Thursday, December 21, 2017

URSP Student Victor Huynh Researches the Development of a Zebrafish Larva Heartbeat Tracking Program for Ventrally Positioned Larvae

Hello, my name is Victor Huynh. I am a junior majoring in Bioengineering with a concentration in Biomedical Signals and Systems. Zebrafish have emerged over the past two decades as a powerful vertebrae model in many areas of research such as in genetics and epilepsy. However, the cardiac function of larvae exposed to different stress conditions is under-documented. Several robust automatic heartbeat detection methods have been developed, but they require high-cost camera and microscope setups and necessitate direct observation of the larva’s heart. My project is to help develop and test an accessible automatic heartbeat detection program for ventrally-positioned zebrafish larvae, for which the heart is entirely obscured. The biggest challenge is developing the program so that it does not require direct observation of the larva heart.

The semester before starting this project, I had took a tour of the GMU Neural Engineering Lab. This tour left me fascinated by the complexity of the experiments being conducted. After talking with the lab’s principal investigator and my current mentor, Dr. Nathalia Peixoto, I believed that this project would be an excellent way to expose myself to the challenges and processes of Bioengineering research. In the long-term, this project will help me determine whether a future career in research is right for me. After this semester, I plan to expand upon this project to focus more on using the developed program to study possible correlations between seizure events and changes in cardiac function in larvae induced with seizures.

My typical week of research consists of coming to the GMU Biomechanics lab and analyzing videos of epileptic zebrafish larvae for body deformations corresponding to heartbeat. Further along in the project, I would test and apply the program to estimate larva heart rate and determine beat-to-beat intervals. One important lesson that I have learned from this project is to communicate often with and be considerate of those that you work with in order to avoid misunderstandings and to obtain the advice and assistance needed to overcome tough obstacles and setbacks.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

URSP Student Kale Holtom Works on the Creation of the Chemical Conjugate of FK506

My project this semester was to work on the creation of the chemical conjugate of FK506. FK506 is a compound used in medicines that has immunosuppressant properties as well as anti-inflammatory properties. The medicines that this compound is used in are usually given to organ transplant recipients. The main goal of this project was to attach a BODIPY compound to the immunosuppressant site on the FK506 to eliminate the immunosuppressant properties. This new compound would go through animal studies and eventually clinical trials. In the end, it should hopefully be able to be used for a multitude of diseases and issues.

This project is very important to me because it has to potential to assist others in the future. One of the greatest hopes that I have in life is to help others, so being able to work on this project encourages this desire. Working with Dr. Young-Ok You as a research assistant in the 2016-2017 school year, I was able to learn about her project that she is working on and about the lab as a whole. This led Dr. You to asking me if I would want to possibly come up with a project to work on for myself. I agreed, and I applied to OSCAR.

I want to work in biochemistry and in a laboratory setting when I graduate, so this was amazing experience for me. The experience of working on my own project was also valuable as it stimulated me to think outside of the box and to take responsibility for a timeline.

On a weekly basis, I will go to the lab and run a reaction. This reaction takes around two hours, so in that time I will assist others who are working in the lab. Then, I will purify the reaction product and run it through a few tests to confirm its identity. This data is then used for my project.

This term, I discovered the most efficient way of creating a new compound and then purifying it. This could help many in the future. I also learned how to work with lab equipment and how to collaborate well with others in a laboratory setting. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

URSP Student Rohma Hassan Analyzes Data Taken from Barnegat Bay in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey

When I took Ecology and Evolution last semester, my lab TA gave a mini lecture about how an understanding of Ecology can be applied when studying human health and medicine. I wanted to explore this idea further, and discovered Conservation Medicine, a field that focuses on understanding how human interaction with the environment can harm both animals and humans. One such example is how cultural eutrophication, which is when a body of water accumulates excess nutrients due to water pollution, can cause large volumes of phytoplankton to accumulate, and some are capable of producing neurotoxins. If a fish eats the neurotoxin producing phytoplankton, it becomes a carrier, and if a human eats the fish, it can be lethal.

During this past semester, I’ve been analyzing data taken by my mentor Dr. Ren from Barnegat Bay in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, which consists of information regarding the phytoplankton species composition and water quality of different water samples. These analyses demonstrate the distribution of different phytoplankton species and how they relate to environmental factors that are derived from the water quality data. Some of these environmental factors include the water’s salinity, temperature, nitrogen content, and phosphorous content. Some of them are naturally occurring factors while others are triggered by human interaction and water pollution, and I’m working towards accessing how substantial human impact is on this estuary. Through this project, I’ve discovered several new methods of data analysis, as well as new software that is dedicated to analyzing ecological data. I’ve also learned how to properly compile data so that the program can effectively analyze the water sample and produce understandable results – a process that I never realized was so important.

I have an interest in community health, and understanding how conserving and preserving the environment can help in improving the health of a community as a whole excites me. I’m hoping to become a pediatrician, and I’m interested in finding ways to improve the health of future generations that are often overlooked, and are not practiced within the walls of a hospital or doctor’s office. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

URSP Student Zuri Gagnon Monitors the Behavior of Red Pandas Before Birth

My name is Zuri Gagnon and I am a senior studying Biology with a concentration in Environmental and Conservation Biology. This semester, I have been working with my mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Freeman, to monitor the behavior of red pandas before birth. Red pandas are listed as endangered because their population is decreasing due to habitat loss. Although protecting them in their native habitat is the top priority, zoological institutions breed red pandas in captivity as a safeguard for the species and with the hope for reintroduction into the wild. Breeding red pandas in captivity comes with problems such as variable gestation lengths or pseudopregnancy. This project uses behavioral data to compare the behavior of pregnant and non-pregnant red pandas to help predict the time of birth.

My dream of saving animals and becoming involved the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) is what primarily got me interested in this project. After spending Fall 2016 at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation and completing an internship at SCBI, I knew I wanted to continue research with endangered species. I was encouraged to reach out to Dr. Elizabeth Freeman because she has done research with the red pandas at SCBI. She became my mentor and has been so helpful throughout this project.

I had never studied animal behavior before, so this was a completely new experience for me. On a weekly basis, I spend time coding red panda videos using an iOS application, Animal Behaviour Pro. I use an established ethogram, or list of the different behaviors observed in an animal, to record behaviors and their durations. It’s been great learning about animal behavior and I hope to continue this research in the future.

Friday, December 15, 2017

URSP Student Tirik Ford Creates a StoryMap of GMU’s Fairfax Campus

My name is Tirik Ford and I am a senior Geography major conducting research in the fields of climate change, hydrology, and cartography. This is my third semester with OSCAR and for the previous two semesters I conducted research, as a research assistant, under Celso Ferreira in the George Mason Flood Hazards Research Lab (FHRL). My research has always centered around climate change and sea level rise; and this semester I brought this critical research analysis closer to home at GMU’s Fairfax Campus.

As a Geography major I always strive to present data visually through maps or different types of infographics. Once I discovered the ESRI “StoryMap” platform, I realized that this kind of interdisciplinary analysis has not been performed on our Fairfax Campus. Watershed analysis has been performed on our campus, but a Watershed map with live action videos, pictures, and groundtruth had never been performed. This sparked my interest and subsequently led to me creating a Story map for the entire campus community.

A StoryMap is a GIS (Geographic Information Science) software that brings mapping and multimedia under one program. Throughout my research I conducted geographic surveys, while also taking photos and videos of the surrounding areas I was gathering data. This allows for a more realization for the people viewing my research.

While taking surveys and videos of the GMU watershed, I realized that the research I’m conducting could be used for many platforms including research, news, and other public awareness projects. This led me to believe that creating this StoryMap will better inform the surrounding public of our watershed and other hydrological influences that our campus houses. With my longterm goal being mitigating the effects of climate change, an informed public is key to achieving this goal!


Thursday, December 14, 2017

URSP Student Perry Demsko Researches Researches Protein Interactions in Human Lung Cancers

My project was intended to gain a more thorough understanding of protein interactions in human lung cancers, with specific focus on differential interactions within tumors exhibiting certain gene mutations. Any elucidated novel interactions between mutant and wild-type forms of a gene could potentially be a route to treatment via a new class of anti-cancer drugs, giving hope to patients with tumors that are currently considered directly undruggable. 

I became interested in this project after my grandmother was diagnosed with cervical cancer. I felt I had a moral obligation to put my knowledge of molecular biology to use to help alleviate human suffering. After attending a talk on cancer biology presented by my future mentor, Dr. Mariaelena Pierobon, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to this project. This project fits into my future goals by preparing me for the rigors of graduate school, where I hope to obtain a PhD. Longer term, I aspire to start my own company and leverage the translational research techniques I have learned to improve the human condition.

On a weekly basis, I maintain cancer cell lines in culture, conduct experiments, refine techniques with iterative improvements, and read literature related to cancer biology to improve my understanding of the biological systems I am observing. During my project this semester I learned the importance of cooperation, collaboration and integrity in conducting research.                   

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

URSP Student Mandy Burton Explores Race, Ethnicity, and Breast Cancer Diagnoses among Hispanic Women

I am a graduating senior majoring in Sociology and minoring Public Health. This project represents the intersection between these two fields of study. I believe that examining the social determinants of health is crucial in addressing the health needs of minority and other at-risk populations. I became interested in this project after hearing about an immigrant couple’s experience at a recent health fair. They were worried about participating because they thought it would increase their risk of deportation. I began to wonder how citizenship status affects the health decisions of immigrants living in the U.S., and particularly in the tri-state area. The purpose of my study was to examine more closely the experiences Hispanic women have accessing the health community as it relates to breast cancer awareness, diagnosis, and treatment. Hispanic women are typically diagnosed with later stages of cancer when compared to Non-Hispanic Whites. I held interviews with ten Hispanic women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. to collect detailed interview data regarding their experiences. I wanted to find out what their access point into the health community was and what barriers they experienced along the way.

I will be applying for the Masters of Public Health here at GMU in the spring where I hope to continue my study of the social determinants of health through other lenses. I believe that this qualitative research has prepared me to be a better student and future health community educator. One thing I have learned through this process is that the qualitative research process constantly evolves as you finalize your methodological design and collect and code the data. My project looked very different at the beginning of the semester and I learned so much about the process of research along the way.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

URSP Student Zachary Baker Conducts An Investigation of Learning in Networks of Spinal Cord Neurons

My project is titled An Investigation of Learning in Networks of Spinal Cord Neurons. My inspiration for this project came from the beginnings of my involvement with the Neural Engineering (NE) Lab at GMU. When I was first involved with the NE Lab, I observed other students culturing neurons from the prefrontal cortex of embryonic mice, to characterize networks from the brain. When I had enough exposure in the lab, I asked the Principle Investigator (Dr. Nathalia Peixoto) if I could use the bodies of the pups to attempt at procuring networks of spinal cord neurons. It was my goal to get experience working in a wet lab environment, and also to increase the utility of the sacrificed animals (in this procedure, the entire body of the mouse pups is usually discarded).  After getting approval, I successfully procured the networks, which inspired me to focus my research on spinal cord neurons. The lab had already demonstrated learning in networks of neurons from the prefrontal cortex, it made sense for me to try to reproduce these same results with a different type of neuron from the central nervous system.

During this project, the responsibilities of myself as well as my team varied widely depending on the project’s progression. Initially, preparations had to be made for the procedure of obtaining neurons from neonatal mice. After the cultures were obtained, they needed to be ‘fed’ with growth media exchanges three times a week. After approximately three weeks, the cultures then needed to be tested for electric activity. Upon discovery of an electrically-active network, the network needed to be stimulated to measure its response (this was how learning was observed and measured). Finally, after enough networks were stimulated, the data needed to be processed in multiple ways to adequately quantify the responses. These responsibilities ensured that no two weeks were the same.

This project is the culmination of my undergraduate research experience, and it showcases my ability to lead a team to accomplish a project. The project is expected to be finished with the completion of data processing in the spring of 2018.

Friday, November 17, 2017

URSP Student Connor Stapp Creates a Biomechanical Model of the Pelvic Floor

The project that I’m working is to create a biomechanical model of the pelvic floor in order to better predict the forces placed on these muscles during pregnancy and how they are related in the development of pelvic floor disorders. I chose this project because there is a need for a tool that can be used for predictions on whether a pregnant woman is at risk for developing pelvic floor disorder due to giving vaginal birth. Through creating a model that could help predict a woman’s risk, it could help determine that the risk is low for developing pelvic floor disorders and a doctor could recommend giving vaginal birth or it could determine that the risk is high and the doctor could recommend a C-section.

Long term it’s my intention to move from the field of bioengineering into the field of rehabilitation. In order to properly rehabilitate an individual, it’s necessary to understand how current models were created and what their limitations are. By working on this project, it’s giving me a firsthand experience on not only what it’s like creating a new model from scratch but also be able to determine the limitations that the model has. By understanding the limitations of current models and through conducting research, it’s possible to improve these models in order to better represent the system that’s being modeled.

On a weekly basis, I read literature that’s been published in order to determine how current models are able to simulate the birthing process as well as to obtain a greater depth of information on how these specific muscles are able to perform their intended function. While working on this project this semester, I found that it’s massively important to continuously keep in contact with my mentors and the doctors that we’re working with in order to make sure that the model is staying as accurate as possible to the biological system.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

URSP Student Waleska Solorzano Analyzes Photography through Philosophical Language

The analysis of the temporal dimension of photographs in “Photography as Time Travel” leads to my claim that photography is an uncanny version of time travel. I am analyzing photography through philosophical language. This project examines the ability of a photograph to stop time and motion while still appearing differently through time. I study the notion that photographs tell a story that can bridge the past, present, and future through the observation of the radical contingency of the photograph.

The aim of my project is not to measure the photograph to a past moment, but to what it is now disclosing. A photograph is a double of the person and/or place that is pictured and brought to the present. However, it is not the person or place it was in the past. This doubling effect is perceived and analyzed through photographs I have taken, which are the core of my project. My own photographic work will support the essays I am writing. Each essay will have its accompanying photograph or series of photographs. The essays and photographs will be compiled into a photography book. In my work I am referencing the writings of Roland Barthes, Plato, Martin Heidegger, and Sigmund Freud.

“Photography as Time Travel” was inspired from a combined passion of philosophy and photography. It all started with two questions: “what is time?” and “can photography serve as time travel?” I have been working on this project for over a year with Dr. Rachel Jones and Dr. Kurt Brandhorst from the Philosophy Department as my mentors. Their support and work on this project has kept it successfully evolving. All of the photographs for the project are ready for the book and I am now working on my final essay.

I have learned the importance of discipline and organization while engaging in this project. On a weekly basis I meet with my mentors to discuss and review drafts of my writing. Editing is a huge part of the process. I am also creating zines to be able to familiarize myself with my photographs on paper and how they work with the text. I am doing this to be able to create a creative book. Working on a project from its genesis is pertinent to me because my long term goal is to pursue a doctorate degree in philosophy. I am very interested in the field of aesthetics and visual culture for my future studies.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

URSP Student Osaze Shears Researches Circuit Camouflaging and Obfuscation

My name is Osaze Shears and I am a senior Computer Engineering major conducting research in the field of computer hardware security, with a focus on circuit camouflaging and obfuscation. This is my second semester conducting undergraduate research within the Undergraduate Research Scholar’s Program (URSP). This hardware security project has allowed me to build upon my knowledge of computer engineering by introducing me to the concept of integrated circuit (IC) counterfeiting, as well as techniques to prevent this practice. IC counterfeiting is a global issue that has the potential to affect the safety of consumers who utilize these devices. The attackers involved in this practice can alter the functioning of ICs by inserting hardware Trojans, or copy the logic design to generate similar devices for illegal distribution.

The research that I am conducting under the guidance of Dr. Houman Homayoun analyzes how these attackers gain access to IC information through the use of Boolean equation solving programs, or SAT solvers. SAT solvers can be used to realize the identity of individual circuit components that have been disguised within the hardware. Our research studies one approach for determining these component identities in order to guide the development more efficient circuit camouflaging and obfuscation practices. The SAT solver algorithm is being developed in Python and tested with designs from the ISPD98 Circuit Benchmark Suite. By conducting this research, I have learned a great amount about the IC design flow and the trust established between leading IC development companies and the manufacturers who bring these designs to life.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

URSP Student Allison O'Neill Examines the Characterization of Humic Acids by High Performance Liquid Chromatography

As a freshman I applied to be a lab assistant for a graduate researcher working in Dr. Foster’s lab. However, I quickly became intrigued with the research team’s studies of humic substances. After many conversations with Dr. Foster I was able to write a proposal to OSCAR, focusing on the extraction of humic acids from local surface waters in order to subject them to further characterization. I was able to develop, refine, and build upon this extraction process throughout my sophomore year and subject my samples to fluorescence spectrophotometry. However, I was still unable to further concentrate my samples to be purely humics and was interested in quantifying their weight via mass spectrometry. This led me to apply to OSCAR again, focusing on concentration methods and molecular weight.

My typical week consists of going into the lab at the Potomac Science center. I filter the samples, run them through my extraction column, and elute them out. From there we have developed a method to desalt the eluted samples and then the water has to be evaporated off. Another method we have developed uses toluidine blue, a dyeing agent, that will bind to the humics, so that we can run the samples through a Spec 20 and determine the parts per million of humics in the sample of water collected. Lastly, we have yet another method still in the works that uses a high performance liquid chromatography column. This method will allow us to gain more insight to the size of the compounds.

Being able to perform this research has been such an incredible opportunity! I have presented my research at numerous conferences. The methods that I am using are a real life application of what I have learned in my classes, but in most cases, the methods that I am using have gone past what I have learned in my courses. I feel more prepared for a career in this field, since I have had so much experience working in a lab.