For the winners of the Virginia Tech Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award, time spent in campus labs was not only an important part of their education, but an experience that changed the focus of their careers.
“My research at Virginia Tech has been transformative and has guided my career choices,” said Austin Murray, a biochemistry student. “I don’t think anyone in the life sciences should graduate without research experience. The professional and communication skills I have acquired will be invaluable.
Murray was one of three students recognized for their ability to communicate on complex research after presenting at the Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship conference, held in April with 120 presentations by 255 students from Virginia Tech and Blacksburg High School. In the virtual format, students and faculty were able to engage with presenters, posting over 1,750 questions and comments.
The conference is named after Dennis Dean, former director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and a longtime supporter of undergraduate research. Each year, hundreds of students representing each university college participate through the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Office.
“You learn things by working in a lab that you will never get in a classroom,” Murray said. “The access it gives you to faculty and graduate students is an incredible opportunity. “
Murray’s research was carried out in Xiaofeng Wang’s laboratory at the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and focused on the bromine mosaic virus, which is one of the leading causes of damage to agricultural crops. The work focused on a specific protein that allows the virus to attach and replicate safely in a host cell and could potentially serve as the basis for a broad-spectrum antiviral drug for similar viruses, such as hepatitis B.
“When I first came to Virginia Tech, I wasn’t sure where my education was headed,” Murray said. “But the combination of my time in the lab and the direct interaction I had with patients as a volunteer with the Blacksburg Rescue Team helped me decide to pursue a career in medicine. “
The Outstanding Undergraduate Research Prize was also awarded to Nicole Defoor for her presentation “Under-expression of immune system genes in ovarian tumor samples with a rare mutation in FAM104A” and to Tanvi Haldankar for “A Walk Down Memory Lane: Analysis of Memory and Computer Systems from 1995 to the present day.
“I made a lot of friends while doing research, so it became an important part of my social life and my community on campus,” Defoor said.
Defoor received a degree in experimental neuroscience and a minor in language science in May. During her time at the university, she worked in three different laboratories: the Bowers Lab at the School of Neuroscience, the Speech Lab at Virginia Tech, and the laboratory of Ramu Anandakrishnan.
Defoor’s research combined available data on a specific gene linked to ovarian cancer with lab work with tissue models to determine the mechanism of the disease causing mutation.
“I think the research helped me understand my academic path and showed me that I enjoy working in a lab,” Defoor said. “The experience in each lab also led to more research opportunities on campus.”
Two other students received special mention for their work: Danielle Alms for “The Effect of Mycoplasma Gallisepticum Infection on Feather Quality and Maintenance in House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)” and Elizabeth Duncan for “Differential Expression Analysis and Modeling of T Cell Differentiation Pathways “.
For the other students recognized at the conference, the benefits of the research extended beyond academics and their laboratory experience.
Tanvi Haldankar, senior graduate with a degree in computer science, shares similar experience with undergraduate research and with this award. “This award means a lot to me because it is the culmination of all the research I have done over the past three years,” said Haldankar. “It’s like the icing on the cake to receive this award and to be recognized for my hard work in research. “
Haldankar’s research examined the performance of the IT system and the gaps in this monitoring. System performance data is mostly siled by benchmark, system or system component and the mission of the Computer Systems Genome project was to bring this data together to analyze the evolution of system architecture and performance.
Haldankar’s work was done with fellow student Lalitha Kuppa and faculty mentors Margaret Ellis, Godmar Back and Kirk Cameron. She hopes her research will be useful to the consumer because it produces an open source tool that provides consumers with in-memory storage information for computers.
“This is a great opportunity for students to present at a conference and develop the communication skills that will be important as they progress in their studies and careers,” said Keri Swaby, Director of the Office of undergraduate research at Virginia Tech. “It is also an opportunity for them to share with our university community the really interesting cutting-edge research that they have carried out with our faculty.
The other winners of the conference are:
The Adaptive Brain and Behavior Destination Area Award, sponsored by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, recognizes research projects that apply our understanding of the brain to improve quality of life.
- First Place: Mariam Hasan, “COVID-19 as Social Murder: An Investigation of Racialized Bodies in America”.
- Second Place: Nicholas Dunn, “ADHD Status and Biological Sex as Predictors or Change in Executive Functioning in Adolescents”.
- Third Place (Tie): Sarah Carter, “America or America?” A study on the change of subject among American expatriates in London. “; Anvitha Metpally, “Using a Mindful Lifestyle Intervention to Help Improve Maternal and Child Outcomes in Obese Pregnant Women.”
The Critical Technologies Awards, sponsored by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, recognize research tackling complex problems by transcending the traditional boundaries of disciplines and colleges.
- First place: Kathlynn Lewis, “Carbon storage in the prairies of Northern Virginia: effects of land management and plant diversity”.
- Second Place: Christine Faunce, “Experimental Neuroscience, Single Nucleotide P129T Mutation Shows Susceptibility to Problematic Substance Use in Mice. “
- Third Place: Lauren Duma, “Proposed Injury Threshold for Drone Blade Lacerations”.
The rewards of the destination area + Policy:
- Ashlynn VanWinkle, “Development of an Attractive Toxic Sugar Bait for the Control of Aedes J. Japonicus.”
- Yasmin Farzan and Alexander Davis, “Synthesis of Oxygen-Based Ligands for CH Binding Activation Catalysts”.
High School Student Awards, sponsored by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science:
- First place: Katerina Leedy, “Differential expression of genes associated with innate immunity in individuals with and without Alpha-Gal syndrome”.
- Second Place: Brock Duma, “Whitewater Helmet STAR: Assessing Biomechanical Performance and Head Injury Risk for Whitewater Helmets. “
- Third place (tie): Eric Xie, “Classification of neurons by stages of activation using an artificial neural network”; Joey Zobel, “Determining Perceptions of Appalachian English among Non-Speakers Living in Appalachian Virginia. “
Virginia Tech’s Undergraduate Research Office promotes, enhances, and expands undergraduate research opportunities for students of all Virginia Tech majors and provides services and resources to support their research journey. For more information, visit the Undergraduate Research Office website.
Written by Will Rizzo and Abigail Mercatoris-Morrison