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2018 Honors Summer Fellows

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

Kavya Adiga|Gene Regulation in Paneth Cells

Cells in our body are able to differentiate into various cell types because they express certain genes while not expressing others. My lab is interested in how transcription factors (proteins that bind to DNA and turn genes on or off) may be interacting to facilitate gene regulation. My strong interest in molecular biology motivated me to join the Cadigan lab in my freshman year to start researching cells and their responses to signals. I was helping a graduate student with this project before branching off into my current thesis research on gene regulation in Paneth cells in the small intestine. Paneth cells are highly specialized cells which maintain the microflora of the small intestine and have anti-microbial functions. The genes we are focusing on are Human Defensin 5 and 6 (HD5/6). To understand how HD5/6 are being activated, I have been identifying and mutating potential transcription factor binding sites in the sequences of HD5/6. Through this method, I identified a novel motif that we are calling the CT motif. I am working to understand more about the CT motif, what molecules may bind there, and what its effect is on Paneth cell gene expression and differentiation.

Iman Ali|Successful Refugee Resettlement Policies

More than 65 million people today are classified as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, only 1% are able to resettle. As a refugee myself, I became intrigued with policies that shaped my childhood and my family’s experiences through resettlement. My thesis is interested in the role of anthropology as a field in understanding the encounter of public policy that shapes resettlement behaviors and attitudes with individualistic and lived refugee experiences in the metro Detroit and Ann Arbor areas. I am interested in learning about the ways in which voluntary organizations, who receive federal funding, are able to communicate with local communities and successfully resettle refugees within cities in which they are able to thrive. Moreover, this isn’t always a choice that refugees are content with, and sometimes choose to “migrate” again to cities in which they feel are more capable of meeting their needs. Through this thesis, I would like to challenge the role of the ‘native’ anthropologist and the understanding of the impact of policy and its implementation in shaping refugee experiences over time and space. The goal of my thesis is to attempt to create or work with sustainable solutions that honor individualistic refugee backgrounds while also ensuring that they are able to navigate their new home countries more effectively.

Melissa Berlin|Understanding Social Connectedness in Old Age

In high school, I had the unique privilege to join a project which connected a small group of high school students and Holocaust survivors to learn each other’s stories. Of my many experiences with Holocaust survivors, this one was unique for its emphasis on creating a respectful and engaging space for intergenerational relationships to blossom. Instead of merely listening to the survivors speak, we exchanged stories about our lives, giving equal value to the contribution of both the younger and older members of our small community. My family liked to poke (lighthearted) fun at me about my “new old friends”, but I was bewildered why my millennial and Gen Z peers were not lining up at the door for such an opportunity.

In the age of an exponentially increasing elderly population, my driving question is why aging and the elderly induce so much anxiety in our culture. I am fascinated by the barriers we intentionally and unintentionally construct that freeze the elderly out of normal society. My thesis narrows this interest to focus on how living arrangements, paired with decreasing functional capacity, influence old age social connectedness. With their capacity to live independently in peril, their social networks deteriorating and their transportation options dwindling, many seniors face the question of where to age. While many tout the benefits of aging in place, perhaps being “put in a home” offers greater potential to maintain social bonds and accumulate new ones. My thesis, currently titled “Would you Rather: Be at home or in a home?”, will compare the social connectedness and perceived isolation experience of elderly women who live alone at home and those who live in assisted living facilities.

Brendan Genaw|The Epigenetics of Sugar Consumption

From the bowl of cereal at breakfast, to the slice of pizza for dinner, sugar serves as a prominent ingredient in many of our foods. Many fitness programs emphasis the importance of a well-balanced diet, but how bad can a little sugar be? In addition to packing on extra pounds, an excessive amount of sugar consumption has been found to lead to the inability to taste sugar. Specifically, fruit flies placed on High Sugar Diets eventually lose the ability to taste low concentrations of sugar. This inability to taste sugar persists even after the flies are returned to a normal diet. Proboscis Extension Reflex, PER, involves touching sugar to the fruit flies, and PER allows researchers to quantify taste in fruit flies. Overall, the consumption of sugar in excess appears to alter the organism’s DNA, and this phenomenon results in irreversible taste loss. My thesis explores possible genetic avenues that may be used to reverse this taste loss.

As a runner, I have experienced the power sugar and diet can have on the body. In fact, it was while I was on a run that I first heard a podcast about sugar research being done at the University of Michigan. I now work at the Dus Lab and hope to use my research findings to not only help individuals lead healthier lives but challenge society’s view on food.

Rachel Gerth|Changing Perceptions on Death

Every person has a different view, feeling, and practice with regard to death. It seems that with age our perceptions change — possibly maturing as we do. However, my thesis will be focusing on whether institution, and therefore social world, has any effect on the perception and practice of death ritual. The institution I have the most interest in exploring is a retirement community — they are unique in that individuals with able bodies and minds opt to move into an area where there is a higher frequency of death. I believe that this change in social worlds, from a heterogeneous community with a normal/low frequency of death to a more homogenous community with a high frequency of death, is a contributing factor in changing perceptions of death. To test this hypothesis I’ll be conducting interviews with individuals living in retirement communities as well as observing behaviors in order to culminate an ethnography.

My thesis is through the Anthropology department, although I think my fascination with the topic of death stems from both personal experience and my pursuit of a career in medicine. Working in a retirement community for five years has allowed me the opportunity to experience a day in the life of a resident and witness the rituals associated with death in that setting. In a medical setting death is the common fear of both patients and physicians — from this perspective I feel that understanding death and how it’s perceived can be beneficial for a variety of communities.

Naveen Jasti|Understanding Jumping Genes

I work on LINE-1 (L1s) mobile elements in the human genome in the lab of Dr. John Moran. Most of the DNA in each cell in the human body remains unchanged due to highly accurate copying at each cell division, but L1s are jumping genes that can copy and paste themselves within the genome. This jumping has been implicated in disease, as an L1 can insert into an important gene, disrupting its function. To jump, L1s must make an RNA copy from the original DNA. I hope to examine the structure of the L1 RNA and determine whether the immune system might mistakenly recognize L1 RNA as a foreign pathogen.

I am majoring in Cellular and Molecular Biology and conduct research in a lab in the Department of Human Genetics. The versatility of RNA, especially for designing genetic systems, excites me. RNA encodes information but can also play a variety of roles in the cell based on the specific form it adopts. I am interested in how RNA structure facilitates its role.

Kelly Kendro|Second Language Acquisition and Attrition

Most University of Michigan students are required to complete a four-semester language requirement. This is easier for some students than others: some take the maximum number of ungraded semesters possible (which is three), while others (like me) have completed this requirement multiple times in different languages. For many students — and indeed, many language-learners — some common questions arise during this acquisition process: Will I ever be fluent? How will I remember all of this vocabulary? Am I too old to learn? Does any of this even matter?

I am double-majoring in Cognitive Science (with an emphasis on Language and Cognition) and Romance Languages with a Linguistics minor. I am primarily interested in second language acquisition and attrition, which are the processes through which a person learns and loses, respectively, knowledge of a foreign language after childhood. My thesis investigates the lasting cognitive effects of bilingualism to answer the last question posed (“Does any of this even matter?”). I will study individuals who have undergone the process of language attrition and compare their performance on various measures of working memory with those of monolinguals and bilinguals from the same community to determine what, if any, cognitive differences endure in the tested areas despite attrition. 

Suzie Kim|Understanding and Manipulating Biological Oscillators

Biological oscillators are absolutely essential biochemical and genetic networks that are used by the most simple organisms to the most complex. They drive processes such as circadian rhythms, heartbeats, and cell division cycles, and they are an incredibly efficient strategy used to transmit information in biological systems. My thesis, which I am working on with the Yang Lab in the Biophysics Department, focuses on understanding and manipulating these systems using the mitotic oscillator of dividing zebrafish embryos. With these embryos, I am working to produce extracts to develop a completely new cell-free system in which these oscillations can be observed. By encapsulating these active extracts into size-controllable chambers and tracking cell activity using fluorescent imaging, I am hoping to create mitotic oscillators in artificial cells.

I came to work in the Yang Lab due to my interest in biochemistry and the exciting prospects of biological oscillator research, which could in the future be applied vastly in the field of biology and perhaps in medicine as well. In the Yang Lab, I have worked on a similar project that explores the mitotic oscillator of ​Xenopus​ frog embryos, and I was interested in working with the zebrafish because I was interested in the biochemical networks of the system and because of the vast possibilities of the cell-free system due to the manipulability of zebrafish genetics.

Jesse Kozler|Making Our Future Selves Behave Rationally

When we as agents form an intention to accomplish something, we adopt a plan of action that depends on the cooperation of our future selves for its success. But frequently an individual’s preferences will change at some future time and, in the absence of any effective deterrents, they will reliably deviate from the original plan. By analyzing these failures of intertemporal utility maximization of individuals in the context of the bomb risk elicitation task (BRET), a recent introduction to the game theory literature, I hope to show that an agent’s dissent from their original strategy will in many cases result in the adoption of suboptimal strategies which are neither rational nor generalizable and will result in a net loss if repeated in the context of the BRET. I believe that a plausible theory of how to ensure cooperation between our current and future selves in these dynamic decisions does not currently exist in the literature, but that an adequate account is needed in order to explain the rational behavior of agents in similar situations.

I have always been fascinated by human behavior and trying to unravel the mystery of why any of us act the way we do in isolation, let alone in coordination as part of larger groups. This curiosity led me from pursuing an academic career in cognitive neuroscience to philosophy, finally settling on rational choice theory and behavioral economics. This problem of dynamic decision making is one that I have found to be particularly perplexing. I believe that agent decisions in the BRET will empirically demonstrate the need for individuals to adhere to their original strategies and my hope is to either postulate a mechanism by which they can accomplish that or, by failing to do so, strengthen the alternative position that we ought to take the misbehavior of our future selves into consideration at the onset and adjust our actions accordingly. 

Seth Randall|Populism and American Exceptionalism

The United States has an interesting and equally complicated relationship with populism. 18th and 19th-century populists, such as the People’s Party, Andrew Jackson, and the Farmer’s Alliance, are seen as historic cases of America’s strong anti-elitist and people-first tradition, and are celebrated as being the backbone to the American experiment. The contemporary literature, however, views populism in a different light, with populist actors such as Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Huey Long labelled pejoratively as being authoritarian and exclusionary. This divide raises an interesting question: is populism able to both express the will of the people and fulfill the desires of their base, without engaging in authoritarianism or exclusionary politics? By focusing on America’s populist history, I aim to uncover whether populism as a whole is inherently authoritarian and exclusionary, or whether factors of modern life differentiate it from the past.

This project is of particular interest to me because of my interest in the 2016 presidential election. The 2016 presidential election was unique in the sense that two alleged populists – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – ran for office, and the response to these actors by academics and political elites was widely different. The election’s particular intersection between history, normative theory, and praxis is what really got me interesting into studying both political science and philosophy in the first place. Throughout the summer and my senior year, I’m excited to apply what I’ve learned at Michigan, and better understand what initially sparked my curiosity.

Mariam Reda|Neural Mechanisms in PTSD

I am investigating the neural mechanisms behind Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) using fMRI analysis. With 8.3% of the trauma-exposed population subsequently developing lifetime PTSD​, my research investigates how who we are and the type of trauma we counter influences the way this disorder manifests in our brains. In a population of adolescents suffering from re-experiencing symptoms associated with PTSD, I will be analyzing whether assaultive trauma (intentional person-to-person harm) provides evidence for more significant brain mechanism alterations when compared to non-assaultive trauma. Furthermore, I will also be exploring whether inherent sex differences in brain region connectivity are present in the brains of healthy adolescents. 

I have always been interested in the interaction between an individual's identity and how this influences the way they experience the world. I initially pursued creative writing to explore and further understand the way this relationship between sensation, perception, and the resulting impact on an individual's identity. Subsequently, I directed my attention to biopsychology to ascertain and investigate the scientific basis behind neuropsychiatric disorders. As a double major in Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience (B.C.N.) and Creative Writing, I hope to contribute to the understanding of diverse individuals both personally and scientifically. 

Thomas Repasky|Maize Microbiome

The soil around plant roots is a very complex ecosystem, home to billions of bacteria and fungi. These microbes and the plants they live near affect each other by creating and releasing products into the soil. Millions of hectares of genetically engineered Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin producing crops are cultivated around the world and as a result Bt toxin is introduced into the soil. My thesis is focused on the natural microbial communities present in and around the roots of maize producing the Bt toxin. Using sequencing and imaging I will investigate the microbial communities present on two varieties of corn roots: Bt and non-Bt maize. I hypothesize that microbial communities will be significantly different between these varieties of maize, both in terms of microbial species present and spatial arrangement of microbial symbionts.

I came upon this project because of my interests in microbiology and plant growth, specifically for food production. I am interested in microbiology and microbial ecology in particular because of the importance of these tiny organisms in the microbiomes of plants and animals; without microbes inside of the human gut, we would be very unhealthy. I have always been interested in agriculture, both because of my love for growing plants and because of the universal importance of food production.

Avi Sholkoff|Jewish Defense League and Conceptions of Masculinity

I will be exploring the concepts of physical confrontation and masculinity within the context of Jewish Defense League and the teachings of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Specifically I will be focusing on the prime of the JDL in New York — the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I decided to pursue research in this area because of a general interest in American political conservatism that I honed through my history courses at the University. Through some investigation on a broad topic, I had a particular personal intrigue in politically conservative Jews. I then came across the Jewish Defense League — an organization I had never learned about despite many years of Jewish education. The appeal of examining masculinity arose from the idea that stereotypes of Jews often involve intelligence and timidity. The JDL and Rabbi Kahane, however, sought to change this perception and instill a sense of Jewish pride.

Overall, I hope that my project will allow for a unique understanding of both the Jewish Defense League as well as perceptions of American Jewry. 

Hannah Simmons|Cultural Factors of Vaccine Rejection

As the most common sexually transmitted infection globally and the leading cause of cervical cancer, human papillomavirus (HPV) imposes an immense burden on the health of both men and women. Since the mid-2000’s, prevention methods such as the HPV vaccine have become more widely available for much of the world, yet vaccination rates of young girls remain low in many places. My thesis will explore the reasons why women choose to reject these vaccines for their daughters by identifying attitudes and sociocultural factors of mothers in Romania and Rwanda during and after nationwide immunization programs. By using the Health Belief Model as a framework for predicting behavior, I hope to identify key determinants of maternal rejection that may be targeted in the future to increase acceptability of the HPV vaccines and reduce cervical cancer induced mortality.

As a double major in Biology and Gender & Health, this topic is one that truly connects my undergraduate learning experiences in a new and meaningful way. I first became interested in this particular intersection of natural and social sciences through a variety of public health courses and research experiences that highlighted the importance of human behavior in healthcare. I hope my thesis will help contribute to this interdisciplinary field in a meaningful way and better inform my career as a student and healthcare provider in the future.

Alexander Votta|Immigration Laws, Police, and Community Relations

Immigration is a topic that dominates the modern American political system, and enforcement is no small part of the conversation. Indeed, with more and more cities declaring themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants and forbidding local police from cooperating with federal immigration officials, the proper relationship between local law enforcement and federal immigration law is central to modern immigration debates. As a student of history, these debates made me curious as to what role local police have played previously in immigration enforcement, and, given the racialized nature of policing within the United States, what effects an expanded part of local police in immigration enforcement could have on communities of color.

            To begin to answer these questions, my thesis will explore how the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 affected the relationship between local police and Chicago’s Latino community. This will involve an examination of the law itself and the Congressional debates that produced it in order to illustrate how the law expanded the capacity of local police to engage in immigration enforcement. I will also utilize archival records of Latino community organizations in Chicago to show how the city’s Latino population responded to the passage of the IIRIRA, and if it affected their relationship with local police. Through my work, I hope to situate the IIRIRA within a historical context, as an extension of racialized, tough-on-crime policies that first rose to prominence in the 1970s, and add to the historical narrative by extending it thematically to include immigration enforcement.

Margarete Wallner|Neuronal Genetic Malfunctions

The basis behind numerous neurodevelopmental disorders is thought to be due to the malfunction of cells in the brain, what are called neurons. Changes in the shape or size of neurons, the shape or size of their extensions, called dendrites, or the change in the number of synapses, the location at which neurons communicate with each other, are thought to contribute to the symptoms of such neurodevelopmental disorders. In the Iwase lab in the Department of Human Genetics at the Medical School, I study a gene called Transcription Factor 20 (TCF20). It is believed that TCF20 interacts with a protein called Retinoic Acid-Induced Protein 1 (RAI1), which is implicated in Smith-Magenis Syndrome (SMS), a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by mild intellectual disability, facial differences, and sleep disruption. I hypothesize that a change in the normal expression of the TCF20 protein from the TCF20 gene affects the shape and/or size of neurons and their dendrites in addition to altering synapse number, producing the symptoms seen in SMS. My thesis project utilizes an assay, or protocol, that I have been developing since my first semester as part of the UROP program and finished at the end of my sophomore year. This assay allows me to study neurons in great detail and high magnification using a particular microscope called a confocal. The confocal microscope allows me to quantify synapses and analyze neuronal and dendritic shape and size. I decided to study this protein because of the strong supporting data that suggests that TCF20 could be implicated in SMS. If there is a strong phenotype between neurons that have altered protein expression of TCF20 and/or RAI1, and those that have normal protein expression of TCF20 and RAI1, there would be convincing data that these proteins are important for neuronal development and that their altered expression and function leads to SMS.