Friday, November 6, 2015

Cutting Edge Research on Display at Fall Symposium

UVI Fall 2015 Student Research Symposium winners Semonie Rogers, Danelly Samuel, and Villisha Gregoire pose with their mentor Dr. Alice Stanford.

Ever wonder why antibiotics seldom work to treat colds and infections? Or, why patients in hospitals often develop bacterial infections?

UVI sophomore Nirisha Commodore set out to find answers to these puzzling medical questions last summer during an internship at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. Commodore spent nine weeks at Yale being mentored by faculty in the Department of Internal Medicine.

She is one of 40 students who shared their summer research projects at the 17th Annual Fall Student Research Symposium, held at the Administration and Conference Center (ACC) on the St. Thomas Campus. The event, organized each year by the Emerging Caribbean Scientists (ECS) Program in the College of Science and Mathematics, highlights the research accomplishments of UVI students who have worked at UVI laboratories and at universities abroad.

“I researched antibiotic resistance in a bacteria called Pseudomonas Aeruginosa. It is a common bacteria found in hospitals,” Commodore said. “My research showed the bacteria has an outer membrane that is impenetrable to many of the antibiotics on the market today.”

Dozens of UVI students like Commodore spent their summers researching some of the most complex issues in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (STEM). Their studies have taken them into competitive STEM research areas including coral reef protection, algae growth, cybersecurity, anti-biotic research and more.

During the recent Fall Research Symposium, the ACC conference room was packed with oversized posters detailing countless hours of research and data analysis. Group and individual presentations were summarized into an abstract booklet that was distributed to the community.

Eliakin del Rosario and Gabriel Ramos, Jr., both junior year computer science majors, are among the first UVI students to conduct research under a new cybersecurity grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. They spent the summer at Norfolk State University in Virginia, mentored by computer science professors.

Rosario and Ramos spoke excitedly about their work to protect computer users from hackers.

“Right now there is so much hacking going on. There is no guarantee that your technology is 100 percent secure,” Rosario said. “We created a framework to help networks guard against malicious behavior.”

The experience was a mix of academics and hands-on research, Ramos said.

“We had to be at the lab from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. It was like a class, but also like being on a job. There was a teaching portion and application.” The duo plan to expand on their cybersecurity research to develop a computer operating system language that prevents hacking.

Other presenters conducted their summer research projects much closer to home.

Genique Nicholas, a sophomore biology major on the Albert A. Sheen Campus on St. Croix, used the greenhouse on campus to research “Antioxidant Activity in Fresh Herbs.”

“We hypothesized which herbs had the highest antioxidant characteristics among basil, mint, chives, oregano, parsley, sage and thyme,” Nicholas explained. “We put the herbs in vials and a plastic buffer to draw out the liquid and measure antioxidant activity.”

The results surprised Nicholas. “We found that mint had the most antioxidant properties. It was surprising because so many people use parsley in their food, I thought it would have high anti-oxidant activity. But the experiment proved me wrong.” Her conclusion: drinking mint tea is very helpful to you.

On St. Thomas, Francheska Brenes-Rivera and Joshua Hazell explored areas of Brewers Bay beach where algae is dominant and protected. Their hypothesis: is there a threat to algae in Brewers Bay?

Hazell, a biology major, said the research showed that “it seems sea urchins and crabs did not like lyngbya, a common algae growing around the MacLean Marine Science Center. So there was no threat to algae in that area.”

Villisha Gregoire, Semonie Rogers, and Danelly Samuel earned the top score at the Fall Symposium for their presentation on “Differential Success of Primers on Tissue Samples Extracted from Populations of Molossus molossus on St. Thomas.” The three spent their summer doing research on the St. Thomas Campus with UVI Professor Dr. Alice Stanford.

Gordon said during her time in the lab she was able to strengthen her laboratory skills, while gaining experience. She also wanted to clarify whether she wanted to enroll in a Ph.D. or MD program.

After spending the summer learning different methods of genetic analysis and the importance of getting the final findings, Rogers decided to become a medical doctor, specializing in internal medicine.

“This is one of my favorite events,” said Dr. Camille McKayle, UVI provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, who marveled at the research projects after viewing them. “It shows the potential of our students and our faculty mentorships. It makes me very inspired.”

UVI has more than 15 research centers and institutes studying diverse topics. Faculty members guide students in cutting edge research that has earned students accolades at UVI and nationally.

“These experiences doing authentic research help students experience the work of professional scientists,” said Dr. Sandra Romano, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. “It also puts them at a great advantage in getting admitted to competitive graduate programs in a wide variety of STEM and biomedical research.” She continued, “By going to other institutions, students are able to learn more about graduate school opportunities and explore different programs where they might subsequently apply.”

Students returning to UVI after off-campus experiences also mentor beginning students, providing them with inspiration to continue in their pursuit of a career in science. Students interested in these kinds of experiences can participate in ECS activities as soon as they start at UVI. ECS also provides a variety of levels of financial support to students through an online application process with an annual Feb. 28, deadline.

Dr. Marc Boumedine, professor of computer science, said that student research poster and oral presentations were evaluated based on criteria set by the American Society for Microbiology/ABRCMS. Participation in the research symposium gives students a leg up on others when applying for graduate programs and fellowships, he said. Students at the symposium presented their findings to peers, faculty, family and the greater Virgin Islands community.

“It’s not enough to get a 4.0 GPA. You need experience, research, and publication outside of class work,” Boumedine said. “This event shows what researchers are doing elsewhere can be done at UVI.”

Commodore, who won second place for her research on antibiotic resistance bacteria, agrees. “When I first got to Yale University for the summer I felt like a fish out of water. Toward the end of my time there I learned I was definitely prepared from my biology classes at UVI.”

The winning projects from the Fall Research Symposium are:

1st Place Winners (Top Score)

Group Poster Presentation #41

Student Presenters Names: Villisha Gregoire, Semonie Rogers, and Danelly Samuel

Presentation Title: Differential Success of Primers on Tissue Samples Extracted from Populations of Molossus molossus on St. Thomas

Research Location/Institutions: University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas Campus

Mentor: Dr. Alice Stanford

Research Funding: UVI NSF HBCU-UP grant #137472 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE)

2nd Place Winner

Individual Poster Presentation #32

Student Presenters Name: Nirisha Commodore

Presentation Title: Identifying Intrinsic Resistance in Pseudomonas aeruginosa

Research Location/Institutions: Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut

Mentor: Dr. Barbara Kazmierczak

Research Funding: Yale BioMed Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship

3rd Place Winner

Individual Poster Presentation #38

Student Presenter Name: Shanan Emmanuel

Presentation Title: Development of a Protocol for Enrichment of Hemogregarine-Infected Fish Erythrocytes and Transmissible Cysts

Research Location/Institutions: 1Brown University, 2University of the Virgin Islands

Mentors: Dr. Andrew G. Campbell1 and Dr. Jennilee B. Robinson2

Research Funding: UVI NIH MARC grant #5T34GM008422

Students interested in summer research at UVI should browse the ECS website or contact Aimee Sanchez for more information.