The Dean’s Prize for Excellence in Research Award for life science, physical science, and engineering students is awarded for outstanding livestreamed presentations of faculty-mentored research at the Undergraduate Research & Creativity Showcase that took place from May 20th – May 24th, 2024.  Congratulations to 3 of our very own Bioengineering students: Farid Manshaii, Priscilla Yang, and Kathryn Saxton!

Farid Manshaii

Research Title: Effect of Gradual Nicotine Concentration Reduction on Vaping: Influence of Flavoring

Research Abstract: This is a pilot/feasibility study of how the reduction of nicotine concentration and inclusion of flavoring affect nicotine intake via vaping. The primary goal is to establish the study’s feasibility and to determine the effect size necessary for estimating the sample size for a comprehensive, fully powered study. Successful results could inform new vaping cessation programs and influence public health policies and clinical practices.

Name of Faculty Mentor: Dr. Edythe D. London

Q&A 1: What was your experience like participating in URW?

Participating in Undergraduate Research Week was an invaluable opportunity to present my capstone project, which integrates my bioengineering, neuroscience, and psychology majors. This showcase provided a platform to demonstrate the interdisciplinary approach and innovative methodologies employed in my research. Furthermore, URW facilitated connections with like-minded individuals who offered insightful feedback, enhancing the project’s development. It also allowed me to refine strategies for participant recruitment, particularly targeting college students, which will be crucial once the study secures funding. This experience has been instrumental in advancing both my academic and research pursuits.

Q&A 2: How did you prepare for your URW presentation?

 I prepared for my presentation by reviewing presentations from previous years and incorporating feedback from my faculty mentor. An essential takeaway from this experience was the importance of using the presentation as a tool to enhance verbal communication, rather than relying solely on the slides. This approach, which I learned from Dr. Romero of the neuroscience department, helped me focus on delivering a compelling narrative while using visual aids to support and clarify key points. This preparation strategy was instrumental in effectively conveying the complexities of my research to a diverse audience.

Q&A 3: What is your advice to undergraduate students who would like to participate in URW in the future?

I highly recommend all undergraduate students to participate in Undergraduate Research Week. It provides an excellent platform to showcase your work and learn about the research conducted by your peers. Additionally, I suggest applying to attend LABEST, held during Undergraduate Research Week. This event demonstrates how research can translate into real-world startup projects. The most fundamental advice I can give is to recognize the importance of both basic and applied research. They are two halves of a whole, and the translation of scientific findings into practical solutions is crucial in any field. 

Priscilla Yang

Research Title: Making Waves: Evaluating Biogas Scrubbing Capabilities of Microalgae for Energy-Positive Wastewater Treatment Technology

Research Abstract: Conventional methods for wastewater treatment are often energy and time intensive, creating a need for more sustainable wastewater treatment solutions. Building upon a pioneering wastewater treatment from the Mahendra and Hoek labs that utilizes bacterial and algal relationships, the system’s final step involves dead microbial biomass undergoes anaerobic digestion to form a biogas mixture of methane, carbon dioxide, and trace gasses. In order for biogas to be a useful form of bioenergy, it is essential to purify the methane. The latter is accomplished through biogas scrubbing due to the metabolic interactions that microbes have that lead to the removal of carbon dioxide. This study aims to evaluate and compare biogas scrubbing and wastewater treatment efficiency between an algal system and a combined algal-bacterial wastewater treatment system. Gas quantification using Gas Chromatography Flame Ionization Detector/Thermal Conductivity Detector (GS-FID/TCD) will be collected from (i) the contaminated biogas collected immediately after anaerobic digestion, and (ii) purified biogas collected after scrubbing, for both systems. Results from this experiment will motivate the design of an efficient, energy-positive wastewater treatment system, with wide-reaching implications for sustainable resource recovery.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Shaily Mahendra

Q&A 1: What was your experience like participating in URW?

This was my second year participating in URW, and I was one of the showcase presenters. Being in the ‘Engineering’ category, I had the opportunity to hear from my peers across a variety of fields, from chemical to electrical to mechanical engineering. Though not my areas of expertise, I enjoyed asking questions and having discussions with the researchers about their projects. During my presentation, I explored the bounds of my research project, with the gracious support and enthusiastic interaction from professors and my peers.

Q&A 2: How did you prepare for your URW presentation?

Throughout the year, I had the opportunity to present my various research projects to the members of the Mahendra Lab, preparing me to answer questions and address aspects in the presentation that were unclear. In terms of creating the presentation, I worked to tailor the presentation to a wider scientific audience, focusing on high-level conceptual understanding and motivations behind the experimental design. I also had fun exploring animations, visual guides, and other PowerPoint transitions that would enhance audience engagement and understanding.

Q&A 3: What is your advice to undergraduate students who would like to participate in URW in the future?

I would encourage students who are interested in URW to apply! The research showcase is a great way to challenge your understanding of your project and develop scientific communication skills, which are equally as important as research for careers in STEM. For the application, I’d advise students to discuss with their mentors to define the scope of their project in order to build out the abstract and streamline their research over the year. Additionally, it’s important to have a clear idea of what data you will collect and what methods you will use, along with checkpoints and contingency plans when facing anticipated roadblocks.

The process of designing, conducting, and presenting your own research project from start to finish is a rewarding experience, and URW is the optimal, encouraging environment to share it with your peers!

Kathryn Saxton

Research title: Synergistic Effect of Environmental Stimulation on Brain Organoid Development 

Research Abstract: Physiologically relevant models are crucial for the study of human brain development and neurological disorders. Brain organoids, 3D stem-cell derived aggregates, uniquely recapitulate many structural and functional features of human brains. However, limitations in organoid phenotype emerge in static culture due to insufficient oxygen and nutrient diffusion to the organoid core, limiting the success of in vitro brain study. This study explores the individual and combined effects of flow culture (flow) and hyperoxygenation (hyperoxia, 40% O2), two methods commonly used to improve organoid phenotype, on neuronal structure, gene expression, and metabolism. Here, we cultured organoids for 2 months in four conditions: static normoxia (20% O2), static hyperoxia, flow normoxia, and flow hyperoxia. We found flow greatly increases organoid proliferation and structure, as seen through improved alignment of intermediate filaments within neural rosettes. Hyperoxia, in contrast, dramatically increases neuronal maturation through shifts towards oxidative metabolism. Inhibition of the mitochondrial pyruvate carrier UK5099 further shows that pyruvate metabolism is essential for these metabolic and transcriptional shifts in organoids cultured in hyperoxia. These findings suggest favorable environmental stimuli can have synergistic effects on brain organoids, paving the way for improved models and deeper insight into neurodevelopment.

Faculty mentor: Neil (Yen-Chih) Lin

Q&A 1: What was your experience like participating in URW?

This is my third time presenting at URW and I look forward to it every year! I love that the showcase provides the opportunity for research to be shared with such a diverse audience. It’s so fascinating to hear from other students about their work and interests, and since the panels contain research from multiple fields of engineering, it’s often a topic I’ve never heard of before! 

Q&A 2: How did you prepare for your URW presentation?

Practice! After developing a rough set of slides, I talked through the presentation with my graduate school mentor, and this helped me connect ideas and write up a script. I practiced giving the presentation over and over, timing myself each time and making tweaks as needed.

Q&A 3: What is your advice to undergraduate students who would like to participate in URW in the future?

Go for it! URW is a great opportunity to gain experience talking about your research, regardless of how far along your project is. I find it really helpful to practice giving the talk to someone who knows little about your research, as this will likely be the case on your panel.