened upon their return and continuously rescreened. Veterans must also be encouraged to seek care and obtain treatment. This can be difficult for many veterans due to the stigma attached to mental health issues. Our society must educate its citizens in order to support our veterans.

Best moment? The best moment was reading the feedback from my surveys that I had distributed to veterans in Vermont.

What are the broader implications of the project? Why does this research matter? Currently, there are over 20 million veterans in the US, which makes up seven percent of the entire population. This project emphasizes the need for post-war care improvements in order to better serve the veteran population.

What's next for the project? My goal is to one day work with the veteran population and hopefully have the opportunity to incorporate my research and my knowledge into my future work with veterans.

Jaime Sheahan, master’s candidate in dietetics

Project title: Frialator Annihilator

Adviser: Amy Nickerson

What was your motivation? I had been working at Rutland Regional Medical Center and found it slightly hypocritical when I'd see a cardiologist go through the line at the food court and grab a basket of fries. I'm thinking, “He was just educating a patient about how they need to change their lifestyle.” When you're in a hospital, you think about nurses and doctors as this representative of health, and when they're not practicing what they preach, it's difficult to watch.

I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if we overhauled the food environment (by getting rid of fried foods for three weeks) and see how those nurses and doctors and everyone else in the hospital would react.

What did you discover? It was kind of split 50/50. A lot of people reacted strongly and felt like we shouldn't be telling them what to eat. It's very similar to what we've seen in New York with the soda ban, whether it's the government coming in or hospital administration dictating to people what options are available to them, it's this nanny state mentality, where people respond very negatively.

But on the flip side, the other half of the people were very positive, saying we need to set a positive example, not just for the hospital and visitors, but for the community at large. If you really want fried food, there's a McDonald's down the street, and you can drive there. But we should be looking at more nutritious foods, more sustainable options sourced locally. It wasn't just that they wanted fried foods gone, it was that they wanted to make positive changes.

The thing I learned the most is that the elimination of certain foods can be more readily accepted if you bring in more positive changes.

Worst moment? Some people were very irate, and I was glad I wasn't present in Rutland at the time fried foods were removed. Some very, very strong reactions. I know people like certain foods, but I think it can be easy to forget how emotional it is.

Why does this research matter? Thirty-six percent of U.S. adults are obese. Thirty-three percent are overweight. I think that’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Previously, we were looking at it more on an individual level: looking at obesity as a problem with people being lazy or not having self control. Now we're recognizing we have this toxic food environment that needs to be addressed. Even though a hospital setting is a small part of that, it's an example of health and is a place that can send the right message to a community.

What’s next for the project? The hospital hasn’t made the permanent change, but I think it's a step in the right direction to open up that conversation. One thing that did come out of it is a yogurt bar in the morning, which people love. So I'm hoping those types of changes can stick, and they can slowly ease toward a more healthy environment.