Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research Scholarships help students connect research to issues central to their lives
For the first time this past summer, the Office of Undergraduate Research awarded scholarships to four students, allowing them to stay on campus and continue their work. For the recipients, it was a chance to connect their research to issues central to their lives without the demands of their usual coursework.
Their research ranged from the neuroscience of addiction to returning the voices of Native women to the historical record to studying the emotional interplay between mothers and children.
“This was a really unique opportunity. We were fortunate to have extra funds this year that allowed us for the first time to offer summer research scholarships to four students,” said Keri Swaby, director of undergraduate research. “Summer session creates different challenges for students who want to stay in Blacksburg and continue their work, so our goal for these scholarships was to allow students to be on campus and focus more of their time on their research.”
The students — representing the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and College of Science — each received $2,500 for the summer.
The scholarships were created and funded by Dennis Dean, former director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and a long-time supporter of undergraduate research. Each semester, the scholarships provide $1,000 to one student involved in research.
Since spring 2019, the scholarship has supported 14 students from four of the university’s colleges.
As the summer scholars return to their fall courses, three recipients shared how they used the time last summer and the research they pursued.
The summer before her senior year of high school, Star Shepard drove her uncle the 200 miles from her home in Suffolk, Virginia, to the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Her uncle, Jeremy, was there to participate in a clinical trial of a new treatment for neurofibromatosis.
“While I was there, I met the doctors, who explained the trial and the degrees they had that allowed them to do this research,” said Shepard. “One of the nurses who was caring for my uncle had worked there for 50 years and had no interest in retiring because she loved her work. I thought, ‘Wow, I want to work here.’”
Neurofibromatosis is a genetic disorder that causes noncancerous tumors to grow on nerves throughout the body and runs in Shepard's family. Her uncle discovered he had the disease after getting an MRI of his spine while recovering from a motorcycle accident. As the tumors grew, the disorder caused chronic pain and limited his mobility, eventually requiring him to use a wheelchair.
For Shepard, now a senior majoring in clinical neuroscience and biochemistry, the days she spent taking her uncle to appointments at the clinical center proved to be a pivotal experience in her life.
“Once I understood how much my uncle was going to suffer because of this disease, I’ve been on track to pursue neuroscience ever since,” she said.
In June, Shepard started working in the Buczynski/Gregus lab, which is led by Matthew Buczynski and Ann Gregus, and is focused on identifying druggable targets for treating addiction, pain, and central nervous system disorders. Shepard is participating in research under a graduate student, Laura Murdaugh, investigating how an enzyme mutation associated with addiction affects the behavior and cognition of mice in a controlled environment.
Her time in the lab, including working with animal models, will be important experiences as she works toward a career in medical research.
“I needed a scholarship to be able to stay on campus and do research last summer,” said Shepard. “I am a financial aid recipient, and I have to fund many things on my own. This scholarship is so great because it relieves a financial burden.”
Shepard continues to work in the Buczynski/Gregus lab, and after graduation, hopes to attend a joint graduate program that will allow her to pursue a career as a medical scientist with a focus on clinical trials. Ultimately, she wants to work at the National Institutes of Health.
Hannah Jane Upson
Last summer, Hannah Upson presented a paper to a national conference about the treatment of Native women by the Indian Health Services during the 1970s. It was a unique opportunity for an undergraduate to travel to Los Angeles and speak to a group of professors and Ph.D. candidates, one made possible by a scholarship from the Office of Undergraduate Research and the support of the Department of Science, Technology, and Society.
“The Dennis Dean scholarship allowed me to apply to the conference and provided me with the funding needed for me to develop my research in order to be able to present in August,” said Upson. “Without it, attending this conference wouldn’t have been possible. It was an opportunity for me to learn from other scholars, which I was really excited about.”
Her research, done with Monique Dufour in the Department of History, was an examination of a 1976 Government Accountability Office report documenting the sterilization of more than 3,000 Native women without their consent by the Indian Health Services. Her goal for the work, Upson said, is to return the voices of the Indigenous women to historical record and the larger discussion of reproductive rights.
“Dr. Dufour has guided me in developing my writing to be accessible to others and taught me many different methods for finding sources to build my project,” said Upson. “She has been a phenomenal mentor over the past two years and is always willing to work through project ideas with me.”
The research comes from Upson’s commitment to advocacy as a member of the Disability Alliance of Virginia Tech, Coalition for Christian Outreach, and the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership.
Upson first began to work with the disability community through her mother, a special education teacher.
“In being disabled myself and having worked with the disability alliance and caucus, I feel a strong connection to working with the disability community,” said Upson. “In meeting Ashley Shew, a professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society who is also engaged in disability activism, I was introduced to the idea of ‘nothing about us without us’ from disability rights history. The concept calls for disabled people to have an active role in the creation and implementation of policies and organizations that aim to serve them.”
Based on feedback she received from fellow presenters at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Upson plans to revise her paper for journal submission.
Upson is a senior majoring in political science with a minor in medicine and society. She was also a 2021 Odyssey Fellow in the Honors College. After graduation, Upson plans to pursue a master's program with the ultimate goal of attending a public policy doctoral program with a focus on the disability community.
Last spring, Kaitlyn Rasnick began work at the Children’s Emotion Lab under the guidance of Cindy Smith, the associate department head of the Department of Human Development and Family Science.
The research looked at maternal sensitivity, the ability of mothers to read and respond to the cues and needs of a child, with Rasnick reviewing and coding data from videotaped interactions.
As a human development major who hopes to become a counselor, she found the work invaluable.
“What drew me specifically to the Children’s Emotions Lab were attachment issues in children. I have always wondered how attachment affects children's behavior and how it could be an influence later in life,” said Rasnick. “I wanted to be a part of research and part of the team looking into behaviors and answering these kinds of questions.”
Then last summer, and with the help of the Dennis Dean scholarship, Rasnick was able to expand her work at the lab to address a research question close to her experience growing up in Bristol, Virginia.
With the time provided by the funding, Rasnick was able to start a literature review of the studies on the parenting of LGBTQ children during the last three decades. She hopes to publish her findings and identify gaps in the research that can be addressed in the future.
“Eventually, I’d really like to work in rural communities and provide resources for parents and LGBTQ kids. I grew up in Southwest Virginia, and the closest support programs were three or four hours away,” said Rasnick. “I was really fortunate — when I came out to my parents, they were really supportive and we were able to drive me to programs. But I know many people aren’t able to do that.”
Rasnick plans to graduate in December and would like to spend a year working with her mother at Communities in Schools of Appalachian Highlands, a national nonprofit that provides critical community services for children. After getting some case management experience, she plans to apply for master's programs.
“This scholarship allowed me to commit more hours to the lab that would otherwise be spent working elsewhere, likely not related to my educational goals,” said Rasnick. “This experience in the lab helped me improve my research skills so that I can continue and advance in the field.”
Applications for the Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research Scholarships for the spring semester will be accepted Nov. 1-30. More information about the department and research opportunities for Virginia Tech students can be found at research.undergraduate.vt.edu.