New Rising Researcher awards given to 4 undergraduates

Undergraduates Tess Brickley ’15, Kelly Malone ’13, Alexander Borges ’14, and Ankur Sheel ’13 have been designated the first UMass Amherst Rising Researchers. The Rising Researcher award is a new program co-funded by University Relations and Research and Engagement to recognize campus undergraduates who excel in research, scholarship and creative activity.

Awardees are exceptional undergraduates identified by their faculty mentor/advisor who have demonstrated leadership and impact in their chosen area of study.

A double major in Neuroscience and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Sheel is conducting his honors thesis in the lab of Larry Schwartz, the Eugene M. and Ronnie Isenberg Professor of Integrated Science and a nationally known expert in the study of cell death and human disease.

“Ankur is the best student I have worked with in over a decade and one of the top two undergraduates I have worked with during my 25 years at UMass. I have never had a student who displayed such passion for research,” says Schwartz.

Sheel has initiated two major studies on human breast cancer to identify how a recently discovered gene, which is over expressed in the most aggressive form of breast cancer, works within human cells. His findings will help shed light on the growth and behavior of cancerous tumors. “He is fearless about learning new methodology. These are both important studies that will result in publications with Ankur as the lead author,” says Schwartz.

Sheel plans to continue his research under Schwartz while pursuing a master’s degree in molecular and cellular biology. “The biggest benefit to working in the lab is the guidance and knowledge that I receive from professor Schwartz. I can safely say that the majority of my scientific knowledge stems from his useful feedback and his ability to explain complicated concepts in a simple manner,” says Sheel.

Physics major and Commonwealth Honors College (CHC) student Malone has been working on research and development related to EXO (Enriched Xenon Observatory), an experiment in particle physics being conducted in Carlsbad, N.M., by an international group of academic and government scientists.

Malone, working in assistant professor Andrea Pocar’s lab since her sophomore year, has conducted and completed three major projects, including her senior capstone project where she is programming the control system of a large charcoal filter Pocar’s group is building for EXO.

Once finished, the filter will be shipped to New Mexico and installed on a leading, running experiment in neutrino physics. Its software will be the one Kelly has programmed. “I consider this a major individual contribution to an experiment at the forefront of nuclear/particle physics,” says Pocar. The experience is quite a feather in Malone’s cap, as she moves on to pursue a doctorate in physics.

Borges is a Kinesiology major at Commonwealth Honors College. As a sophomore, he received a CHC fellowship to study a consumer-wearable activity monitor. He wrote the proposal with the assistance of his faculty advisor, Patty Freedson, and conducted the study last spring. According to Freedson, a leading authority on measuring physical activity’s effects on health, Borges’s presentation was so outstanding that his project was accepted for the School of Public Health and Health Science’s Research Day—a forum usually reserved for graduate student presentations.

Borges, whose plans include medical school, believes his experience working with Freedson will help him be successful there. “His command of the literature in this field is superb. His accomplishments are extraordinary for a student at this stage in his academic training,” says Freedson.

Brickley, a Commonwealth Honors College Classics major is working with digital archaeological materials from the Pompeii Quadriporticus Project under the supervision of assistant professor Eric Poehler. Brickley so impressed Poehler as a freshman in his Roman archeology class that he offered her a research assistant position.

“Tess has truly excelled in every task she has been given. One of the first was analyzing data from 74 columns in our building, the Quadriporticus at Pompeii, and discovering patterns within the hundreds of holes cut into those columns. Thinking through the process of the task I gave her was itself challenging, but then visualizing the results was especially impressive. I presented the results at a major international conference in January to great interest,” says Poehler.

“Tess has also been instrumental in structuring thousands of photos, graphs, drawings, and database entries from the project. Most interestingly, she has mastered a photogrammetry program to reconstruct ancient spaces in 3D from simple 2D photographs. I intend to support Tess’ fieldwork this summer in Pompeii,”’ says Poehler.

“I’m very excited to be able to work in Pompeii to see how the research I’ve done is physically manifested in the Quadriporticus,” says Brickley. “This project also gives me footholds to discover my own interests in archaeology, a field which I intend to eventually do my own research.”

All four Rising Researchers and their faculty advisors will be honored at a luncheon with Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

Photo: Tess Brickley, Kelly Malone, Alexander Borges and Ankur Sheel