Wednesday, November 30, 2016

URSP Student Anson Rutherford Studies Genetic Algorithms to Creatively Solve Problems

My project is focused on trying to use genetic algorithms to solve problems in creative ways. Genetic algorithms are used to solve a problem where we can judge the success of an individual “guess”, but don’t have any way of predicting what guesses will perform well before testing them. A typical genetic algorithm will make a number of random guesses and use the results of those guesses to better inform future guesses, often by making guesses similar to those that performed well. Given enough time, a genetic algorithm will find an optimal solution. My research hopes to adapt the many great things these algorithms have to offer to problems where we want to find more than a single optimal solution. Instead, I hope to construct an algorithm that can find a wide variety of acceptable solutions to a given problem. This is useful is situations where we’re more interested in learning about the question than in solving the problem.

Genetic algorithms are inspired in a lot of ways by biological evolution, which was one of the reasons I became interesting in genetic algorithms in the first place. A lot of my initial fascination came from experiments that simulated aspects of biological evolution, evolving either the physical structure or intelligence of an artificial organism over time. Finding an overlap between my interests in evolution and computer science was exhilarating, and I have been studying the subject ever since. I have always enjoyed learning for its own sake, and hope to meld these three interests into a career of research and discovery.

My project requires me to simultaneously plan and implement the algorithm. Obviously a lot of coding is involved, and so I’ve spent a lot of time programming basic functionality so that we can do build off of it. A lot of that involves implementing similar systems and testing their functionality. The other aspect of my project has been researching the many other genetic algorithms that exist, and using that information to form my own. Learning about the innovations of other researchers has been fascinating, and I hope that my research can help add to the wealth of useful information on the subject.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

URSP Student Jessica Rauchberg Investigates Neurological Disability and its Influences on How We Communicate our Performances of Gender and Sexuality

I always knew I was interested in research and really wanted to apply to OSCAR, but I was a bit unsure of where to start. As an active member of the university’s nationally ranked Forensics (competitive public speaking) Team, my junior year, I competed with an argumentative, performance based speech discussing the stigmatization of disabled performances of sexuality and intimacy, inspired by my own personal experiences. I linked together several different styles and pieces of literature to create my performance. During that time, I also took Feminist Research Methods with Dr. Angie Hattery in the Women and Gender Studies program. I told Dr. Hattery about my speech, and after a bit of discussion, she encouraged me to apply for an OSCAR grant to explore this topic through an autoethnographic project. Essentially, using threads of personal narratives, narrative analysis, and more traditional objective styles of academic writing, I am using this project as an investigation on how neurological disability (in my case, a non-verbal learning disability) influences how we communicate our performances of gender and sexuality.

I usually meet with my mentor, Dr. Rachel Lewis, at least once a week. I carve out at least an hour every day to write, edit, or continue my research. This semester, I’ve especially concentrated on learning how to write evocative narratives and manipulate more creative styles of academic writing to work with how I’m constructing my project. It has definitely been a challenge since all my knowledge on autoethnographic writing is self-taught, but I think the effort has been worth it thus far. I’m hoping to extend funding for this project to next semester, as my mentor and I are planning on doing a research symposium and staging an auto performance of the narratives. Additionally, I plan on submitting the written portion of the autoethnography for journal publication in graduate school. Post-graduation, I hope to continue autoethnographic, performance, and gender research. I would also love to eventually receive my doctorate and work in a university setting.  

Monday, November 28, 2016

URSP Student Ariel Kalotkin Studies the Effects of Transracial Direct Current Stimulation to the Prefrontal Cortex

I became interested in the Oscar fellowship by being a part of an ongoing research group, studying the effects of transracial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the prefrontal cortex on complex dual task performance. From this research, I had decided that research was going to be a huge part on my life and more specifically the research I was assisting in continued to intrigue me and motivated me to pursue further questions in this area of study. This is how I developed the research project I am conducting now, determining if there is a method to anticipate how individuals learn to perform a complex task by visualizing the activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Throughout the week, I schedule several participants to come into the research lab and have them play several blocks of a complex cognitive videogame Warship Commander. These participants have the functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) on them, which is recording their brain activation levels. We will be using the data collected from the fNIRS as well as several individual differences, such as, Working memory capacity, personality, problem solving and videogame playing history in order to assess each individual. I have already learned and discovered so much from being a part of this program, for instance, I have learned to conduct a data analysis. Being a part of the OSCAR fellow program is allowing me to pursue research opportunities in my field of study. It is allowing me to advance my knowledge in addition to also preparing me for further research that I may conduct in graduate school or even beyond that.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

URSP Student Alexis Jenkins Studies the Development of Japanese Hip-Hop Subculture

I studied abroad at Akita International University in Akita, Japan for the Fall 2015 semester. While there, I participated in the school’s hip-hop dance team. I was fascinated by all of the exposure I had to the Japanese hip-hop subculture, including a trip to perform in a dance showcase at a neighboring university. My experiences inspired me to explore the topic further. I wanted to learn about how and why the subculture developed and the effects it has had on the population and Japanese music industry. My research question is as follows: How can American cross-cultural influence on young adults in Japan be observed through the development of the Japanese hip-hop subculture?

For my project, I am planning to interview Japanese college students about their experiences with hip-hop. In order to be able to interview people, I had to complete an application for the Institutional Review Board. This process took a few weeks because, in addition to writing interview questions and the application in English, I had to translate a lot of the materials to Japanese. After submitting, I revised as necessary. Besides this process, I have been reading scholarly articles every week and meeting with my mentor bi-weekly.

One cool “discovery” I have made came from a scholarly article I read recently. The article discussed the theory of “hybridism” and how it applies to Japan. Basically, according to the author, Japan’s culture is such that it is able to take on aspects of other cultures and those aspects eventually become Japanese; Japanese culture is like a sponge. I found this really interesting and it supported some of my observations as a participant in Japan’s hip-hop culture.

This project relates to my long-term goals because I hope to return to Japan in the near future. I am actually submitting my application to the JET Program soon, which, if I am accepted, will provide me with the opportunity to live in Japan for at least one year as an assistant language teacher for school-aged children. The experience of speaking with Japanese students for my project and researching a specific aspect of Japanese culture will prepare me for living in Japan again and interacting with people.

Monday, November 21, 2016

URSP Student Alexis Garretson Explores Budgets of National and State Parks

This semester I am working on a project exploring the budgets of national and state parks in Virginia. Specifically, I am interested in identifying any differences in management priorities and budget totals between parks managed by the federal government and the state of Virginia. Last semester I was a student at the Smithsonian Mason School of Conservation, where I was able to learn more about natural spaces in Virginia and the policies that impact them, especially Shenandoah National Park. During my time in Front Royal, a large section of Shenandoah National Park caught fire. I started reading a lot about wildfire policies in the US and learned that in 2015 more than 60% of the US Forest Service budget went to fire suppression. This number seemed incredibly high, and led me to wonder how budget priorities differed across management authorities. My first step in this process was to request the comprehensive budgets from the natural parks in Virginia. While I wait for these budgets, I am reading smaller budget documents about priorities for the different management authorities in Virginia. I have also been reading a lot of literature about what the differences between state and federal practices are in other parts of the country, especially in the western United States. The most interesting thing I discovered this week is that some western states engage in something called ‘land banking.’ This is where states can sell off trust lands that have low recreational value to purchase lands more suitable to recreation. It’s an interesting way that states can prioritize recreational activity on public lands. I’ve also been preparing my datasets for when I receive the budgets. I am using a program called GIS to catalogue different geographical data about the parks, for example, how far the parks are from a water source or what physiographic region they are in. This will help me control for the different situations the parks are in. Long term, I am interested in the intersection of economics with conservation and natural resource policy. Specifically, how can we build better institutional structures to encourage conservation and natural recreation? I hope to continue exploring these questions in graduate school and in my future career. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

URSP Student Lynn Bonomo Studies the Relationship between Nosema Infection and Bumble Bee Food Choice

This semester, I research Nosema, a fungal gut pathogen, in bumble bee workers and the relationship between Nosema infection and bumble bee food choice. I became interested in my project last spring after taking a class with my current mentor, Dr. Forkner. I wanted to have experience with both field and lab research techniques and  joined an ongoing research project on bumble bee queens. After I started working, I decided to expand the research to examine worker bees and collaborated with my mentor to develop a project for URSP.  I am fascinated by the research because it is critical to preventing the current decline of bumble bees, which are essential crop pollinators.

My long-term goals are to go to graduate school in biology and to pursue jobs in the conservation field.  I would enjoy working as a researcher at either a non-profit, aquarium or zoo, or even in the federal government and being able to apply my research outcomes to make a difference. This research project helps me learn field and lab techniques I will need in the future, and provides me with experience in species conservation. All of these skills will make me able to conduct research on my own in the future.

Over last spring and the summer, I collected all the bumble bee workers I needed while helping to collect bumble bee queens. Since the semester has started, I have been processing my worker bees to make pollen slides to assess food diversity and to check the pollen and bees for Nosema.  More recently, I have been counting and analyzing the pollen diversity of the fuschin-stained pollen slides. After the data have been collected, I will analyze the data with regression tests and seeing if there is a correlation between pollen diversity and Nosema infection loads and will use ANOVA to look for species differences in infection rates and food choices.

I have discovered that research is a creative process overall. In undergraduate courses, the labs have usually already been practiced hundreds of times and the process and techniques have been perfected. Working on your own research requires you to be flexible and adaptive to changes that you need to make. You have to be willing to try something new or change techniques in order to get the data necessary for your research. Over the semester, my process and project has evolved and changed to what works best with the available equipment and what I can complete in a semester.