Monday, April 29, 2013

URSP Highlights: Travis Jones

Spring 2013 URSP Participant: Travis Jones

            This semester I have been working with Professor Howard Kurtz as a research assistant on his project entitled “Historical Perspectives on Costume Design in the Federal Theatre Project,” an aptly titled investigation into the lives and work of costume designers working for the Federal Theatre Project, a short-lived New Deal program charged with employing out of work theatre professionals and artists and artisans from other allied fields.  While the program was only active from late 1935 until 1939, it staged 2,745 productions and kept thousands off the unemployment rolls.  Moreover, it had a sizable impact on American theatre. The program diversified audiences through its African-American Division, its German-language Division and its Yiddish Division.  Its non-profit nature allowed for innovations and experimentation that wouldn't have been possible in the commercial theatre and it launched the careers of directors like Orson Welles and playwrights like Arthur Miller who would loom large in American Arts and Letters during the second half of the twentieth century.
            In case it's not obvious, I'm really enthusiastic about the Federal Theatre Project and have been for quite some time, so I was quite excited last semester to receive an email from the History Department calling for research assistants for Professor Kurtz.  While, as a History major, I'm not the perfect candidate to help out with costume design research, since its not something I have any background in, the work that I've done has actually called quite heavily on the research skills I've learned within my major.  Since this is the first semester that either Professor Kurtz or I have worked on this project, our work to date has mostly been information-gathering.  That is to say, we have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we don't know and where we can find it.  This has meant that while I expected that I would be spending a lot of time looking at drawings and photographs of costumes, I've actually spent a lot of time working with the type of social history that I'm used to by virtue of my major.  It has also meant that I've been able to develop a number of the skills I hope to use professionally. I hope to pursue a graduate degree in Library Science next year and go on to work as a librarian in an academic library or archive.  Locating archives where there is information on the Federal Theatre project and browsing through documents looking for pertinent information has been a really helpful exercise in developing these skills.
            In some ways, my experience researching costume design in the Federal Theater has been characterized by the frustration of not knowing what I don't know. Flipping through boxes in archives and poring over publications without any guarantee of finding useful information can be somewhat discouraging.  But there have been many rewards in the form of coming across information for which I haven't necessarily been looking.  For instance, last week I came across one of the keys pieces to the social history puzzle of the Federal Theatre Project.  One of the greatest significances of the Federal Theatre Project for costume designers was the unionization of the profession.  Before 1937, costume designers were not admitted to the United Scenic Artists union; however, high unemployment among set and lighting designers meant that too little revenue was coming into the union in the form of dues.  Because the Federal Theatre Project was keeping a large number of costume designers employed and so, as a measure to keep the union afloat, costume designers were added as a category of members of the United Scenic Artists.  It is little morsels of information like this that make the work continually rewarding and make research interesting.

Friday, April 26, 2013

URSP Highlights: Aaron Baker

Spring 2013 URSP Participant Aaron Baker


        My project title is Prosperity In European Social Welfare Countries and the United States: A Comparative Analysis. My enthusiasm in this topic stems from the fact that I’ve always wanted to understand why prosperity levels fluctuate worldwide.
         My project is a comparative analysis of the economic structure of America, France, Norway, and the United Kingdom; the goal is to explore the correlation between economic policies and the economic well being of people in these countries by measuring standards of living. My mentor, Professor Donald J. Boudreaux, devised this project after reading Myths of Rich & Poor by Michael Cox and Richard Alm. After learning of my mutual interest in the topic we formulated a strategy to measure prosperity levels based on work hours as opposed to the common method of comparing gross domestic product.
         My research is based on the truism that the more goods and services a person is able to obtain the more prosperous he is. Therefore, the rising prices of goods and services in different nations is not a sufficient way to compare standards of living; instead the amount of hours that an American works to purchase a basket of goods is compared to the amount of hours that a Norwegian (or any foreigner) must work to obtain the same basket in Norway (or any other country). 
         The task that I perform on a weekly basis is the process of constructing a work-hour metric that can be applied to any country. The pith and core of this metric consists of collecting prices of goods and services for a basket of twenty pre-selected items for the years 2003-2011. Hours have been spent searching the databases of National Statistical Institutes (and other sources) around the world to find the price of gasoline, electricity, tomatoes, bread, etc., for four different countries. Next, the hourly wage of the average worker in four countries is obtained for the same time frame. Lastly, the cost of the consumer basket is divided by the hourly wage to determine the work-hour price of the basket. One interesting thing I found this week is that the price of goods and services in France, along with the wage rate of the average worker there pretty much rise at the same rate.
         This project has laid the foundation for my long-term research goals. I will have a tool to effectively measure prosperity levels in any nation without worrying about the complexities that come from currency exchange rates and inflation levels. This is the beginning of many insightful findings that have not been discovered.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

URSP Highlights: Hozaifah Zafar

Spring 2013 URSP participant Hozaifah Zafar:

            There are millions of people all around the world who are living a with a limb loss. Even though the advancement in technology in the field of robotic limbs has reduced many barriers faced by amputees in the practical life, the cost associated to these robotic limbs is still out of reach for many people. Having the ability to offer an alternative approach to operate these robotic limbs got me interested in this project. We are working on a novel ultrasound-based control strategy for upper prosthetic limbs, which not only improve the functionalities of such prosthetics but also mitigates the associated cost. Every week I'm responsible for collecting the data and to test and improve the current algorithm, which identifies the type of movement based on the activation of specific muscle groups on the forearm. However one thing to remember in research is everything might not go as you plan, which is just part of the research. While running the collected data on our program this week, we noticed that the algorithm despite being very successful on simple tasks fails to distinguish between two of the complex movements.  However, it's just part of a research and we already identified a technique to resolve this issue. As a computer scientist, I see this project very much related to the field I'm pursuing. I am specifically responsible for designing and implementing an algorithm to identify a type of movement based on the activation of specific muscle groups on the forearm. I believe working on this project not only provides me a chance to employ the techniques I have learned as an undergraduate student but also provides an opportunity to familiarize myself with the research environment.

Monday, April 22, 2013

URSP Highlights: Catherine Brown

Spring 2013 URSP Participant Catherine Brown:

Down the Rabbit Hole: Studying Don Quixote

            This project started with a paper I wrote comparing Don Quixote and Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film, The Dark Knight for a Spanish literature class. The requirement of the project was to compare Cervantes’s epic novel to a pop culture phenomenon such as a television show or a film. I had no idea I would end up expanding that idea into a project encompassing two art styles (Baroque and Neo-Baroque), linking contemporary films as diverse as The Matrix Trilogy and The Wizard of Oz, and the iconic figures of Don Quixote and Batman.
            This project is forcing me to be even more independent than I have had to be in my academic work to this point. I have to be not only confident as I write what I have observed from my research, but thorough and precise. This intense kind of research and extensive writing is the type of work I will be doing in graduate school. My ultimate goal is to be a doctor of Spanish and Portuguese, to be a colleague of that field and contribute my ideas through publication of research like what I have been doing this semester. URSP is giving me a taste of what that will be like.
            Up to this point in the project, on a weekly basis I do a lot of reading such as on the history of the Baroque and the development of the Neo-Baroque aesthetic. I have also been researching art and film. The Baroque body of work is massive because it includes painting, sculpture, and architecture. Furthermore, it’s a global art form. It spreads through Europe and then to the rest of the world due to colonialism and Jesuit missionary work.
            One thing I discovered this week is something I believe to be extremely interesting concerning art, especially Baroque art: the fact that it is self-referential across modes and distinct periods. This particular characteristic makes it possible to link styles of art to each other across centuries. Because the Baroque shares particular stylistic aspects with the Renaissance, I’ve had to research the characteristics of that period as well in order to understand what makes Baroque art so different from what was produced previous to it. What is interesting to see is the way artists recall past work through imitation or re-creation. For example, in 1926 Frida Kahlo imitates Botticelli’s 1486 Birth of Venus in her Self-portrait in a velvet dress. The elongation of her fingers and neck reflect Renaissance artistic renderings of women. However, the central figure of Botticelli’s painting is inspired by the Venus de’ Medici, a sculpture of the Roman Capitoline Venus type known as the “modest Venus” for the way the hands attempt to cover her naked form. Ultimately, the Capitoline Venus is based on a lost work by the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles known as the Aphrodite of Knidos now only rendered in copies. Furthermore, in 1981, Salvador Dalí also draws inspiration from this Greek figure in his painting Apparition of the Face of Aphrodite. These types of connections and references that artists make is the basis of my project and the connection I am attempting to illustrate between 17th century European art and contemporary films.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

URSP Highlights: Bradley 'Luc' Hylton

Spring 2013 URSP Participant Bradley 'Luc' Hylton:

In the first of core Game Design audio composition and editing classes [GAME 250], Dr. Martin made the point that a lot of the exact sounds we mix when creating digital copies of music and sound effects in games wouldn’t necessarily be heard by the player, because we were using high-end audio monitors, where most people would be using a wide variety of far cheaper audio equipment. Later in the semester we discussed about how microphones and speakers from the mid-1960’s were often better than modern devices. This ignited a dissonance in my head; how is it that we constantly have better and better home visuals and people are willing to spend more money for the best graphics, when they are missing out on a lot in the core of the sound. Around the same time, I read this news article on some highly skilled blind people who were capable of riding bicycles, through use of rapid human echolocation. The idea has since been implanted in my brain that with or without visual, realistic echo could add a lot to a game, in emersion, audio quality and accessibility to the blind and visually impaired.
This project is my exploration into making these realistic echoes live-rendered at play time a reality, specifically testing in the Unity engine. As a Game Design major, any creative game project, especially one as programming focused and ambitious as this is a great boost to my employability and takes me a few steps closer to my real goals and dreams, being an Indie developer of enough skill and means to make any project I desire and is largely a tech demo for a larger game design idea I’d like to pursue in the future and honestly advancement in consumer audio quality is also intrinsically among my personal goals, because I feel that there is so much that people miss out on in music, film and games through deprecated quality.
This semester, most my free time is split between my two major projects; this one and my Senior project. I still take time for personal fitness, get enough sleep and have social time, devoting a cumulative average of 20-25 hours on the two projects; often spending the entirety of the weekend coding. Specifically to my work on Audio rendering in Unity, progress has been slow; as of this writing, three attempted methods have failed and my time devoted to this project is devoted to coding the fourth method, which being that it’s built from relative scratch and not relying on calculations intended in engine for other purposes, I feel and hope will be successful. The possibility of using this method is something I stumbled upon while reading the library reference for Unity engine; that rather than relying on the default physics, light-based rendering or modifying the default 3D audio to allow for realistic echo, I could directly access the mesh data and parse the models manually. I hope to have a working prototype based on this fourth method within a week of reading acoustics books, the Unity references and coding. Final goal is to have a usable audio system for game developers to use to have realistic echo in their 3D environments.

Monday, April 8, 2013

URSP Highlights: Mariam Hashemi

 Spring 2013 URSP Participant Mariam Hashemi:

I have been working with the Beatty and Guy Liver Research Department for a little over a year now. Majority of the research being done in this lab revolves around Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), Hepatitis B, and obesity. I began by shadowing a PhD student and gradually worked my way up the ladder and landed myself a project of my own; granted the project I am currently working on is a subsection of my mentor’s project, I am still running everything on my own! I began by talking to Dr. Aybike Birerdinc and Dr. Ancha Baranova, they have helped me out from day one by providing me with advice and project ideas throughout the year.

            Obesity is becoming a major issue in the United States and the project I am currently working on is focused on finding specific gene expressions from the KCTD family of proteins and its relation to obesity. My mentor had conducted a project that showed a specific protein from the KCTD family is present in patients that are morbidly obese and have been diagnosed with NAFLD.  This project will not only help me, but it will also help physicians, and other researchers in their long-term goals of fighting obesity.

            On a weekly basis, I am generally reading literature or background information about KCTD and NAFLD. However, if there are specific experiments going on in the lab, I go in and watch to get a better understanding of how my project will be completed. Once I’ve created a list of genes I want to observe, I create primers and wait for them to come in. Once they arrive I will be able to validate the primers and run a qPCR test using samples and find some sort of correlation between the samples used and the gene expression. This week I discovered I can create a brand new primer from scratch, if I needed to do so.

            I am currently a pre-med student at George Mason University and I’m striving to become a Physician. This project can be taken into so many different levels of science and help a lot of individuals who are suffering from NAFLD, which does not have a cure. As I move on in my educational career, I am hoping this project will open more doors for the obesity epidemic we are currently facing.

Friday, April 5, 2013

URSP Highlights: Leena Halabi

 Spring URSP Participant Leena Halabi:

Last semester I had embarked on a mission to study the Post-Soviet bloc after I had taken Dr. Eric McGlinchey’s class on Central Asian Politics – which after taken the course had animated my fascination and intrigue with this area. My initial research dealt with the cult of personality within the Central Asian Republics. In proposing the URSP program to my professor, he introduced me to his current research on the educational environment in the Republic of Georgia with the prospects of launching distance learning methods in rural and suburban Georgia. Although I did not have any formal knowledge or study of the Republic of Georgia, my professor offered me the position to research and join the team. This is the beauty of research – you do not necessarily need to feel like you need to have a firm grasp of a country or historical phenomena in order to research it because the journey of research itself is the key to the best form of understanding and knowledge.
Participation in the URSP program makes you feel closer to achieving your dream – I know it sounds cliché, but working with a team as opposed to by yourself and on a true-to-life related issue as opposed to theories is an incomparable experience that goes beyond the classroom.
Our team – consisting of myself, Dr. McGlinchey, and, my partner in crime, graduate research assistant Ms. Diana Sweet – meet regularly on a weekly basis to discuss and collaborate on each others individual research they had done during the week. We split up the tasks and reconvene the following week. The meetings usually last 45 minutes where we each take turns discussing what each of us had discovered during the week before.  The cozy meeting rooms of Robinson give us a chance to collaborate locally and efficiently.
With research you are continually learning and discovering something new everyday. The past week  I have been analyzing and dissecting case studies of distance learning (D.E.) in Less Technologically Developed countries; which is a good place to learn from previous projects’ successes and failures. While our project is targeting adults for university level distance learning, I found a problem particularly intriguing that Dan Eastmond encountered while assessing D.E. in rural Asia – that adults in rural areas have not had a solid foundation in secondary, or perhaps even secondary, schooling? This would mean that our project proposal would have to develop a greater catering scope to educate those who first need rudimentary level school before attaining university level education.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

URSP Highlight: Yousef Fazel

 Spring 2013 URSP participant Yousef Fazel:

Before taking part in my research I had several past experiences. I first took part in bioinformatics research, but I realized that my programing skills were sub par and the project was very slow progress as a result. I continued with bench lab research and I didn’t enjoy that much either. My passion has always been being in the hospital and being near patient care. Last year I finally started doing clinical research at the Inova neuroscience research office.

            This research experience is very well suited for me considering my long term goals. As a prospective medical student I have an early start with clinical research. I learn more about the human physiology through my research, but I also learn a lot by being around other students who also have interesting projects. The lab provides a very academic environment that promotes learning. In the future these observations we make in the lab will give me an edge over other physicians.

            On a weekly basis the project differs. The first step is do design the project and submit it for approval from the IRB. This part is actually very difficult because the IRB requires the researcher to know a great deal about the project before starting. After obtaining IRB approval, I begin data collection from the patient charts. My project is a retrospective study and I collect data from the Hospitals electronic medical records. After obtaining all the necessary data I begin doing statistical analysis on the data.

            Each week something new is learned. For example this week I was finally able to observe how a stroke patient with hemiparesis preforms a simple task as clapping as the patient’s ability to preform the Eastchester clapping sign was assessed. The learning process with this research experience has been very rewarding.

Monday, April 1, 2013

URSP Highlights: Jessica Magnotti

Spring 2013 URSP Participant Jessica Magnotti:

          I have always been curious of animals and the way they communicate, but birds completely fascinate me. This passion, along with my love of science and medicine, has led me to work towards becoming an avian veterinarian. You can imagine my excitement when I learned there is an ornithologist at George Mason, Dr. Luther. After learning of his research with urban bird communication, I met Dr. Luther and we began discussing the possibility of a collaborative research project.

        Birds of the same species that live in different areas will sing slightly different songs, similar to the way that people from other countries speak different languages. In the presence of man-made noise such as traffic and construction, birds have been found to alter their songs. What this project will look at is whether birds living in rural areas will be able to differentiate a city bird’s song in the presence of certain levels of noise. I will also attempt to find out if rural birds will favor the city bird’s song and possibly mimic their sound.

I hope to continue conducting research on birds in veterinary school so this experience is of great value to me. While working on this project I am becoming familiar with important aspects of research including experimental design, working in the field, and preparing/submitting a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. 

        A typical week usually starts with waking up early to find the birds. Birds tend to be most vocal around sunrise so this is when I head out into the field. I also spend quite a bit of time searching for papers in peer-reviewed journals on similar experiments. This is an important part of research because new information may affect my experiment.

        One thing I discovered this week is that birds are curious. While observing a singing cardinal, I wondered what he would do if I whistled his song back at him. To my surprise, the cardinal moved to tree branches closer to where I was standing. While I whistled he tilted his head to the side as if to get a better look at what I was doing, and then, he whistled back! I suppose he decided I wasn't a threat because he flew away after a few minutes of whistling back and forth. I always assumed that a wild animal would either flee or ignore me if I tried to get their attention, so to see this wild bird observe me as well as vocalize back was a really thought-provoking experience.