Friday, November 28, 2014

URSP Student Rebecca Brenneis Compares Satellite Precipitation Data with Locust Swarm Behavior in Saharan Africa

For my project I compared data from the TRMM Satellite mission with a series of updates produced by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations on the proliferation of swarms of desert locusts in Saharan Africa.  Desert locusts are often harmless insects but when rain permits they can form large swarms that can devastate agricultural production in the area.  If we can correlate satellite precipitation results with locust swarm behavior we could begin to create an early warning system that would help humans and these insects coexist less destructively. 

My interest in the project grew from a drive to help humans understand the natural world around them and coexist within it sustainably.  I am studying Earth Science and Environmental Engineering so that I can apply scientific and technological know-how to improving the health of our planet.  Pest control is a complex topic that sometimes pits human agricultural goals against the overall health of biodiversity.  Better predictability of overwhelming pest outbreaks could help us to prevent both the loss of agricultural production and the swath of pesticide use that follows a highly migrant swarm of a harmful pest.  The applications of an early warning system could do a lot to bring this human/insect interaction into a greater harmony.

Much of my daily work involves reading very large files of data and turning them into readable useable files that convey usable information to not expert individuals.  It is a very computer intensive process but if connections can be drawn then on the ground fieldwork will stem from it.  Remote sensing for environmental engineering has large-scale potential applications that are just now in their peak of development given the rise of satellite technology in our information age.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

URSP Student Matthew Bird Examines the MRIs of Subjects Genotypes for a Gene which Increases Alzheimers Disease

One day during a meeting with my mentor, I brought up the subject of possible internship opportunities.  Little did I know that my mentor had many ideas but not enough time to work on them all, and for that reason, was looking for students interested in the research.  I listened carefully as she explained each of the projects that she wanted to complete and one in particular piqued my interest.  This research would involve examining the MRIs of subjects genotyped for a gene which increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in its carriers, and try to determine how having this gene affects the white matter areas of the brain. All of which sounded very interesting to me, both because of my interest in the medical field and my fascination with the workings of the brain. 

After my graduation, I plan on attending medical school and my work on this research will likely help me to stand out from the other applicants because I was able do hands-on research in the medical field, something few undergraduates are given the opportunity to do.  Due to my experience I am now much more knowledgeable about the research process and what I should be able to expect from future career opportunities.  But most importantly, my time spent on this study has shown me that though the scientific research process can be wearisome and at times downright meticulous, the results are very rewarding.  This knowledge helped to confirm for me that I had made the correct career choice.

My weekly schedule varied widely depending on which step of the process I was currently on. 
In the early stages of my research, my weeks involved writing and running various codes that ran things from textural analysis of the MRIs, to extracting just the brain tissue from the MRI’s, to the overlapping process of the white matter tracts.  Once the coding was finished, there was about a week break where I had to wait for the program to finish analyzing the data.  More recently, I have been transferring the data to Excel spreadsheets in order to organize it for the final remaining step in the process which is the data analysis.  This will involve using t-distributions to search for the differences in the white matter areas between carriers and non-carriers of the gene.

Until last week I had been working completely unaware of which patients had the gene we were looking for and which didn’t.  When I received the spreadsheet with the information allowing me to separate them into two distinct groups, I discovered that the three of the subjects whose MRI’s  I had been working with had not been genotyped and thus did not provide valid data and needed to have their information deleted from the records I had compiled.  This really goes to show that you can’t predict what is going to happen; anything could come along and alter the experiment, and although this time the result was negative, that isn’t always the case.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

URSP Student Afsana Anwar Uses Remote Sensing Technology to Measure Precipitation over Oceans

This Fall of 2014 was my first year anniversary at Mason. Yes! It has been exactly one year that I’ve been a patriot. So, I’m still fairly new to what Mason has to offer. With that being said, the OSCAR program was a surprise to me. I got to learn about it only after my mentor had emailed me about this research opportunity. Upon learning about it, I paused and thought for a while. The prospect for research was in environmental or water related topic. I am a structural engineering major so water and environmental were not exactly in my comfort zone. But that’s when I thought that this would be a great opportunity for me to step outside my comfort zone and broaden my knowledge. I didn’t want my knowledge to be just limited to structures; I wanted to get exposure to other exciting fields and get some experience from it. So when my mentor told me about Remote Sensing and its applications, I got very intrigued. I had almost little or no knowledge about remote sensing technology and its applications but this research gave me the chance to explore its utilization in measuring precipitation over the Pacific. I was baffled when my mentor Dr. Maggioni had informed me that there hasn’t been much evaluation done on precipitation data retrieved by the satellites through R.S over oceans. I found it significantly important to evaluate the satellite precipitation data over oceans since it is critical in determining global precipitation estimates. Therefore, I set out to pursue this journey of evaluation. Although the results from this research may not be directly linked to structural engineering but the experience from this is priceless and will serve me good in any research in the future.
My weekly task is to finish doing statistical computations on the data I have collected. The evaluation is being done over satellite data versus buoy data over the Pacific and every week I am dealing with thousands of data for each method of data retrieval in fact I’ve made a new best friend during this project, Microsoft Excel. I wonder what I would’ve done without Excel! It makes life so much easier. But one thing I’ve been realizing since last week actually is the fact that as time draws closer, time management has become the greatest challenge. With all classes almost getting ready to end and finals lurking upon our heads, being able to continue with the research without any impact to other classes is getting really difficult. However, I’ve been trying to do the best I can to keep up with school and research.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

URSP Student Amy Handlan Builds a Panel Data Set from Annual Data and Running Fixed Effect Panel Regressions

Hello, my name is Amy Handlan. I am an economics major, math minor at George Mason University. This is my second semester with URSP researching the relationship between government type and financial instability. Last semester I found that there is a significant, negative quadratic relationship between Polity score, an index of government ranging from autocratic to democratic, and frequency of financial crisis, a measure of financial instability. I found this relationship in a cross-section of 70 countries from 1970 to 2006. However, cross-section regressions do not account for variations over time or for country time-invariant traits.

Accordingly, this semester I have been working on building a panel data set from the annual data and running fixed effect panel regressions. Once accounting for country characteristics and time, the coefficients became positive. This implies that there could be a positive relationship between changes in government and frequency of financial crises. While getting significant coefficients in my econometrics is exciting, my biggest challenge this semester has been working with the theories behind my empirical relationships.
Therefore, this semester I have been focusing on developing my review of related literature and looking for possible channels of causation. This week I have started reading

Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber’s Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit. The focus of their book is that banking systems are infused with politics because “the property-rights system underpinning banking systems is an outcome of political deal making” (13). Accordingly, when political structures are different or change, there will be an effect on the banking system and thus financial markets. This book is helping me build a foundation for developing the theoretical channel through which different government types could create different frequencies of financial crises.

Monday, November 24, 2014

URSP Student Jared Keller Researches Drones as an Alternative Bridge Inspection Method

As a freshman at Mason I took University 100 as a requirement for being in a Living Learning Community.  The class was designed to provide freshman with information regarding resources and programs that George Mason has to offer.  One of the classes was dedicated to a presentation about OSCAR and Undergraduate Research.  After meeting with my academic advisor, Dr. Durant, she introduced me to Dr. Lattanzi and he offered me the opportunity to work with him on a drone research project.  I accepted and in the Fall of 2014, research on “Drones: An Alternative Bridge Inspection Method” began.

As a Civil Engineering major, it is very exciting to have the opportunity to research and develop this state of the art technology.  With the guidance of such a distinguished and qualified faculty member like Dr. Lattanzi, I am confident that this research will enhance and enrich my education as well as be a valuable learning experience for my future engineering career.  This experience has and continues to fuel my passion for research and development and invention.  Although I am still uncertain as to what my future career holds, I am certain that this opportunity will provide me with the groundwork to achieve a lifetime goal of becoming a Professional Engineer and utilizing my skills to advance the positive impact the engineering profession has on society.   

Each week I continue to improve upon my drone flying skills and work to recreate 3D models of a pedestrian footbridge on campus by means of MeshLab, 123D Catch, etc.  Along with 3D modeling I continue to read journal articles and meet with Dr. Lattanzi weekly to gain feedback and add to my knowledge of this field of study.

URSP Student Anna Zhang Researches Inflammatory Cytokine Profiling in Morbidly Obese Patients

I first became involved during the fall semester of my sophomore year. That semester, I composed a literature review on quercetin (a common phytochemical) and its molecular mechanisms by which it mediates the inflammatory response. This is relevant to many chronic health conditions that are linked to an elevated systematic inflammation, such as obesity and atherosclerosis. This semester, I will be working experimentally, on inflammatory-cytokine profiling, utilizing the Bio-rad 27 Plex Assay, of adipose tissue and serum of obese patients to determine levels of inflammation in morbidly obese patients. The data resulting from these experiments would ultimately shed more light on the specific cytokines involved in obesity-induced inflammation, and would also help to perfect current techniques to detect local production of specific cytokines found in adipose.

As of now, my main focus is still on training under a senior PhD student, and assisting him on his project, which is closely related to my own with regards to laboratory techniques (qPCR, gel-electrophoresis, Bio-Plex Assay). This week, I have been assisting with four primer pair verification utilizing qPCR and gel-electrophoresis. My central responsibility (for now) is primer design for the CSF2 (colony stimulating factor-2) and CSF3 gene. The proteins encoded by these genes control the life-cycle of granulocytes and macrophages. It is believed that the overexpression of these genes is positively correlated with the low chronic inflammation found in visceral adipose tissue of obese patients. Since many genes have more than one transcript variants, the process of primer design includes reference to peer-reviewed literature to determine the most common transcript variants of each gene present in adipose tissue.

The most important discovery I have made this week is to be patient. A month ago, I would have never guessed that I would still be under training now. I am hopeful that just a little later, I will start handling my very own tissue samples, samples that will have my name on it. Overall, it has been a wonderful and a tremendously humbling experience working with scientists and students who have more experience than I.

Friday, November 21, 2014

URSP Student Ushna Ahmad Studies the Relationship of Staghorn Coral Found in the Tropical Western Atlantic

My research project this semester focuses on the relationship of staghorn coral found in the tropical Western Atlantic, and one of it’s primary predators, the bearded fireworm. More specifically, we are using histological techniques to determine if the fireworm are contributing to coral tissue degradation following feeding activity and serve as potential vectors in spreading the suspect pathogen around the coral. Such diseases cause living tissue to slough off the coral, exposing the stark-white skeleton underneath and having a negative effect on the entire reef. This result can have an impact on the surrounding environment and organisms that depend on the reefs as well.

As a biology major, I am not only interested in exploring which factors are linked to specific diseases, but how these diseases can affect the entire ecology of an environment. Therefore, I feel it is important to understand the various aspects, whether they are genetic, pathogenic, anthropogenic, or completely natural, that may be causing the shifts in a specific environment.  Taking part in this study provided me with a unique opportunity to combine both these aspects from microbiology and ecology into my research, and also make useful contributions to the world of histology and marine biology.

A typical week of research for me consists of attending a graduate level course Monday mornings taught by mentor in which I learn more about the anatomy of various coral, different diseases, and both biotic and abiotic factors that effect coral. Additionally, I spend time identifying which histoslides I need to study for my research, staining and labeling the selected slides, and reading them under a light microscope to recognize suspect bacteria or anything else that may be unusual and reveal something about the coral-fireworm relationship. It is important that I also stay organized, keep track of all my slides, and maintain a spreadsheet to record all my data and observations in order to make a proper analysis.

This research project has been an incredibly exciting opportunity for me. Just this week, I discovered something new on the histoslides with my mentor, which could completely change our theory of how the disease spreads on the coral reefs!