Record 440 students showcase projects at 2017 annual conference

From food security issues in Thailand to anaerobic waste digesters on Vermont farms, with several stops in between, the seven presenters in one of the 2017 Student Research Conference’s “Lightning Talks” sessions offered a high-speed glimpse (five minutes max) of the research enterprise and student experience at UVM.

Undergraduate theater major Rozy Isquith described the multiple sources—script, director’s concept, historical era, past designs—that informed her set design for this season’s Royall Tyler production of “Dracula.” Moments later, Elijah Massey, master’s student in Community Development and Applied Economics, discussed opportunities for the USDA to better assist the young, gender and racially diverse farmers at the “rural-urban interface” at the edge of metro areas. Cathleen Balantic, graduate student in the Rubenstein School, closed the session with a window on her work with Professor Terri Donovan, bioacoustically monitoring bird populations on an industrial scale solar facility in the Sonoran Desert.

Thanking the Lightning Talk presenters, vice president for research Richard Galbraith said, “It is inconceivable to me that as a student I could do what you have done with the poise and passion you’ve shown us this morning.”

And so it went throughout the fourth floor of the Davis Center on April 27—student passion for research and poise in presentation on full display. Read on for more snapshots of the 2017 Student Research Conference, the largest in the 11-year history of the event.

Putting nature’s patterns to work

In 1952, the great mathematician Alan Turing developed an equation to explain how simple chemical reactions could give rise to complex 3-D patterns in nature—like the spots on a leopard’s fur. These diffusion-reaction systems have since been observed throughout the universe, from the distribution of galaxies to the arrangement of cells. Now, a team of UVM physics students are putting a Turing pattern to work at the nanoscale in the lab. Traveling to Japan last summer (with support from the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Physics Department), seniors Bin Du, Yu Jiang (shown above), and Michael Arnold created thin films of zinc oxide on state-of-the-art machines at Yamagata University’s Research Center for Organic Electronics. They discovered that changing the concentration of an additive called Rhodamine B during thin film growth gave them “3-dimensional control of nanoscale Turing patterns,” the team writes. Their work may contribute to a better understanding of the rapidly expanding field of thin films—essential to many new technologies from advanced solar panels to better LED lights. “UVM has given many great opportunities to international students like me,” says Yu Jiang, “and people in Vermont are very friendly.”

Abigail RossAbigail Ross (Photo: Josh Brown)

Exposing bias

Abigail Ross has been excited about math since second grade. Now, as a master's student in data science and complex systems, she’s put her talent to work uncovering gender bias in media coverage of the 2016 election. Her “big data” research examined words in tens of thousands of newspaper articles from every state. One example of what Ross discovered: “the word ‘unmarried’ is 84 times more likely to appear in the five-word neighborhood of ‘women’ than anywhere else in articles about Hilary Clinton,” she notes. In articles about Donald Trump, the words—with what Ross calls the “highest fraction value”—near the term “women” were: “cherish,” “pigs, “undergo,” “abortions,” and “slobs.” For “men” in the same articles, the top of the list was: “unarmed,” “hardworking,” and “forgotten.” Ross went into the project wondering if gender bias in the media was real. “It’s very clear,” she says. “This work perfectly combines my excitement about math and data science with my interest in social justice.”

Jordyn ScismJordyn Scism (Photo: Brian Jenkins)

Good jumping

Athletes jump; it’s what they do. But it’s the coming back to earth that’s the problem—ACL tears, ankle sprains, and so on. Jordyn Scism, sophomore in biomedical engineering and a UVM cheerleader, knows something about the hazards of jumping herself. She worked from data sets with lecturer Ryan McGinnis to analyze mechanics around bad jumping technique vs. good jumping technique. The theory is that studies like this could lead to athletes wearing body sensors in practice, or even games, that train them to move more safely. Scism envisions a career working with smart prosthetics someday, adding an electrical engineering minor toward that end.

Mike Hudson
Mike Hudson (Photo: Brian Jenkins)

Providing refuge for the homeless

Mike Hudson was making a good living in computer security when he decided to volunteer at a health care clinic in a homeless shelter. “It just lit me on fire,” he says. “It was clear that I needed to stop chasing money and actually do something that I loved.” That involved enrolling in the Larner College of Medicine and becoming a political advocate for the homeless. His research project focused on whether Burlington’s first homeless shelter to accept people with drug or alcohol addictions reduced visits to the emergency department. Previously, homeless individuals often relied on the ED for medical help or a place to stay during colder months. Although the opening of a permanent shelter, which gave previously homeless individuals a permanent address, skewed his data, Hudson found a modest decrease. “Providing housing to the homeless has significant health benefits and lowers costs. It has become clear that the best way for me to help is through political advocacy and by fulfilling my dream of working at a Federally Qualified Health Center.”

 Rachel HurwitzRachel Hurwitz (Photo: Brian Jenkins)

Bridging resettlement divides

Tired of reading about refugee populations negatively affecting communities, sociology student Rachel Hurwitz decided to find out the truth for herself. She did so by immersing herself in Winooski – a refugee resettlement community – as part of a research team that included education faculty Cynthia Reyes and Shana Haines who were conducting a study on refugee families. After interviewing refugees, teachers, and community members, Hurwitz was convinced that Winooski was a model for “bridging the cultural divides inherent in refugee resettlement.” She credits the school system for hiring five multicultural liaisons to work with refugee families and local service providers. “The more I learn about the common themes of pain and suffering prevalent in each individual refugee experience, the more I seek solace in the fact that at least one community is opening its doors to these individuals and their families, and allowing them the space to create a safe home.”

 Grace WeisbeckerGrace Weisbecker (Photo: Brian Jenkins)

Soaking it in

“Who doesn’t love sitting in a hot tub of water?” Grace Weisbecker, senior in athletic training and Honors College student, asks. Most of us, true enough. But it’s more typically post-exercise balm for sore muscles than a pre-game preparation. A varsity pole vaulter and hurdler for the Catamounts, Weisbecker saw a spring break trip to hot spring-rich Iceland as an opportunity to explore whether a warm soak might be a good warm-up. While she didn’t find it yielded better results athletically, Weisbecker noted higher heart rates and lower blood pressure, not unlike what would happen with an active warm-up. She suggests that such a passive warm-up might be helpful for individuals who are rehabbing an injury or struggling with joint illness. Confessing initial reluctance, Weisbecker says, “The more I worked on this project, the more I realized how much I like research.” Next stop, a master’s program at Ithaca College with the long-range goal of becoming a professor someday.  

SRC Ballroom(Photo: Brian Jenkins)

Defining who belongs

Debates surrounding the idea of “citizenship” – who gets it, who doesn’t, how hard it should be to obtain and what rights citizens have – are nothing new, as evidenced by College of Arts & Sciences senior Alice Ochterski’s research project, “Who Belongs: Perspectives on Citizenship from Ancient Rome to Today.” Her findings serve as a reminder that citizenship isn’t as straightforward as something you have or don’t have. For example, Rome offered different citizenship levels, and different rights, to some groups, including citizenship without voting privileges for certain foreigners, “the same as it was for women in the U.S. before 1920,” says Ochterski. In Ancient Rome and the modern U.S., people from preferred countries “have an expedited process to becoming citizens.” Pointing to a letter sent to campus in March about the most recent travel ban, which was aimed at foreign nationals from seven specific countries, Ochterski says, “these issues are still just as relevant today.”

Writing for this story contributed by Thomas Weaver, Jon Reidel, Josh Brown, and Andrea Estey


University Communications