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2019 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.

 

Dhayaa Anbajagane|Physics

Galaxy clusters have long since been dubbed the cosmological laboratories of our Universe, for they contain rich information on things such as what our Universe is made of, and how it evolved into its present state. The unfortunate flip-side to these objects, at the moment, is that they are extremely hard to observe well. All an observer can see from these clusters is light of different frequencies (X-rays, visible light, microwaves, etc.), and this light has to be used to determine what the actual properties of the cluster are, such as its mass, size, age and so on. The models used to infer these cluster properties are often crude approximations at best and introduce bias into the inferred properties, making it hard to use cluster observations to better our understanding of the Universe.

However, over the last thirty years, large-scale computational simulations of clusters have grown as a novel solution to this modelling problem, and have shed light on how clusters may form and evolve. Dhayaa works with three such simulations, each of which uses independent methods to generate their clusters. In his thesis work, he uses these simulations to analyze the relationships between different cluster properties and then create data-driven models that can help reduce the bias coming from these inferred quantities. Through this, he hopes to play his part is helping the cosmology community utilize clusters in a more powerful way, and help bring these objects to the forefront of cosmology, as a crucial probe to understanding our Universe. To know that simple scribbles on paper—or in this case, lines of code on a computer—can unearth the nature of massive structures light years away is one of the fundamental joys of cosmology. It is also what drove Dhayaa into this field, and will continue to drive him—both through his thesis and further on as well.

Ken Behmer|History

After the Republic of Ireland officially gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1921 a small portion of the country still remained governed by the British Parliament, simply called Northern Ireland. For nearly eighty years tensions on the island continued to rise between Catholic natives and Protestant loyalists to the British crown. Eventually, these tensions would rise to a boil, culminating in several decades of violent struggle and protest. Kenny’s thesis seeks to understand the constructs of these differing religious identities which helped to feed the conflict, with a specific emphasis on the institutional and systematic discrimination against the Catholic people during the latter half of the twentieth century in Northern Ireland. Kenny is a rising senior in the history department who arrived at his topic thanks to his heritage. Growing up as an Irish Catholic was certainly a large part of his thesis decision. With a grandmother who has done extensive genealogical research into his family history he is excited to begin learning more about the land of his ancestors, but also interrogating ideas of religious inequality and civil rights on the emerald isle. Especially now that Brexit may once again alter the ways in which the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland interact with one another, he feels that his research is becoming more relevant than ever. 

Shannon Burton|Classical Studies

Shannon Burton is a rising senior double majoring in Classical Archaeology and Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on the ancient Near East. Her thesis project looks at Karanis, a Roman farming town in Egypt which the University of Michigan excavated from 1924-1935. In her project, Shannon is looking at granaries and other areas of grain storage throughout Karanis in the hopes that this will provide an insight into the socio-economic organization both of Karanis itself and other Roman-Egyptian towns that were significant providers of grain for the greater Empire. Her work will look both at the structure of the granaries themselves, particularly the difference between privately-owned vs. public granaries, as well as the botanical remains found within these structures and in other parts of the site. Shannon first became interested in archaeology the summer before her freshman year at the University of Michigan when she took part in a docent-training program at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. It was here that she first learned about the excavations at Karanis, as well as the capabilities of archaeology to rewrite the history books and give voices to those in the past who have been previously overlooked. Her research interests include women and marginalized peoples in antiquity, the archaeology of domestic spaces, and the Graeco-Roman occupation of Egypt. 

Adriana Coke|Cellular Molecular Biology

The “central dogma of molecular biology” says that DNA is transcribed into RNA, RNA codes for proteins, and proteins determine the structure and function of cells. Despite this supposed “dogma”, only a small fraction of the RNA produced in cells actually codes for proteins. We know that non-coding RNA plays many important roles in living systems, but many of these roles remain mysterious. Adriana’s research investigates one of these roles: RNA-directed DNA Methylation (RdDM) is a plant-specific mechanism that uses long non-coding RNA to add chromatin marks to DNA. These marks control gene expression and are the reason that, despite all having the same exact DNA sequence, the cells in the stem of a plant are different from the cells in its flowers or its roots--in humans, similar marks explain how the cells in your eyes are different from those in your skin or your bones. Adriana’s research aims to discover how RdDM occurs at some DNA locations but not others. RdDM is a form of Transcriptional Gene Silencing (TGS), and while RdDM is specific to plants, TGS is an essential genetic process in virtually all living things. Adriana hopes her research in plants will give insights into how this basic and universal process helps to make any and all life possible.

Adriana is majoring in Cellular Molecular Biology and has been a part of Wierzbicki lab since September 2018. She is interested in doing scientific research to increase our understanding of how living things function at the molecular level, and she became specifically interested in non-coding RNA and gene regulation after learning about these concepts in her genetics class. After discussing these concepts in office hours, she was able to join her professor’s lab to pursue her interests further through independent research of her own.

Hannah Craig|Political Science

Hannah is a rising senior double majoring in Political Science and Creative Writing, with a minor in Education for Empowerment. Her campus involvements include the International Deaf and Hearing Alliance, and the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program. Hannah currently works at Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic, where she collaborates with student lawyers and staff attorneys to advocate for the wrongfully convicted in the state of Michigan. She hopes to pursue a career working on reforming the nation’s criminal justice system via policy work and defending those who would otherwise not have access to quality counsel.

Drawing from this passion, Hannah’s thesis focuses on policy implementation mechanisms in jails, specifically the Washtenaw County Jail. This is relevant in the context of increasing demands for criminal justice reform. Shortcomings of the criminal justice system in the US has gained a great deal of attention due to the hard work of activists, scholars, and advocates in the field. Research and activism in this area has focused on prisons, mass incarceration, wrongful convictions, and the death penalty. Notably absent from this list is jail conditions and programming. Jails present an interesting challenge to policy makers and implementers, as they host both pre-trial and post-sentencing inmates, who are all held in the same spaces, and are given access to the same programs; wherein policy makers must attempt to create and implement programs that meet the needs of the diverse inmate population they house. Studying the methods for successful implementation of jail education programs is useful in its potential to provide guidance to others seeking to create and implement successful policies and programs in jails.  This will be done using mixed methods approach of conducting interviews with individuals and organizations who play a role in the policy creation and implementation process, along with analyzing program data.

Arabella Delgado|American Culture

Preserved buildings, monuments, and public art installations tell the history of a city- the people who built it, who shaped it, and who called it home. These projects tend to only focus on one aspect of a city’s history, failing to fully acknowledge the stories of low-income residents, minority populations, and women. As a result, only a small percentage of residents can see their identities woven into the urban landscape. Expanding preservation projects to include a broader range of history would allow more people to see themselves represented in their everyday surroundings. Using downtown El Paso, Texas as a case study, this project will focus on the factors that determine whether or not a specific history or site is preserved, how those decisions impact understandings of local history, and the extent to which this affects social relations.

Arabella is originally from El Paso, Texas and is majoring in American Culture and Anthropology. She first became interested in this topic after her hometown announced a plan to demolish the Duranguito neighborhood, the first residential district in the city, in order to build a downtown sports arena. Local residents and activists immediately protested this decision, arguing that it would effectively destroy a part of local history and their community. This led to Arabella’s interest in the relationship between local history and the urban landscape. She is excited to focus her thesis on her hometown and hopes to contribute to a more diverse understanding of El Paso history.

Miriam Francisco|English

The July 1967 uprising in Detroit — or riot, or rebellion, or revolution — remains an unsettled and contested event more than fifty years later. The complex circumstances of that summer are the subject of numerous works of both fiction and nonfiction, and authors from a variety of backgrounds have written about their memories, theories, and imaginations of the uprising. This rich body of literature posits a series of questions: How is historical truth assembled? Which forms of narration and means of expression frame, curate, and manufacture both individual and collective memories of a city? Miriam is writing a thesis in the English Department about these queries, using “Middlesex” and “The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides as key texts for investigating race, class, power, and citizenship in Detroit and its suburbs. She became interested in these topics after taking an English class about Rust Belt. Miriam’s thesis will develop new readings of Eugenides’s Detroit-based works, carefully considering how his novels circumscribe and characterize the important, still-unresolved problems concerning the ways we speak and write historically about Detroit.

Sam Franz|History

One doesn’t have to go far to find an opinion article or think piece which discusses the computer simulation of human intellect or the way that the humans might be like computers. Indeed, questions about the role that computation plays in human cognition are quite old and well debated. Sam’s project seeks to crack open some of these questions by considering the history of computing through the lens of a particular group that the University of Michigan, called the Logic of Computers Group, and headed by Arthur W. Burks, who researched the simulation and modelling of natural systems in computers from the late fifties to the early seventies. The Logic of Computers Group were concerned with how natural systems, everything from a cell to a society, might be modelled in computers in order to abstract general principles about the operations of natural systems in general. In doing so, Sam hopes to understand not only what the Logic of Computers Group did, but also understand why it was advantageous for them to pursue their research and what made their knowledge broadly valuable.

Sam studies History and German and is interested in the histories of seemingly immovable ideas and ways of thinking. His interest in the history of science, and by extension, the history of computing, is strongly influenced by his desire to use the history of thought to shed light on present attitudes about computers, the brain, and the natural world. Sam hopes that his thesis will contribute to an ongoing conversation about the uses of computers as well as offer an argument for the use of the history of science in understanding some of the most important and cutting-edge debates of today.

Lorraine Furtado|Political Science

In an age where reproductive rights are at the forefront of legislation, what language around autonomy do legal actors expose America’s highest judicial power to in Supreme Court cases regarding reproductive rights? Lorraine hypothesizes that the writers of amicus curiae briefs (friends of the court briefs written to persuade judges to vote a certain way) frame autonomy in either “equality of rights” or “reproductive freedom” frames based on the voting history of the Supreme Court judges they are addressing. To test this, she will conduct a term frequency analysis, looking at common words, and a sentiment analysis, analyzing the tone of the briefs, to see how language and tone contribute to persuasiveness. The implications of these findings can be used to formulate more effective briefs, policy suggestions, or persuasive arguments to advocate for reproductive rights.

Lorraine Furtado is a rising senior at the University of Michigan pursuing a dual honors degree in Philosophy, Politics, & Economics, and Political Science. She is interested in researching how legal systems and government resources can either be a form of empowerment for women or contribute to their marginalization. This interest stems from learning about how the experiences her friends and family have had in the legal system are a small sample from a larger system of flawed justice for women of color. She was motivated to research autonomy in reproductive rights cases after realizing how many gaps there were in the scholarship when it came to women of color, reproductive rights, and the legal system.

Samantha Goldstein|Political Science

Samantha is a senior studying political science and applied statistics. She currently serves as the co-President of the Undergraduate Political Science Association at the University of Michigan. She is particularly interested in public health and public policy which sparked her interest in researching the feasibility of soda taxes. Soda taxes have been proposed as a potential solution to offset the economic and societal costs of obesity and other diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Unsurprisingly, these taxes are extremely politically unpopular. The soda industry (“Big Soda”) is notorious for waging expensive and vicious campaigns against cities considering implementing excise taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. Consequently, Samantha will be conducting a survey experiment which tests a variety of pro-soda tax messages and measures which one(s) resonate the most. She hopes her research will inform lawmakers and the public about which message is most effective should they pursue a soda tax initiative in their city. After graduation, Samantha plans to work in survey research and pursue a graduate degree in the field.

Colleen Hadley|Biology

Approximately 1.9 billion people worldwide are either overweight or obese, yet, effective and feasible clinical treatments for obesity are lacking. Obesity is characterized by the accumulation of energy depots in the adipose tissue, which in turn secretes the hormone leptin into blood in proportion to the amount of fat stored. In lean animals and humans, leptin signals to the brain to suppress food intake, however, this response is blunted in obese individuals. Using small molecule compounds to restore the brain’s sensitivity to leptin serves as a viable approach for the treatment of obesity. Thus, Colleen’s thesis project focuses on the identification and characterization of leptin sensitizing small molecule compounds through analysis of their anti-obesity effects in diet-induced and genetically obese mouse models.

Colleen is studying cellular and molecular biology and plans to pursue a career as a physician-scientist. Colleen’s interest in the study of obesity was piqued by the multifactorial nature of this condition as well as its clear clinical relevance. Studying obesity has allowed her to combine her passion for cellular and molecular biology with her interest in contributing to the improvement of clinical treatments and patient care outcomes.

Yoav Jacob|Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Nanotechnology has enhanced industry by optimizing energy usage, improving consumer products such as eyeglasses, and enabling the creation of more powerful and longer-lasting electronics. They have the potential to revolutionize drug delivery pathways, agricultural fertilizers, and sterilization techniques in an age of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. However, there are growing concerns over the release of nanoparticles into the environment as relatively little is known about their effects on living organisms. To bridge this gap, plant-nanoparticle interactions must be further explored. Previous research has found both beneficial and detrimental relationships between various nanoparticles and plant species. This project intends to study plant-nanoparticle interactions through analysis of plant responses to exposure and if possible, accelerate evolution through selective breeding to develop nanoparticle resistant plant lineages. As a rising senior studying ecology, evolution, and biodiversity, Yoav has several years of experience with horticulture, sustainability, and conservation. He has volunteered at the U of M campus farm, interned at the local arboretum and botanical gardens, and currently works parttime as an emergency medical technician. He is excited to work on this project as it connects his varied interests of plant biology, farming, and healthcare. By studying plant-nanoparticle interactions, he hopes to make predictions about the future of agriculture, industry, and human health.

Brett Kellett|Sociology

Despite the stigma that surrounds mental illness in the United States, it is common for young adults who have depression to be open about their experiences with depression on social media. This trend is noteworthy because contact with people who have mental illness is often thought to reduce the stigma of having a mental illness. However, open discussions of depression on social media may have the adverse effect of contributing to the stigma of depression if these posts overwhelm the social media users who see them or make them feel uneasy. Using original survey data and semi-structured interviews, this project seeks to understand how social media posts about depression affect the stigma of depression among young adults.

Mental illness is prevalent at every college, including the University of Michigan. Students interact with mental illnesses not only in their homes and classrooms, but online as well. Since his freshman year, Brett has been interested in how online discussions of mental illness have helped to bring visibility to the topic of mental illness. Yet, in his discussions with other students, he has found that online discussions about depression may result in negative emotional responses given their ubiquity and impersonal nature. Drawing on his background in sociology, he is interested in how these negative emotional responses may contribute to the reproduction of prejudices regarding mental illness.

Sydney McKinstry|History

For her thesis, Sydney is researching a former state psychiatric hospital in the city of Northville, Michigan. She grew up 20 minutes from the hospital and would drive by the abandoned complex every week on her way to guitar lessons. After hearing rumors about the “haunted” and “scary” building for almost 10 years, she realized she knew nothing about what the hospital was actually like when it was open. How did people talk about the hospital while it was open? Who was being institutionalized? And when did the rumors of hauntings begin?

In her thesis, Sydney will look both internally and externally at the hospital to understand how the community thought about it while it was still open to see how, and if, it differs from perceptions about it today. By looking at public institutional records and newspapers from Northville, it will be possible to reconstruct what the hospital was like during its years of operation. She will situate the hospital in the context of the broad historiography of institutionalization to demonstrate that this case study provides a raw and relatively common example of how psychiatric hospitals were thought about in the past, and how the early narrative has impacted perceptions of mental illness in modern American society.

Sydney is a senior double majoring in History and Psychology with interests in institutionalization, memory, and social psychology. She is currently a Research Assistant for the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, an interdisciplinary team dedicated to understanding the history of eugenics and sterilization in the United States. Outside of academics, Sydney staffs multiple Model United Nations conferences for high school students. She is also a Resident Advisor in an all-Freshman dorm and an Orientation Leader, so she loves working with students!

Nitesh Mohan|Neuroscience

Nitesh is a rising senior majoring in neuroscience with a specific interest in neurodevelopmental disorders. Since freshman year, he has been working in the Kwan Lab, studying how certain candidate genes are linked to neurodevelopmental disorders and the dysregulation of the cerebral cortex. His lab uses mouse models to assess the consequences of gene deletion and to investigate the role that each gene has on the development of the cortex. To visualize the changes in cell diversity and protein expression that result from gene deletion, immunofluorescent antibody staining has traditionally been used. Although reliable, it can still be difficult to visualize targets that have low abundance. This has previously been an issue in that lowly expressed proteins that are vital for normal cortex development could not be characterized due to their low fluorescent signal. For Nitesh’s thesis project, he plans on testing a new method that should amplify the fluorescent signal up to 50 fold. 

Nitesh decided to pursue this project because it would allow for for clearer visualization of the brain than ever before, providing new insight on protein targets that are sparsely expressed throughout the cortex. In addition, this will give new insight into the characterization of cell types found in the developing cortex and how neurodevelopmental disorders alter these various neuronal subtypes.

Maeve O'Brien|Political Science

U.S. law is meant to apply neutrally across the public, seeking justice for some and recourse for others. Yet, we know from existing scholarship that the law and the structures that enforce it can fall short of this standard. In her research, Maeve is interested in how the law can explicitly or implicitly oppress marginalized groups and strengthen existing power hierarchies. In particular, Maeve is examining the patriarchal roots of U.S. self-defense laws and how they affect rulings in homicide cases. Maeve hypothesizes that self-defense laws exhibit male-informed logic through requiring the original threat to be imminent, applying better to masculine bar-fight type of violence than situations in which women kill out of self-defense, namely domestic violence. Maeve suspects that victims of domestic violence who kill their abusers, if not in imminent danger at the time, don’t have a legally valid self-defense case, leading to worse sentencing outcomes. In Maeve’s research, she will be examining all homicide cases in which the defendant is pleading self-defense in the 6th U.S. District Court in the 21st century to see if this disparity in sentencing outcomes across gender does exist.

Although Maeve is majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, she is writing her thesis through the Political Science department. She was introduced to this topic through a class called Gender and the Law, which she took during her freshman year at Michigan. Since taking the class, Maeve has further developed an interest in how gender intersects with the law, and particularly how laws that aren’t supposed to be gendered can disproportionately affect women. Her interest in her thesis topic is compounded by her work on campus battling intimate partner violence with the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) and her pursuit of a career in law.

 

Madeline Parks|Women's Studies

Childbirth is a fundamental aspect of life, and it can be a life-changing moment for many women. However, women are not the only participants in the labor process, and obstetricians’ and other attendants’ perspectives and practices are often the main focus of relevant research, including the specific topic of eating during childbirth, despite its significant impact on the women’s own subjective experiences. The absence of women’s voices has led to the question, how do oral nutrition intake during labor and hospital policies on eating impact women’s perceptions of their birth experiences, and how are these impacted by the history of gendered knowledge and whose knowledge is valued? Through this thesis, Madeline will attempt to address that question through in-depth interviews with women who have recently given birth in southeast Michigan. She chose this topic because it is intensely interesting to her not only as an aspiring OB/GYN who also plans to have children, but because she believes that the lack of women’s voices in the collective knowledge of childbirth is significant and unacceptable, and she wants to work to represent their perspectives and provide future avenues of research through her findings.

Madeline is a rising junior majoring in Biochemistry and Gender & Health, with a minor in French. This summer, she is working on a Senior Honors Thesis in Gender & Health investigating women’s perspectives on their childbirth experiences, both generally and specifically as impacted by policies and practices regarding eating and drinking during labor and the history of gendered knowledge in the realm of childbirth. She plans to be an OB/GYN and is interested in the overmedicalization of childbirth in the US and across the globe, and how practices and beliefs can be altered to provide the best and safest childbirth experience for all women.

Benjamin Pinsky|Biochemistry

The porphyrias are a group of eight rare disorders affecting the skin, liver and nervous system characterized by a build-up of porphyrin in the body. Porphyrins are naturally occurring ring-shaped chemicals that act as precursors to heme, the red pigment in blood that binds and transports oxygen, breaks down toxins, and activates medications. Patients with porphyria experience severe light-triggered blistering, abdominal pain, nausea, seizures and hallucinations. Recent research has shown that porphyria-associated tissue damage, i.e. light-triggered blistering and oxidative liver injury, is caused by porphyrins’ ability to selectively bind and aggregate proteins. Apart from their role in biological systems, porphyrins are a well-studied quantum mechanical system known in part due to their tendency to spontaneously assemble into nanorods of various sizes.

Pinsky’s thesis work synthesizes the biological and chemical research on porphyrin in order to develop a comprehensive model of porphyrin-mediated protein aggregation, specifically asking how porphyrin nanostructure size effects protein aggregation. His preliminary results show that smaller porphyrin structures exert greater oxidative and proteotoxic stress on liver cells.

Benjamin is a senior majoring in Biochemistry. He has always been interested in the intersection of biology and chemistry. After joining Dr. Omary’s intermediate filament protein lab, his project became a natural extension of this interest. Rare disease research is important to him because small steps in these fields can make big impacts on patients. Benjamin hopes that his thesis research will lead to a more detailed chemical understanding of porphyria making for better treatments and more effective therapies.

Katrina Stalcup|American Culture

In her early years of life, Katrina Stalcup learned a lot from the stories the women in her family told. As a cultural practice, storytelling served as a medium for her family to talk about social issues such as class, gender, race, ethnicity, and disability. Born into a young family, Katrina is fortunate enough to have 4 living generation of women in her life. To honor the women in her family who have shared stories and encouraged her journey in higher academia, she writes a thesis that explores the impact of intergenerational storytelling in the context of conceptualizing social issues.

In order to understand intersectional marginalizations/inequalities, we need to understand the power of intergenerational storytelling as a cultural practice. In Katrina’s thesis, she explores how this practice is used by women to frame their family in the cultural memory of historical and present situations of social inequality in the United States. In her thesis she uses ethnographic research and oral history of the stories that the women in her working-class family tell to illustrate how stories can be used for contextualizing marginalizations of ethnicity, class, and gender. She uses a combination of written, audio, and video storytelling to allow the stories to be enjoyed by a broader audience. She hopes that her thesis will encourage people to continue to tell stories and to have a relationship with the stories that have been told by the generations before them. Katrina is a senior studying American Culture and Urban Studies.

Olivia Stillman|Program in the Environment

In the United States, individuals living in low income urban areas are at high risk of trauma due to their chronic exposure to environmental and social stressors. Exposure to trauma may trigger a wide array of psychological, emotional and physical effects within individuals. As a response to the prevalence of trauma, healthcare professionals have adopted a trauma-informed care (TIC) approach to interacting with patients, with the hope of rebuilding trust and avoiding retraumatization. Trauma can transcend the individual and impose negative consequences at the community level. Loss of social cohesion, community empowerment and stability may hinder a communities ability to create positive and sustainable change.

In her thesis, Olivia hopes to explore how TIC models from the healthcare system can be adapted for environmental nonprofits in Detroit. Additionally, she hopes to explore the ways in which organizations are already recognizing and managing trauma. Olivia hopes that her research will propose a new framework that organizations can utilize to enhance their success with communities in Detroit.

Olivia is a senior double majoring in Sociology (Law, Justice and Social Change subplan) and Program in the Environment, with a minor in Urban Studies.  She is currently works as the Multimedia Coordinator for the University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) and was inspired to combines elements from her job with her academic interests.Olivia is passionate about issues pertaining to the built environment and social justice.  After graduation Olivia hopes to pursue a graduate degree in urban planning and social work.

Zhiquan Sun|Physics

Dark matter refers to the mysterious kind of matter in the universe that interacts with ordinary matter (that is what we see and are made of) only through gravity, and it is believed to make up 80% of all matter in the universe. One of the best-motivated particle candidates for dark matter is a theoretical particle called the QCD axion, which is not completely “dark”. Axions can be converted to photons, i.e. quantized particles of light, in strong magnetic fields. Zhiquan’s project focuses on axion-photon conversion in the magnetic field outside of neutron stars, a type of super dense star that produces the strongest magnetic fields known to mankind. The radio photons converted from axions, if they exist, can be detected by radio telescopes on Earth by looking at nearby isolated neutron stars or neutron star ensembles in galaxies. Zhiquan numerically solves systems of equations and runs simulations to understand what these signals look like. She also analyzes observational data from the Green Bank Telescope to put constraints on the properties of axions and to investigate the possibility of claiming a discovery.

As a physics-math double major, Zhiquan has always appreciated the beauty in succinct equations and fundamental theories. As she digs deeper into the world of physics, she becomes fascinated by the unknowns of the universe. Zhiquan’s research under the supervision of Prof. Ben Safdi concentrates on the search of axions and a better understanding of the particle nature of dark matter. With this exciting thesis project, her long-standing dream of becoming a theoretical physicist is just beginning to come true. 

Jeremy Tervo|Chemistry

The cognitive impairment that accompanies Alzheimer’s disease is a direct consequence of neurodegeneration within the brain. Certain structures in the brain called amyloidogenic proteins can aggregate and fold into toxic species that induce cell death in neurons. In Alzheimer’s disease, a specific amyloidogenic protein, Amyloid-β (Aβ), is responsible for much of the neurodegenerative pathology. Recently, researchers discovered that a long biopolymer called polyphosphate (polyP) can shuttle Aβ protein structures into a non-toxic state. While preliminary cell-based studies evidence that polyP can mitigate neurodegenerative pathologies, we have minimal understanding of the dynamics and mechanisms of Aβ and polyP interactions in vivo. Jeremy’s thesis aims to elucidate the dynamics of intra- and extracellular relationships between these molecules to understand how polyP protects neurons. 

With a deep interest in the biochemistry and biophysics of disease, Jeremy’s studied a variety of neurodegenerative pathways over the last three years. After witnessing the effects of Alzheimer’s with patients in hospice care, Jeremy strives to implement and discover therapies targeting the prevalent neurodegeneration in the aging population. Jeremy will complete his thesis in the laboratory of Professor Ursula Jakob where he will utilize immunofluorescence microscopy and colorimetric protein assays to visualize and quantify Aβ and polyP to forward our knowledge of neurodegenerative disease. In addition to conducting biochemical research, Jeremy studies German and plays Alto Saxophone in the Michigan Marching Band. 

Victoria Villegas|Sociology

While little is known about the migrant farmworker community, even less is known about their relationships to the various spaces they occupy. Most often being rural communities where agriculture is abundant, these spaces have also been the focus of changing social dynamics over the last few decades- especially in terms of immigration and economic effects. This fact, coupled with the climbing rates of settling migrating farmworkers, begs the question of how these two groups converge. This study aims to look at how rural and smalltown communities interact and perceive current and former migrant farmworkers while also looking at how former migrant farmworkers perceive and interact with members of the community that had been there prior. Focusing in Van Buren County in Southwest Michigan, interviews and observations will serve as the main methods for understanding individual perceptions of each other as well as the overall interplay between groups. 

Victoria came to be interested in this project after having previously worked on a capstone project surrounding migrant farmworker education. Upon talking with experts in the field, she learned about the use of contracted foreign workers on farms as well as the displacement and subsequent settlement of migrant families. Having her own experiences as a former migrant, she was wanted to look more into the ways that communities like hers were situated in these largely rural spaces.

Michael Wentzel|Physics

One of the central puzzles in modern physics is determining the nature of dark matter, a theorized form of matter which does not interact via the electromagnetic force in the standard way. Comprising an estimated 22% of the Universe, it is approximately 5× more abundant than normal matter and thus certainly played an essential role in the formation of the Universe we observe today. Michael works in Professor Ben Safdi’s research group, investigating one candidate dark matter particle called the axion. His research focuses on simulating axion “mini-clusters,” small clumps of dark matter. The simulations track mini-clusters from just before the period of matter-radiation equality which took place approximately 50, 000 years after the formation of the Universe. Simulating the effects of the axion on structural formation in the early Universe will reveal characteristics of the axion that will help narrow the experimental search for dark matter.

Michael became interested in computational physics through his experience working on magnetic field modeling at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams under the amazing mentorship of Dr. Mauricio Portillo. As a physics and mathematics major, he hopes to continue on in this branch of research in graduate school. Since his sophomore year, Michael has been involved in physics outreach, and he enjoys answering science related questions on Quora. Aside from physics, he enjoys performing close-up magic, running, and spending time with his two cats and dog. 

Chelsea Yu|Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology

Neurodegenerative diseases are becoming a health crisis of the 21st century as lifespans continue to lengthen due to medical innovations. As we learn more about human neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and Huntington’s Disease, just to name a few, we notice a common pattern: the accumulation of damage and loss of neurons in the brain through neuron cell death. Recent research has hinted that abnormal duplication of DNA in cells precedes neurodegeneration in mammals. Chelsea is working on her Honor’s Thesis to better uncover whether this abnormal duplication of DNA is an adaptive response to damage or a causative agent for neurodegeneration.

Chelsea will be a Senior majoring in Cellular and Molecular Biology and minoring in Medical Anthropology. Her interest in studying neurodegeneration began when she joined the Buttitta Lab in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department and worked on a project with Shyama Nandakumar, a graduate student in the lab. She was fascinated by the parallels between neurodegenerative diseases in humans and in Drosophila melanogaster, also known as the fruit fly, and thus continued to study neurodegeneration for her Honor’s Thesis. She will be working in a research lab at the Biological Sciences Building and will use the Flow Cytometer and the Confocal Microscopy to qualitatively and quantitatively examine the impact of neuronal damage on abnormal DNA duplication of neurons in the Drosophila brain.