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Students Share Passion for Science at Undergraduate Research Forum

Students Share Passion for Science at Undergraduate Research Forum
Each spring, the College of Natural Sciences holds its annual Undergraduate Research Forum, and last month's event showcased over 250 individual and team research presentations. Faculty, alumni, staff, graduate student and industry judges examined the myriad ways student researchers made progress in their research. 

Undergraduate Research Forum 2022

This year, 23 presentations received awards in 12 research categories, at the first in-person forum since the pandemic began.

"It was great to do it in person again," said Michael Drew, associate dean for undergraduate education. "My feeling is that the event generates much more enthusiasm and participation—on the part of both presenters and audience—when it's in person."

We stopped by to visit with a few of the student researchers to find out more about their research. Here's a sampling of the interesting projects we learned about.

Touching the Invisible

The microscopic world of atoms and molecules can be hard to get a handle on, especially for students. Sydney Suthar, a junior majoring in mathematics and economics, and her team adapted a device that can create an experience of touch, called a haptic device, to help students grasp what atoms and molecules would feel like if you could blow them up to human scale and hold them in your hand. The Novint Falcon haptic device conveys the feeling of touching a 3D object through vibrations, motion and other forces. The software the team adapted for this project models the interactions between the hand and the virtual object by calculating in real time the energy of the molecular model and atomic forces and translating them for the device's feedback motors.

Breast Cancer Disparities

African-American women have a 41% higher death rate from breast cancer than Eurasian women. A team of student researchers are currently designing a study to see whether variations in a gene called GATA3-AS1 cause more aggressive breast cancer among certain ethnic groups. When this gene is overexpressed, a part of the host immune response that fosters tumor growth increases. Genetic studies of Neanderthal remains show their version of this gene was underexpressed compared with modern humans. The researchers plan to replace GATA-AS1 genes in mice with versions from either Neanderthals or Homo sapiens to determine if their expression levels impact breast cancer development.

"I got involved in this lab the summer before I entered UT," said Ridah Siddiqui, a junior majoring in neuroscience and nutrition, with honors in advanced nutritional sciences. "And so it's crazy to me because I never knew that nutrition was more than just food science. Nutrition involves so much biochemistry and immunology. I've learned so much as a nutritional science student and I get to do cool research like this now."

Soothing Upset Stomachs

Stomach ulcers are caused by infections from spiral-shaped bacteria called helicobacter pylori. To grow and survive, the bacteria rely on a key enzyme, called DXP reductoisomerase. Michelle Huynh, a human biology sophomore, and Humberto Regalado, a biochemistry junior, used a computational technique called virtual screening to search libraries of small molecules and identify those that are most likely to bind to this enzyme. Although the pair of researchers did not prove a specific molecule would be a strong inhibitor for the enzyme in living cells, they did find promising candidates for drug treatment that would be worth following up on.

"It was hard at first, but also a very rewarding experience. I've learned a lot about biochemistry," Huynh said.

Sobering Findings

When someone develops a binge-drinking problem, how does their brain change and are there ways to reverse it? Michael Keist, a computational biology junior, and his team used mice that were bred to drink alcohol to better understand the genetic basis for binge drinking and search for novel drug targets. They found that, compared to non-alcohol drinking mice, the drinkers had changes in gene expression in two brain regions: the central amygdala, which plays a central role in responses to fearful, stressful or drug-related stimuli; and the basolateral amygdala, which communicates with brain regions affecting cognition, motivation and stress responses. The results of this study could improve understanding of dysregulated pathways linked to binge drinking and allow for the identification of novel drug targets.

Tackling Autism Virtually

People who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have difficulties engaging in social interactions with others, which can stunt them in developing relationships and in interviewing for or maintaining a job. Latino children specifically experience disparities in rates of ASD diagnosis (2.5 years later than non-Latinos) and have less access to services, including behavioral therapy. Senior neuroscience major Philip Tabadoa conducted a literature review of studies examining the potential of virtual reality (VR) in helping autistic youth learn how to adapt in social settings. In these studies, a child might use VR to role-play certain social situations and interactions, such as a job interview, a conversation with police officers or an interaction with friends. Tabadoa found that VR study participants successfully acquired behavioral skills.

Glow Worms

Nearly every cell in your body goes through a process called cell polarization, in which two groups of proteins move to opposite sides of the cell. This process is disrupted in certain diseases, especially cancer. Jatin Khanna, neuroscience and philosophy freshman, joined the Glow Worms stream of the Freshman Research Initiative to help explore how cell polarization happens and how it relates to disease. The researchers study cells from a worm called C. elegans that shares many similar genes with humans, which makes it a useful model for human diseases. Student researchers use CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to modify the worm's genome for several purposes. One is to add genes that make certain proteins glow in different colors so they can be viewed under a microscope as cell polarization unfolds. Another purpose is to break genes in order to test hypotheses about their role in cell polarization. Khanna helped develop a new "glow worm" strain that is freely available for the worldwide community of C. elegans researchers.

by Kevin Vu and Sophia Kurz​​​​​

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Sunday, 29 January 2023

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