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8 Undergrads Doing Research You Must Know About

8 Undergrads Doing Research You Must Know About

Each April, the College of Natural Sciences celebrates undergraduate researchers, and this year is no exception. This week, on Wednesday and Thursday during the 40 Hours for the Forty Acres campaign, the College is raising funds to support student researchers in the award-winning Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). 

​Next Friday, April 13, is the annual Undergraduate Research Forum in the Texas Union. And the following week, the University celebrates Research Week campus-wide.

Read on to meet eight amazing students who are doing world-changing research here in one of the nation's best colleges for undergraduate scientific research.

Ashlie Martinez, senior computer science major

Ever had a computer crash and lose all of your data? Martinez is working to prevent exactly that: her research focuses on creating a way to ensure that file systems can hold up to their crash consistency guarantees. She has created a collection of software and test data called CrashMonkey that rigorously tests pre-existing code for implementing crash consistency mechanisms in a file system and reporting the bugs to the Linux mailing list. For her work with Professor Vijay Chidambaram, Martinez received the Computing Research Association's Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher award last December.

"One of the exciting parts about my research is that I am exploring and working in an area that not many people have worked in before, so I get to try my hand at solving new problems. I hope that this research can become a tool for file-system developers to use to help avoid painful data loss bugs caused by crash consistency issues. "

Kavya Rajesh, sophomore chemistry major

Organs for donations currently have extremely short shelf lives, and they cannot be frozen due to ice formations. Working in the lab of Dr. Carlos Baiz, Rajesh studies protein denaturation -- the disruption of protein structures -- in cryoprotectants, which are mixtures of chemicals that can stop ice formation in living systems. Her work provides the foundation for preserving tissues and organs in the long term, which has huge implications in the fields of medicine and biomedical technology. She has presented her research at this year's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin and the American Chemical Society (ACS) conference, and was named a Best Speaker at the UT Fall Undergraduate Research Symposium (FURS) last year.

"My PI [primary investigator] once told me that you know you are doing science if you learn something about the world. Every absorption on every spectrum tells us something, and the few moments of learning something scattered throughout all the failures make research worthwhile. Furthermore, the people I have met through research have changed my life and I have found mentorship and lifelong friendships through my research experiences."

Wesley Godfrey, senior biology major

T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (T-ALL), a pediatric cancer that kills approximately 2000 individuals annually in the United States, is a cancer of a type of white blood cells called T-lymphocytes. Godfrey's research focuses on identifying the cellular and molecular drivers of T-ALL growth. Specifically, his work investigates how a particular subset of immune cells called myeloid cells support the growth of T-ALL using a mouse model, and by identifying myeloid cells as the drivers of T-ALL growth, his research could help identify novel therapeutic targets that could be used in potential therapies for this type of cancer. Godfrey has received the STEP-UP fellowship from the National Institutes of Health for his research, and he will be enrolling in the MD/PhD program at John Hopkins this fall.

"My time in Lauren Ehrlich's lab, along with her immunology course, showed me how awesome immunology is, and I now know that immunology research is the place for me. It is exciting to understand how your research fits into the bigger picture, and I am glad that I can come to lab everyday knowing that I am exploring something I am passionate about."

André Zepeda, junior physics major 

After the 2004 discovery of graphene, scientists began searching for other unique materials that also could be "thinned-down" to a single atomic layer. One such material, known as transition metal dichalcogenide (TMD), was found to behave as a semiconductor when thinned down to one layer. Zepeda, who works in Dr. Elaine Li's lab, has created a sample of "thinned-down" TMD that can be used for future studies, as TMDs have the potential to replace silicon in today's electronic technology as the former is more flexible and can emit light under certain conditions. He has also co-authored two research papers and hopes to attend graduate school with a focus on condensed matter physics, the study of the physical properties of liquids, solids and other forms of matter in which atoms and molecules interact closely with each other.

"Seeing the level of interest from professors and research groups all around the world for the samples that I have created, which had previously been impossible, has been an extremely memorable experience. I knew that I wanted to continue into graduate school for an eventual PhD in physics but was unsure as to what area of study within physics. After working in this lab, I now know that condensed matter physics is what I will study, and I will be able to discover new materials and applications in technology."

Maike Morrison, sophomore math and biology major

Non-medical vaccination exemption rates in Texas schools have nearly doubled over the past five years. This could contribute to severe infectious disease outbreaks in the future. Morrison's research in Dr. Lauren Meyer's lab uses publicly available data to look for patterns in conscientious exemption rates and to identify the demographic groups and geographic regions of greatest public health concerns. She will be presenting her research this month at the Undergraduate Research Forum.

"My goal is to become a research scientist or professor investigating global health topics such as epidemic forecasting and the evolution of human diseases, and my current research has helped me to cement this plan, as it has not only given me experiences that will be valuable for the admission process but has also reinforced my interest in pursuing a career in scientific research at the intersection of evolution, math, and infectious disease."

Lavender Hackman, junior nutritional sciences major

Annexin proteins are found in every plant and animal, and they can help plants increase their survival rates. Hackman's research investigates how Annexin 1 allows plants to respond favorably to oxidative stress caused by metabolic byproducts, such as hydrogen peroxide, thereby increasing their chances of survival. Her work seeks to identify the functional region of the protein to better characterize its cell signaling mechanisms and response to stress. This past February, she presented her research at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin.

"Before working in this lab, I never considered doing research as one of my options. This research experience, which began through the Freshman Research Initiative, was my first one at the university, and it's been very rewarding to get results and be able to make sense of them. Although I'm not completely sure what I want to do, I am definitely interested in pursuing a career in research."

Jason Tsai, sophomore neuroscience major

Tsai's research at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center explores alternative solutions for clearing blockages in the main artery of the leg. Currently, standard procedures involve accessing the artery in an antegrade fashion, meaning the access point is by the hip, and the wire and tube are deployed in the normal direction of blood flow. This has proven unsuccessful for clearing blockage in special situations. Tsai studied retrograde access, in which the foot was punctured and the wires were brought upwards, and he found that this method was a successful and viable alternative. Tsai received a Best Presentation Award for his research, which was presented at last year's UT Fall Undergraduate Research Symposium (FURS).

"I plan on going to medical school after college, and doing research has further solidified that decision, because the research was done at a hospital with real-life patients with real-life complications. It gave me an eye-opening and humbling experience to what it was like balancing research and patient care."

Emily Strickland, junior astronomy major

The current theory on dark matter is that it's a type of matter that hasn't yet been directly observed, because it only interacts with normal matter through gravity. While this theory, called "Cold Dark Matter," can accurately model the large-scale structure of the universe, it doesn't do quite as well with dwarf galaxies. That's where Strickland's research comes in: she has been studying an alternative theory called "Self-interacting dark matter." This theory allows the particles to interact by scattering off of each other, like bumper cars, and has thus far fixed many of the small-scale issues. Strickland, who works in Dr. Michael Boylan-Kolchin's lab, was awarded several research fellowships for her work, and is currently working to publish her findings. 

"I have attended multiple conferences to present my research, including three American Astronomical Society conferences. Some of the most memorable moments have been finding my future advisor at a plenary talk and just the interest that people took in my poster presentation. Multiple people have asked for my business card because they now have a personal investment in my research, and it's been very exciting to discover things that no one else has ever discovered."

​For more peeks into undergraduate research, join us at this year's Undergraduate Research Forum, and be sure to follow Texas Science on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as FRI students take over the College's social media channels and host a live lab tour this week.

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