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2017 Honors Summer Fellows

Each year, students apply for and are granted a $5K stipend from the HSF Endowment to spend the summer researching and writing their thesis. Meet this year's Honors Summer Fellows.

Michelle Diaz | Lobbying and Congressional Stagnation on Gun Control Legislation

In 2016, an average of 41 people per day lost their life to firearms in the United States of America. Yet, the House and Senate have not passed substantive gun control legislation since 2007. After the Pulse Nightclub Massacre in June of 2016, the United States Senate saw a 15 hour filibuster which aimed to push gun control legislation through the Senate. Ultimately, the measure failed, but not without catching my attention. My thesis explores congressional stagnation on the topic of gun control legislation by examining the relationship between lobbying and roll call votes. Furthermore, my thesis will compare data sets collected by the FEC of money spent per district by lobbying corporations to the votes of corresponding congressional representatives.

Neha Hafeez | Expression of Mutant Myosin Binding Protein C in Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) occurs when heart muscle cells enlarge, resulting in the thickening of the heart walls and impaired cardiac function. HCM is usually inherited, but can be developed due to aging or other heart related problems. I am working on my thesis in Dr. Sharlene Day’s lab, specifically exploring the role of Myosin Binding Protein C (MyBPC) in HCM. By combining actual patient data with protein functional assays, I am studying how potential disease causing mutations in certain regions of MyBPC impair function.

I am majoring in Cellular and Molecular Biology, so I am very interested in learning about the microscopic mechanisms behind the functions and behaviors we observe. I specifically chose to conduct research in a cardiology lab because as a pre-medicine student, doing research that gives insights into conditions that people suffer from is very important to me. Likewise, the conclusions from my research project could potentially be used for advancements towards earlier diagnoses or even treatments of HCM in the future.

Etienne Herrick | Cover Cropping and Industrialized Food Production

Though we are all intimately engaged with the food system as consumers, many of us remain unaware of the harmful externalities industrialized food production creates, including the consumption of tremendous amounts of water, fossil fuels, and land once home to invaluable natural ecosystems. I was first made aware of and became interested in this topic after enrolling in a Food Systems course at UM. In an effort to help build a more sustainable food system, my thesis research will explore the ecologically-based practice of cover cropping. Cover crops are grown in-between cash-crop growing seasons when fields would normally be left bare, and serve to restore and strengthen agro-ecosystem functioning, rather than being destined for sale or consumption. In growing these cover crops, a diverse array of ecosystem services like pollination, reduced soil erosion, nutrient cycling and many more are supported. The degree and types of services delivered often depend upon which cover crop species are chosen, as different species possess different traits which enable them to excel at particular ecological functions. With these trait-based differences in mind, I seek to design a cover crop experiment in which species with seemingly complementary traits are grown together in mixtures, such that cover crop species diversity is strategically increased (hence, increasing plant trait diversity and any associated ecosystem functions). In this way, the use of cover crop mixtures may elicit the delivery of a broader set of ecosystem services, as compared to when only one cover crop species is grown at a time. Building upon this line of research will not only benefit society at present, but also support its continued survival.

John (Jack) Gatti | NOTCH3 and Cerebral Autosomal Dominant Arteriopathy

Our arteries are lined with a layer of smooth muscle that enables them to contract, dilate, and ultimately control how much blood flows to different parts of the body. However, in a genetic disease called Cerebral Autosomal Dominant Arteriopathy with Subcortical Infarcts and Leukoencephalopathy (CADASIL), the most common hereditary stroke disorder, there is a mutation in a gene expressed in the vascular smooth muscle cells of the brain. This mutation causes the arteries in the brain to thicken and narrow, leaving patients susceptible to dementia and stroke. The mutated protein, NOTCH3, accumulates in blood vessels and appears to contribute to the progression of the disease. My thesis will focus on a small protein fragment of NOTCH3, its N-terminal fragment (NTF), which falls off of NOTCH3 and can disrupt the structure of other NOTCH3 proteins. I hope to answer critical questions regarding the mechanism of this interaction as well as its biological effects.

Growing up, I watched several family members suffer from cardiovascular health conditions, so when I came to college, I had a strong desire to apply my love for science in a way that could help people suffering in similar ways. That motivation led me to seek a research position in Dr. Michael Wang’s lab at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, a lab that I have worked with for the past three years. Taking what I have learned in the classroom and applying toward an intellectual pursuit that I feel passionately about has been the most formative academic experience of my college years. In the Wang lab, I have investigated CADASIL pathophysiology from a number of different angles, and I am excited for my undergraduate research to culminate in a thesis on a topic that has not yet been well explored.

Ellie Homant | LGBTQ Representation on YouTube

My thesis project investigates representations of LGBTQ individuals on YouTube. In recent years, LGBTQ representation in the media has grown enormously with the inclusion of LGBTQ characters on many network television shows and increasing visibility in the news. Besides this growing space in more traditional forms of mass media, online spaces have also provided a unique platform to the LGBTQ community). However, unlike many other forms of traditional mass media, online platforms, such as YouTube, allow people to represent themselves on their own terms. This is due to the relatively low barriers to entry required for production on many spaces on the Internet.

Given this new level of accessibility, I’m curious about the different types of representations that might appear on YouTube and how these might be similar to or different from what is depicted in other forms of media. Are these often self-produced representations more accurate? More authentic? Or might we see a similar pattern of representation structured by the same kinds of power dynamics that we see in offline life (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.)? As we continue to see a rise in representations of LGBTQ individuals, it is important to understand how forms of new media, such as the Internet, are and/or are not enabling new forms of representation. I aim to observe LGBTQ representations on several different subgenres of YouTube, for example, beauty vlogging, in an attempt to put these forms of self-representation in dialogue with other pre-existing representations.

 

Nolan Kavanagh | "Gene-tethering" and Periodontics

Periodontal disease is one of our greatest public health challenges, eroding away bone and tissue in the mouths of half of American adults. Cutting-edge treatments like gene therapy aim to regenerate lost bone and tissue. My thesis project with Dr. William Giannobile of Michigan’s School of Dentistry uses a chemical surface treatment that tethers the genes for growth factors onto effectively any surface, such as the titanium of an implant. The treatment then delivers the genes to nearby cells, encouraging them to produce the growth factors and regrowing the bone and tissue.

I am entering the fourth of a five-year dual-degree problem, with a bachelor’s in biochemistry and Spanish and a master’s in public health. My research in periodontics blends these passions, allowing me to explore the biochemical nature of life while working to tangibly improve its quality for many people. I am particularly impassioned by social disparities of health. Oral diseases — a “silent epidemic” — disproportionately impact people of lower income and can even impede social advancement.

Nita Kedharnath | Reducing Gendered Performance Differences in Introductory Physics

Gendered performance differences (GPDs) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses are an unfortunate reality at many large universities throughout the country. Despite entering STEM classes with the same cumulative GPA, major, ACT math scores, and other relevant academic factors, often times women perform worse than men. In particular, women tend to receive lower grades on exams, while receiving higher or equal grades on homework and projects. Stereotype threat, a situation where a person experiences a fear of confirming a negative stereotype about their identity when in an evaluative environment, is one possible cause for these GPDs. The extra anxiety caused by stereotype threat often leads to underperformance. My thesis work focuses on reducing the GPDs in introductory physics classes by weakening the effects of stereotype threat through various experiments on methods of assessment. GPDs in physics courses are particularly important to me because I am a female physics major studying to become a high school physics teacher. Throughout high school and college I have been made aware of the stereotype that “physics is a masculine subject.” By reducing the GPDs in introductory physics classes, my hope is that more women will enjoy physics, be more successful at it, and continue in the field. In addition, it is important to me that classes are run equitably, and this research is an opportunity to determine methods for reducing the effects of stereotype threat on under-performing students.

Megan Knittel | LGBTQ Communities in Digital Spaces

Technology has transformed how people form their social circles, the way different cultures interact, and the boundaries of community. Digital spaces like forums, news outlets, blogs, online video games, and many other so-called digital communities have become places of unity, empowerment, and belonging for people across the globe, including LGBTQ individuals. My thesis seeks to explore the ways in which LGBTQ identified communities carve out a territory for themselves in this vast new “digital space” - that is to say, any place in which people use technology to communicate. My project looks to investigate the ways in which LGBTQ-identified technology users share, create, and grow their digital relationships through the unique opportunities offered by modern communication technologies. The idea for my thesis project was born in an anthropology course when my professor apologized for the lack of research done on LGBTQ individuals in their discipline. Looking further into my professor’s statement sparked my curiosity about why discussions in academia about the experiences of LGBTQ communities seemed to be absent. This realization combined with my interest in the way that the Internet has changed human social life led to the development of my project. My interest in anthropology in general stems from my belief that understanding what it means to be human is fundamental to creating an inclusive, equitable global society.

 

Noah McCarthy | Explaining East Timor: Silent Suffering in the “Season of Inquiry”

What is America’s rightful role on the global stage, and how is the line drawn between pragmatism and morality? Internally, how much unchecked power are we comfortable entrusting to the policy architects and intelligence officers of the executive branch? In the disarray and disillusionment of the early 1970s, amidst the Watergate scandal and the largest antiwar movement in American history, our nation began to grapple with these questions on an unprecedented scale. Through a series of media exposés and Congressional committees documenting widespread abuses of the CIA and Nixon administration, amendments were passed to oversee the intelligence community and prohibit further aid or military assistance towards several Cold War conflicts. One exception stands out: the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor, paradoxically marked by extraordinary violence, discretion, and American assistance, designed to evade Congressional attention and suppress press coverage by whatever means necessary. I wish to explore this apparent contradiction by researching the respective roles of the State Department, Congress, and the media regarding American support for the invasion. By doing so, I hope to contextualize the case of East Timor within a unique moment in American history, assessing and analyzing the limitations of this anti-interventionist tide.

My project came about through a personal interest in both power politics and the socio-political transformations of the Vietnam War era. While exploring the archives of the Ford Presidential Library, I was struck by how sensitive Henry Kissinger and other high-ranking officials were to the dual threats of Congressional restrictions and media attention during the East Timor invasion. Their fears now seem almost naive: there was virtually no media coverage nor Congressional action. Given the human cost of East Timor’s occupation--which left over 200,000 dead--and the costs of countless other interventions hidden from the American public’s view, I felt obligated to study why and how such an operation was possible even in the midst of a so-called “season of inquiry”.

 

Ethan Miles | The World Trade Organization and Preferential Trade Agreements

While nearly-universal membership in the World Trade Organization has slashed global barriers to trade, countries continue to sign preferential trade agreements (PTAs) to deepen cross-border economic ties, codify common rules and standards, and enhance comparative advantage. PTAs contain a unique mechanism for influence, as countries are often required to change domestic law to comply with the agreement’s provisions. Over the past two decades, developed countries have begun pushing their developing peers to raise standards for the protection of intellectual property rights. When met with this pressure, we see developing countries push back, requiring concessions if they are to accept western norms. While the United States and European Union are often willing to concede further openness in exchange for raised standards, other developed countries that generate considerable intellectual property are more hesitant to do so. My project seeks to explore that difference in negotiation tactics, how certain countries benefit from others’ agreements without paying a cost, and how regional trading blocs simplify the process of negotiation and facilitate the standardization of global rules. I am interested in the forces that link humanity in this increasingly globalized age, the nature of a rules-based global order, and the future of western leadership on the world stage. In a time in which globalization and free trade have come under heavy fire from both right and left, understanding how countries promote their standards and values—and what they give up in exchange—will provide further depth to the complex story of global trade, and hopefully enhance public discourse regarding integration.

Sai Nimmagadda | The Role of the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor in Survival of Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinomas

Cells, the tiniest units of life, are incredibly complex. I was fascinated by their ability to create tissues and organ systems capable of sustaining so many different organisms without fail. However, when things go wrong in the process, such as mutations, the results can be disastrous. I joined the Brenner Lab as a freshman to pursue a deeper understanding of tumorigenic cells. My project focuses on studying the role of the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) in survival of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). Squamous Cell Carcinomas represent malignant growth of abnormal cells in the upper layers of the skin, composed of “squamous cells”. EGFR is over expressed in 80% of head and neck cancers. As a result, it has the potential to provide insight into the cellular mechanisms that help promote cancer survival and metastasis. By utilizing a CRISPR/Cas-9 approach and knocking out EGFR, I hope to determine the changes this causes to cell signaling pathways specific to HNSCCs. By identifying the changes that result from a knockout of EGFR, I can examine the effects of various inhibitors as mono and combo therapies to determine the most effective treatment strategy. Besides the knockout steps, I intend to perform a “knock-in” control where I reintroduce EGFR into a knockout cell line and observe whether the cellular phenotypes and protein levels return to their pre-knockout stage. This would confirm that the genetic knockout is causing the changes in cellular function. Long term, these experiments could identify potential targets for drugs which would help treat patients in a more targeted manner based on the specific mutations of their genes.

 

Pauline Pan | Sex Differences in the Role of Ventral Hippocampus Following Retrieval of Context Fear Memory

My research, mentored by Dr. Natalie Tronson and Ashley Keiser, in the department of Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience, focuses on the sex differences in fear memory retrieval (i.e., memory involving an unpleasant experience such as a mild footshock to rodents, or experience of death/injury for soldiers), and will have substantial implications for sex-specific treatments of fear and anxiety related disorders. Understanding the basic brain functions contributing to fear and fear memory is important for greater understanding of disorders of fear and anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Meanwhile, understanding the neural basis of fear-related memory in both males and females, will allow for more sophisticated treatment plans for both sexes. In this project, we will determine whether there is a sex-specific pattern in retrieval of context fear memory, and we will primarily focus on the ventral hippocampus.

Rennie Pasquinelli | Language Processing of Children with Cochlear Implants

Damage to the cochlea, a part of the inner ear, is a common cause of deafness and profound hearing loss. Cochlear implants are a relatively new technology that provide a sense of hearing to those with cochlear damage. While popularity of the device has surged since it became available, oral language speakers still face many problems in language production and processing. Children and adults with cochlear implants historically have trouble picking up on tone and pitch in spoken language, as well as difficulty acquiring language at the same pace as their typically hearing peers. As a student studying Cognitive Science and Linguistics, my research interests lie in the crossroads of language learning and communication disorders.

Using neuroimaging technology known as fNIRS, my thesis investigates the neural activity of children with cochlear implants as they process language. My project seeks to answer a question I am eager to answer across the spectrum of communication disorders: where does a specific impairment to language surface in the brain? This question is uniquely exciting to answer with regards to children with cochlear implants due to the nature of language acquisition; the first six years of our lives are most important in acquiring any language. Beyond that, my thesis will be one of the first neuroimaging studies on children with cochlear implants due to the fact that mainstream neuroimaging technology, such as MRI and EEG, is incompatible with cochlear implants. I am excited to make a contribution to further the understanding of language in the brain for those with hearing impairments.

 

Aaron Renberg | Characterizing Diabetic Molecular Mechanisms Through Genetic Manipulation

I’m a rising senior jointly pursuing a Bachelor’s in Cellular and Molecular Biology and a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering. My thesis research involves leveraging cutting-edge genetic manipulation techniques to better characterize the molecular mechanisms behind diabetes. Specifically, I’m looking to reveal how and where the protein Clec16a adds ubiquitin (a sort of molecular on/off switch) to another protein, Nrdp1. This ubiquitination plays a key role in a cellular signaling pathway that regulates the health of a cell’s mitochondria, the organelle responsible for powering the cell. Since disruption of this pathway can be an underlying cause of diabetes on a cellular level, better understanding its nature could ultimately lead to a better chance at finding a cure or preventative treatment. I chose this project because it was a natural outgrowth of the work I’ve done for the Soleimanpour lab at the Brehm Center for Diabetes Research, where I’ve worked part time for the past two years. In addition to my thesis project satisfying my fascination with proteomics and molecular biology, I’ve always felt that diabetes research was especially worthwhile since one of my closest friends has had to deal with type I diabetes for as long as I’ve known her. When I’m not in the lab, I usually trade in my micropipette for either a fencing foil or a hockey stick.

 

Morgan Rondinelli | The Dilution Effect in Disease Ecology

My thesis will focus on the dilution effect, a concept in disease ecology. The idea is as you increase the biodiversity (number of species) in an ecosystem, you are "diluting" the most competent hosts. Parasite transmission should decrease because parasites will sometimes infect less competent hosts instead.

Nonetheless, whether or not you actually get a dilution is variable across systems. My thesis hypothesizes one reason why: it depends on how many parasites are in the environment. We think if there are either minimal or abundant parasites, there won't be a dilution. If there are too few parasites or the environment is already saturated with parasites, then changing the biodiversity won’t make a difference. However, if you are in the middle of possible parasite "doses," that might be where you get a dilution.

I am a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. I first became interested in parasitology and disease ecology after taking a class on the Ecology of Human Parasites. We discussed the dilution effect with the Lyme disease system, and since then I have wanted to learn more.

 

G Ryan | Queer: From Derogatory to Positive Self-Identifier

The first time someone reprimanded me for using the word queer to identify myself, I was confused. I find the term appealing because of its fluidity, and I wish to capitalize on the ambiguity which that allows. Being queer remains a critical part of my identity because it enables me to classify my gender and my sexuality without ever locking them into a box. Little did I know at the time of the long and complicated history surrounding the word queer, and how it would impact my academic focus.

My name is G and I am a double major in English and Women’s Studies, with a minor in Sociocultural Anthropology. I am also a varsity swimmer, which means I understand early morning practices and constantly smelling like chlorine. My thesis intends to document how, when, and why the word queer shifted from a derogatory term and slur to a positive self-identifier. I also seek to better explain the generational divide in the people that tend to use the term in daily life and vocabulary. Through linguistic and cultural analysis, literary examples, and data collection, I hope to formulate a genealogy for the word queer.

 

Elisabeth Silver | Physiological Effects of Sexist Behavior

Research on the physiological effects of sexism has largely focused on its harmful effects on women. This work has helped to demonstrate the far-reaching consequences of sexist behavior. However, little is known about how sexism affects the perpetrators’ physiology. This information has transformative potential, by helping to illuminate some of the physiological effects of engaging in sexist behavior, and may clarify some of the motivational and reinforcing properties of sexist behavior.  To address this gap in past research, my advisor and I plan to study changes in men’s testosterone in response to an imagined sexist scenario. Increased testosterone is associated with social status, competition, and aggression, while decreased testosterone is associated with nurturing behavior. Because sexism serves as a way for men to maintain or gain status relative to women, either through aggression (hostile sexism) or paternalistic condescension and protection (benevolent sexism), we predict that hostile sexism will increase men’s testosterone due to its aggressive nature, and benevolent sexism will decrease men’s testosterone due to its seemingly nurturant nature.

Although many women have been afforded increasing opportunities and equality in recent decades, research indicates that women are still confronted by sexist behavior on a surprisingly regular basis. Interestingly, men tend not to notice this sexist behavior, or to not label such behavior as sexist. This has led to sexism being framed as largely a “women’s issue,” despite the fact that men are, on average, more likely to hold higher sexist attitudes than women. Through this study, I hope to resist the notion that sexism is a “women’s issue” by demonstrating that sexism affects men’s physiology. As a feminist scientist, I see the current research project as an opportunity to combat sexism through a better understanding of the intersection of social contexts, identity, and physiology.

 

Ben Weil | Tyches and Civic Identity in Late Antiquity

After leaving Minneapolis for college in 2014 and coming to Ann Arbor, I became extremely proud of my hometown in ways that I didn’t expect. I started following Minnesota sport teams intently and I could never pass up the chance to brag about my hometown to someone talking about “flyover country.” My defensiveness surprised me and I became interested in topics of modern civic pride and urban identity.

Thinking about my own ties to home reminded me of the Tyches that I had learned about in my first art history class at Michigan. Tyches were city goddesses that were commonly revered from the end of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages, and they both defended and personified the cities they represented. While people prayed to them for good luck and protection, citizens also actively chose the Tyche’s characteristics in order to best exemplify their city. Tyches sit at the intersection of religious practice and physical geography, and they provided their citizens with a source of identification during a time of great change. My honors thesis in art history will use images of Tyches as a jumping off point to examine greater themes of civic identity in late antiquity.

 

Prathusha Yerramilli | Effects of Artificial Placenta and Gastrointestinal Issues in Premature Infants

Every year around 15 million babies are born prematurely in the US. If they even survive infancy, these babies face many complications that follow them throughout their lives. In fact, in 2015, complications of prematurity killed nearly 1 million children. The root of many of these complications lies in the fact that a preemie’s organs are very underdeveloped. In 2014, as a freshman in the UROP program, I started working in a lab that has spent the past 10+ years developing an artificial placenta (AP) using ECMO technology and premature lamb models. This AP works as a simulated intra-uterine environment that allows severely premature babies to continue critical organ development even after birth. Over the years, I noticed our lambs developing gastrointestinal (GI) issues, and started wondering about the AP and GI growth, development, and injury. My thesis aims to better understand the effect of the AP on the GI tract through histological analysis of cell and tissue markers of development and injury.