Tuesday, December 9, 2014

URSP Student Yara Mowafy Examines the Prevalence and Nature of Food and Shelter Insecurity at George Mason University

For my first two years at Mason, I advocated for a hidden population on campus: homeless college students. I had first heard of this population while working with a local homeless shelter, and I have since grown a great passion to provide the necessary support and resources for these students. My efforts on campus led to the establishment of the Student Meal Assistance Fund, which provides meal vouchers for students in need at Mason.

However, a major question remained, how many students on campus were experiencing homelessness and/or hunger while attending school? There seemed to be no data available to answer that question. I decided to answer it myself! I teamed up with Michael Galvin, Director of Technology Integration, to assess the prevalence and nature of the homelessness and hunger at Mason. Michael had previous experience researching this population; he was (and still is) the perfect match. Together we went through the entire process of applying to the grant, crafting a thorough IRB application, and designing a research that would not only answer our main question but also guide us to establish a successful model of support.

At first, I was uncertain about the success of the research. I was unsure of the number of participants that would come forth and be a part of our study. However, time has only shown me that this population is extremely courageous and is willing to speak about their experiences in order to assist others. The most overwhelming part of the study is the amount of data and interviews we’re collecting – and this is a great kind of overwhelming!  We’re meeting with students on a weekly basis and conducting semi structured, confidential, interviews. We are then transcribing these interviews and analyzing them using SPSS. So far, we have been able to come up with major themes that allow us to better understand these experiences. Financial struggles challenge student success and well-being, especially their mental health. Homeless and hungry students live in a constant state of anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Many of these hardships occur mid-semester where little to no resources are available for students to access; these circumstances arise typically after financial assistance has already been allocated. This is a pattern that is overlayed over other patterns of financial insecurity, lack of familial support, the constant search for housing and food, and hiding their identities, all while trying to be a student. Most students believe that a college degree will lead them out of the cycles of hunger and homelessness and toward a home, employment and personal stability.
We hope that our conclusions will assist the University in administering an effective and sustainable program that provides adequate resources to students in need in order to ensure their academic success.

Finally, conducting undergraduate research has exposed me to many opportunities to raise awareness and share my findings.  In fact, recently I was able to give a talk at a TEDx event that was hosted by George Mason University!

URSP Student Marciel Rojas Rosario Researches The Influence of Parenting Styles on Pre-Schooler’s Body Mass Index

As a friend of mine once said, "some of the most poignant tragedies of history are not the bloody graves of what has been, but rather the anguished ghosts of the almosts and the aching sighs of the might-have-beens." This realization is what motivates my passion for the field of Public Health, a discipline that works to prevent tragedies rather than simply react to them. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, I saw dreams lost and lives crushed by things that could have so easily been prevented or avoided if only there had been someone who cared. I saw many of my neighbourhood friends get sick or die of preventable diseases and knew from a very young age that I wanted to become someone who helped prevent such devastating losses. I am passionate about educating underserved populations for improved health and lifestyles on a global scale.
As part of my goal of pursuing a Master’s degree and becoming a Public Health professional, I believe it is important for me to gain hands-on experience in the research process as an undergraduate, and to practice the health promotion techniques I have learned over previous semesters of coursework in global and community health. I have the opportunity to join Professor Sina Gallo this fall in a research project she is launching to investigate the potential origins of childhood obesity. The main objective of this project is to assess the prevalence of obesity in 2-5 year old children attending daycare in the Northern Virginia area. The project will also explore possible family and lifestyle factors, including how nutrition and physical activity are associated with the development of obesity. I have previously taken courses taught by Dr. Gallo, and since have developed a positive working relationship; thus, I have confidence in her vision. I strongly believe that participating in this project will help me to learn about the research process and will allow me to explore more options as I begin thinking about graduate work.
This research opportunity comes at an ideal time for me as I am just beginning my senior year. By participating in the project I hope to gain crucial experience and build foundational skills to shape my future in the field of Public Health and research. I specifically hope to learn more about how theory and practice differ in public health research and how to work effectively with the public.
I am eager to see first hand value of public health research in making a difference in people's lives. Find more effective ways to prevent childhood obesity is one of the critical health issues of this generation. This pilot study will begin to help us unravel the complex factors behind the increasing rate of childhood obesity and how to most effectively prevent it particularly amongst the young vulnerable populations. Obesity is something that affects each of us, directly or indirectly and being able to prevent this disease would make a tremendous difference in our society.

Monday, December 8, 2014

URSP Student Talha Agcayazi Researches Efficient Navigation, Control and Remote-sensing of a Quad-coper

In my first term as an Undergraduate Researcher, I worked under Dr. Gerald Cook to build an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) which was capable of finding and tracking color blobs from air using on-board computing capabilities. The high level goal of our project was to make a simple low cost vehicle which could be used by search and rescue teams. In the end of the semester I presented my initial results and the UAS system in the Volgenau School of Engineering Celebration of Research. Following the same goal, this semester I am working on a bigger project with a team of senior class engineers to make an UAS that could augment more aspects of a Search and Rescue mission by autonomously planning near-optimal paths across a search map, detecting humans in aerial perspective using on-board capabilities and delivering a rescue package. While in the first term as an Undergraduate Researcher I learned how to work individually, this semester I am learning how to be a Project Manager for a team of potential engineers.

This project has challenged me in many new ways and shown me that my passion is actually a combination of my research interests towards aerial robotics and my desire to make an impact in people’s lives. On a weekly basis I meet with my team three times. In the first meeting we lay down a list of challenges for the week. In the second meeting we meet with our advisor, Dr. Gerald Cook, to talk about our progress and in the third meeting we collect data outdoors using our quadcopter.  

We have been collecting pictures with our quadcopter to work on computer vision algorithms that would better detect humans in the images. A couple of weeks ago we noticed that we were getting blurring in the images due the camera stabilizer. As an attempt to solve the blurring problem, last Sunday, we decreased the shutter speed of the camera and took more pictures. We collected about 400 pictures and showed the results to our advisor. Our plan is to decrease the shutter speed even more to see the effects clearly.

URSP Student Sameen Yusef Improves Oxygen Concentrators for Neonatal Health in Low-resource Areas

Searching for facilities readily equipped with technologies to help a sick family member in Karachi, Pakistan piqued my curiosity in how biomedical engineering could influence healthcare development.  I decided to read more about bioengineering in global health, and eventually it led me to neonatal health issues. I realized I wanted to work on improving oxygen concentrators to decrease the mortality rate of children infected with pneumonia in South Asia with Dr. Nathalia Peixoto. This semester, I’m working on designing a low-cost oxygen analyzer using zinc-air batteries coupled with an Arduino. Zinc air batteries are batteries most commonly used for hearing aids, and Arduino is a microcontroller board. This is all a fancy way of saying I am working to make a device that measures oxygen concentration from a machine that filters air for oxygen.

On a weekly basis, I mostly work on programming an Arduino board and running tests for the zinc-air battery. For example, this week, I ran an experiment for the zinc-air battery and measuring the voltage changes depending on the oxygen concentration with the Arduino. Then, I programmed the Arduino to sample the voltage every second and output the value. My current work is focused on finalizing the relationship voltage and oxygen concentration as linear and writing a program accordingly, as well as making a basic circuit with comparators so that a specific LED lights up depending on the range of concentration.

Friday, December 5, 2014

URSP Student Chandra Sheppard Researches International Human Rights Violations Trials in Guatemala and Peru

“…In order to achieve justice, that’s why I’m here, where one can tell the whole truth.” This statement was made by Cirila Pulido, a survivor of the Accomarca Massacre, during the U.S. civil trial of Telmo Hurtado (2008).  During the 1980s, the Peruvian government attempted to eradicate a Maoist insurgency called Shining Path using violent tactics of eradication and abduction. Unfortunately many of the victims of the government and Shining Path’s war for power were large sections of indigenous civilians. In one specific instance, a small village called Accomarca was the scene for one of the largest instances of Peruvian state-sponsored violence. Over 69 men, women, children and the elderly were rounded up, beaten and placed into houses where soldiers under Hurtado’s command fired upon them and eventually destroyed the houses with grenades. When Hurtado fled to the U.S. to avoid prosecution for his crime in Peru, the Center for Justice and Accountability and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement completed an investigation that located and detained Hurtado and a few others accused of being involved in the same massacre. My research involves researching trail proceedings, researching news archives, interviewing those involved and learning about how the civil court system in the U.S. can be used as an avenue of justice for victims worldwide.

I became interested in this project when I first began studying civil violence in Central and South America in some of my George Mason classes, specifically those taught by my mentor Jo-Marie Burt. I believe this kind of research to be exceptionally important as victims of state sponsored violence may not be able to seek justice in their own countries, especially if the government responsible is still in power. Extra-territorial courts can help create an avenue for those victimized, and a court proceeding can give legitimacy and voice to the horrors that might otherwise be ignored or denied.  In the long term I would like to work for a non-profit organization, like the CJA, that works to provide justice for underrepresented and marginalized people, so this type of research has been incredible informative.  On a weekly basis, I do a lot of reading and comparing documents, since I work mostly with primary sources it takes many of them to paint a complete picture of what has happened and why. I also compare information, as most the research about the facts of the massacre comes from exhumed bodies, first-hand accounts and truth commission reports.  This week I learned that after the Peruvian military attempted to cover up the massacre by killing the survivors, they established an outpost in Accomarca, where they began to take the best grains and meat from the remaining villagers. Hopefully, these kinds of trials, and the increasing scope of international accountability can provide enough of a deterrent to prevent anything similar to the Accomarca Massacre from happening again.

URSP Student Nisha Sharma Co-Cultures Human Breast and Lung Cancer Cells

As an undergraduate student majoring in bioengineering at George Mason University, I have become deeply interested in cancer research through in-class exercises on drug absorption and excretion with anticancer drugs. I am interested in researching and working in the bioengineering field, specifically in cell-cell interaction and analysis. The research project I am currently conducting is with the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program in the lab of Dr. Nitin Agrawal. Dr. Agrawal’s research primarily focuses on biological signals in tumor cell migration and abnormal growth as well as tumor cell interaction and development. By working on a research project involved with co-culturing cell analysis, I have been able to obtain a hands-on learning experience on researching in this field to gain insight in cancer cell investigation. I can see this project being related to my long term goals because I hope to work with cancer research in the future.

On a weekly basis I will be passaging several ratios of co-culture of two cells: breast cancer cells (MDA-MB-4175) and human lung cancer cells (NCIH460). A co-culture of two cells is developed in in-vitro models to offer an in-vivo-like environment. Co-cultures are valuable for exhibiting and analyzing the interaction and signaling between various types of cell.6 Co-cultures can also be utilized to observe intercellular communication, cell movement, and stimulation and preservation of cell function and differentiation.6 In this research project I am studying and observing the interactions between breast cancer cells (MDA-MB-4175) and human lung cancer cells (NCIH460) to discover the effects of co-culturing two primary cancer cells.

One thing I discovered this week is that the growth rate of the human lung cancer cells (NCIH460) is faster than the growth rate of breast cancer cells (MDA-MB-4175) so this may create a bias in the results obtained in this experiment. If there was a future experiment on the co-culture of two different cell types, the growth rates should be similar to avoid a bias in the results.