Student Researchers in the Vonesh Lab reflect on a semester of Research!

2014 Toads and nodes project students look back  on the past semester, the workshop at NCEAS, and the undergraduate research symposium.  During the workshop students from 13 participating universities and colleges combined regional data they had worked all semester to compile a dataset spanning the entire Eastern USA and then use these data to address large scale questions about how land use is related to amphibian decline. The second video is a montage of the VCU students presenting some initial results from this year at the VCU Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Toads and nodes students on the culminating workshop @ NCEAS

VCU Amphibian Landscape Ecology students present preliminary project results at UROP symposium

Reflections from VCU student representatives to NCEAS workshop

ALE class 2014“Amphibian Landscape Ecology has been the most unique class I have taken at VCU. Being a large university, most of the science classes tend to be large lectures. However, this course offered an opportunity to work more closely with Dr. Vonesh as well as my classmates. The content was very well rounded, and we gained experience in a variety of skills essential to ecological research. We gained basic knowledge in the geographic information system qGIS. The open source statistical analysis software R was also used to handle the large data analyses. While these got tedious at times, the end result was definitely rewarding. One of the most important skills we learned was how to write a Sigma Xi style grant proposal. As someone pursuing a career in scientific research, I really appreciated the opportunity to not only write a mock proposal, but also to pitch the proposal to the class and receive peer reviews.

The experience at NCEAS really tied the whole semester together. David Marsh did a great job of leading such a large group of researchers. We started the weekend off with each school giving brief presentations about their class experiences as well as a brief analysis of their group’s data. Afterward, we jumped right into what became the main project for the trip: troubleshooting. There were several obstacles we had to overcome, the largest one involving duplications in the wetland data. Ultimately, the issue was resolved by the last day. It was exciting to see every group’s work finally come together during our analysis. All-in-all I am very grateful to have had this awesome opportunity. If the Toads, Roads, and Nodes project continues in future years, I would strongly recommend it!” – Joey Neale

“At the beginning of Amphibian Landscape Ecology class, now affectionatelyMJ Foster known as ALE, I was a little intimidated. I remember stepping into our classroom right a 2pm, not really knowing what I would find behind the door. That first day I was introduced to my 11 other classmates, many of them graduating seniors, and most Biology majors, with research experiences under their belts, and I already felt an undertone of competition between us. This course which was suggested by my research mentor Dr. Bulluck, started to feel like it would be a little overwhelming for my second semester in the Environmental Studies program. But, she reassured me to stick it out, and I went onward into the world of memorizing frog calls, learning qGIS, dabbling in R, and writing a proposal which at first seemed like tackling a mountain. Over time however, I grew to know my classmates, actually remembering all their names, and felt that undertone of competition ease away for a while. I began to enjoy listening to the calls and learning natural history facts. When it came time to write my Sigma Xi proposal, that mountain which originally stood before me transformed into those 500 words and two figures that I can now said I’m pretty proud I wrote.

On top of all that I was graced with the opportunity to fly out to NCEAS in Santa Barbara, to meet all the other people around the country to put our data all together and see the final result. Overall I think it was an amazing experience for all us students who got to come to NCEAS, to see how messy science can actually get and how much work is put into a project of this scale. And of course, I’m so thankful for all the guidance I’ve received in this course. Dr. Vonesh made the class a competition which I think pushed me to really put effort in, Julie who was our fearless leader at NCEAS who really served as a guide for us as I think she is a model example to show all the effort that being an upcoming scientist requires, and of course David Marsh who made this project possible in the first place! I thank you all for this amazing opportunity that has changed my outlook on research and has made me a better researcher myself.”– Miranda Foster

“I found the NCEAS research conference in Santa Barbara, CA to be very educational as well as Naterevealing in regards to how collaborative research works. Prior to attending NCEAS I had imagined collaborative research as a group of sagely professors in suits looking through the data and drawing conclusions through means that I could not comprehend. I was quickly dissuaded of that notion when Dr. Marsh walked into the room in shorts and a t-shirt. The representatives from each university were very competent and eager to sift through the massive amounts of data that we were working with. There were definitely unexpected issues in the data, however once the problems were identified we were able to fix them through group effort and hard work. The environment of the conference was very friendly, casual, and most importantly encouraged the students to ask questions and even test hypotheses. I and the other students appreciated the opportunity to see what our semester of hard work had resulted in and I was certainly not disappointed. All in all I believe that the conference was an amazingly informative experience and I think I now have a better understanding of what collaborative research, as well as research in general, is all about.” –Nate Starrett

Check out the rest of this story and learn more about this area of research on Dr. Vonesh’s website:

VCU Student Research Weeks Wrap-Up!”

Social Work research _2014 (2)-feature

Celebrating creative thinkers

VCU Research Weeks showcase student research and creative expression

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Kasalina Kiwanuka sat in the VCU Student Commons Theatre listening intently, completely enthralled with what she was hearing. As a graduate student in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, part of the School of Medicine, she knew the way she learned best was not through memorization, but by doing hands-on work and applying concepts herself.

“It was fascinating to see myself portrayed as she spoke,” Kiwanuka said. 

Journalist and scientist Ainissa Ramirez, Ph.D., the 2014 VCU Research Weeks keynote speaker, is the author of “Save our Science” and co-author of “Newton’s Football: The Science behind America’s Game.”

“She” was VCU Research Weeks keynote speaker, Ainissa Ramirez, Ph.D., who calls herself a science evangelist. Ramirez is a journalist and scientist who has a passion for inspiring the next generation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, learners. 

Ramirez said the pathway to STEM lies in a new goal – to have students become creative problem solvers. She believes that the 21st century requires a new kind of learner, a student who can solve problems resourcefully, not someone who can simply churn out answers by rote. 

“I learn by doing,” Kiwanuka said. “I’m not good with rote memorization. When it comes down to solving the problem, I can do that, I can get an A.” 

And with the keynote presentation by Ramirez, VCU Research Weeks kicked off – a celebration of research and creative expression featuring a series of events that brought together undergraduate and graduate students from across disciplines and campuses. 

From students doing research in women’s health to engineering students designing the next new gadget, from student artists exhibiting their work to business students pitching a new company, VCU was overflowing with displays of student talent, ingenuity and creativity. 

“VCU has created an environment where students have opportunities to engage with problem solving,” said Herbert Hill, coordinator of Undergraduate Research Opportunities in the VCU Office of Research. “They may have setbacks, but they learn to have ownership. I think that’s the real value of research.” 

In its fourth year, Research Weeks has gone from a week of four events to more than two weeks of 14 events. The Undergraduate Research Symposium alone featured 300 research posters. 

“This is indicative of the growth of student engagement in research at VCU,” Hill said. “It also exhibits the diversity of interests among students in research and creative expression.” 

The following are just a few examples of student research and creative expression on display during Research Weeks 2014.

Read the full article at:

Congratulations to our Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awardees for 2014

Each year, the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program accepts nominations from students for the 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 2014 Outstanding Faculty Mentors!

greenDr. Jeffrey Green is Associate Professor in the Dept. of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology program.  Click on Dr. Green’s name to learn more about his teaching and research interests.  Dr. Green was nominated by undergraduate researcher Priya Lall, who had this to say about her mentor’s guidance: “He has enhanced the skills related to undergraduate research in the discipline of social psychology by providing opportunities to participate and grow in his lab. He has enhanced the skills of undergraduates by training them in research-related activities like conducting studies and coding, as well as-involving them in meetings discussing articles, presentations, etc. I have been able to run experimental sessions for a variety of studies ranging in topics such as forgiveness, rejection, and the self. Dr. Green is an outstanding mentor that has provided me with opportunities that have opened the door for many more opportunities along with assisting me in learning the research process.”

Christopher LemmonDr. Christopher Lemmon is Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering.  Click on Dr. Lemmon’s name to learn more about his teaching and research interests.  Dr. Green was nominated by undergraduate researcher and Engineering major, Dalton Berrie.  Dalton included the following statement regarding Dr. Lemmon’s mentorship in his nomination: “The students in Dr. Lemmon’s lab are truly a family. He has fostered a collaborative environment where all students, both undergraduate and graduate, are encouraged not only to work together but to form lasting relationships. While he is only in his second full year, Dr. Lemmon has had students present at national conferences and regional conferences. He has helped to prepare his students by arranging mock presentations and by critiquing these presentations from the standpoint of an unbiased audience member. As a result of my experience with Dr Lemmon I will be attending UF in the fall for their Ph.D. program in Biomedical Engineering.”

vranaDr. Scott Vrana is Professor in the Dept. of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and former UROP Summer Fellowship Mentor.  Click on Dr. Vrana’s name to learn more about his teaching and research interests.  Dr. Vrana was nominated by undergraduate researcher, UROP Summer Research Fellow and Psychology major, Rose Bono.  Rose attributed much of her development in research to Dr. Vrana’s guidance: “At the end of our first meeting, I was hooked on a project that has been a huge part of my life for the past year and a half. Not only was Dr. Vrana able to find me a project that allowed me to explore my interest in psychology and linguistics, but he was willing to take me on as his own student. Because of my thesis work, I am much more confident in my ability to conduct research. It was through his encouragement that I applied for—and won—a UROP Summer Fellowship in 2013. He also nominated me for Outstanding Junior and Senior in Psychology in consecutive years, both of which I was awarded. These accolades have hugely boosted my confidence, because the esteem of someone I deeply respect means a lot to me. Dr. Vrana invites me to his lab meetings, which helps me in understanding parts of my project and allows me to learn from more advanced students. Dr. Vrana pushes me beyond what I think I can do and gives me ample opportunities that help me advance.”

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

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

Greetings VCU!  I am very excited to invite you all to visit our undergraduates as they present their research and scholarly endeavors at our 6th(!) Annual Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity taking place on Wed. April 23rd from 11am-2pm in the Commonwealth Ballrooms and Richmond Salons of the Student Commons. We have close to 300 students waiting to answer your questions and tell you about their research.
At 12pm we will host remarks from President Rao, Vice President for Research Dr. Frank Macrina, and will be awarding our outstanding faculty members for their mentorship of our undergraduates (including Dr. Umit Ozgur, mentor to our 2014 Goldwater Scholar, Nico Andrade!).  We will also take a sneak peak at Auctus, the Journal for Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship at VCU and announce our annual VCU Launch awards for first-year and second-year students who have produced research posters that exhibit remarkable rigor and vision. Come check us out!


Science journalist to serve as keynote speaker for VCU’s Student Research Weeks

Ramirez_AinissaBy Sathya Achia Abraham

University Public Affairs, VCU Across the Spectrum (
University Public Affairs
Monday, April 14, 2014

Ainissa Ramirez, Ph.D., a journalist and scientist with a passion for inspiring the next generation of STEM learners, will be the keynote speaker for Virginia Commonwealth University’s Student Research Weeks, which run from April 10 to April 25.

Ramirez’s lecture, “STEM: How It Got Here and Where It Needs To Go,” will be held on April 18, from 3:30 p.m. – 5 p.m., in the Student Commons Theater, 907 Floyd Ave.

Ramirez is author of “Save Our Science,” which is based on her TED talk about the importance of STEM education, and co-author of “Newton’s Football: The Science behind America’s Game.”

During her visit to VCU, Ramirez will take attendees through a brief history of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and discuss the connection between how lessons were taught in the past and the technology of the day. She will talk about the needs of the 21st century, which requires a new kind of learner — a student who can think expansively and solve problems resourcefully, versus one who can simply churn out answers by rote.

In order to solve the complex problems of tomorrow, the traditional academic skills of the three “Rs” – “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” – must be exchanged with a new emphasis on creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration, according to Ramirez. These are skills inherent in scientific research. Ramirez will make a case for a recommitment to improving schools, and she will propose a plan to increase every child’s participation in STEM.

Ramirez is a former associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Yale University. Prior to that she was a member of technical staff at Bell Laboratories, where she developed a universal solder (a reactive solder that bonds to glass) for which she was awarded MIT Technology Review’s TR100 award in 2003. You can find her work at Material Marvels and Science Xplained. Ramirez received her training in materials science and engineering from Brown University (Sc.B.) and Stanford University (Ph.D.).

The lecture is co-sponsored by the STS Program, the VCU Office of the Provost, the VCU School of Education and the VCU School of Engineering.

VCU Student Research Weeks bring together undergraduate and graduate students from across disciplines to celebrate research and creative and scholarly projects. The event, which has grown in size and participation in the past four years, is an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to present overviews of their current projects, theses or dissertations.

These projects span many academic disciplines, including interdisciplinary studies, the College of Humanities and Sciences and the schools of allied health professions, arts, business, education, engineering, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and social work. Students will be available to demonstrate and discuss their projects.

For more information about this event, contact Karen Rader at (804) 828-9642.

For a complete schedule of VCU Student Research Weeks events visit

VCU student Nico Andrade earns Goldwater Scholarship

Goldwater-Andrade-featureBy Mike Porter

University Public Affairs
(804) 828-7037

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Virginia Commonwealth University student has been awarded the Goldwater Scholarship, the premier national scholarship for undergraduate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students.

Nicolas “Nico” Andrade, a sophomore, will receive scholarship funding to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year. Andrade, a member of the VCU Honors College, is majoring in electrical engineering through the School of Engineering and physics through the College of Humanities and Sciences. He is the 10th VCU student to be awarded a Goldwater Scholarship since 2007.

“We are excited for Nico on his well-deserved selection as a 2014 Goldwater Scholar. He joins a distinguished group of outstanding VCU undergraduate research students who have received this honor,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU. “We also want to acknowledge the important role of Nico’s research mentor, Dr. Ümit Özgür, in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. VCU’s emphasis on the undergraduate research experience ensures that future students will continue to be competitive for Goldwater Scholarships and admission to the top graduate programs in their field of study. It is another benefit of the university’s status as a top research university.”

Andrade, who is from Mechanicsville, is a 2012 graduate of the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. In graduate school, he intends to conduct research in optoelectronics to improve the efficiency of light emitters. After his graduate studies, he plans to continue to pursue translational research in optoelectronics devices while teaching at a university level.

The Goldwater Scholarship Program, which honors the late Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, was designed to foster and encourage outstanding undergraduate students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering.

Andrade applied for the Goldwater Scholarship through the National Scholarship Office, which assists VCU students and alumni who wish to compete for prestigious national and international scholarships.

Read the full article by Mike Porter:

True detective: Vanessa Fuentes


Undergraduate explores importance of familismo for Latino college students

University Public Affairs

Monday, April 14, 2014

In the beginning stages of her research career, Vanessa Fuentes has already found her passion. In a topic area that hits close to home, Fuentes is exploring cultural factors that play into mental health problems among college students.

“There has been a rise in mental health issues in college-aged Latinos in recent years,” said Fuentes, a senior psychology student in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I wanted to explore whether cultural factors, such as ethnic identity and familismo, buffer the relationship between stress, discrimination and mental health outcomes in Latino college students. Familismo is the close bond between immediate and extended family members in the Latino community.”

Fuentes applied for and received a VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program summer fellowship that allowed her to create her own research experience and project.

“UROP provided a great steppingstone for me and gave me amazing exposure to learning the process of research,” Fuentes said. “Through the UROP fellowship, I worked with my mentor, Dr. Rosalie Corona, and developed the research project on my own. It was very nice to have that flexibility. I was able to create my own research experience.”

For her research project, “How Does Culture Affect Latino College Students’ Mental Health?” Fuentes analyzed data collected from 198 Latino young adults who were recruited from two universities. These participants completed several questionnaires.

Seventy percent of participants reported minimal to mild symptoms of depression and 15 percent reported moderate to severe depressive symptoms. The results showed cultural factors were related to mental health outcomes and that close ties to family, or familismo, moderates the relationship between acculturative stress and mental health problems.

“I found that higher levels of familismo served as a protective factor against depression, anxiety and acculturative stress symptoms,” Fuentes said.

Read the full article by Frances Dumenci:

True detective: Nathalie Spita


Student learns how research can move from the lab to the patient bedside

University Public Affairs, VCU Across the Spectrum (

Monday, April 14, 2014

When Nathalie Spita decided to take her learning beyond the classroom and into the laboratory, she didn’t fully grasp how basic scientific findings could one day translate to help and hope for patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Spita, a senior biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, spent her summer as part of a research team in the laboratory of Andrew K. Ottens, Ph.D., assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiologyin the VCU School of Medicine. The focus there is to develop improved diagnostics and prognostics for TBI patient care.

Under Ottens’ guidance, Spita got a taste of the discovery process and began to understand the trials and tribulations of biomedical research.

“Being able to be a major part of a hands-on project allowed me to learn firsthand the amount of time, dedication, hard work and knowledge it takes to complete only a small part of a bigger project,” Spita said.

Spita has always had an interest in neuroscience. She was hooked on the TBI project from the beginning. She said what compelled her most was its direct clinical relevance.

“It was very important to gain exposure to research as an undergraduate at this stage of my education to actually understand this side of science and medicine,” Spita said. “It allowed me to finally use knowledge I have gained in my undergraduate classes and apply it to a real life experience, which has really been the best possible opportunity of my undergraduate career.”

Spita has plans to apply to medical school at the end of the year. She hopes to one day incorporate research into her career.

Spita was matched with Ottens through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at VCU.

In Ottens’ lab, Spita evaluated how the TBI molecular signature evolves during the course of acute inpatient brain injury rehabilitation. The researchers have newly identified several neuroplastic molecular factors present within the urine of TBI patients. Their focus was to determine how this signature changed following two weeks of inpatient rehabilitation and to evaluate correlation with functional measures at discharge.

“UROP provided me with the means to be completely submerged into research,” Spita said. “Seeing and learning what it means to be a part of cutting-edge biomedical research has truly been an eye-opening experience that has changed my academic experience entirely.”

Read the full article by Sathya Achia Abraham: