For Virginia Tech’s Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award winners, their time in campus laboratories was not only an important part of their education, but an experience that changed the direction of their careers.

“My research at Virginia Tech has been transformative and guided my career choices,” said Austin Murray, a biochemistry major. “I don’t think anyone in the life sciences should graduate without the experience of doing research. The professional and communication skills I learned will be invaluable.”

Murray was one of three students recognized for their ability to communicate 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. As part of the virtual format, students and faculty were able to engage with presenters, posting more than 1,750 questions and comments.

The conference is named for Dennis Dean, former director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and a long-time supporter of undergraduate research. Each year, hundreds of students representing every university college participate through Virginia Tech’s Office of Undergraduate Research.

“You learn things while 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 done in the laboratory of Xiaofeng Wang in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, and focused on the brome mosaic virus, which is a leading cause of agricultural crop damage. The work looked at a specific protein that allows the virus to safely attach and replicate within a host cell and could eventually serve as the foundation for a broad-spectrum antiviral drug for similar viruses, like Hepatitis B.

“When I got to Virginia Tech, I wasn’t sure what direction to take my education,” said Murray. “But the combination of my time in the lab and the direct interaction I got with patients as a volunteer with the Blacksburg rescue squad, helped me decide to pursue a career in medicine.”

The Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award was also presented to Nicole Defoor for her presentation, “Under-expression of immune system genes in ovarian tumor samples with a rare mutation in FAM104A,” and Tanvi Haldankar for “A Walk Down Memory Lane: Analysis of Memory and Computer Systems From 1995 to Present-Day.”

“I made a lot of my friends while doing research, so it became an important part of my social life and community on campus,” said Defoor.

Defoor graduated in May with a degree in experimental neuroscience and a minor in language sciences. During her time at the university, she worked in three different labs: the Bowers Lab in 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 work in the laboratory with tissue models to determine the mutation’s mechanism to cause disease.

“I think research helped me figure out my academic path and showed me I liked 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 other students recognized during the conference, the benefits of research extended beyond academics and their experience in the laboratory.

Tanvi Haldankar, a graduating senior with a degree in computer science, shares a similar experience with undergraduate research and with this award. “This award means so much to me because it is the culmination of all the research work I’ve done over the past three years,” said Haldankar. “It feels like the cherry on top of a sundae to be given this award and to be recognized for my hard work in research.”

Haldankar’s research examined computer system performance and the shortcomings of this tracking. System performance data is primarily siloed by benchmark, system, or system component and the mission of the Computer Systems Genome Project was to draw together this data 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 for the consumer because it outputs an open source tool that provides the consumer with 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 move forward with their education and careers,” said Keri Swaby, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at Virginia Tech. “It’s also a chance for them to share with our campus community the really interesting, cutting-edge research they’ve done with our faculty.”

Other award winners from the conference are as follows:

Adaptive Brain and Behavior Destination Area award, sponsored by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, recognizes research projects applying 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 Adolescent Executive Functioning.”
  • Third Place (tie): Sarah Carter, “America or America? A study of topic-based shifting in US expat in London.”; Anvitha Metpally, “Using a Mindful Lifestyle Intervention to Help Improve Maternal and Infant Outcomes in Obese Pregnant Women.”

The Critical Technologies Awards, sponsored by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, recognizes research tackling complex problems by crossing traditional disciplinary and college boundaries.

  • First Place: Kathlynn Lewis, “Carbon Storage in Northern Virginia Grasslands: 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 +Policy Destination Area Awards:

  • 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 C-H Bond 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: Evaluating the biomechanical performance and risk of head injury for whitewater Helmets.”
  • Third Place (tie): Eric Xie, “Classification of Neurons by Activation Stages Using an Artificial Neural Network”; Joey Zobel, "Determining Perceptions of Appalachian English among Non-Speakers Living in Appalachian Virginia."

Virginia Tech’s Office of Undergraduate Research promotes, enhances, and expands undergraduate research opportunities for students in any major at Virginia Tech and provides services and resources to support their research journey. For more information, visit the Office of Undergraduate Research website.

Written by Will Rizzo and Abigail Mercatoris-Morrison

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