Rising Researcher

Early to Rise

Rising Researcher Award celebrates undergraduates with a head start in research
  • UMass Amherst Rising Researchers with their awards at Chancellor's reception.

Research universities, by design, are uniquely equipped to expose undergraduates directly to research they may not otherwise see until graduate school.  

As the Commonwealth’s flagship public research university, UMass Amherst provides a unique opportunity for students to conduct hands-on research early in their academic careers. According to Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement Mike Malone, UMass Amherst undergraduates are encouraged to take full advantage of these circumstances.

“Rising Researchers are undergraduate students with significant accomplishments from, and enthusiasm for, their work at UMass Amherst,” Malone says. “These accomplishments demonstrate not only high quality work and impact in the field of research or scholarship, but also great promise for future academic and career success.”

Astronomy major Marie Calapa ’14 is a glowing example of the ambition and initiative characteristic of a Rising Researcher. Calapa is lead author on a recently published paper in The Astrophysical Journal—the top peer-reviewed journal in Astronomy. The paper reflects two years’ worth of work on star formation rate indicators, which began after Calapa approached Professor Daniela Calzetti for an opportunity to conduct research her sophomore year. Fascinated by Calzetti’s work with Messier 33, one of the closest of the Milky Way’s neighboring galaxies, Calapa dove into the research area head-on by evaluating an established star formation rate indicator for its effectiveness in tracing stars. She took this 8-micron “tracer” and compared it to two other types, concluding that it is a more effective tracer of old stars than it is of new or current ones.

Marie CalapaCalapa also had the opportunity to complete two Research Experience for Undergraduates (REUs)—one on campus and one at the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket, where she began her ongoing work on red quasars. Quasars, active and luminous galaxies, were previously thought to be exclusively blue. Calapa’s work reveals that previous searches for quasars excluded entire populations of the red variety. She is currently working with UC Davis’ Dr. Michael Gregg, whom she worked with at the observatory, on a paper summarizing these findings and intends to learn more about what distinguishes red quasars from blue.

Calapa was a 2013 Barry M. Goldwater Scholar—a highly competitive national scholarship established by the U.S. Congress for students in science, mathematics or engineering. She also recently received an honorable mention for a National Science Foundation fellowship and plans to begin her graduate studies at UC Santa Cruz in the fall. She is honored to be recognized as a Rising Researcher.

“It’s a big honor because it’s gratifying to know my advisor thinks highly enough of my work to nominate me for this award,” Calapa says. “It’s really good to know what you’re doing makes a difference.”

Amy ArmstrongAmy Armstrong ’14, a double-major in History and Afro American Studies, is a natural leader working to apply her skills in service to others. Armstrong worked with a team of students on an “oral histories” project for Safe Passage, a domestic violence shelter in nearby Northampton. Working with highly sensitive documents, Armstrong helped to collect materials, conduct in-depth interviews and compile the information into a resource for the agency to use as part of their training strategy for new volunteers. Though the service-learning class that kick-started the projected has ended, Armstrong continues to see this project through to fruition.

“Armstrong's ability to connect historical research with original interviews and then to apply this to a non-profit for its own benefit demonstrates an innovative and creative application to research,” says history professor, Laura Lovett.

Having developed this set of skills working on the Safe Passage project, Armstrong recently embarked on a similar project with Lovett for UMass Student Bridges—a student run agency that works to increase access to educational resources for poor and underrepresented students. She has begun the project by training her fellow staff members on research techniques, teaching them how to conduct interviews and to edit information. By interviewing the students who founded Student Bridges and the motivations behind it, Armstrong hopes the project will educate incoming students on the history of the agency and help them see its greater importance.

John Sisay-BeckfordJohn Beckford ’15, Microbiology, was given the opportunity to find his true passion at UMass Amherst. Raised by two health professionals, Beckford has long known he would like to pursue a career related to public health. From the start of his academic career, he immersed himself in public health research under the direction of faculty mentors Margaret Riley (Biology) and Jane Kent-Braun (Kinesiology), where he assisted with projects researching the stability of bacteriocins under extreme temperatures over time and changes in muscle function with age, respectively.

Beckford was awarded an REU through the University of Oregon 2013 Summer Research Program and will soon participate in another REU at New York University. His research project at the University of Oregon focused on nematodes, a diverse animal phylum that inhabits a wide range of environments and whose species are difficult to distinguish. Beckford sought to reveal genetic linkages between properties exhibited by a certain species of nematode and resistance to a pathogen strain that causes infections in cystic fibrosis patients. Beckford presented a poster on this work at the 2013 University of Oregon SPUR Symposium and at the 2013 Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Regional Poster Symposium, where he was awarded second prize for ‘Best Poster Presentation.’ He was also selected to present this work at the 2013 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.   

Beckford is building a network of support by attending as many STEM events as he can. Recently, he has been to the UCONN Graduate School Symposium, and GEM conference at Northeastern University. As an LSAMP scholar, Beckford serves as a mentor for younger minority students interested in the sciences.

Computer Systems Engineering and Computer Science double-major Walter Everett Brown ’16, is a fitting example of a student who, given the right opportunity, can thrive very early in his or her career.

Walter Everett BrownAs a first-year student, Brown wanted to get involved in research and approached engineering professor, Maciej Ciesielski. Ciesielski was hesitant to involve such a young student in his research, but since he knew him through his first semester to be a strong student, decided to give him a shot. Ciesielski was not disappointed. Working alongside Ciesielski, Brown very quickly began to yield promising research results in the area of bit-level verification—a process computer scientists use to verify that arithmetic circuits are operating as intended. Mostly, Brown is focusing on building software that industry can use to verify hardware designs before sending them out to production. Recognizing his talent, Assistant Dean Kathy Rubin helped to land Brown an REU on campus following his first year.

Since then, Brown’s work was presented and published at the 2013 Haifa Verification Conference, for which he was recognized as second author. Brown recently co-authored another accepted paper to be presented at the Design Automation Conference, (DAC), in San Francisco, June 2014—one of the most prestigious conferences in the field. He is also recognized as second author on two pending papers—one to the European Design Automation and Test in Europe conference and another to the IEEE Computer Society Annual Symposium on VLSI (very large scale integration) to be held July 2014.

Brown has been awarded a second REU through the National Science Foundation for summer 2014 and has received funding to attend the DAC conference to make the poster presentation.

“It's unusual for even a graduate student to publish conference-worthy papers in their first research year, and here we have a rising sophomore producing such,” says Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Head, C.V. Hollot. “Moreover, Mr. Brown's initiative in approaching Professor Ciesielski and then spending his winter and spring breaks to produce meaningful research while completing his first year in college is quite a feat—it portends of an outstanding future and it is worthy of recognition as a Rising Researcher on our campus."

Amanda Drane '12