Rising Researcher

Emerging Leaders

Students honored for innovation in research, scholarship, and creative activity
  • Recipients of the Spring 2015 Rising Researcher award

The Rising Research program acknowledges the excellent work of UMass Amherst undergraduate students.

UMass Amherst created the Rising Researcher Awards in 2013 to honor undergraduate students who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and expertise in a particular area of study. The six recipients for spring 2015 have fully met those standards.
Anthony Federico ’15 is making a national impact with the research in plant biology he began during his freshman year. He has discovered a linkage between a cell membrane receptor called FER and the actin cytoskeleton in Arabidopsis thaliana, a type of mustard green, which is known to be an important component for cell growth. This finding is expected to shed light on how plants develop, reproduce, and respond to stress, and to lead to significant technical and economic gains in how we grow food.

Federico graduated as valedictorian of his class in the biochemistry and molecular biology major and is a finalist for the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship. He has received various awards from Commonwealth Honors College and the College of Natural Sciences for his research leadership. Federico’s future looks bright as he considers enrolling in a biochemistry Ph.D. program at Oxford University in the U.K. to which he has been accepted.

“To me, the most impressive thing about Anthony is that he manages to achieve all that he does with great grace, hardly ever drawing attention to himself,” says his advisor, Alice Y. Cheung, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. “By his ability and his own action as a role model for the others—qualities that exemplify a rising leader in any profession—Anthony emerged as the leader of his lab cohort.”

Marissa Shea ’15 has clear, documented leadership talent. She received the 2014 Emerging Leader Award from the College of Engineering Diversity Program’s Office for innovation, leadership, and involvement for her work in civil engineering. In 2013, the National Science Foundation (NSF) accepted Shea into its highly competitive Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES). There she studied the seismic performance of thin reinforced concrete shear-wall boundary elements. After just 10 weeks in the program, Shea completed research that was published on the NEES website and was asked to present her work both at the 2013 Young Researchers Symposium in Reno, Nevada, and the statewide Massachusetts Undergraduate Research Conference. Last year, Shea returned to the NSF REU position to study digital-image correlation systems in applications to large-scale structural testing. She produced a research paper and a technical poster on the study; the latter won her the Best Poster in Session Award at the 2014 Young Researchers Symposium.

“Marissa has set the high goal of pursuing graduate studies,” notes her research advisor, Professor of Civil Engineering Behrouz Shafei. “I have no doubt that the Rising Researcher Award will further encourage her to pursue this goal.”

 Michael Pratt ’15 is a gifted researcher whose work gains depth from his past involvement in fine arts photography. He is pursuing original primary research on an unpublished and previously little-known set of photographs done by renowned American photographer Edward Weston during his 1937 Guggenheim Fellowship. Pratt’s research centers on understanding the work and identifying important themes, stylistic tendencies, key subjects, and more. Additionally, Pratt is assessing the work in relation to period ideas about “aesthetic photography” and “documentary photography,” topics of heavy debate during the 1930s, while arguing that Weston combined the two in complex ways. He received an Commonwealth Honors College Honors Research Grant which supported his research. He presented his findings at the state-wide Undergraduate Research Conference held at UMass on April 24th

 “His thesis is original,” notes Anthony Lee, Idella Plimpton Kendall Professor of Art History at Mount Holyoke College, one of Pratt’s advisors. “Indeed there is hardly any literature on these photographs, let alone a sustained argument about their historicity.”

Nicholas Vallone ’15 studies philosophy and German and his philosophical research is nearly unprecedented. With broad interests in philosophy, Vallone has taken several graduate-level classes in which he has exceeded the expectations of his professors. Based on what he learned in those courses, he completed a compilation of essays that have received national recognition. In 2014, Vallone attended the Kant Society Conference at the University of London, where he was the only undergraduate researcher present. Because of his research and academic excellence, he was chosen to be a reviewer for 2015 volume of StanceAn International Undergraduate Philosophy Journal. Vallone was awarded a prize for having presented one of the top papers at the National Undergraduate Philosophy Conference at Montana State University, and a Best Undergraduate Paper Award from the North Carolina Philosophical Society.

“Nicholas Vallone is possibly the most promising undergraduate philosopher UMass Amherst has had in the past twenty years,” says Professor of Philosophy Eileen O’Neill, with whom Vallone studied. “He has distinguished himself as a gifted historian of early modern philosophy, and has demonstrated the potential to do groundbreaking work in this field.”

Javier King ’15 is a physics major whose research has influenced the data analysis and detector simulations for EXO-200, a world-class particle physics collaboration among approximately 100 scientists from institutions across the globe. EXO-200 uses of one of the better sensitivities in the hope of detecting a type of nuclear decay that, if detected, would tell us whether neutrinos are their own antiparticles—a Nobel-caliber discovery. King’s participation in this research is a rare instance of an undergraduate contributing to the core development of so important a project. His most notable contribution thus far has been the coding of a new software module that is now an integral part of the EXO-200 detector simulation framework.

Professor of Physics Andrea Pocar says that King’s EXO-200 “ancestor particle” module is an essential tool for the work of one of his graduate students that will be targeted for publication within the year. Pocar adds, “Other EXO-200 analyses now use the module, thanks to its simplicity of use and glitch-less performance.”

 Xuanting Wang ’16 is a chemical engineering major who has made outstanding research efforts in renewable energy. She began her research in a Thermodynamics I class, studying the development of Lewis acid zeolite catalysts for the conversion of renewable biomass into value-added products. Her enthusiasm there earned her a place as one of the top students in the class.

Wang began expanding her research through literature studies and analysis on emission control using adsorption materials—a huge challenge in her native China. In 2014, she presented at China’s Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute as part of a summer internship.

In the fall of 2014, Wang continued her research on an experimental project measuring the Lewis acidity of tin containing zeolites. Wang and a graduate student colleague have since discovered a new synthesis method to make highly active zeolite catalysts for converting sugar molecules into petrochemicals using steam-assisted crystallization. This allows the synthesis to occur far faster without the use of toxic chemicals. Xuanting significantly contributed to the project by collecting high-quality spectra and repeatable synthesis data. The result has been published in a high-impact journal Green Chemistry. Xuanting will present her results at the 2015 American Institute of Chemical Engineering regional meeting in Boston.

Faculty member Wei Fan says that Wang’s potential is unmatched, and notes that “she has strong potential of success in academia.”

Federico, Shea, Pratt, Vallone, King, and Wang were formally recognized by the campus for their contributions during a chancellor’s reception in their honor on April 16. We wish them well as they pursue further interests at UMass Amherst and beyond.

Kayla Setters '15 and Karen J. Hayes '85