Tuesday, December 16, 2014

UVI Research Students Win Big at National Conference

 UVI ABRCMS winners (From left) Shelsa Marcel, Khalin Nisbett, Ayanna Fredericks, Krystal Winter, and Serena Joseph pose in front of the UVI Library on the St. Thomas Campus. 

More than anything, Khalin Nisbett wants to use chemistry to save lives. The idea of extracting the extraordinary from ordinary items in the Caribbean excites her. Nisbett, a University of the Virgin Islands science major, spent last summer researching the anti-cancer agents that may be found in lemon grass – a species of grass commonly used in the Caribbean to make tea.

Her efforts were rewarded when she became one of five UVI research students to bring home awards this fall from the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), the largest professional conference for minority students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the United States. Nisbett, Ayanna Fredericks, Serena Joseph, Shelsa Marcel and Krystal Wynter presented posters on their research alongside 1,700 students from 700 colleges and universities all over the country. Seventeen UVI STEM students presented their research at the conference.

“This is the most wins ever for UVI,” said UVI Marine Biology Professor Dr. Teresa Turner, who accompanied the UVI contingent of students along with Dr. Aletha Baumann, a member of the psychology faculty on St. Croix.

Nisbett said her experience at the conference changed her life. “It opened another window for me,” she said. “I can now see my future a little clearer and it feels like my only restraint is myself. I felt proud of myself, and the other four females of UVI who won.”

Nisbett plans to continue her investigation into anti-cancer agents in lemon grass. “This research is important to the community and myself,” she said. “If we can find and deliver an anti-cancer agent that's already popular enough as a breakfast beverage, it means that we would have found an economic and abundant alternative to traditional treatments. That excites me.” Nisbett conducted her research with Dr. Yakini Brandy, a UVI chemistry professor on the St. Thomas Campus.

Wynter, a senior psychology major, won a best poster award in neurosciences. She used the Optogenetics Approach to conduct her research at a neuroscience lab at the University of Iowa. Wynter’s goal was to answer questions about the body that could not have been answered before the method was developed. Optogenetics uses light to control neurons, which have been genetically sensitized to light. Light-responsive proteins allow scientists to turn neurons on or off selectively with precision. Introducing these proteins into cultured cells or the brains of live animals allows investigation of the structure and function of neural networks.

“Optogenetics is fairly new,” she said. “We are now able to answer more system level questions that we were not able to before. With further research and our findings, we may be able to help people with general anxiety disorders.” Wynter did research on drug addiction, memory and learning.

When presenting at the conference her goal was to educate, so she was caught off guard when she won. “It didn't really sink in until after a while,” said Wynter. “I was really excited when I heard them say University of the Virgin Islands, but I kept thinking it was another student who presented in my discipline.” She continued, “It wasn't until I was walking back to my seat that it hit me.”

“After receiving the award, my friend Ayanna, who also won an award, was standing with her arms open,” said Wynter. “She ran all the way from the back of the room to give me a hug and told me how proud she was. I almost cried.”

“I am just happy to have represented my school well and make my family, mentor, advisors and friends proud,” she said.

Serena Joseph won best poster in the category of microbiology. Joseph, a junior biology major, presented her research on parasites in hair sheep.

Her love for animal science began at the age of seven. She found an injured stray dog and assisted the veterinarian in wrapping the animal’s broken hind leg. The family adopted the dog and nursed it back to health. From that moment, she knew that her interest was in animal science. Joseph spent last summer conducting research with Dr. Robert Godfrey, director of the UVI Agriculture Experiment Station on St. Croix.

Dr. Godfrey was pleased and surprised that Joseph won. “The surprise was not because I doubted her as a scientist or a presenter,” he said. “I was surprised that she did so well with an agricultural science project at a conference that really does not have agriculture as a significant component. She was able to explain her project to non-agricultural people, which can be difficult sometimes, but it is one of her many skills.”

Joseph has worked with Dr. Godfrey and his staff on several projects over the past few years. “She is a very fast learner whether it is in the field or the lab,” said Dr. Godfrey. “She was very astute at understanding the statistical analysis and what it meant for her data, which is very impressive.”

Ayanna Fredericks, a senior psychology major, won best poster in social and behavioral sciences. She said that winning the award was validation for all of the hard work she has been doing to earn her undergraduate degree. Fredericks worked with Dr. Kimarie Engerman, UVI associate professor of psychology and Doris Battiste, dean of students on St. Thomas, on a project analyzing alcohol and drug use among UVI students. After graduating from UVI in the spring, Fredericks plans to go onto earn a Ph.D. in psychology. “My plans ultimately are to return to the U.S. Virgin Islands to work with at-risk youth in the system,” she said. “That is actually my passion.”

“The youth need more people in their corner,” said Fredericks. “There are so many things that are pulling them in more negative directions. I want to be able to make an impact on their lives.”

Shelsa Marcel, senior computer science major, won a best poster award in the category of molecular and computational biology. Marcel used computer science and genetics to create an algorithm to discover how proteins in the body blend to DNA. During the summer, Marcel worked with a mentor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the research. “Presenting at a national conference opened my eyes to the possibilities that there are in research,” said Marcel. While at the conference she was able to interact with many people in different fields and was able to put herself on a global scale and see how many opportunities are open to her in science in general.

Marcel plans to pursue a Ph.D. in bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field of science that combines computer science, statistics, mathematics, and engineering to study and process biological data. She plans to become a research scientist and open her own lab.

UVI and its students have participated in the ABRCMS for the past 17 years. Each student won $250.