Rising Researcher

Research Ambitions

Student achievements set the course for future success
  • UMass Amherst students Bryan Bowman, Shelby Cox, Jamar Hawkins, Brandon Johnston, Xin Liu and Kaitlyn McGarvey sit on a bench outside Old Chapel.

“These accomplish-ments demonstrate great promise for future academic and career success.”

-Michael Malone

Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement

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. This semester, we honor six undergraduates with the Rising Researcher award for their highly ambitious pursuit of research and scholarly activity.

Journalism major Bryan Bowman ’18 holds the distinction of being the first undergraduate student to have a byline in The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. His interest in learning about the relationship between the press and the exploitative and brutal penal and labor practices that built the modern South and its economic, political, and social systems spurred an ambitious research project launched with support from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ LeBovidge Undergraduate Research Award.

His original research was documented in the article "Exploiting Black Labor After the Abolition of Slavery" co-authored with his advisor, journalism professor Kathy Roberts Forde. The article was published in the February 6, 2017 edition of The Conversation as part of its Black History Month series, and was republished by U.S. News & World Report, the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, and other news outlets. The article also led to an interview segment with Roberts Forde (“Exploitation of Black Labor after Slavery”) on the syndicated radio program Top of Mind with Julie Rose, which aired February 27, 2017, also part of Black History Month.

Building on these results, Bowman’s second project focused on finding a meaningful case study to demonstrate how the press and convict labor interacted in a community across time. He and Roberts Forde presented a preliminary paper based on this research at the Media & Civil Rights History Symposium at the University of South Carolina in March. They are preparing to submit their paper to the peer-reviewed journal Journalism History in December.

“Bryan’s deep curiosity, dogged research, strong writing, and commitment to the highest professional standards of both journalistic and historical work have made him an exceptional research partner. I’m very proud of all that he has accomplished in our work together,” says Roberts Forde.

Commonwealth Honors College student Shelby Cox ’18 is a linguistics and mathematics double major who has a track record of winning awards that reflect her superb academic performance and leadership abilities in the field of mathematics and statistics. Along with establishing and serving as President of the UMass chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, Cox has received two Outstanding Academic Achievement Awards from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics as well as the 2017 William F. Field Alumni Scholar Award, which recognizes and honors third-year students for their academic achievements.

Cox’s research accomplishments began when she participated in a summer 2016 National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF/REU) at the University of Maryland.  The project concerned calculating the Euler characteristic of geometric objects, known as Hilbert schemes, which are mathematical structures in algebraic geometry that occur under symmetry. The Euler characteristic is a rough measure of the topology, or shape, of an object. The heart of Cox’s achievement was to reduce these calculations to previous known calculations that are more mathematically manageable. Cox and her collaborator gave a talk and also presented a poster on their work in January 2017 at the Joint Mathematics Meetings –the largest gathering of mathematicians in the United States and the largest annual meeting of mathematicians in the world.

According to Associate Professor Eric Sommers, her advisor and teacher, “Shelby’s superb performance in research and departmental coursework, as well as her role in establishing and leading the UMass chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, makes her deserving of the Rising Researcher award.”

Mechanical engineering major Jamar Hawkins ’18 has a strong interest in biomechanics and bioengineering. A hard-working and highly motivated student, Hawkins has been a member of Assistant Professor Yubing Sun’s research group since Sun started his lab in 2016. “The lab conducts research in the field of mechanobiology and mechanotransduction, which is the transfer of a mechanical signal or load to a cellular response,” says Hawkins.

Hawkins specifically works on modeling the physical effects of the extracellular matrix (ECM) on cells using microfluidic devices and automated pneumatic regulators. He initially worked on an automated pressure-based cell-stretching device that could emulate the changing conditions of the ECM to allow the study of cellular behavior in an environment that is more similar to it.

“Jamar has made tremendous contributions to the equipment setup and assay development in the lab as well as made significant progress on his project of making a programmable, local cell stretching device to study how mechanical forces regulate cell behaviors,” says Sun. Hawkins is co-author of a book chapter in Methods in Molecular Biology (Springer, 2017) based on his work in developing cell force sensors. Another manuscript based on his current work is in preparation, says Sun.

“Jamar will pursue a doctoral degree after graduation with me. I am delighted that I will have such a talented student,” says Sun.

Chemical engineering major and Commonwealth Honors College student Brandon Johnston ’18, is conducting experimental research investigating the basic principles of self-assembly in charged polymer systems. His efforts have enhanced the field’s understanding of the ways in which polymer architecture can be used to drive self-assembly. Self-assembly can be harnessed to expand the use of a dense, polymer-rich liquid phase called coacervate, which is used in polymer-based materials applications ranging from sensors to catalysis to medicine.

While these types of materials have been commonly used in the food, cosmetics, and fragrance industries for years, a basic understanding of their self-assembly is still limited. Johnston has been working in collaboration with polymer science and engineering professor Todd Emrick and his group to synthesize a portfolio of highly controlled “comb” polymers with different chemical compositions. Johnston then utilizes these materials to investigate the effects of polymer architecture composition on complex coacervation.

This past spring, Johnston compiled the results of his studies on polymer architecture as the lead author on a peer-reviewed manuscript that was recently published in Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry and has two other manuscripts in the works. Johnston has been honored with three separate Commonwealth Honors College Research Assistant Fellowships, as well as an Honors Research Grant to support his thesis research this year.

Johnston’s research advisor, Assistant Professor Sarah Perry, says “Brandon’s leadership in my research group has been a critical asset over the past three years. He is by far the strongest undergraduate researcher of the more than forty students that I have had the pleasure of working with.”

Commonwealth Honors College student Xin Liu ’18, Information and Computer Sciences, has all the qualities of an exceptional researcher, according to his advisor College of Information and Computer Sciences Assistant Professor Sunghoon Ivan Lee. With his exceptional technical skills, interdisciplinary research spirit, and innovative ingenuity, Lee believes Liu will “outperform in his future academic career.”

Liu works in Lee’s Advanced Human Health Analytics Lab on projects focusing on developing wearable sensors and data analytics methodologies to understand the health conditions associated with neurological disorders. Under Lee’s direction, Liu investigates how to optimize specific algorithms that are relevant for understanding and quantifying hand use using data obtained from wearable sensors.

In one particular study, Liu aims to quantify the amount of fine-grained hand use in stroke survivors in ambulatory settings. This study would allow physicians to get a more objective understanding of patients’ neurological conditions by remotely monitoring the real impact of rehabilitation in their daily living. Liu’s research has led to a number of exciting outcomes, including first authorship of a conference proceeding of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering/Association for Computing Machinery (IEEE/ACM) Connected Health Conference 2017, and a first-authored journal paper submitted to the IEEE Journal of Biomedical and Health Informatics this past October. Liu was also one of a handful of people to receive an NSF travel grant to attend the IEEE/ACM conference.

“Mr. Liu showed great responsibility and independence by initiating, managing and leading the project on his own,” says Lee. “His work created the perfect basis for finishing the project with exceptional success.”

Kaitlyn McGarvey ’18 is a senior Commonwealth Honors College student in the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences. As a second-year student, McGarvey gained acceptance to Tufts Veterinary School through a highly competitive early acceptance program.

For the past two years, McGarvey has been working in Professor Rafael Fissore’s lab investigating the molecular mechanisms of calcium (Ca2+) homeostasis in female reproductive cells (oocytes) with the ultimate goal of overcoming infertility. Ca2+ release is induced by fertilization and is required for the initiation of embryo development in all animals including humans.

McGarvey focused on clarifying the role of a novel plasma membrane Ca2+ channel on embryo development that has been found in mouse oocytes and eggs. As Fissore’s group raced to be the first to publish on this channel, McGarvey stepped up to collect data for publication. Her efforts paid off. She became co-author of a peer-reviewed manuscript on the subject for the journal Scientific Reports, 2016.  Scientific Reports is one of the umbrella journals of Nature, which is among the most respected scientific journals in the literature.

McGarvey is now focusing on continuing this research, the results of which will provide insights into the mechanisms of action of this channel and unearth possible treatments for infertility and/or targets for contraceptive methods, a topic she feels passionate about.

“Kaitlyn was the first student I ever had who was ready for experimental work after just a few weeks of general training. Remarkably, she managed to produce exciting results despite a heavy credit load and having two jobs to gain animal handling experience, which is a major requirement for admission to veterinary schools,” says Fissore.

All six students will be honored for their achievements at a spring reception with the chancellor.

Karen J. Hayes '85