Conference recognizes student achievement in research and creative scholarship
The Office of Undergraduate Research has announced the recipients of nine student awards from the 2022 Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference, which included presentations from 281 Virginia Tech students representing eight of the university's colleges and eight local high school students.
“Conferences and poster presentations are an important part of the research cycle,” said Keri Swaby, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “For students to be able to communicate and defend their work requires an added level of understanding and can also help direct future research. This conference is an accessible way for them to gain that valuable professional experience.”
The event is named for Dennis Dean, former director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, University Distinguished Professor, and a longtime supporter of undergraduate research. During the past year, the Office of Undergraduate Research engaged with more than 3,000 students on the Blacksburg campus. The symposium was held as an in-person event for the first time since 2019.
For the participating students, the symposium offers a key piece of their education, providing an opportunity to step outside of their academic focus and interact with students on different career paths.
The conference opened with a presentation from the Hokienauts, a team of Virginia Tech students who for the last four years have participated in NASA’s Artemis program. The program aims to return humans to the moon, through the SUITS (Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students) design challenge, which tasks undergraduates with developing an augmented-reality headset that will interface with an astronaut’s suit.
“Our team is truly multidisciplinary. We have people with five different majors working on different parts of this project,” said Mithil Adsul, team lead for the Hokienauts and a senior majoring in electrical engineering. “Finding ways to communicate across skill sets — for example, between hardware engineers, software developers, graphic designers, or someone majoring in creative technology — has been really interesting and worthwhile.”
That presentation opened the conference and demonstrated for the audience a visor prototype designed to help astronauts move through the moon’s unforgiving environment. The headset allows the user to control a small rover, see data on vital signs, and help navigate dangerous obstacles.
The group received the Ben Knapp Award for Research in the Creative Art award at the conference and later this month, will be one of 11 college teams presenting their work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“Virginia Tech has been a finalist every year since the program started in 2018,” said Adsul. “The opportunity to present at the Dennis Dean conference is really valuable for us as we get ready to compete with other schools in Houston.”
For some students, an opportunity for undergraduate research can be an important part of deciding whether to attend Virginia Tech.
For Sara Pacini, a second-year student majoring in biochemistry, a conversation with an university advisor while she was in high school senior led to a research fellowship that was the determining factor in her pursuing a degree in Blacksburg.
“During senior spring of high school, I was home with my family with everyone working remotely or taking classes,” said Pacini. “I had several other schools in mind, but I didn’t know which one was best for my major. I knew I wanted to study biochemistry and that Virginia Tech had a competitive program. That and the opportunity to do research is what made me decide to attend school here.”
Pacini’s presentation, “Characterizing intracellular survival of the ‘oncomicrobe’ Fusobacterium nucleatum,” looked at the relationship between a bacteria common to the human microbiome and tumor growth for pancreatic and colorectal cancers. Specifically, her research looked at the potential of “knocking out” several genes in the bacteria that would make it more susceptible to the body’s defenses and prevent it from signaling cancer cells to grow and spread.
The topic is close to Pacini, whose mother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. For the last year, she’s worked in the lab of Daniel Slade, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and a leading researcher on the connection between the microbiome and the risk for certain types of cancer.
“I’m always asking myself, ‘How can the courses I’m taking be applied to my future?’” said Pacini. “I want to be able to help people through research and be part of something bigger than myself. Undergraduate research has helped me do that.”
The award recipients from the 2022 Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference are as follows:
Ben Knapp Award for Research in the Creative Arts
- Hokienauts: Mithil Adsul (electrical engineering, College of Engineering), Burak Topo (computer engineering, College of Engineering), Kien Tran (computer engineering, College of Engineering), Sabrina Lesser (electrical and computer engineering, College of Engineering), Rafiul Kabir (computer engineering, College of Engineering), Jasmine Walker (creative technologies, College of Architecture and Urban Studies), Natalie Kinnamon (graphic design, College of Architecture and Urban Studies), Devina Bawa (graphic design, College of Architecture and Urban Studies), Lauren Sartori (graphic design, College of Architecture and Urban Studies).
Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, Adaptive Brain and Behavior Award
- First place: Trisha Ravigopal, psychology, College of Science.
- Second place: Lauren Duma, clinical neuroscience, College of Science.
- Third place (tie): Sara Carter, international relations, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
- Third place (tie): Srindhi Jayakumar, psychology, College of Science.
ICTAS, Critical Technologies Award
- First place: Connor Hall, chemical engineering, College of Engineering.
- Second place: Victor Mukora, computational modeling and data analytics, College of Science.
- Third place: Alexander Davis, chemical engineering, College of Engineering.
ICTAS, High School Award
- First place: Jacqueline Hou.
- Second place: Samuel Xiang.
- Third place: Erika Miyazaki.
Karen Roberto Award for Research in the Social Sciences
- Ursilia Beckles, English, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
Natural Resources and Environment Award
- Kevin Bayne, wildlife conservation, College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Policy Destination Area Award
- Victor Mukora, computational modeling and data analytics, College of Science.
- Hannah Upson, political science, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
Research Excellence Awards
- Sophia DeSimone, biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
- Ian Hicklin, biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
- Chantal Johnson-Schuster, animal and poultry science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Stefan Duma award for Research in Biomedical Engineering
- Sarah Seay, biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
More information about the Office of Undergraduate Research and opportunities for Virginia Tech students can be found online at www.research.undergraduate.vt.edu.
Written by Will Rizzo