Four Commonwealth Honors College Students were named as Rising Researchers for the Fall 2020 semester. The Rising Researcher program celebrates students who excel in research, scholarship or creative activity.
Shannon Silva ‘20
Researching in UMass’ Vandenberg Laboratory in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, Shannon Silva was awarded the Rising Researcher Award for her thesis work studying the impact that chemicals in sunscreen can have on developing cancer tumors. Through her research, she observed that oxybenzone exposures in pregnant female mice promoted earlier tumor development relative to nonpregnant control mice.
The Vandenberg Lab, headed by Associate Professor Laura Vandenberg of environmental health science, features an array of research projects examining how dangerous chemicals in consumer products can have a negative impact on health. Silva, a biology major, joined the lab after taking an environmental health class in the public health department.
“It got me really interested in being more informed in what we are consuming and what we are exposed to,” Silva said. “I thought it was a really cool combination of the science behind it, but also learning about real-world impacts.”
Silva, who graduated a semester early in Fall 2020, currently serves as an exploratory immunology intern at Bristol-Myers-Squibb Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In this role she assists in bench to bedside research, focusing on the drug discovery process to cure ailments ranging from cancer to autoimmune diseases. Silva validates chemical compounds in cells prior to testing in mice.
“I think it’s a really interesting intersection to be able to understand the biology but then translate that into therapeutics,” Silva said. “Research that intersects the two is what I am most interested in.”
One of Silva’s major takeaways from studying bench-to-bedside research is how immense the investment can be to find a cure considering the high-failure rate of drugs, sometimes costing billions of dollars. In recent years, drug research has transitioned from an experimental, chemistry-based focus to a broader, more accurate genetic testing process.
“I don’t think it’s discouraging,” Silva said of the failure rate of finding new drugs. “I think it’s exciting because there is always something to solve. It’s not [a career] where day after day you’re doing the same thing. It’s just about re-defining your definition of success.”
In fall 2021, Silva will begin her studies toward a Ph.D at Yale’s Cancer Biology Institute. Silva attributes some of her successes to the Commonwealth Honors College BioTAP program her first-year and to her thesis project.
“I think one of the most valuable things at UMass was the ability to do the thesis,” Silva said. “Really that’s when you find out bench research is for you. I feel like having that independence is great.”
While she won’t present at the 2021 Massachusetts Undergraduate Research Conference, Silva did present a different Vandenberg Lab project in 2019 focusing on teratogens such as ethanol, which are chemicals that induce birth defects in utero.
Kate Mallory ‘21
While some look into the night sky for shots of the moon and shooting stars Kate Mallory goes deeper and looks for inspiration. Mallory, a senior from Portland, ME double majoring in Physics and Astronomy sees more than just specks of lights - she sees traces of the future.
“The basic idea is there is the interstellar medium which is mostly made up of dust grains and this dust absorbs the stellar luminosity from star clusters,” she says about her thesis research. “That luminosity is reemitted in the near and mid-infrared which is what we look at with my project.”
The Honors Thesis is an extensive and rewarding process that requires Honors Students to delve into a subject area with the guided assistance of a sponsor. Over the course of her research, Mallory has worked in tandem with Professor Daniela Calzetti to track star formation rates in the galaxy M33. As a result of their incredible collaboration, Professor Calzetti nominated her for the Rising Researcher Award.
“Over the past few years we’ve all been working really hard on this project and we’re planning on getting published this summer in a peer-review journal,” she says. “And it’s a good way for people to know about our research and get it out there.”
Upon graduating from the University of Massachusetts this coming spring Mallory hopes to see her research used as a star formation rate indicator for the upcoming launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in Fall 2021.
Although her research only began a few years ago Mallory draws her love for astronomy from years before she enrolled at UMass. “My interest in astronomy started in seventh grade when we took an integrated science course and my teacher brought in a fake observatory,” she explains. It was here that her seventh-grade teacher pointed out each of the stars and taught her the galaxy she now studies.
When she’s not looking to the sky for answers she’s getting involved on campus, everything from the fencing team to her participation in Alternative Spring Break. One of her favorite undergraduate memories from beyond the classroom was traveling to North Carolina to rebuild hurricane-hit homes during spring break.
As Mallory wraps up her undergraduate research on star clusters she begins her exploration into the world of post-graduate work, unsure of what she’ll study but interested in geoscience. “Having this under my belt is really going to help a lot and physics leads into geosciences pretty easily,” she says about her thesis research.
When she reminisces about her undergraduate experience at UMass and in the Honors College she remembers having doubts. “The different classes and opportunities I had through CHC helped me get interested in different avenues and I’m really glad I stuck with the Honors College,” she says.
Lucky for her Mallory’s research doesn’t end here; all she has to do is look up.
Joshua McGee ‘21
Little did Joshua McGee ’21 know that a conversation with his freshman-year roommate, chemical engineering major Jacob Brandner ’21, would lead to research that would define his undergraduate career at the University of Massachusetts.
In a discussion about the complications with nanoparticle synthesis they were both encountering in their labs, McGee, an Honors chemical engineering student from Pepperell, came up with the idea for developing a microfluidic platform that would improve the production of protein nanoparticles.
“I had the idea of creating a microfluidic device to basically enable protein nanoparticle synthesis,” he said. “The big goal was to be able to make nanoparticles that can basically be used for different drug delivery experiments.”
After receiving approval from his professors and advisors, he embarked on an independent research project under Associate Professor Sarah Perry. His research, which ultimately became the subject of his Honors Thesis, demonstrated the abilities to change the properties of nanoparticles by changing different parameters of the microfluidic platform – a discovery which he hopes will enable the production of nanoparticles that can cross the blood-brain barrier and improve methods of drug delivery, such as chemotherapy.
McGee continued his research throughout his undergraduate career with the assistance of several Commonwealth Honors College research grants and fellowships, and went on to present his work at the 2019 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Annual Meeting Undergraduate Poster Session in Florida.
“Never would I have thought that my own project that I started at UMass could be big enough and successful enough that I would be able to write about it for a grant,” he said.
“The Honors research fellowships and grants have helped me out a lot because I’ve always needed to be able to support myself financially, which is one of those struggles where students have to find the balance between being able to work in the lab and do all of these cool projects, but at the end of the day you need to be able to make money and support yourself.”
As one of the recipients of the 2021 UMass Amherst Rising Researcher award, McGee is grateful for the research opportunities the University has provided and is “really excited” at his work’s recognition.
“I’m blown away at how many opportunities have been made available to me at UMass,” he said. “With the career that I want to take on I’m going to be doing research, and so building those research skills is very important to me. I think that [Rising Researchers] is a great way of recognizing students who are really dedicated to their research.”
McGee was recently selected as a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship, and he will be pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering at Boston University following his graduation from UMass this spring.
Renos Zabounidis ‘22
Intersecting the fields of computer science and mathematics, Renos Zabounidis ‘22 focused his research on cognitive machine learning. His research experience has taken a two-pronged approach.
In one side of his research, Zabounidis is studying the core cognitive concept of theory of mind, which allows humans to inductively understand others’ mental beliefs. Human brains are able to take very complex data from the world and simplify it into understandable and achievable goals. The machine learning algorithm that Zabounidis is developing, entitled “Introspection,” applies an interdisciplinary approach to imbuing artificial intelligence with more human qualities.
This level of machine learning could be used in situations such as a search and rescue in a burning building, where robots could be used to help firefighters.
“It’s actually very non-trivial for a machine learning algorithm to understand what the goals of the firefighters are because there could be multiple goals,” Zabounidis said. “You need to be able to extract from information the goals of what [the firefighters] are doing to effectively assist them.”
“If a robot is helping us on a certain task, we don’t want the robot constantly asking us questions, especially if they’re basic questions we as humans can automatically infer about the situation,” added Zabounidis about the usefulness of his research.
On the other side of his research, Zabounidis examines bias in machine learning. In cases such as facial recognition software, bias may come out against minority groups especially if algorithms are trained on datasets which lack those minority groups. Other instances of bias in machine learning could be sexism in language processing.
“Machine learning algorithms will work better on some inputs than others, and that depends on how they’re trained,” Zabounidis said. “I specifically look at facial classifiers and try to look at what regions of the possible space of inputs of a model are biased. By bias, it means you have lower classification accuracy than average.”
“If you are able to create a representation of different regions of this possible space, then you can effectively predict what regions the classifier will do better on.”
There are two main branches of bias research, says Zabounidis, that each have the same goal of mitigating bias and achieving fairness. The first aspect is trying to create machine learning algorithms that aren’t biased. The second aspect, which his research focuses on, is determining if machine learning algorithms are biased.
“There’s no one definition of bias,” said Zabounidis. “You can go on a population level, there’s literally dozens of definitions. What I’m trying to do is establish a definition that doesn’t require labels.”
Among the faculty that Zabounidis considers his mentors are College of Information and Computer Sciences Professors Madalina Fiterau and Hava Siegelmann, as well as Katia Sycara of Carnegie Mellon University.
For his Honors Thesis, Zabounidis plans on prioritizing and delving deeper into either prong of his research. Upon graduating from Commonwealth Honors College, Zabounidis plans to pursue a PhD in cognitive machine learning.
“All the work I’ve put in over the past few years, other people know it exists and that it's valuable,” Zabounidis said of what being named a Rising Researcher means to him. “That’s ultimately what the goal of research should be.”