Rising Researcher

Stepping Up to the Challenge

Undergraduate students tackle big problems through science and art
  • Rising Researchers stand with Chancellor Subbaswamy.

Research universities, by design, are uniquely equipped to expose undergraduates directly to research opportunities they may not otherwise see until graduate school.

UMass Amherst students are not ones to shy away from a challenge. We honor six undergraduates this semester with the Rising Researcher award for their impressive achievements in key areas of science and art that are making a difference in our world.

Senior microbiology major William “Bill” Eagen, a Commonwealth Honors College student, has devoted his time at UMass to tuberculosis (TB) research. TB remains a devastating infectious disease, killing more than a million people worldwide every year. The causative agent, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is a bacterial cell known for its notoriously thick and impermeable cell wall, which protects the interior structures of the cell from attack. Eagen and fellow students discovered that a defect in the production of glycolipid, a protein unique to Mycobacterium, made the cell highly vulnerable to antibiotics and to attack by the human immune system.

Eagen designed and executed a series of labor-intensive experiments and uncovered copper as one specific agent to which the glycolipid-defective mutant had become hypersensitive. His discovery indicates that a glycolipid-targeted chemotherapy might create synergy with existing antibiotics, a possible step toward treatment.

Eagen’s advisor, Assistant Professor Yasu Morita, says, “Bill’s study was just published in Microbiology Letters, a prestigious journal of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies. His dedication to research was the driving force of this exciting discovery.”

Annette Wysocki, associate dean for research in the School of Nursing, has high praise for senior Daniel Kiely. “Daniel has an unrelenting passion and enthusiasm for research. His academic acumen and analytical abilities set him apart from other undergraduate students,” says Wysocki.

Kiely and Wysocki collaborated on a study analyzing funding data for nursing research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Kiely’s work revealed, among other trends, that funding to nursing schools and colleges was on the decline. Funding to nursing schools as a percent of the total NIH budget had declined from 1992 to 2016 while funding by the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR) peaked in 2005 and has since gradually declined. He also found that funding pressure on these federal agencies has increased as the number of research and clinical doctoral programs grew from 57 to 437 from 1992 to 2016.

Kiely was invited to present his findings at a poster session at the 2017 American Academy of Nursing meeting in Washington, D.C., before the nation’s most prestigious and highly acclaimed body of nursing scholars, clinicians, and policy experts. “He was the only undergraduate in the nation invited to present,” says Wysocki. Kiely plans to pursue his master’s in public health degree as the next step in his research career trajectory.

Commonwealth Honors College student Charlotte LaPlante, a senior and dual degree major in English and biology, joined Assistant Professor Laura Vandenberg’s lab in 2015. Vandenberg investigates ways in which exposures to estrogenic chemicals may contribute to diseases, including cancer.

LaPlante’s independent work on the effects of estrogenic chemical exposure reveals these chemicals can alter the form and structure of lactating mouse mammary glands and that mouse pups exposed to these chemicals have disrupted development and are less likely to initiate nursing. The mothers also alter their behaviors to account for these changes in mammary gland function. This work was the basis of two published manuscripts in top-rated scientific journals with LaPlante as first author.

LaPlante’s latest research addresses a fundamental question in the field of cancer biology: why does pregnancy convey protection against breast cancer? LaPlante investigated whether environmental chemicals that bind to estrogen receptors could block or enhance the protective effects of pregnancy. Her study revealed unique effects of two different estrogenic compounds. The first of these studies was submitted to the Journal of the Endocrine Society. “I cannot stress enough what an accomplishment it is for an undergraduate to be an author on a published manuscript, but Charlotte’s contributions and her first-author status on four manuscripts are truly remarkable and unprecedented,” says Vandenberg.  

Senior Abdul Mughis is a first-generation immigrant from Pakistan whose older brother also attended UMass Amherst. A chemical engineering major working in Professor Wei Fan’s porous materials research group, Mughis has been investigating the development of zeolites (solid materials that have an open, cage-like structure good for trapping other molecules) for air pollution control.

“I have been interested in this field since freshman year,” says Mughis. His main goal is to find a cheaper organic structure-directing agent, which is used to guide the formation of particular types of pores and channels during the synthesis of a type of zeolite called CHA. “This zeolite can be used as an efficient catalyst for methanol to olefin conversion reaction and catalytic reduction of nitrogen oxide compounds. I have been successful in synthesizing CHA zeolite with our proposed structure-directing agent,” says Mughis.

According to Fan, Mughis’s work was recently published in the Angewandte Chemie international edition, one of the best journals in the field of chemistry, materials science, and chemical engineering. “As the second author on the publication, he has significantly contributed to the work by running the designed experiments and providing key ideas for the synthesis. His research is under submission to another high-impact journal, and we are also filing a patent on the work,” notes Fan.

In her time at UMass Amherst, Junior Tatiana Rodriguez, a theater and English dual major, has written a play performed at the Five-College WORD Festival, written another performed in the theater department’s mainstage season, stage-managed several mainstage productions, and codirected an independent student production. “The quality of her work across these areas marks Tatiana as a well-rounded theater artist with durable promise. As a playwright and her mentor, I am particularly impressed with Tatiana’s achievements as a writer,” says Kim Euell, playwright-in-residence in the UMass Department of Theater.

Rodriguez’s play The Difference, selected in 2017 for the WORD Festival, received the James Baldwin Award, as well as the unanimous praise of the selection committee. A timely and insightful play exploring generational issues of cultural assimilation through the lens of Puerto Rican identity, The Difference “elicited visceral reactions from audience members who recognized themselves in Tatiana’s skillfully rendered dialogue,” says Euell.

This year, Rodriguez’s play Unconditional was the first student work accepted by the Department of Theater for Play Lab, a new play development residency traditionally reserved for professionals. “Aside from being beautifully written,” says Euell, “Unconditional courageously tackles a relevant subject that doesn’t get enough attention: the aftermath of rape and abuse on college campuses. Tatiana is an ambitious, promising artist.”

Commonwealth Honors College student Colleen Sands, a senior majoring in kinesiology, has an impressive resume of academic, athletic, and research achievements. A Division 1 athlete, Sands captains the UMass cross country and track & field programs while consistently achieving Dean’s List rankings for exceptional academic performance. Her athletic accomplishments have been recognized by the Ken O’Brien Scholarship award for outstanding athletic and academic performance.

Sands’s research on the role of wearable technologies for public health outcomes has received high praise from her mentor Professor of Kinesiology and Associate Dean of Research Catrine Tudor-Locke. “Colleen demonstrates a strong ability to think critically about research questions and the implications for clinical practice and public health,” says Tudor-Locke.

Sands, who received the Priscilla Clarkson Undergraduate Award from the American College of Sports Medicine, has been presenting as first author on her research nationally and internationally. She presented at the 2017 New England American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Regional Conference, and this year, she will present at the ACSM 2018 annual meeting. Sands has also submitted a first-author abstract to the 2018 International Society for Physical Activity and Health Congress in London, England.

“It has always been very clear that Colleen conducts herself with great integrity, holds herself to a very high standard, and strives to achieve her best in all situations,” says Tudor-Locke. “She is in an excellent position to excel in her future studies and research endeavors.”

Karen J. Hayes ’85