The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Rising Researcher

Be Revolutionary

UMass students take a bold approach to research and scholarship
  • Group photo of Fall 2019 Rising Researchers

The Rising Researcher program celebrates undergraduate students who excel in research, scholarship, or creative activity.

UMass Amherst continues to attract truly remarkable students. The campus’s varied opportunities allow students to challenge convention, think in new ways, and create change instead of waiting for it. This semester we celebrate six students with the Rising Researcher Award in recognition of their demonstrated ingenuity and impact in their fields of study.

Sociology major and Commonwealth Honors College student, Rachel Bargoot ’19, is a “real star” in both her research activities and undergraduate program according to her advisor Katherine Fabel. Working on a six-person team of graduate students under the direction of sociology Professor Naomi Gerstel, Bargoot is investigating the components that influence family involvement in higher education and the subsequent impact on students.

The institutional portion of her research was to chronicle college personnel’s interactions and relationships with families of students. As she helped interview participants, transcribed, and coded data, she began to develop her own ideas about research on the interpretation and implementation of the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) on a college campus and its effects on the student experience. 

The crux of her analysis lies within these moments of conflict, where she analyzes which strategies university personnel employ to diffuse conflict, especially around employing and explaining FERPA, says Bargoot.

Her thesis argues that parents have come to understand themselves as primary consumers of education. “This issue pertains especially to parents of students who have provided significant financial investment. The consumer culture is reinforced by colleges’ attempts to advertise their programs to families,” says Bargoot. She found that parents and families are beginning to request more information about their students after matriculation, resulting in increased combative interactions between families and college personnel when faced with FERPA constraints. 

"This project and the research that led to it have been the cornerstone of my undergraduate experience at UMass Amherst,” says Bargoot.

“Rachel is interested in going on to study higher education,” says Fabel. “She has incorporated this interest into her entire student pathway, immersing herself in learning more about higher ed as an institution; she is an RA, a sociology peer advisor, and a university hearing board member for the Dean of Students Office. She also did a fascinating presentation on FERPA in my Sociology of Higher Education class (which is quite a feat). Rachel is a passionate student with a real dedication to her research and to better understanding and improving the experience of all college students,” adds Fabel.

Commonwealth Honors College student and pre-veterinary sciences major, Morgane Golan ’20, joined Dr. Wei Cui’s lab in 2018, and embraced the freedom to dream bigger. She planned on becoming a clinical veterinarian, but her goals shifted to research when she became a fellow in the Lee Science Impact Program (Lee SIP), a donor-funded program in the College of Natural Sciences designed to expand and broaden participation in undergraduate research.

As a scholar and member of Dr. Cui’s lab, Golan has contributed to a number of research investigations in embryo culture and genotyping, and animal modeling processes. “We study genes that are required for mammalian embryonic development, by regulating or 'knocking out' their function, to evaluate the developmental progress following this sort of mutation,” says Golan.

Golan adjusted to the lab’s pace quickly. “The more time that I spent in the lab, the more I wanted to be there. I love the personal satisfaction and exhilaration that come with fantastic results...This role has imbued me with a sense of confidence and self-awareness. Because of my experience as a young, female research scientist, I have been offered unique opportunities to work with diverse groups and achieve heightened levels of success, ”says Golan.

Her contributions to one particular knockout study of Mediator Complex Subunit 20 (Med20), which plays a role in gene transcription and whose dysregulation has been linked with intellectual disability in humans, resulted in Golan’s co-authorship of a paper in the Journal of Reproduction. Her honors thesis investigates the embryonic role of Replication Factor C1, a subunit factor involved in the catalysis of DNA synthesis that has implications in aging. “It has been determined that cleavage of the subunit adversely affects cellular proliferation, resulting in the phenotypic expression of the genetic disorder Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome,” says Golan. She hopes to publish a paper on her thesis results next spring.

“I love the research that I do in these projects because it bridges the gap between complex scientific theories and real-world implications. This research also presents hope that we might someday be able to minimize the prevalence of these genetic abnormalities and limit their terrible prognoses in human medicine,” says Golan.

Jacob Kaplan ’20, a jazz and African American music studies major, added to a tradition of jazz arranging with a string and rhythm section. He wrote an arrangement of a popular jazz ballad that brought together classical string players and jazz players to explore the sound concept behind many great recordings of the past, but bring the sound back into the repertoire of modern day musicians.

Originally written for a smaller quartet or quintet, Kaplan added a four-piece string section with the standard rhythm section to the ballad called “My One and Only Love” by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin and played the melody on the saxophone as a jazz quartet with strings. He worked with both his private lesson teacher and with the string players to figure out how to put the piece together cohesively. After playing it live for a recital in the spring of 2019, Kaplan and his ensemble met this fall to do a more professionally assembled recording session.

 “Jacob has begun to write and arrange jazz small group instrumentals combined with string quartets which are normally seen in classical configurations. Although this has been done in the past, it is still not a common sound. I believe that a student who is exploring unique sounds and unafraid to cross the boundaries of genre should be recognized and encouraged in these endeavors,” says Thomas Giampietro, his ensemble coach and independent study teacher. 

“This project was a challenge as I have never written for strings before” says Kaplan. “The process of figuring out not only how to write for the string players but how to fit everyone's sound together in a cohesive and stylistically appropriate way was difficult and took involvement from the whole ensemble.” Despite the challenge, Kaplan plans to continue similar work. “It could provide a key creative outlet in the future for myself and my colleagues that includes not only jazz-oriented musicians but a multitude of personnel from many different musical backgrounds,” he adds. 

“Jacob has been a model student during his years at UMass and has developed into a natural leader within the jazz student body,” says Giampietro.

Commonwealth Honors College student Zoe Kearney ’20, astronomy and physics, is a natural at research. Working with her advisor, professor Alexandra Pope, Kearney has been involved in two galaxy formation and evolution projects where she has worked with big data sets, honing her skills in data synthesis and analysis.

Her two projects at UMass Amherst have been examining the relationship between galaxy properties and the environment of dusty star forming galaxies. Both projects have been computationally involved and have focused on imaging, working with large amounts of data, and learning about the importance of research on dusty sources and obscured star formation. Kearney presented the first project at the American Astronomical Society in 2018 and the second will be developed into her honors thesis.

While studying abroad, Zoe worked with a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute sorting through large amounts of data and abstracts for Damped Lyman alpha systems, large densities of neutral hydrogen gas which are visible in quasar spectra. “This required learning about new science and spectral analysis as well as developing new code in Python to redo analysis previously done in IDL. I plan to present this work at the next American Astronomical Society meeting and write a paper upon conclusion of the analysis,” says Kearney.

“Zoe understands the process of analyzing data and then synthesizing the results before taking the next steps. She asks insightful questions, has strong computational skills and a high-level theoretical understanding of the material,” says Pope.

“Seeing how all components fit together, such as the theory, application, and analysis, has taught me early on to always stay curious and persistent when there is a problem to be solved. I continue to be excited and passionate about physics and astronomy and anxiously anticipate the opportunity to expand my research in the years to come,” says Kearney.

Commonwealth Honors College student Kenneth Lin ’20, astronomy and physics, is also a member of Professor Alexandra Pope’s team. He has been contributing to two groundbreaking projects designed to shed light on the roles of star formation and supermassive black holes as astrophysical processes that drive galaxy evolution. 

His first project aims to reveal the link between supermassive black holes and star formation evolution in distant galaxies with the forthcoming NASA James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. “This work enables the diagnosis of active galactic nuclei at high redshifts where the star formation rate peaks in an era called cosmic noon,” says Lin. 

The second involves developing diagnostic simulations for TolTEC, an imaging polarimeter to be commissioned on the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico at the end of 2019. “This project aims to quantify the effects of multiplicity and confusion in the TolTEC beam on the observations to be made with upcoming large sky surveys. With the three-millimeter wavelengths of TolTEC, this study aims to quantify how well galaxy sources can be selected by redshift by spectral energy distributions and constraining the dust emissivity of these sources,” said Lin.

“Kenneth has received multiple awards and recognitions for his scholarly and research accomplishments including a national Goldwater Scholarship and the 2019 William F. Field Alumni Scholars Award. He was also selected for two competitive external summer research internships: the Nakatani Foundation RIES U.S. Fellowship program and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) REU program. For the Nakatani program, he won the best poster presentation prize among the exceptional cohort of fellows and presented his research at a conference in October 2018. He plans to present his research from his CfA Harvard project at the AAS meeting this winter,” says Pope. 

Lin says, “I hope to pursue my interests in astronomical instrumentation, and in particular, optical detectors for next generation space-based observatories. Developing the new technologies in instruments will enable the science to be pushed further, giving us the capabilities to address wide-ranging open questions in astrophysics from galaxy formation and evolution near the beginning of time to the large-scale structure of the universe.”

Commonwealth Honors College student Cinzia Presti ’20, a classics and art history major, has a goal: to map and analyze infrastructural elements such as drainage systems, cisterns, and roads of the ancient Roman city of Tharros (Sardinia, Italy). Her research will help shed light on the lives of ancient people and how they may have interacted with city infrastructure and their environment.

Presti's unique method of research combines digital humanities (applying computational tools and methods to humanities disciplines) with traditional archaeological methods. She conducted her own ground survey of Tharros, analyzing drone data of the topography to determine potential paths and volumes of drainage in the excavated and unexcavated portions of the city. “Drainage and access to water can tell a lot about the lives of the people of Tharros. To date, the study of how water entered, circulated and left the city has been understudied,” says Presti.

Expected outcomes of her research include modeling of the cityscape, documenting sources and outflows of water, and reconstructing roofing and the water environment. Her work has garnered much attention, and last summer Presti was invited to join the Tharros Archeological Research Project’s excavations geospatial team led by the University of Cincinnati.

“This type of research has allowed me to take up new opportunities at UMass such as participating in archaeological fieldwork and several digital humanities research projects,” says Presti. “My hopes are to pursue a doctorate in classical art and archaeology, teach at the university level and continue to incorporate innovative technologies into my archaeological research.”

Katherine Kelley '20