UMBC grad students give memorable snapshots of research with impact

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski pointed out something interesting about the Graduate Research Conference as he spoke to the hundreds assembled for this year’s event: it’s not just about the research. It’s about communicating why research matters.

“Today is important to develop a sense of self that allows you to stand up in front of people and speak with confidence,” Hrabowski told the students in the crowd. “You will become leaders, and people expect that of leaders,” he said, noting that communicating effectively is essential to helping the public and research funders understand not just a specific project, but “the value of research” for society.

UMBC’s 38th Graduate Research Conference, held on March 23, 2016, was jam-packed with presentations, professional development events, and a new Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition that challenged students to give clear and engaging bite-size descriptions of their research topics.

Combined, these events provided an incredible experience for participants. They also offered a glimpse into what Graduate School Dean Janet Rutledge described as how graduate research “adds to the academic richness of this university.”

Presentations throughout the day spanned all three UMBC colleges and a very broad range of topics.

Michael Abrams, a Ph.D. student in public policy, studied recent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warnings for medications that treat depression, asthma, diabetes, and smoking addiction, and considered how media coverage of the warnings influenced medication usage. “Warnings matter,” explained Abrams, “and there is a good deal of evidence that news coverage matters.” Through qualitative and quantitative analysis, Abrams discovered strong evidence that FDA warnings led to decreased usage of medications in many instances, suggesting a greater focus by the FDA on communications could boost the impact of future warnings.

The role of social media in propelling the Black Lives Matter movement sparked Deborah Kadiri’s research project “The Hashtag as a New Genre: #BlackLivesMatter.” Describing her topic, Kadiri shared, “I wanted to find something that had personal interest for me as well as social, political, and historical relevance.” As a texts, technologies, and literature master’s student, Kadiri compared communications surrounding the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s with the contemporary movement utilizing #BlackLivesMatter. She discovered that the hashtag often serves as a bridge between virtual and in-person conversations, and she highlighted how social media opens up spaces for new conversations about civil rights.

Daniel Orozco, a PhD student in atmospheric physics, studies the impact of humidity on aerosol particles, which are known to have serious health and climate impacts. Current technologies to measure aerosol particles are inexact when it comes to humidity variation, but Orozco’s presentation described how UMBC’s airplane-based Polarized Imaging Nephelometer (PI-NEPH) tool was designed to move past those limitations. His work seeks to improve aerosol sensing techniques and models that impact how scientists understand air quality and climate change.

Each year, the Delmarva region generates approximately seven million tons of poultry litter, leading to problematically high levels of phosphorus local bodies of water, like the Chesapeake Bay. To reduce the amount of phosphorus finding its way into bodies of water, Utsav Shashvatt, a PhD student in chemical, biochemical and environmental engineering (CBEE), is developing a process to recover nutrients, like phosphorus, from animal waste. Shashvatt notes that his work has “the potential of recovering about 120,000 tons of phosphorus.”

Amanda Lo, a master’s student in biological sciences, shared her research on the immune systems of fruit flies as the insects age. “I am looking at three specific genes to see if they have a critical role in the immune system,” she said. Lo injected one-week-old and five-weeks-old fruit flies with E. coli bacteria then plated and incubated the organisms. The resulting bacterial colonies indicated which genes led to a weaker or stronger immune system response. Her research may have future pharmaceutical applications.

Jeffrey Gangwisch ’18 M.F.A., Intermedia and Digital Arts presented “The Human Figure as Animal and Object,” which illustrated his research and experiments with “alternative methods of documenting, obscuring and interacting with the natural world.” He discussed his use of 3D scanning and printing through UMBC’s Prototyping and Design (PAD) Lab, meshing body scans together to explore remapping the human form and 3D technology itself as a tool to reconsider the art forms of photography, sculpture, drawing, and video.

“Iteration & Vestige” by Melissa Penley Cormier ’17, M.F.A., Intermedia and Digital Arts, was an introduction to the artist’s work mapping time through daily creative acts. Cormier explained her interest in the scientific method and her iterative process to archive and record mark-making and material experiments. Her most recent work has her “looking at her worries” with an array of apparati, from a child’s microscope to “magic lanterns.”

A presentation by William Klotz ’17 M.A.T., education, described his intermedia approach to researching the effects of activist action on national identity. His focus was on 39 years of weekly marches in the Plaza de Mayo by mothers of desaparecidos in Argentina. The culmination of his presentation was a dance he choreographed for a Spanish course on utopias and dystopias, performed by UMBC dance students Nikaela Bryan ’16, Rachel Lum ’16, and Samantha Siegel ’19.

Throughout the morning presenters competed in an initial round of the 3MT contest, vying for a spot in the finals where they would deliver their talks to an auditorium full of eager listeners, including President Hrabowski.

“We all were very excited about the competition, and so were the audience and participants,” says Sourabh Arsey ’16, M.S., information systems, conference chair and vice president of the Graduate Student Association. “It feels great to be part of something new and I thank the whole graduate community for supporting us.”

Emcee Dan Miller, Ph.D. student in atmospheric physics, noted that some disciplines have dissertations up to 80,000 words, so trimming that down to a jargon-free three-minute talk with just one visual aid would be quite a feat. The grand prize winner would earn a trip to the regional competition at the Council of Southern Graduate Schools, and second- and third-prize winners would receive monetary awards.

The speakers quickly impressed their audience with research ranging from addressing troubling vulnerabilities in our everyday internet use, to creating “cyberphysical systems” that can help people with limited mobility become more independent, to targeting HIV drugs in ways that can avoid drug resistance. The contest winner was Kiranmayi Mangalgiri, Ph.D. student in CBEE, who spoke about the role of dissolved organic matter in determining how UV light transforms antibiotics in water impacted by agricultural runoff.

“The worst thing you can say [in describing your research] is, ‘It’s too complicated,” President Hrabowski shared just before the 3MT finals began. The presenters took to heart his advice: “Be part of the bridge…to represent your discipline [in connecting] with the public.”

Image: Daniel Orozco, Ph.D. student in atmostpheric physics, presents his research at the 2016 UMBC Graduate Research Conference. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.