Undergraduate students show scholarship at the highest level at annual Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity

Featured photoPhotos by Leah Small, University Public Affairs.

For many Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduates, the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity is a chance to proudly showcase the results of their first major research endeavor. The event is often a culmination of an undergraduate academic career, and marks the end of a year’s worth of exploration for a major research project.

Last week, more than 300 students participated in the symposium, sponsored by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. The event is part of the seventh annual Research Weeks.

VCU News interviewed* several researchers about their work:

* Interviews are in the student’s words with edits by VCU News for clarity and brevity.


Bansri Rawal.
Bansri Rawal.

Learning in three dimensions

Project: “3-D immersive visualization of biochemical pathways”

Researcher: Bansri Rawal, sophomore, computer science and premedicine

Mentors: Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe, Ph.D., assistant professor, VCU School of Pharmacy, Department of Pharmacotherapy & Outcomes Sciences; Ali Panahi, graduate student, School of Engineering, computer science; Michael Mahoney, graduate student of VCU daVinci Center; Garrett Westlake, executive director of DaVinci center; and Jim Reichert, Microsoft engineer.

What is your goal?

We are taking biochemical networks — models of the interactions between biological elements such as metabolites and enzymes — and rendering them into a 3-D platform. This creates a strong learning and research tool which serves as an alternative to software that renders 2-D models. Frequently, 2-D models are harder to analyze when large amounts of data are represented. The points in the data set often appear too close together, which affects legibility.

To create the 3-D platform, we used Microsoft HoloLens, an augmented/virtual reality headset, and Unity gaming software. The augmented reality setting of HoloLens was used to superimpose images of biochemical networks on a view of the actual world. Imagine seeing the structures of fatty acids holographically depicted around you!

What do users see when they put on your lab’s HoloLens?

Judges recognize work at the undergraduate research symposium

Judges from VCU Launch, an Honors College and Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program initiative that aims to promote undergraduate research, recognized the five best posters from freshman and sophomores.

VCU Launch winners

Ellie Erhart, Department of Communication Arts in the School of the Arts: “Emphasizing Common Childhood Anxieties in Children’s Fantasy: An Analysis of the Illustrations in ‘Matilda’ and ‘Charlotte’s Web’”

Tiffany Ho, Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences: “Dredging Land Reclamation Causing Mucus Development in Massive Spherical Corals in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea: The Effects on China’s Fishing Industry”

Michelle Nguyen, Depatment of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering: “Piano Practice as Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis Therapy”

Chandni Patel, Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences: “Melatonin Can Limit the Effects of a Mutated MC4R Gene”

Celia Wilson, Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences: “Breastfeeding as a Treatment Mechanism for Women with Postpartum Depression”

Our HoloLens is currently programmed to project a biochemical network that shows the interactions between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. The network demonstrates how fish oil is metabolized into molecules that minimize inflammation, before they are broken down in the body and rendered inactive.

You will see what appears to be color-coded balls of various sizes projected around the room you occupy. These represent the fatty acids and their metabolites, which are the various substances these fatty acids are converted into within the body, and the enzymes in this particular network. In this instance, these fatty acids and enzymes are our nodes. Every biochemical network has a node, which are the individual elements being analyzed within a web of interactions. Lines also connect many of the nodes, these lines are called edges and are a fundamental part of biochemical networks. They are indicative of the connection between nodes. Two nodes can share an edge if they interact within a biochemical network.

In our fish oil biochemical network, you can click on a node by looking directly at it. The node will be highlighted and its name will pop up. We also have voice commands that allow us to choose between networks.

Endless types of biochemical networks can be depicted, some of which include: gene expression, drug interaction and protein expression. This method has a myriad of possible applications throughout other disciplines, too. For example, you could holographically visualize frameworks of historical events. Historical figures could serve as nodes and the edges between them can indicate how they interacted to shape the world. You could have a visual guide to evolutionary theory that shows the links between species through time.

How did you harness this technology?

The Unity gaming software is a powerful tool when paired with HoloLens. Using Unity, you can program what objects will be displayed, how they are oriented and how users can interact with a projection. Ali really took me under his wing when he taught me the ins and outs of programming. Our lab worked to program HoloLens to our needs with additional guidance of Jim Reichert, a Microsoft engineer. In the beginning, we used the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, but since it didn’t offer an augmented reality setting, we switched platforms. We thought a completely digital environment could be dangerous because the user may have to move around to explore the network properly.

We used a specific algorithm that determines how the nodes appear. It uses specific laws of physics to determine the distance between the nodes within a given space, depth perception and other 3-D elements. This prevents the nodes from becoming indiscernible because they have gathered into a clump — the primary flaw of 2-D applications.

What sparked your interest?

What excites me most about this technology is that it has so many applications that will be available in the future. Dr. Wijesinghe got me into research when I received an email from his lab looking for undergraduates who were studying both computer science and premedicine. I worked with him on a bunch of awesome projects this summer before he called me into his lab one day with the idea to develop our 3-D platform. The project started as a fun way to tinker, but quickly became a serious endeavor when we realized its potential.


Malia Bates.
Malia Bates.

Bridging racial divides

Project: “The Black-Korean conflict and Korean-American involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement”

Researcher: Malia Bates, freshman, sculpture and extended media, School of the Arts

Mentor: Faye Prichard, director of writing, assessment and evaluation, VCU Honors College

What is this conflict and how does it relate to Black Lives Matter?

Many first-generation Korean-Americans who were raised in Korea have different cultural values and perspectives of the black American community. Much of their exposure to African-Americans has been through negative portrayals in media.

For instance, in prior research on the Korean-black conflict, members of the black community stated Korean merchants were very rude and didn’t smile. But Koreans said communication was difficult due to the language barrier. Also, in Korean culture, you don’t often smile at people in public places such as the store. So, there’s this cultural divide that influences perceptions between the two communities. There are also deep divisions between first and subsequent generations of Korean-Americans. More recent generations often have a connection with the black community and have been involved with Black Lives Matter.

I wanted to know if the black-Korean conflict actually negatively influences Korean-American perceptions of the black community and levels of Korean involvement in Black Lives Matter.

What was your methodology?

I investigated the factors that led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots and other events that greatly influenced Korean-owned businesses. These merchants were the most targeted and affected by the L.A. riots in particular. This greatly increased tensions between black and Korean communities.

What were your conclusions?

The black-Korean conflict did negatively influence the older generation of Korean-Americans but hasn’t really caused prejudice in younger generations. For instance, a crowd sourced letter by Asian-American youth asked their elders to put aside misconceptions of the black community in favor of empathy, because the Black Lives Matter movement also impacts Asian-Americans.

What sparked your interest?

As an arts student, I have been exploring my own racial and ethnic identity. I am someone who is a Korean who doesn’t really look stereotypically Korean. I’m also adopted into a white family and I’m still involved in the Korean community, but there is a barrier. So, I kind of have this outside view of it. A lot of my work has been looking inside of myself but I wanted to do research about my personal identity with a broader view.


Camille Brenke.Camille Brenke.

Heart health, gender and race

Researcher: Camille Brenke, senior, nursing

Mentor: Candace Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Health Nursing in the School of Nursing

Project: “The Strong Black Woman: Stress and social support in African-American women participating in a community based health intervention”

What sparked your interest?

I assisted Dr. Johnson in a study on African-American women and yoga, in which we investigated yoga’s health benefits for this group. As a gauge of success, we looked specifically at levels of metabolic syndrome. The condition is a cluster of characteristics — obesity, glucose intolerance, high cholesterol levels and hypertension — that occur simultaneously and increase risk of heart disease.

In addition to introducing yoga to this population, we also conducted the Strong Black Woman Survey. The survey helped determine whether the strong black woman social construct contributed to metabolic syndrome. The strong black woman social construct is the societal expectation that black women must always succeed and be resilient when facing racial injustice and other adversities. My project focuses on the findings from this survey.

What is the Strong Black Woman Survey?

The survey, which was first used by another researcher, gave itemized statements relating to the strong black woman social construct. Respondents were asked to rate the degree to which they agree with statements such as, ‘I believe it is best not to rely on others,’ and ‘,I should be able to handle all life gives me,’ from one to five. One meant never and five meant always.

When you look at the survey, it doesn’t appear to be specifically related to African-American women. A lot of the statements reflect the feelings many women have in roles as primary care givers. But I think when these difficulties intersect with being a black woman, they become even more important to assess and analyze from a health perspective. I am not a black woman, but I think being one in the United States is stressful. Our society pressures black women to look, be and feel certain ways. I think that’s unique to the African-American experience.

What was your methodology and results?

The study started last summer and I helped with the recruiting and the original screening of the patients. I went with Dr. Johnson to do home visits of the participants and then I helped analyze the data. We did focus groups during which I took blood glucose and cholesterol levels. I transcribed data from these focus groups.

We found that respondents with the highest Strong Black Woman Survey scores were more likely to have metabolic syndrome. This is harmful because metabolic syndrome is associated with cardiovascular disease.


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Congratulations to our Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awardees for 2017!

Each year, the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program accepts nominations from students for our “Outstanding Faculty Mentor” Awards. Undergraduate researchers are asked to identify a professor or faculty mentor who regularly goes above and beyond to create and engage students in research opportunities.

Students provide a written statement that describes why the chosen nominee deserves an outstanding mentorship award, including specific examples that detail their nominee’s contribution to undergraduate research at VCU.  The main criteria for these nominations include; how the faculty member has enhanced the skills related to undergraduate research in their discipline, how the nominee has expanded the knowledge base of student researchers, the ways in which the mentor has assisted undergraduates in their engagement with research, the lasting impression the mentor has made on students’ future academic and professional plans.

Please join us in recognizing our 2017 Outstanding Faculty Mentors!

Dr. Sevag Gharibian, Dept. of Computer Science, VCU School of Engineering – Student: Justin Yirka

Dr. Gharibian surprised me and offered to let me work with him as part of his Quantum Computing Lab, even insisting that I be paid for my time. Dr. Gharibian took the time to help me build the necessary background – a full semester before I ever took the related courses. Over the course of the next year, Dr. Gharibian treated me not just like an adult, but as a peer. Of course, the publication, the conference acceptance, and the experience listed on my CV are invaluable for my future applications. But now, as I look forward to continuing my work in quantum computing at the University of Maryland this summer, and as I prepare to apply to graduate programs, I can say that I am most thankful for the confidence that Dr. Gharibian inspired in me to pursue such opportunities. Dr. Gharibian helped to teach me that the title “undergraduate” carries no limitations, and to realize that the professional world will evaluate me based on the work I produce.”


Ms. Megan Hodge, VCU Libraries – Student: Cassidy Sheehan

“My personal relationship with Megan solidifies my conviction that she is one of VCU’s outstanding undergraduate research mentors. We became very close while working together for the 2015 Honor Summer Undergraduate Research Program and undertaking an independent study during Fall 2015. With Megan’s guidance, I gained both important research skills and valuable life lessons that have since defined my career goals. Megan assisted me in writing a review of library management literature, an experience which has enhanced my ability to research systematically and to use evidence concisely. Megan has highlighted multiple venues where I could present our research, giving me ample occasion to improve my presentation skills. Furthermore, Megan has encouraged me to pursue opportunities that will facilitate my goal of becoming an English professor. Her insights gave me a new perspective on academia that will guide my professional path throughout my life.”


Dewey Taylor, Mathematical Sciences

Dr. Dewey Taylor, Dept. of Mathematics – Student: Morgan Norge

Dr. Taylor is one of the most inspiring professors that I have ever worked with. She is passionate about what she does and, most importantly, passionate about her students. The knowledge that she has passed onto me is extremely valuable and I will be eternally grateful for the time she has put in working with me. She is caring, explains things in a way that is accessible to students, and gives her students opportunities and experiences that could never be replaced. She believed in me before I believed in myself and she showed me the power of combining hard work and knowledge. I am an applied mathematics student and she has guided me in research in an area of mathematics that is completely out of my comfort zone. Without her, I would have never explored pure mathematics and come to find out that I actually really love it. I never thought that I would be able to successfully do anything in pure mathematics, but with her help I have been able to present and publish on research in graph theory.”

Please join us in congratulating our outstanding faculty mentors, and all faculty who provide guidance to our students at VCU.  Undergraduate research at VCU would not happen without the commitment and contributions of our mentors!

Congratulations to our 2017 VCU Undergraduate Research Summer Fellows!

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program with the Virginia Commonwealth University Office of Research and Innovation is happy to announce the 2017 VCU Undergraduate Research Summer Fellows.

The fellowship provides the opportunity for faculty and students to partner on a funded research project of their choice. The fellowship is designed to provide outstanding undergraduates the chance to make significant progress on a formal, structured research endeavor during the summer in collaboration with a faculty mentor.

In addition to the awards supported by UROP, fellowships were funded by the Global Education Office, Division for Inclusive Excellence, and the Center for Clinical and Translational Research. These projects are focused on global learning and research, issues of diversity, and clinical research into advancing human health.

The 2017 VCU Undergraduate Research Summer Fellows include:

Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Summer Fellowship – Awardees

Savannah Aigner, Dept. of Latin-American Studies, with Dr. Vera Abbate, VCU School of World Studies: World Languages Italian Curation Project 

Kaiynat Amir, with Dr. Hani El-Kaderi, Dept. of Chemistry: Nitrogen-Doped Porous Carbon Cathodes for Oxidation Reduction Reactions

Alexandra Barry, Depts. of Biology and Psychology, with Dr. Derek Johnson, Dept. of Biology: Comparing two methods of quantifying an invasion-restricting component Allee effect in the defoliating pest L. dispar

Clint Cuffy, Dept. of Computer Science with Dr. Bridget McInnes, Natural Language Processing Lab, Dept. of Computer Science: Identifying relations in biomedical text for literature-based discovery

Alexa Crow with Dr. Allison Johnson, Dept. of Bioinformatics: Identification of superinfection exclusion genes in Staphylococcus aureus bacteriophage 80α

Shihara Dewasinghe with Dr. Indika Arachchige, Dept. of Chemistry: Self-Supported Ag and Au/Ag Nanostructures (Aerogels) as Surface Enhance Raman Scattering Substrates for Detection of Chronic Biomolecules.

Areej Ennasr with Dr. Carrie Peterson, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering: The effect of baclofen on the withdrawal reflex in individuals with spinal cord injury

Brett Goldfine, Clinical Laboratory Science with Dr. Carl Wolf, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology:True Prevalence of Heroin Use in Patients from a Pain Management Clinic

Isabel Griffin, Dept. of Painting and Printmaking, with Dr. Bernard Means, Dept. of Anthropology: Intersections: Where Art and Archaeology Collide

Julia Grzymkowski, with Dr. Michelle Peace, Dept. of Forensic Science: Identification of Microorganisms in Traditional Chinese Herbs

Brandon Harris, with Dr. Krawczyk Bartosz, Dept. of Computer Science: Efficient machine learning methods for mining high-speed big data streams  

Antwan Hoy with Dr. Elsie Harper-Anderson, Dept. of Urban and Regional Studies: Understanding the Implications of local, state and federal policy on gainful employment for African American males 

Patrick Jones with Dr. Jennifer Wayne, Dept. of Biomedical EngineeringAutomated analysis of acetabular surface features from CT scans

Tiffany Kan, Dept. of Biology with Dr. Francesco Celi, Division of Endocrinology Diabetes and Metabolism, Dept. of Internal Medicine: Maladaptive White Adipose Tissue Browning in Cancer Associated Cachexia

Roshaan Khan, with Dr. Elena Olson, Dept. of Information Systems: Engaging Low-Income Middle School Students with Programming

Priyanka Kundur, Dept. of Biology, with Stefano Toldo, Dept. of Internal Medicine: SP16 Anti-inflammatory Therapy in WD-Fed Mice after AMI

Omprakash Lankalapalli, with Dr. Rene Olivares-Navarrete, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering: Effects of E-Cigarette Smoke on Craniofacial Development

Srikethan Mahavadi Dept. of Bioinformatics, with Dr. Daniel Conway, Dept. of Biomedical EngineeringMeasure of Nesprin Forces Contribution to Osteogenic Differentiation of Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs)

Irma Nalic, Dept. of Biology, with Dr. Barbara Boyan, Dept. of Biomedical EngineeringImplant Surface Control of Bone Remodeling in Osseointegration

Manav Parekh, with Dr. Rebecca Heise, Dept. of Biomedical EngineeringThe Effect of Static and Stress Models With and Without ER Stress Inhibitors on the Inflammatory Gene Expression of MLE-12 Cells

Jeel Patel Dept. of Biology, with Dr. Francine Cabral, Dept. of Microbiology and Immunology: An investigation of the effects of cancer drugs on the viability of Naegleria fowleri

Muhammad Quraishi with Dr. William Korzun, Dept. of Clinical Laboratory Sciences: Comparison of Salivary Amylase Measurements using Manual vs. Automated Dilution Methods

Christian Renwick with Dr. Sarah Seashols-Williams, Dept. of Forensic Science: Examination and validation of methylation sites for forensic age determination from semen

Nastassya Russell, with Dr. Patricia Kinser, School of NursingDetermining the Significance of Motivational Interviewing in an Intervention for Depression Management during Pregnancy.

Ravi Shankar with Dr. Henry Donahue, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering: Effect of HA Coating Topography Induced by Titanium Surface Roughness on Osteoblastic Differentiation and Proliferation

Piotr Wozniak with Dr. Indika Arachchige, Dept. of Chemistry: Synthesis and photophysical characterization of highly luminescent Ge1-xSnx/ZnSe core-shell nanocrystals.

Undergraduate Fellowship for Clinical and Translational Research – Awardees

Ana Gonzalez, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering and Dr. Swati Deb, Dept. of  Biochemistry and Molecular BiologyNovel therapeutic approach to target lung cancer cells expressing mutant p53

Nitika Gupta, Dept. of Biology with Dr. Sinem Sahingur, Dept. of PeriodonticsAnti-inflammatory Effects of A20 in TLR Signaling

Undergraduate Research Fellowship for Inclusive Excellence – Awardees

Cheyenne Johnson, Dept. of Psychology with Dr. Bethany Coston, Dept. of Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s StudiesThe Role of Inequality on Health Care Seeking

Christine Wyatt, with Prof. Lea Marshall, VCU Dance & ChoreographyDepths of Identity: Decolonizing Through Dance

Global Education Undergraduate Research Fellowship – Awardees

Zhelia Arif, Depts. of Biology and Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies, with Dr. Mayda Topoushian, VCU School of World Studies: Providing Yazidi and Kurdish IDP Women Access to Safe Reproductive Healthcare and its Effects on their Mental, Physical and Emotional Health

Megan Mair, Dept. of Bioinformatics, with Dr. Luiz Ozaki, Center for the Study of Biological ComplexityLongitudinal analyses of malaria parasite infection rate in mosquitoes under malaria elimination scenario in the Brazilian Amazon

Noelle Pooler, Health, Physical Education, and Exercise Science, with Dr. Joanne Richardson, Kinesiology and Health Sciences‘A Continuation Study: Impacting knowledge, attitudes and behaviors for the prevention and control of hypertension and diabetes among rural, medically underserved Jamaican women of childbearing age’.



Real Research: Lohitha Kethu creates graphic novel to help children with Type I Diabetes adjust to life post-diagnosis

Featured photoLohitha Kethu.
Photos by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

Ten years ago, Lohitha Kethu was shocked to wake up in a hospital bed attached to tubes and IVs.

“[The only] clue as to why I was in the hospital was a thick, text-heavy book on my bedside table titled ‘Pink Panther’s Guide to Understanding Type 1 Diabetes,’” Kethu said.

Kethu, who was 10 when their pediatrician diagnosed them with Type 1 diabetes, had no idea what was going on in their body and even felt somewhat responsible for developing the chronic disease. Even when Kethu’s pediatrician drew a model of the pancreas to explain the physiology of the disease, Kethu still couldn’t understand why it was necessary to take so many medications.

On top of it all, the Pink Panther guidebook was too technical to help the young child understand the disease.

“It was supposed to be friendly for kids but it’s just a bunch of text and numbers,” Kethu said. “It’s really helpful for your parents to read so they know what to do when you can’t take care of yourself at a young age.”

Now 20, Kethu wants to make sure diabetic children have access to more entertaining and relatable literature that explains the condition.

With the help of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program summer fellowship, Kethu used their skills as a medical illustration major in the Communication Arts Program at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts to create a graphic novel that helps children navigate the disease.


Character creation

Pages from Lohitha Kethu’s graphic novel about a 10-year-old girl with Type 1 diabetes.
Pages from Lohitha Kethu’s graphic novel about a 10-year-old girl with Type 1 diabetes.

Kethu spent the summer creating the heroine Kaci, a 10-year-old African-American girl who has just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Kethu chose Kaci’s race after learning the disease disproportionately impacts African- and Native Americans.

Roughly 13.2 percent of African-Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes, compared to 7.6 percent of whites, according to the American Diabetes Association. Native Americans have the highest diabetes rates of any race or ethnicity in the United States, at 15.9 percent.

“I thought it would be important to make the main character African-American because it makes it clear that even if you are a different race or ethnicity, you can still have support and live comfortably with diabetes,” Kethu said.

Readers follow Kaci as she learns to cope with her illness while on a school field trip to an aquarium and at a sleepover. She learns to open up to her friends about her diagnosis and not be too shy to ask for space when checking her blood sugar, or embarrassed about needing sustenance when her blood sugar is low.

Kaci’s storyline models Kethu’s early sense of alienation and difficulties adjusting following their own diagnosis.

“It felt really lonely at first and a lot of people at school said, ‘Oh, they’re contagious,’ and would stay away from me,” Kethu said. “Obviously, people were more accepting of it in middle and high school. At first it felt as if there was something wrong with me or I did something wrong [to cause the disease].”

Relating to young readers

A diagram in Lohitha Kethu’s graphic novel helps explain to young readers what happens if someone with Type 1 diabetes stops taking medication.
A diagram in Lohitha Kethu’s graphic novel helps explain to young readers what happens if someone with Type 1 diabetes stops taking medication.

To ensure other children could relate to the work, Kethu conducted research on impacted populations. They spoke to pediatric endocrinologists about how they inform their patients, and questioned diabetic youth about what sort of illustrative materials would be helpful following diagnosis. Kethu evaluated the work of children’s book illustrators, medical illustrators and health communications specialists.

Kethu also worked with mentor Carmen Rodriguez, assistant professor in VCU’s Department of Biology within the College of Humanities and Sciences, to ensure the graphic novel accurately presented the physiology of Type 1 diabetes.

Rodriguez said Kethu balanced explaining the science behind the disease with the emotional struggles diabetic children face.

“Lohitha did a nice job describing Type 1 diabetes in a manner that children could understand. However, the emphasis of the novel was to describe some of the challenges children face when they are diagnosed with diabetes,” Rodriguez said. “Lohitha is full of great ideas. Hence, their biggest challenge was to look at all the ideas and focus on a select number of ideas and topics.”

Kethu aims to eventually distribute the work in pediatrician’s offices. In order to test the effectiveness of the graphic novel, they plan to survey readers who are pediatric patients at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, and students in Richmond Public Schools.

Kethu is exploring inexpensive printing options, so the novel may be distributed to any diabetic child in search of guidance.

“Not until years later did I understand the biochemical and physiological nature of the disease,” Kethu said. “I hope that any children diagnosed with diabetes in the future will not have to experience the loneliness and confusion that I did.”


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Real Research: Daniel Mohammadi works with zebrafish to unlock clues to fighting cancer

Featured photoDaniel Mohammadi.
Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

Not many undergraduates can say they have worked alongside top scientists in search of what could cause leukemia at a cellular level. But Daniel Mohammadi, a senior forensic science major who works in the Tombes Lab with mentor Sarah Rothschild, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biology within the College of Humanities and Sciences, has had this privilege for two years.

Mohammadi is currently assisting Rothschild in a study that uses zebrafish as a model organism to investigate the development of leukemia in humans. The project, on which Rothschild serves as co-investigator with Seth Corey, M.D., Ph.D., division head of the Department of Hematology and Oncology in the VCU School of Medicine, and Robert Tombes, Ph.D., vice provost for VCU Life Sciences, was funded by a $50,000 Massey Cancer Center Pilot Project grant.

Rothschild, Mohammadi and other investigators are researching if high levels of CaM kinase II, an enzyme that plays a role in jump-starting much of the body’s development, could possibly cause higher rates of leukemia. The enzyme is a protein that is activated when it binds with calcium.

Mohammadi said the study is a large stride toward finding exact causes of cancerous mutations.

“The work is important to science in general because it could help determine how cells react to stimuli that cause cancer and the mechanisms behind that,” he said.


A cancer catalyst

A brine shrimp mixture is prepared before it is fed to the zebrafish in the Tombes Lab.
<br>Photo by Leah Small, University Public Affairs.
A brine shrimp mixture is prepared before it is fed to the zebrafish in the Tombes Lab.
Photo by Leah Small, University Public Affairs.

The blue and gold striped, inch-long zebrafish seems to be as different from humans as a species can be, but scientists have found many useful similarities. Eighty-four percent of genes known to be associated with human disease have a zebrafish counterpart. A zebrafish female can also produce a few hundred eggs per week, which gives researchers large sample sizes.

“The ability to test on something as easy to manipulate as zebrafish is invaluable,” Mohammadi said. “The understanding of these disease pathways is crucial for us to extrapolate and implement for human research.”

The Tombes lab found the perfect model, but some work had to be done to “set the canvas” for testing the impacts of CaM kinase II, Mohammadi said. Researchers then selectively bred two zebrafish test groups — an experimental and a control.

Both groups were bred to have a mutation that caused the absence of the body’s main defense against cancer, tumor protein P53. Commonly known as P53, this grouping of various proteins stops the formation of cancer cells.

Think of P53 as a checkpoint regulator. It tells a cancerous cell to kill itself. 

“Think of P53 as a checkpoint regulator. It tells a cancerous cell to kill itself. Without it, the cells would replicate,” Mohammadi said.

On top of not having the cancer fighting power of P53, the experimental group was bred to have a hyperactive form of CaM kinase II.

Breeding both test groups without the development of P53 provided the perfect environment for cancer to thrive and “set the stage” to observe CaM kinase II in action, Mohammadi said. The theory is that the CaM kinase II experimental group would be more susceptible to cancer, even though the control group also lacks a key protection from the disease.

The researchers have found incidences of cancer in CaM kinase II test groups, but aren’t yet sure which type. Based off of pathology analysis, it could be either leukemia or lymphoma. Both are cancers of the blood but in leukemia, cancer cells are mainly in the marrow and blood. In lymphoma, they tend to be in the lymph nodes and other tissues.

Rothschild said the number of zebrafish with cancer is too low at this point to make definitive conclusions about the relation between the disease and CaM kinase II. Researchers are working on raising more fish to test.

Previous studies have indicated CaM kinase II may be a causal factor in the development of acute and chronic myeloid leukemia, which affects the white blood cells.


A valuable experience

Daniel Mohammadi holds holds a container of brine shrimp, the main diet of the zebrafish, in the Tombes Lab.
<br>Photo by Leah Small, University Public Affairs.
Daniel Mohammadi holds holds a container of brine shrimp, the main diet of the zebrafish, in the Tombes Lab.
Photo by Leah Small, University Public Affairs.

Mohammadi was awarded the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program summer fellowship for his work with Rothschild. During his time in the lab, he has learned useful research skills such as performing injections, designing and executing his own experiments, and how to use lab equipment.

Mohammadi, who plans to attend the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School to study orthopedics and sports medicine after graduation, said he values his experience in cancer research.

“What I’ve gotten the most out of this experience is a new level of respect for people in the research field, especially since I want to be a physician,” he said. “I may not be directly involved in research but I definitely can try to collaborate with them.”


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Real research: Elaine Williams examines how service providers can better serve needs of homeless youth

Featured photoElaine Williams.

Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

When Elaine Williams was in middle school, her family was evicted from its Richmond apartment. Without a home of their own, the Williams family had no choice but to live with family friends for the next several years.

I was unaware what unstable housing or homelessness even was. It was my normal. 

“I experienced unstable housing in my childhood, which led to homelessness in my adolescent years,” said Williams, a senior in the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. “At the time, I was unaware what unstable housing or homelessness even was. It was my normal. It was what I dealt with on a day-to-day basis.

“I wasn’t really aware of what it was until I was in high school and I was trying to go to college and my social worker told me, ‘You’re an unaccompanied youth,’” she said. “That’s the first time I understood what that actually meant. For me, growing up, that was just my way of living. It was just survival.”

Defining homelessness

During her first semester at VCU, Williams joined the Advocates for Richmond Youth, a “participatory action research team” of young people, all of whom have direct experience with homelessness or unstable housing, who are working to prevent youth homelessness in Richmond and beyond.

As part of her work with the organization, Williams has been researching the experiences and service needs of Richmond-area youth who are facing homelessness and housing instability but who do not meet the traditional definition of homelessness.

“Based on past research I have conducted on this issue, I have found that many youths define their living circumstances [differently] from the criteria that are used to verify eligibility for services,” she said. “Many services that serve youth utilize the traditional definition of homeless, which has caused a major disconnect between service providers and homeless [and] unstably housed youth.”

Williams’ study, “Exploring the Experiences and Service Needs of Non-Traditional Homeless Youth in Richmond,” will be presented as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program’s annual Undergraduate Poster Symposium at VCU.

“Through my study, I have learned about the crucial role that the definition plays in the lives of youth who may not meet the criteria of being literally homeless,” Williams said. “It also makes it difficult for youth to even come forward about being homeless because of the constraints with the traditional definition of homelessness. At this point, I am still working on collecting and analyzing the qualitative section of the study. However, based on the secondary data that is being analyzed I am able to convey that the experiences will be similar.”

A familiar pattern

Elaine Williams talks with representatives of Richmond-area nonprofits and service providers at a pop-up drop-in center for young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability sponsored by Advocates for Richmond Youth.
<br>Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs
Elaine Williams talks with representatives of Richmond-area nonprofits and service providers at a pop-up drop-in center for young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability sponsored by Advocates for Richmond Youth.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Williams’ personal experience with homelessness, and the difficulties she encountered when seeking to obtain services to help, inspired her research.

“During the time that I was unstably housed, I reached out to services for help but was rejected because I was not literally homeless,” she said. “This experience helped me understand the barrier that the definition was for receiving services.”

Working with the Advocates for Richmond Youth, she learned that other young people in similar situations experienced the same difficulties.

I [found] that youth who were literally homeless were more likely to receive assistance than youth who were couch surfing or living in a host home,” she said.

Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work and an organizer of the Advocates for Richmond Youth, worked with Williams on the research and supported her throughout the study.

“It has been really exciting to see Elaine extend the work of Advocates for Richmond Youth and her classroom learning from the social work program to take up a research question that explores one of her specific passion areas related to youth experiencing homelessness,” Wagaman said. “Elaine is a powerful community advocate who sees the potential in using research to influence social change. I know that her study will have an impact on how our community thinks about its efforts to respond to youth homelessness in all of its complexity as a social issue.”

In addition to the poster symposium, Williams will be presenting her research findings to stakeholders in the community, she said.

Williams, whose research was made possible through a VCU Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Summer Fellowship, said the project has helped prepare her for her future career as a social worker.

“As a future social worker, being able to use research to guide my practice [will be] crucial when working to change homelessness among youth,” she said.

“I would like to also work to make a change in the definition of homelessness [so that it] encompass the experiences of all youth who may experience homelessness and unstable housing,” she added. “I am passionate about social justice issues and challenging systems that make it difficult for people to reach their fullest potential.”


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Real research: Andrew Harris studies the barriers and facilitators health care professionals face in practicing mindfulness

Featured photoAndrew Harris.
Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

Andrew Harris started practicing meditation while he was living in South Korea and teaching elementary school English.

“I went to a Buddhist temple where they had English-led meditation sessions for foreigners,” Harris said. “That happens to be where I started doing meditation, but you don’t have to believe anything Buddhist to practice mindfulness.”

Harris describes mindfulness as the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment and says the term extends beyond meditation to include practices such as yoga, tai chi, journaling and guided imagery.

The recent VCU School of Nursing graduate studied the barriers and facilitators health care professionals face in maintaining a mindfulness practice for his Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project. Through the project, Harris surveyed health care professional students who had taken a VCU class on mindfulness within the past year. His study aimed to discover how, or if, class participants continued to practice mindfulness after the conclusion of the course, with a particular focus on barriers they encountered and the methods they used to achieve success.

“I always thought research was something I would never want to do, but I had already done so many things in nursing school that I hadn’t thought I was capable of doing before that I thought, why not try to tackle something else that I hadn’t done before and see if I could pull it off,” Harris said.

Searching for common themes

It is more successful when people weave it into their lives as a habit.

Harris worked with VCU School of Nursing assistant professor Patricia Kinser, Ph.D., and Ph.D. student Sarah Braun to create a survey that he sent to previous class participants. He also conducted phone interviews with a portion of the survey respondents. The bulk of Harris’ research involved sifting through survey and interview responses to find similar answers, which the team then categorized into answer themes.

“The answer themes were the objective results that we got from the subjective replies,” Harris said.

His research showed that health care providers view mindfulness as a lifestyle or a discrete tool.

“People are more likely to have a hard time using mindfulness when they approach it just as a tool,” Harris said. “It is more successful when people weave it into their lives as a habit.”


A personal approach

For Harris, who participated in the VCU mindfulness course led by Kinser before starting the project, mindfulness is both a lifestyle choice and a tool that he uses to manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I take medication for it and work out, but meditation is also one of the best things you can do for your brain beside sleeping, eating well and exercising,” Harris said.

After graduating in December, Harris started working as a nurse at VCU Medical Center’s Acute Care Oncology Unit. He weaves mindfulness practices into his life as a nurse, including sometimes stopping for a few moments to collect himself before meeting with a patient.

“I’ll stop in front of the door, take a deep breath, listen to the hum of the hospital around me and just take a timeout before I go into the room, because when I’m in the room with the patient, that is a special time and I want to be completely focused on the patient and how to care for them appropriately,” Harris said.

He hopes his research will encourage nurses and other health care professionals to practice mindfulness in their daily lives to help them care for patients and cope with occupational stress.

“A lot of people think you have to go to a mountain retreat and meditate for eight hours a day with candles and incense,” Harris said. “It’s really not like that. It’s just stopping to be in the present moment.”


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You are invited!! VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity!

We are very excited to invite you all to visit our undergraduates as they present their research and scholarly endeavors at our 9th(!) Annual Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity taking place on Wed. April 19th from 11am-2pm in the Commonwealth Ballrooms and Richmond Salons of the Student Commons.  Our students have put together some fantastic posters profiling their work from the past academic year, and nothing would mean more to them than to be able to share it with our community!  We have nearly 300 students eager to answer your questions and tell you about their research.

At 12:30pm we will host remarks from Vice President for Research Development, Dr. John Ryan, and will be awarding our outstanding faculty members for their mentorship of our undergraduates.  We will also announce our annual VCU Launch awards for first-year and second-year students who have produced research posters that exhibit remarkable rigor and vision.

We thank you for your continuing support of undergraduate research at VCU and hope that you will join us at this special event, part of VCU Student Research Weeks!