The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Rising Researcher

A Bright Future

Undergraduates receive Rising Researcher award
  • Vincent Giacalone, Helen Root, Maria Bastos-Stanek, Johanna L’Heureux, Ashley Kaiser and Saba Karimeddiny stand with Chancellor Subbaswamy

Rising Researchers exemplify the breadth and depth of talent UMass Amherst undergraduate students have to conduct meaningful research.

UMass Amherst provides undergraduate students with many opportunities to conduct research with impact. Six seniors whose research accomplishments are inspiring and notable were honored this spring with the Rising Researcher award.

Maria Bastos-Stanek ’17, a double major in the history of art and architecture and women, gender, sexuality studies, is an exceptional scholar, gifted researcher, and activist for social justice. Art history faculty characterize her as a tremendous intellect committed to independent thought. Bastos-Stanek completed an independent study with Professor Nancy Noble, history of art and architecture, on artist Paul Cadmus, which resulted in an extensively researched, finely nuanced interpretation of a Cadmus painting situated within the context of New York’s early-20th-century gay and transgender subcultures. According to Noble, it is a highly original, publishable paper, which Bastos-Stanek presented at graduate and undergraduate conferences. The project motivated Bastos-Stanek to complete an honors thesis on David Wojnarowicz under the direction of Karen Kurczynski, assistant professor of art history and architecture.

“Maria is writing an excellent senior thesis on art and the AIDS crisis, focusing on the controversial 1989 exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing and the art of David Wojnarowicz. She rejects earlier emotion-laden strategies used to define the artist and his works and critically engages with his art in compelling new ways. She is also completing archival research on a level that is extremely unusual for an undergraduate in her field,” says Noble.

On campus, Bastos-Stanek is an arts activist who takes significant initiative in engaging public audiences through exhibitions and museum publications. She conceived, researched, planned, and executed the December 1, 2015, Day With(out) Art event: she curated a one-day exhibition at the university’s Greenbaum Gallery that featured HIV/AIDS-related artworks and organized students to be on hand throughout the day to distribute HIV/AIDS informational materials.

“Maria is an exceptional scholar, intensely motivated, committed to achieve social justice by deconstructing and disarming ignorance of and prejudice against gender, sexuality, illness, and difference,” says Noble.

Microbiology major and Commonwealth Honors College student Vincent Giacalone ’17 is a walking advertisement for the quality and reach of a UMass Amherst education, says Professor Wilmore Webley. As Giacalone’s research advisor, Webley has seen him take advantage of the many research opportunities available to undergraduates.

“Vincent entered his first year as a member of the biological sciences Talent Advancement Program (BioTAP). He’s been doing research in my lab since fall 2014,” says Webley. Since that time, Giacalone has won two Commonwealth Honors College grants to support his research on infections that cause asthma in children, a translational research collaboration with Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“Vincent has made significant contributions to this area of research, demonstrating for the first time, that in addition to certain bacteria that infect the airways, at least two viruses are involved in asthma initiation and exacerbation,” says Webley. Giacalone’s abstract on this work has been accepted for presentation to the American Society for Microbiology annual general meeting to be held in New Orleans this June and a manuscript for publication is also being prepared. Giacalone will also present his work at this year’s Massachusetts statewide Undergraduate Research Conference.

In addition to working in Webley’s lab where he mentors other undergraduate students and serving as a resident assistant for the campus’s Residential Life office, Vincent completed a summer internship at Merck Research Laboratories, studying lipids involved in inflammation with one of Merck’s top scientists.

“Vincent has learned an incredible tool kit of cutting-edge research protocols and procedures. He demonstrates critical thinking, independence, and enthusiasm for research. He’s a very intuitive researcher,” says Webley. Vincent has been accepted into the PhD program at Emory University.

Ashley Kaiser ’17 is a star, “at the top of her class” according to Professor Christos Dimitrakopoulos. The chemical engineering major, competitive gymnast, and Commonwealth Honors College student has been heavily involved in research in Dimitrakopoulos’s graphene lab since her first year on campus. She has also claimed top spot in the two chemical engineering classes he teaches.

“Ashley is a seasoned team player and possesses a corporate-like demeanor of responsibility and accountability, uncharacteristic of her age. She has done summer internships at the 3M Research and Development Laboratory and at MIT. Her focus is razor sharp, her intellect superior, her determination unflappable, and her drive relentless. She is also always willing to help and is the first to volunteer for the task at hand,” says Dimitrakopoulos.

Kaiser is currently working on her Commonwealth Honors College thesis project, “Low-Temperature Graphene Growth by Plasma-Enhanced Chemical Vapor Deposition,” which Dimitrakopoulos believes has the potential for high impact. Her work in the graphene lab has already spawned a number of posters, conference presentations, and coauthored papers.

While she is leading her personal project, Kaiser is an invaluable member of the broader graphene team, says Dimitrakopoulos. “She has voluntarily undertaken the role of the record keeper, the person that organizes the data and writes 40–50-page progress reports to facilitate the team’s understanding of the experimental data, and the strategic planning of future experiments. She is a skilled scientific report writer. It is no surprise that she has been accepted to all graduate programs she applied for, including MIT,” says Dimitrakopoulos.

Saba Karimeddiny ’17, physics major and Commonwealth Honors College student, was determined to conducting research early on in his academic career. He made an appointment with Professor Jonathan Machta during his first semester to discuss the possibilities of working in Machta’s group.

“I had planned to explain to him how I only take juniors and seniors in my group but something impressed me about his maturity and eagerness to do research, so I decided to take a chance with Saba. It was a great decision,” says Machta.

According to Machta, Karimeddiny has been working on an interdisciplinary project with mathematical ecologists from the University of California–Davis. “Saba’s project has involved exploring the connections between systems of coupled nonlinear oscillators, traditionally used to study spatially extended oscillating populations, and the Ising model, an important theoretical model in physics,” says Machta.

Specifically, Karimeddiny conducted simulations of both coupled oscillators and the Ising model, demonstrating that there is a correspondence between these two superficially different systems.  The result was a paper coauthored by Karimeddiny published in the European Physical Journal B. The manuscript of a second paper on the subject, authored by Karimeddiny, is sitting on Machta’s desk.  A third project on an Ising model with a time-dependent, stochastic field will become Karimeddiny’s senior thesis. “I am confident it will also lead to a peer-reviewed publication,” says Machta.

Karimeddiny has given several talks about his work at undergraduate research conferences. He also presented at the American Physical Society Meeting this March. “This is the first time I have sent an undergraduate to this meeting,” says Machta.

Johanna L’Heureux ’17, a biochemistry and molecular biology major and Commonwealth Honors College student, joined Professor Dong Wang’s lab as part of the inaugural Faculty First-Year Research Experience program cohort. Wang says he had always envisioned hosting undergraduate students early in their UMass careers to foster an experience in which they would identify the research group as their “academic family” and the lab as a natural destination for research and study.

L’Heureux has been working with Wang on problems in plant biology, specifically investigations into the interactions between legume hosts and the soil bacteria rhizobia, which fix nitrogen after becoming established inside the legume root nodules. The phenomenon is of intense interest to both basic science and sustainability, says Wang, but most of the host mechanisms required to establish this symbiosis are yet unknown.

“Johanna has been working to identify novel host genes required for the nitrogen-fixing symbiosis. The approach follows a tried-and-proved method for many genetic investigations; it involves mutagenizing a population of plants at random, identifying mutants failing to establish a functional symbiosis, defining the defects in this mutant, and, finally, discovering the genetic basis of the mutation. The corresponding gene, by definition, is crucial for the symbiosis to succeed. This whole procedure is typically a PhD project,” says Wang.

Because L’Heureux started research at such an early stage, Wang says she was able to discover a good number of putative mutants and to accomplish many steps of this genetic “saga.”

Among her many honors and awards, L’Heureux has received summer research fellowships from the Noble Foundation and from the American Society for Plant Biologists (ASPB), and has presented her work at the 2017 ASPB annual conference in Hawaii.

Psychology major and Commonwealth Honors College student Helen Root ’17 is also a success of the UMass First-Year Research Experience. Her work conducting sleep research in Professor Rebecca Spencer’s Cognition and Action (COGNAC) lab coalesced with Root’s interest in a career working with autistic children, particularly since sleep difficulties are common in that population.

Root first worked on the Preschool Nap Study, where she accompanied COGNAC staff to area preschools to test children on memory tasks before and after a nap in order to understand whether memories are consolidated over sleep in young children. According to Spencer, motivating preschoolers to attend to stimuli, encouraging sleep on nap-promotion days, and managing the vast amount of research data are challenging, but Root excelled at this work.

“It is cumbersome to work with the actigraphy files (data which allows researchers to measure movement and sleep in a population), but Helen has the technical skills to score these records and manage the data. Impressively, her work on this project earned her authorship on a publication in Sleep Health (the peer-reviewed journal of the National Sleep Foundation),” says Spencer. Root also presented aspects of her work at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

In her sophomore year, Root began working with graduate student Amanda Cremone on a project investigating disrupted sleep in children with ADHD, furthering her knowledge of sleep research while allowing her to pursue her interests in developmentally vulnerable populations. While studying abroad, she designed an independent honors thesis titled “The Effect of Sleep Extension on Sleep Physiology and Behavior.” Once completed, the data from her thesis project will be used as a control group for a future study on the effects of sleep extension in children with ADHD in the hopes that it could become an intervention in this population.

“Helen’s work in the lab her first two years was just a stepping stone to this even more remarkable thesis project,” says Spencer.  “She has produced important findings that will have an impact on the field.”

Bastos-Stanek, Giacalone, Kaiser, Karimeddiny, L'Heureux and Root were formally recognized by the campus for their contributions during a chancellor’s reception in their honor on April 12. We wish them well in their future pursuits.

Karen J. Hayes, '85