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Undergraduate Research Assistants Needed for VCU ADOLESCENT AND YOUNG ADULT TWIN STUDY!

matr_logo_grayHere’s a little about the project…

In the past few decades there have been many advances in our understanding of human emotions and psychology. These advances have led to improvements in how doctors treat internalizing disorders like depression and anxiety. Internalizing disorders have a significant impact on the quality of life of individuals as well as on society. Though we have made many advances, there is still a great deal more to learn about these conditions and their causes. Improved scientific techniques now offer researchers opportunities for an even deeper level of understanding about internalizing disorders.

The goal of this study is to learn more about genetic and environmental factors that could influence the likelihood of someone developing an internalizing disorder. To help accomplish this, the researchers are inviting parents (or legal guardians) and their adolescent/young adult twins, ages 15 to 20 years old, to participate in this study. This age group of twins is key to the study because it allows the researchers to observe behaviors and collect basic data during a significant developmental period.

Dr. Roberson-Nay, the primary investigator for this study, and her team are looking to acquire a small group of highly motivated, enthusiastic individuals here at VCU to be research assistants in this study. These positions are currently volunteer (unpaid) positions, but there is the possibility of earning course credit. The types of research experiences that you will gain depend largely on your own interests as the current twin study touches on many different aspects of psychology and biology. Some examples of the experiences you are likely to gain from the lab include:

-Extensive participant interaction
-Working with psychophysiological software and equipment                                          -Opportunities for posters and papers                                                                         -Collaboration with researchers from a variety of backgrounds

We are requiring that all students dedicate a minimum of 10 hours a week to working in the lab. We are also requiring at least a one year commitment (including summer 2016) as the level of training on our part is quite high.

If you are interested working with our lab please contact the project coordinator, Jennifer Cecilione ( with a CV/resume. Please include your year in school, GPA, and major as well as a brief summary of your academic and research interests.

Four VCU Anthropology Alumnae and their Summer of Research!


Ashley McCuistion, VCU Anthropology alumni and current graduate research assistant at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, recently dropped a message to her former undergraduate research mentor, Dr. Bernard Means, to share her summer research experience and those of three of her fellow School of World Studies alumnae.  Mariana Zechini, Catarina Conceicao and Becki Bowman round out the quartet of recent VCU graduates who continue to pursue professional careers in the field of Archeology.  All four of the VCU alums conducted research as undergraduates at VCU as part of Dr. Means’ Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Ashley’s message to Dr. Means reads: “Earlier this summer I had an idea to make a sort of “where are they now” or “day in the life” video highlighting the different things students who have graduated from VCU are doing in archaeology.  I pitched the idea to everyone I knew who was working in the field this summer and three of your former students and I were able to put something together. I really hope you like it, I think it turned out pretty cool!”.

2 spots open in CMST391:Urban Biking Benefits. Community-Engaged Research on 2 Wheels!

cmst391Want to do community engaged research and service learning for course credit, on a bike?  There are two spots left for students to register for CMST 391: Urban Biking Benefits!

Course Description

This is an undergraduate course that is service-learning designated, entirely on bike and in the community. The course will include three interrelated components from which students will learn, do and reflect on learning content:

Community-Engaged Research: In this undergraduate course, students will use a community-engaged research (CEnR) approach to investigate the current state of biking on campus and collect data on biking usage and infrastructure to address a university-identified need, the VCU State of Cycling Report. The 2010 VCU SCR provides data on bicycling trends on the two VCU campuses: Monroe Park Campus and the MCV Campus. This is a major focus for the course, as it will better enable the university to plan for additional investments and improvements in the future as VCU continues to expand.

Community Engagement: Students will engage with an experiential learning opportunity that empowers action through research, and learning through reflection and community engagement. Students will participate in weekly Ride + Learns, or group bike rides, that are led on bike and with community bike experts. Through direct observation and dialog, students will investigate, explore and critically reflect on bike infrastructure and programming, and experience the joy, benefits and challenges of urban biking.

Service-Learning: This is a service-learning course and coincides with yearlong city and university-wide bike initiatives to prepare the city and campus for a 9-day international bike event in Richmond, Virginia: the 2015 UCI Road World Championships. Students will engage in service-learning through bike-related activities by providing bike parking and valet assistance at the event in collaboration with SportsBackers BikeWalkRVA. A service-learning framework locates our classroom in the community, on bikes, and at the heart of this international biking event.

Course Learning Goals

The core questions we will investigate during this course are:

  1. What is community-engaged research (CEnR)?
  2. What are the benefits (and challenges) of urban biking?
  3. How and why do we build community dialog that promotes action?
  4. How can our community service promote change in ourselves?
  5. How and why do we ensure that research findings are disseminated back to the community?

Course Competencies

By the end of the 7-week course, students will be able to:

  1. Describe CEnR as means to promote social action and change
  2. Understand the benefits and challenges of urban biking
  3. Reflect on how community engagement promotes personal development
  4. Understand the role of community in academic research and learning

Undergraduate Research Assistants Needed for VCU Juvenile Anxiety Study

vipbgJ.A.S. Research Assistant Position Description

Program of Research: Research assistants will assist with an IRB-approved and NIMH grant-funded study titled, “A Twin Study of Negative Valence Emotional Constructs (Juvenile Anxiety Study – JAS).” This study is interested in investigating internalizing disorders. Internalizing disorders (ID), consisting of syndromes of anxiety and depression, represent common, debilitating negative emotional states whose etiology is not well understood. A growing body of basic research has suggested that these conditions share more of their risk factor domains and underlying neurobiology than would be predicted by clinical nosology alone. Thus, the NIMH has launched the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project as part of their strategic plan to “develop new ways of classifying disorders based on dimensions of observable behaviors and brain functions.” RDoC aims to serve as a framework for new approaches to research on mental disorders using fundamental dimensions that cut across traditional disorder categories. The goal of this study is to examine various emotional indices using laboratory-based paradigms (e.g., CO2 hypersensitivity, stress responsivity) to gain a better understanding of the underlying etiology of ID.

Study Methodology: Child and adolescent participants will complete at least one lab session at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. During the visit, participants complete self-report measures, an IQ test, and computer tasks involving looking at faces. In addition, they provide a saliva sample and complete two physiological assessments: one in which they inhale 7.5% CO2 enriched air, and another that involves a fear potentiated startle paradigm. During these “physio.” tasks, research assistants affix several electrodes to the participants and these assistants are responsible for checking and maintaining reading levels (i.e., they monitor and correct for issues with incoming physiological data).

Activities: The student research assistants will be involved in all aspects of the study including independently running data collection sessions, entering data, cleaning data, and performing basic analyses. In addition to gaining laboratory experience, students will engage in academic work as part of her BIOL492 experience. Specifically, students will be encouraged to read an identified collection of articles that pertain to the carbon dioxide hypersensitivity, panic disorder, emotion recognition, fear-potentiated startle, and other related literature. In addition, students will meet weekly with the research team to review various aspects the research project, review progress, and discuss relevant articles/literature pertaining to the twin studies. Students also will be expected to write a research paper by the end of the semester on a topic agreed upon by the student and Dr. Hettema. The topic of the paper will relate to an aspect of the described study.

Hours per week:

Break down of how hours will be used each week (approximate):

Total: ~10 hours/week during the fall semester

Reading literature/working on paper:       1 hour/week (home)

Assisting with data collection:        5-6 hours/week (in lab)

Data entry/cleaning/analysis:         2-3 hours/week (in lab)

Attending weekly lab meetings/meeting with research team:   1 hour/week (in lab)

Dr. Hettema and the study coordinator, Andrea Molzhon, will be responsible for the overall supervision of the students’ progress on this project and will meet with them periodically. Moreover, Dr. Hettema and the study coordinator will be responsible for day-to-day supervision of the twin studies and for day-to-day supervision of all students working on the project.  Please contact Andrea Molzhon with any questions:

To apply, download the application and send as an attachment to: with “JAS RA Application” in the email subject.

Download position application here: VCU Research Assistant Application_ B

Troubled waters: VCU researchers are studying the impact of saltwater intrusion on tidal wetlands

Monday, July 27, 2015

Along the muddy banks of the Pamunkey River in Virginia’s New Kent County, Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have built an irrigation system that is allowing them to simulate the potential effects of climate change on tidal wetlands.

The system, designed and built by Dong-Yoon Lee, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology, pumps saltwater into several plots of land in Cumberland Marsh, mimicking what will happen as the sea level rises due to climate change and intrudes increasingly into freshwater ecosystems.

“We decided to run a real-time simulation in which we built a saltwater pumping system in a natural wetland further upstream, where saltwater rarely flowed before,” Lee said.

Lee’s experiment, which is underway this summer, is part of a multiyear National Science Foundation grant that is enabling VCU biologists to study the impact of climate change on tidal wetlands.

While previous research has examined the effects of saltwater on freshwater marshes in the lab, this project is among the first studies of its kind to take place in the natural environment.

As part of the project, researchers are measuring the effects of saltwater on the soil’s microbial community, marsh plants and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as attempting to discover how these changes in tidal wetlands might affect the larger ecosystem.

Rima Franklin, Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is principal investigator of the $780,000 grant, titled “Climate Change Effects on Coastal Wetlands — Linking Microbial Community Composition and Ecosystem Responses.” She said tidal freshwater wetlands are serving as the researchers’ model system.

“One of the main ways that saltwater intrusion is expected to affect the microbial community is by shifting the pathways involved in carbon cycling,” she said. “With our field manipulation, we will be able to track how this change in microbial activity scales up to affect the overall carbon cycling of the wetland. In particular, we will learn whether these microbial community changes affect the carbon storage capacity of the wetland and determine rates of greenhouse gases emissions — carbon dioxide and methane.”

A natural resource at risk

Wetlands provide a variety of important services to the environment. They filter nutrients and improve water quality for the rest of the estuary. They serve as the habitat of bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons and egrets. They provide migratory and wintering habitats for waterfowl. They support a diverse array of plant species. And they play an important role in carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, which helps slow global warming by keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Yet as the sea level rises, the researchers say, all of those services are at risk.

With sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, we may end up losing these wetlands.

“With sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, we may end up losing these wetlands,” said Scott Neubauer, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and co-investigator on the study.

The sea level is rising at a rate of 3 or 4 millimeters per year, Neubauer said, though that rate is accelerating and expected to reach 6 millimeters or more by the end of the century.

“There’s kind of a hotspot here in the mid-Atlantic in terms of sea level rise,” he said. “It’s increasing over time.”

Neubauer is interested in studying what happens to the carbon stored in the soil once saltwater intrudes.

“If we’re doing something that disturbs the carbon cycle — like bringing in saltwater and [consequently] reducing carbon sequestration — that could mean the wetland is growing vertically more slowly, which means as the sea level rises, the marsh is going to fall behind,” he said. “And once the marsh gets flooded too much, the plants can’t survive and you lose all the important functions of the wetlands.

“If you convert your tidal wetland to a mudflat, you’ve lost a lot of those services provided by the wetland.”

Read the rest of this article at the VCU News site:

Into the woods: Researchers study birds in effort to curb the spread of West Nile virus


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The sun won’t be up for a couple hours, but Dan Finnell and Ryan Levering are driving slowly through the darkness of Joseph Bryan Park, scanning the shrubs and trees with a thermal imaging camera attached to the passenger side window.

The two Virginia Commonwealth University senior environmental studies majors are hunting for infrared hotspots that might indicate the presence of nests of American robins or other birds.

“When we find a nest, we mark the spot with flagging tape,” Finnell said. “And as the sun rises, we get back out there to check it out, see how many eggs or nestlings there are, and collect nestling temperatures, incubating female temperature, and ambient temperature, and observe the female’s activity — she might be incubating eggs or brooding nestlings.”

The bird nesting data collected in Bryan Park is part of a major interdisciplinary study at VCU —involving ornithologists, mathematicians, entomologists and others — that aims to gain a better understanding of how West Nile virus spreads and how authorities can more effectively prevent outbreaks.

“Our goal is to be able to develop a model of West Nile virus transmission,” said Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences and the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and an affiliate researcher for the VCU Rice Rivers Center. “We know that American robins and some other birds are good hosts for West Nile virus, and so we want to understand the dynamics between the timing of their nesting, the time of mosquito abundance and then toward the end of the season [the time when] mosquitoes shift to feeding on mammals, including humans.”

Bulluck, an expert on avian ecology who is overseeing the field work in Bryan Park, said the information being collected will serve as empirical data that will feed into the model of West Nile virus transmission.

“The basic question is, How does the timing of bird nesting activity influence West Nile virus transmission dynamics?” she said.

Mosquitoes, baby birds and math

A nest of American robins in Bryan Park that was identified by the researchers.

West Nile virus is a pathogen spread primarily between mosquitoes and birds, and can spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. Most humans infected with the virus do not develop symptoms. However, about one in five people who are infected develop a fever with other symptoms such as headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea or rash, and less than 1 percent will develop a serious, sometimes fatal, neurologic illness such as encephalitis or meningitis.

The project — “The impact of temporal variation in host life-stage abundance on the regional transmission and control of West Nile virus” — is supported by a $100,000 grant from the Jeffress Trust Awards Program in Interdisciplinary Research, which supports interdisciplinary research in Virginia.

Suzanne Robertson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, is leading the project and developing a differential equations model for avian and human hosts.

Read the rest of this story on the VCU News site:


Congratulations to our Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awardees for 2015

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 2015 Outstanding Faculty Mentors!


Dr. Daniel Conway is Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Conway was nominated by undergraduate researcher and previous UROP Summer Research Fellow, Natalie Noll, who had this to say about her mentor’s guidance: “During my time working in Dr. Conway’s lab, he has constantly assisted me in my acquisition of knowledge in my field of research. By providing me with personal hands on learning, he made sure from day one that I was following procedure correctly, and performing every technique flawlessly.  After participating in the UROP program, and having such a positive experience in Dr. Conway’s lab, I have changed my career path to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering so that I can do research for a living. Through Dr. Conway’s passion for his research and his willingness to employ students to do their own research projects in his lab I have come to love research.”


Dr. Andrew K. Ottens is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the School of Medicine, with affiliate positions in the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Psychology.  Dr. Ottens was nominated by undergraduate researcher and Biology major, Pallavi Pilaka.  Pallavi included the following statement regarding Dr. Ottens’ mentorship in his nomination: “This semester Dr. Ottens has me leading a grant on the effect of childhood secondhand smoke on the relapse to alcoholism in adulthood. The knowledge I have acquired from Dr. Ottens has given me the opportunity to train another undergraduate student and a graduate student in conducting and analyzing behavioral assays and biofluid processing for mass spectrometric analysis on this grant. As an undergraduate, leading a grant is an incredible opportunity to demonstrate responsibility and acquire real world knowledge and experience of what it would take to become a research graduate student.  During my year in Dr. Ottens’s lab, my experience inspired me to pursue a career in Neuroscience; I will be applying to graduate programs this fall.”


Dr. Manoj Thomas is Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Systems with the VCU School of Business.  Dr. Thomas was nominated by undergraduate researcher and previous UROP Summer Research Fellow, Siobhan Gray, who detailed the unique global service component of her mentor’s area of research: “The work I have done with Dr. Thomas as part of my Fellowship is why I am in the field I am. Helping others obtain access to technology is a great step forward for Haiti. Being able to be a part of the research solutions for those students was a great honor. My hope for my future is that I will be able to help others in the same way that I have helped the Haitian youth through my project. Working with Dr. Thomas truly opened my eyes to the challenges faced by many in the world. I hope to help others the wayhe has and to devise solutions for all those in need.”

School of Nursing_Angela Starkweather

Dr. Angela Starkweather is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems in the VCU School of Nursing.  Dr. Starkweather was nominated by undergraduate research and previous UROP Summer Research Fellow, Jeff Petraco, who had this to say about his research mentor: “Dr. Starkweather’s engaging and supportive approach makes working through even the most challenging issues an intellectually enjoyable experience.  By skillfully assessing students upon their expression of interest in research, Dr. Starkweather’s approach builds on their strengths to enable them to develop research skills commensurate with their abilities and background. Her joy for research and her dedication to and compassion for her students encourage them to give serious consideration to pursing a graduate degree in nursing research.”

If you are interested in recognizing your faculty mentor for the outstanding guidance they provide to you and other undergraduate engaged in research and scholarship at VCU, please recognize them by nominating the for future Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards here:

Questions or concerns?  Contact your UROP Director, Herb Hill at

VCU Research Weeks 2015 Wrap-Up!

Research Weeks 2015

From art to science and everything in between, VCU students dig deeper on research projects in every discipline

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Virginia Commonwealth University provost Gail Hackett, Ph.D., knows that research isn’t just for faculty members and doctoral candidates.

Addressing students April 22 at the VCU Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity, Hackett recalled how early forays into research helped determine her career path.

“I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate,” she said. “That independent research did have a huge impact on me. It enriched my academic program as a psychology major and influenced my career choice as a researcher and faculty member.”

Organized by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the symposium allowed undergraduates to share their investigations into everything from 3-D printing to how chemically profiling mixtures with pool chlorine and brake fluid can help authorities solve crimes of arson.

What I see here is not just a room full of posters. What I see is the tangible evidence of what we mean when we talk about student success and academic rigor at VCU.

“What I see here is not just a room full of posters,” Hackett said. “What I see is the tangible evidence of what we mean when we talk about student success and academic rigor at VCU.”

The symposium was one of several events taking place at VCU’s two campuses during Student Research Weeks in April. The annual celebration is a chance for students to present their research, creative and scholarly projects to their peers and the community.

While students have always been active in the university’s research endeavors, Research Weeks has brought to the forefront the sheer amount and diversity of projects being carried out, said Frank Macrina, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation.

Initially just a week of events, the celebration now stretches across an entire month.

“What we have done is awakened a sleeping giant,” Macrina said.

What follows is a snapshot of some of the projects presented by students this year.

Psychology: Body by avatar

Freshman Usha Raman presents her research at the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity. Raman studied the impact of video game avatars on body image in adolescent boys. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing.

For decades, researchers have studied the impact that magazines and television have on female body image. Usha Raman, a freshmen majoring in biology and psychology, flipped that scenario around by looking at the effect of video game avatars on adolescent boys.

The characters in games today move and look like real humans. They can even be personalized to more closely resemble the tastes and desires of the player.

Raman looked at various avatars. Some were so unnaturally muscular they didn’t seem to have much of an impact. Others, such as Nathan Drake from the Unchartered video game series, did.

“The ones that are a little more realistic, the boys start comparing their own bodies to them,” said Raman, who presented her findings at the Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity. “Their realistic and athletic movements caused boys to mimic them. All of this can lead to negative body image and depression and anxiety.”

Raman compared the influence of video games on boys to the effect of other mass media images on adult males. She found that the images of avatars could make boys change their eating and exercise habits, similar to the way other mass media images cause changes in the habits of adult males.

Raman wants to continue her research by looking at how boys react to earlier video games, in which characters were not as muscular and the movements not as realistic.

Read the rest of this story at the VCU News site: