Rising Researcher

Destined for Success

Undergraduate researchers make early impacts in their chosen fields
  • UMass Amherst Rising Researchers stand in the upper hallway of the Integrated Learning Center.

The Rising Researcher program acknowledges the stellar achievements of UMass Amherst undergraduate students. 

Aaron Dunbrack ’17 boasts a number of unusual academic achievements, including being selected to receive a Goldwater Scholarship in his sophomore year. According to Professor Susan Whitbourne, who directs UMass Amherst’s Office of National Scholarship Advisement, this nationally competitive honor is usually given to college juniors. Dunbrack, a quadruple major in astronomy, math, physics, and philosophy, hopes to achieve another unusual goal: to graduate with five degrees in four years by adding a master’s in mathematics to the mix of his impending bachelor’s degrees. He is one of five talented undergraduate students selected as UMass Amherst Rising Researchers for their achievements in research, scholarship, or creative activity.

Dunbrack's research experiences greatly helped him compete for the Goldwater Scholarship. For the past two summers, he has participated in the prestigious National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF REU), investigating such complex physical and mathematical phenomena as measuring the magnetic properties of spiral galaxies and the math behind how crystals melt.

Dunbrack’s passion for cosmology, the part of physics that studies the origin and eventual fate of the universe, has led to his current research under the direction of Professor Michael Ramsey-Musolf. In this new project, Dunbrack will study the experimental consequences of a particular new model of particle physics designed to better account for certain properties of matter in the universe. Dunbrack’s enthusiasm for this new phase of work is palpable. “It involves studying aspects of the physical world that the current standard theories can’t explain,” he says.

Looking ahead, Dunbrack expects to continue on the academic track to pursue a doctorate in physics. “Aaron personifies the qualities needed to be recognized as a Rising Researcher,” says Whitbourne. “He will undoubtedly continue his astonishing record of accomplishments in the coming years.”

Senior electrical engineering major Zachary Goodman also began pursuing research opportunities early in his academic career. A whiz at understanding computer architecture, Goodman is already having an impact on his chosen field. During the summer of 2013, he conducted networking systems research under the direction of engineering professors Tilman Wolf and Russell Tessier as a part of an NSF REU.

“Zach’s research,” says Wolf, “was to develop a simulator for modeling the operation of an embedded multi-core network processor system, where packets requiring different processing applications are handled. Zach’s system tracked how workload allocations on these processors affect the processing delays encountered by different packets. These simulation results were important in the context of research performed by other members of our labs. His work expanded our understanding of this system beyond the (small) prototype configuration that had previously been implemented.”

Goodman’s work on the project is included in a journal paper recently accepted by IEEE Transactions on Computers, which Wolf rates as one of the best journals in computer architecture.

“It is a great achievement for anyone to have a paper appear in such a high-quality peer-reviewed publication,” says Wolf. “Zach worked quite independently on this research. The results of his work were insightful, demonstrating a considerable level of maturity for someone that early on in his studies.”

The terminology in Elvira Sukamtoh’s area of research can twist your tongue, but the talented food science major has no problem racking up research accomplishments in her field, says Guodong Zhang, assistant professor of food science. Sukamtoh’s research in Zhang’s lab has focused on the effects and mechanisms of dietary compounds on angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels) and lymphangiogenesis (formation of new lymphatic vessels), two critical processes in cancer progression. Using a variety of cell culture models, Sukamtoh has demonstrated that multiple dietary compounds, such as curcumin, potently inhibit (lymph) angiogenesis.

“These results are highly significant, because these findings could lead to novel therapeutic or preventive strategies to reduce the risks of cancer,” says Zhang.

Sukamtoh’s accomplishments include publishing in high-impact journals. She is co-first author on a published paper (and co-author on another that is pending) in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, arguably one of the best original research journals in food science; and been published as co-author in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. Sukamtoh has also won travel awards to give oral and poster presentations at national undergraduate research symposia, including the 2015 Institute of Food Technologists national meeting, where she won second place in the undergraduate research competition.

“These outstanding accomplishments have placed her among the most promising young researchers. She is very hard-working, creative, and interactive. Simply put, she is the best student I have observed,” notes Zhang.

Assistant Professor Shelly Peyton believes Thomas McCarthy is the ideal candidate for the Rising Researcher Award. A chemical engineering major who has been a member of her research group for three years, McCarthy has become an integral part of many research projects as well as a respected lab member. “Tom has learned a breadth of skills,” says Peyton, “and people respect him for his scientific knowledge. They seek him out to answer questions or as a resource for troubleshooting.”

Of McCarthy’s many research contributions, one is especially noteworthy: He developed a process to synthesize, characterize, and purify peptides. “In order for Tom to do this,” says Peyton, “he needed to learn three separate instruments, build an apparatus to control airflow in a hood, and revive a 30-year-old instrument that hadn’t been used for over five years. He independently developed this process. Because it intimately impacts the projects of graduate and post-doctoral students, he will be included as an author on one of the resulting peer reviewed articles.”

Though the contribution of this process benefits many people in the lab, it was only a side project for McCarthy. “Tom’s honors thesis is to engineer a synthetic tissue that can be used to study cancer progression,” says Peyton. “Current synthetic tissue platforms cannot stiffen in response to cells as natural tissues do, limiting their application in cancer research. Tom will likely submit this work for publication in 2016, providing our lab and others with a useful platform to study cancer progression.” McCarthy was also accepted to present a poster at the Biomedical Engineering Society, a prestigious honor for an undergraduate.

Junior biology major Jennifer Olins has been a research assistant in Assistant Professor Samuel Hazen’s regulatory genomics lab since she enrolled at the university in September 2013. She is one of a few talented students admitted into the campus’s competitive First-Year Research Experience program and the Biology Talent Advanced Program (BioTAP). Since joining the Hazen group, Olins has been awarded two competitive Commonwealth College Research Assistant Fellowships and received honorable mention for her application to the American Society of Plant Biology Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program.

During her time in lab, Olins has become an independent scientist executing her own experiments. Highly skilled at the bench, she has mastered a number of scientific techniques including polymerase chain reaction (PCR), gel electrophoresis, and yeast and bacteria genetic transformation. When Olins expressed a strong desire to learn microscopy, Hazen had her do so by having her conduct an experiment he needed for an article to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. “The outcome was excellent,” says Hazen, “and because of her contribution Jenny is now recognized as a co-author on the article.”

Hazen was also impressed with Olins when the student that was performing many of the laboratory managerial duties recently departed for graduate school and Olins stepped in to fill the void. “Jenny is a clear leader within my group and a dedicated and thoughtful scientist,” says Hazen. “Her academic performance is also extraordinary.”

Dunbrack, Goodman, McCarthy, Olins, and Sukamtoh will be honored for their achievements at a spring luncheon with the chancellor.

Karen J. Hayes '85