Recipients selected for inaugural Undergraduate Research Excellence Award at Virginia Tech

By Rachel Kinzer Corell

virginia techWhile this spring’s Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference may have been “only” virtual, the impact it has had on students is quite real. With the shift mid-semester to all remote work, the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) worked hard to create a virtual conference in celebration of the creative and scholarly accomplishments of undergraduate students.

“This experience as an undergraduate researcher has really opened my eyes to how passionate I am about science. I could not have asked for a better experience to lay the groundwork for the rest of my career,” said Rowan Wooldridge about presenting at the conference.

The day-long celebration was aimed at offering undergraduates the opportunity to gain experience communicating their research or creative scholarship while engaging faculty and other students.

Wooldridge, a senior from Falls Church, Virginia, is set to graduate in fall 2020 with a degree in biochemistry and a minor in philosophy. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in biochemistry at Virginia Tech with his eye on a career in biotechnology.

The most recent item he can add to his resume? He is one of three recipients of the first-ever Undergraduate Research Excellence Award, presented after this year’s conference.

Finalists for the award were identified based on their completion of the Undergraduate Research Excellence Program (UREP), and recipients were selected based on their ability to communicate their research effectively to a broad audience as well as their creative use of visuals and technology to enhance their message.

Alexis Jackson, another award winner, acknowledged that her confidence in her ability to communicate her research resulted from experiences with two different labs, whose leadership mentored her along the way.

“For me, the path to undergraduate research was not straight, clean, or easy,” said Jackson, a senior biological sciences major from Richmond, Virginia. “Because of a career and interest change in the beginning of my junior year, I found myself lost in a slew of different career paths with no guidance. With the help of the research program and their events, I was able to network with a lab and received my first undergraduate research experience.”

Jackson said this experience helped her find her new path based on her interests. She also said doing undergraduate research at Virginia Tech led her to some unforgettable teaching and learning experiences that developed her leadership skills, as well as her public speaking and critical thinking skills.

“Not only am I a better scientist, but I am a better person through this program. I also have had the opportunity to travel and network with some of the finest scientists in my field because of my undergraduate research. I am especially grateful for the mentorship and guidance of the Hotchkiss Lab and the Mims Lab at Virginia Tech. They have completely changed my view of what the future of academia and research should look like,” she said.

Like Jackson, fellow award winner Amber Reaney hopes to use her experiences from undergraduate research in her future endeavors, applying the valuable leadership lessons she has learned through graduate school and in her future career. Reaney is a senior biological sciences major with a concentration in ecology, evolution and behavior from Woodbridge, Virginia.

Reaney candidly recognized that doing undergraduate research can present challenges to overcome, having faced some of her own.

“Do I have a 4.0? No. Have I been told that I could never get a meaningful research position because of my low GPA? Yes. Have I been told that I shouldn’t pursue graduate school because they would automatically reject me because of my low GPA? Yes. And yet, thanks to nearly three years of undergraduate research experience across three different labs, I’ve been accepted into the University of Florida’s plant pathology master’s program, which is one of the top five plant pathology programs in the United States. My GPA has even gone up in the process, and I’ll graduate with a 3.0,” said Reaney.

“I really want to say [to other students thinking about doing research], don’t let your GPA stop you from pursuing research opportunities. You are not a number; you are a scientist,” said Reaney.

About the award winners

Alexis Jackson presented a research project titled “Sinks and sources: the dynamic contributions of riparian wetlands to catchment carbon budgets.” In considering the role of wetlands in carbon emissions, Jackson’s research helps provide insight into how much carbon is emitted from riparian wetlands and how changing inundation controls carbon fluxes. Her faculty mentor was Erin Hotchkiss of the biological sciences department.

VIDEO: youtu.be/0GBfu-drgz0

Amber Reaney presented research on “the efficacy of oyster mushroom (pleurotus ostreatus) hydroponics in reducing fecal coliforms in stagnant synthetic wastewater.” Looking at how modern subsistence and commercial agriculturalists have begun to utilize hydroponic systems as sources of sustainable substrate recycling, her research confronts the issue of bacterial contamination from fecal material. Results from this study can inform agriculturalists using these systems with regards to their choice of treatment mode. Her faculty mentor was Monica Ponder from the Department of Food Science and Technology.

VIDEO: youtu.be/w3kB1dn7_8I

Rowan Wooldridge presented a research project called “in vitro characterization of methyl accepting chemotaxis proteins McpW and McpZ.” He sought to identify the specific molecules that bind to two uncharacterized receptors, McpW and McpZ, to ultimately gain insight into how these molecules cause sinirhizombium meliloti to move toward their symbiont. His research findings highlight how a better understanding of this process could lead to a reduction in chemical fertilizer use. Wooldridge did his research under the mentorship of Hiba Baaziz from the biological sciences department.

VIDEO: youtu.be/N6rqhSUn4PE

Four other students also received a special mention and runner-up status, including Amber Abbott, Djamila Lou, Jonathon Monroe, and Ainsley Patrick.

  • Amber Abbott, a microbiology major, presented “Neurotrophic factor signaling pathways regulating herpes simplex virus latency and reactivation.”
  • Djamila Lou, majoring in Russian, presented on “temperature dependence of confined protein hydration and dynamics.”
  • Jonathon Monroe, a biological sciences major, presented “Stream Intermittency Alters Microbial Metabolism and Functional Diversity.”
  • Ainsley Patrick, majoring in psychology, presented “The Relation Between Emotion Regulation and Rule-Breaking Behavior in Youth with ADHD.”

About the conference

Featuring the work of students from all disciplines and areas of research, the projects presented during the conference reflect both the quality and diversity of undergraduate research at Virginia Tech. Represented areas from across the university include agriculture and life sciences; biochemistry; biological sciences; liberal arts and human sciences; natural resources and environment; neuroscience; physical sciences and mathematics; and psychology.

To present their work, student researchers created short videos of five minutes or less and posted them to the Canvas site prior to the conference day. Students then “attended” the conference virtually to engage with their fellow presenters as well as audience members.

“We are so excited to be able to recognize and celebrate these amazing students this year, who invest so many hours and true passion into their research projects. In many ways, the conference is a culmination of their efforts and an opportunity to showcase the results of their efforts in creative and engaging ways,” said Keri Swaby, director of Undergraduate Research.

Reflecting on the success of the virtual conference, Swaby noted that just after the conference closed there were more than 300 active participants on the site (including 114 presenters). Every presentation received at least two questions or comments, accounting for approximately 670 posts.

“I have been truly impressed with the resilience of our students who were able to rework their presentations in quite a short timeframe to adapt to the virtual environment,” said Swaby.

About the award

The Undergraduate Research Excellence Award is funded through an Association of College and Research Libraries grant received this year by OUR, in partnership with Amanda MacDonald and Anne Brown of University Libraries. It recognizes students who engage in undergraduate research in a holistic way throughout their academic career.

Students who complete the Undergraduate Research Excellence Program (UREP) were eligible for the award and were selected based on their performance at the conference. Launched in Spring 2018 as a joint project of the OUR and University Libraries, UREP is a novel way for any undergraduate student in any major to connect with undergraduate research resources and support and to receive much deserved recognition for engagement in undergraduate research.

In order to complete the program, students must engage in undergraduate research in a holistic way, fulfilling requirements for relevant training, such as the co-curricular Advanced Research Skills Program offered by University Libraries, engagement in research, dissemination of results, and reflecting on their experience. Students can join the program at any time in their academic career and can work toward earning a specially designed graduation cord.


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