From shaping our understanding of cancer to tracking the effects of climate change, we take a look at some of this year’s most exciting student research.
Curious to see more? Explore projects across the disciplines, and meet the Catamounts behind them, at the UVM Student Research Conference, happening Wednesday, April 17 in the Davis Center.
Wanting to test the waters of biomedical research, biology major Daron Forohar ’19 has been humbled by the many layers of the scientific process he’s experienced working in the Larner College of Medicine’s Whitaker Lab in the anesthesiology department, examining the effects of major surgical stress on the developing brain. The project, which complements longtime clinical research on anesthesia’s impact on infants, is a perfect match for Forohar, who’s considering medical school in the future. “There’s so much that goes on that I didn’t realize,” he says, like the lab’s new research area—perinatal arterial ischemic stroke. “I’m blown away by this condition, which I never knew was a problem, but effects 1 in 4,000 babies.”
In just one semester, he’s become a valued member of the team, reviewing medical literature, staining histology slides and using the microtome—a delicate process of creating 7-micrometer-thin slices of tissue. And each day’s discovery yields more questions to consider. “These processes take time,” and patience, he says. “I’d like to play an important role in this lab, to really be part of these discoveries.”
Spring semester, as the national debate over immigration, crime, and border security raged at fever pitch, Hayley Barriere quietly drilled down on the work of her senior honor’s thesis. Examining perceptions of immigrants as criminals in the United States, the focus of her writing and research could scarcely have been more timely. Analyzing both mainstream media coverage and White House executive summaries around the issue, the global studies major has been focused on the topic since taking a sociology course last year on gender, race, and crime in the U.S. with Professor Eleanor Miller.
An internship with the Refugee Resettlement agency in Chittenden County was another important part of Barriere's experience at UVM, shaping her thoughts on directions her career might take after graduation. “I had the chance to meet people from all over the world and see what it is like for people to actually go through the whole immigration application process,” she says. “The number of people who apply to come to the United States versus the number who are actually able to resettle here is astonishing.”
At age 7, Emma Golden ’20 lost her childhood best friend to leukemia. “Ever since that moment, I knew I wanted to be a doctor,” she says, remembering the pediatric oncologist who took time to help her understand with simple pictures and clear words what was happening in her friend’s body. “I thought, I want to be like her. I want to be there not only for the patient but for the friends and family.” At UVM, Golden is on that path as a pre-med student majoring in philosophy. She’s taking lots of science classes, but also classes that explore the ethics of medicine and that ask questions about what science is and how we know it’s trustworthy.
She’s also found a new pediatric oncologist to look up to: Dr. Jessica Heath (above left), an assistant professor in UVM’s Larner College of Medicine. Golden is working as an undergraduate researcher in Heath’s lab, studying the responsiveness of hormone receptors in chemotherapy. “There’s a trend where pediatric leukemia patients going through puberty have a worse prognosis than those younger or older,” she says. While past research has found correlation between cell proliferation and hormone stimulation, no studies have yet tied those findings to poor prognoses in pubescent leukemia patients. It’s an opening for Golden to come full circle — this time, she’s the one helping shape a clearer understanding of the disease.
Straddling the Himalayas south of the Tibetan Plateau, the remote region of Mustang in Nepal is viewed by many tourists as other worldly and as one of the last places to find preserved Tibetan culture. Abra Clawson, an anthropology and religion double major and theater minor, spent a month in Kagbeni, Mustang, teaching English to Buddhist monks while conducting research for her senior thesis about the impact and foundation of this mindset.
Equipped with a digital recorder, Clawson recorded sounds nearly every day of things she observed as authentic and important to the region and its people. “Sometimes it was the sound of the river that runs through the middle of town, the sound of prayer flags flapping in the wind, the sound of wheels spinning on a prayer wall,” she says.
Her research, titled Sounds from a Dream Place: Politics, Religion, and Tourism in Kagbeni, Nepal, addresses the unique political, geographical, tourism, and religious issues that contribute to and perpetuate a false perception of Mustang, and incorporates four composed soundscapes that represent Kagbeni.
When you want to know the temperature inside your refrigerator, you can just open the door and stick in a thermometer. Physicists who study tiny collections of ultra-cold atoms don’t have it so easy. Undergrad Jiangyong Yu ‘19 has helped invent a new tool—“it’s an algorithm,” he says—that promises to give experimental scientists a better measure of what’s happening inside some of the most interesting and strange collections of matter known to science—atoms near absolute zero.
For example, researchers might have a known number of lithium atoms trapped in a microscopic box that’s so cold that none of the atoms can get out. Really crazy (um, cool?) realities of physics have been discovered studying these kinds of systems. But measuring the thermodynamics inside the box—including, critically, the temperature—has been “very difficult,” says professor Adrian Del Maestro. He and UVM post-doctoral researcher Hatem Barghathi worked side-by-side with Yu on a new approach to what are called “canonical partition functions.” By combining ideas from pure mathematics with well-established formulas used to study real-world quantum gases, the team was able to tame a long-standing mathematical problem in physics.
Jiangyong Yu’s theoretical research was so original and useful that he was invited to give a talk last month at the most prestigious physics meeting in the country. Being a college student speaking to a roomful of professors at the American Physical Society was daunting. “There's 60 experts in the room and we thought someone might stand up and say, ‘you know, actually this was known in 1972,’ but nobody did,” said Del Maestro. “People liked it,” said Yu, a physics major with a double minor in computer science and music. The UVM team, using the university’s VACC supercomputer and with support from the National Science Foundation, seems to have discovered a new way to build a more accurate thermometer for a quantum-scale icebox. “Who knows what we’ll find,” says Del Maestro. “Maybe some entirely new physics.”
The human body contains millions of genes, many of which have yet to be explored and fully understood. Medical Laboratory Science senior Alison Chivers spent a summer in Spain at the University of León’s Biomedical Institute, investigating how a single gene, p73, might function as a tumor suppressor in healthy cells.
In the event that an abnormality arises in the DNA sequence of a cell, tumor suppressors halt cell growth and development to prevent mutated cells from dividing. “Often when tumor suppressor genes are mutated, cells lose their ability to control their own progression through the cell cycle and, consequently, grow and divide uncontrollably. That's what defines cancer, rapid and uncontrollable cell proliferation,” Chivers says.
To study the gene’s ability to suppress tumor initiation, Chivers repressed the p73 gene in cells, known as knocking it out, and compared the growth of cells with active p73 and cells lacking p73. Ultimately, knowing more about the tumor suppressor could provide better prognosis and treatment options to combat cancer. “We're trying to move towards a more molecular, research-based approach to targeting and treating cancer,” she says.
Sometimes, solving problems requires a new perspective. That’s exactly the approach that senior Maddie Hayes and the UVM Spatial Analysis Laboratory took to map and monitor water chestnut, an invasive species. Using drones, Hayes and the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Team collect data on the dense mats water chestnuts form on area waterways, which have detrimental impacts on the ecosystem. It’s an expensive, tedious process on the ground; from the air, Hayes can pinpoint plants for future removal. “I’m really interested in the intersection of new technologies and environmental analysis,” says Hayes, an environmental science major and geospatial technologies minor. “It was exciting to work on a project with this innovative technology in the Lake Champlain Basin because I got to see first-hand the impact I could have on my community.”
For Hayes, the project brought her UVM experience full circle. “I’ve been learning about pollution and invasive species in the Lake Champlain Basin since my first year.” After graduation, she’s staying on to work in the lab with director Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne and drone team lead Emma Estabrook.
Originally from neighboring South Burlington, Mehul Shah spent time growing up on the UVM campus. “I fell in love with the area and the opportunities,” says Shah. Today, he’s a sophomore molecular genetics major, conducting research on Toxoplasma gondii, one of the most widespread parasites on the planet.
The study of T. gondii, explains Shah, is important because of its ability to infect humans. But it could also have implications on understanding other parasites, such as the parasite that causes malaria. It’s the reason he had a strong interest in working in the Larner College of Medicine’s Ward Lab. The parasites that cause toxoplasmosis must move from cell to cell in order to invade, replicate and exit, movement that requires a complex made up of a number of proteins. Shah is now working to characterize one component of that complex; eventually, the goal is to better understand how these parasites are able to move, causing infection as they go.
Although he’s only in his second year of undergrad, Shah understands the importance of resiliency. “One unexpected lesson I have learned from my research is to be pleasantly surprised when your experiment works out, and to keep working even if the experiment doesn’t work on the first try.”
By the time he was 12 years old, Chris Lampart could identify most trees, birds, and animal tracks in the woods around his hometown of Starksboro, Vermont. At UVM, Lampart, a wildlife and fisheries biology senior, is forging his dream career. He landed a coveted spot as an undergraduate research technician with a team monitoring Vermont moose health, which is under stress from rapid climate change and increasing tick numbers.
The team of graduate students, UVM researchers and state wildlife biologists tracks up to 130 radio-collared female moose and young males in the wetlands and forests of northern Vermont. “I can close in on an animal’s location using radio-telemetry and then observe and note behavior, activities, and habitat,” says Lampart. “Even on the worst day of black flies when you don’t want to breathe through your mouth unless you’re wearing a head net, I feel as though I am living a dream.”
Lampart has pulled elements of this research into his courses; he’s conducted an independent study of moose calf dispersal, mentored by state project leader Cedric Alexander ’78, and in a senior capstone course, he’s mapping corridors connecting the herd’s habitats. Says the first-generation, non-traditional college student, “My participation on the moose project has been life-changing for me.” He’ll stay on the team after graduation through the fall, helping to understand how these giants can survive and thrive.
Henry Mitchell’s work is full of networks. The math and physics major has done research with five different professors in three different departments (one of which resulted in a published paper). How? “Just knock on doors. Go places and introduce yourself,” says Mitchell. His curiosity in an area of math called nonlinear dynamics led him to read about intriguing patterns called chimera states. “If you have a bunch of pendulums that are tied together, you can end up, under certain conditions, with some of them swinging in sync, and some out of sync. It’s a stable state, and stays for a very long time. That’s weird.” Why does this happen? “Math,” laughs Mitchell.
Serendipitously, at a Complex Systems event, Mitchell met Larner College of Medicine faculty member Matt Mahoney, whose work on epilepsy focuses on statistical analysis of neural activity. Now, Mitchell’s honor’s thesis is investigating a link between those odd chimera states and patterns observed in neural models. And someday, the research could be used to better understand how seizures arise and spread in the brain. Reflecting back on the research and exploration he’s done in his four years here, “knowing that those opportunities were available was a huge part of why I ended up coming to UVM.”
Writing for this piece contributed by Josh Brown, Kaitie Catania, Andrea Estey, Shari Halik, Jen Nachbur, Amanda Waite, and Tom Weaver. Photos by Josh Blouin ’15 G’20, Josh Brown, Abra Clawson ’19, Maddie Hayes ’19, and Sally McCay. Videos by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist.