The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Rising Researcher

Unconventional Thinkers

UMass undergraduates transcend traditional approaches to research and scholarship
  • Rising Researcher banner.

The Rising Researcher program recognizes UMass Amherst undergraduate students who excel in research, scholarship and creative activity.

A revolutionary spirit runs through our veins at UMass Amherst. It inspires us to think in new ways and to challenge convention. This semester we celebrate eight students with the Rising Researcher award in recognition of their unconventional and inspiring approaches to research, scholarship and creative activity.

Classics major and Commonwealth Honors College Student Taylor Cassidy ’20 has taken on an ambitious honors thesis. She is investigating the existence of non-standard language use—gendered language, kinship language, and other socially-stratified language types including that of slaves—in Greek and Latin comedies to shed light on how the voices of oppressed groups may have been represented in ancient societies. By analyzing linguistic registers (stylistic variations in language) in comedic texts, she seeks to find linguistic evidence for “ventriloquism” of these oppressed groups.

Taylor Cassidy '20“I’m taking an interdisciplinary approach to my research,” says Cassidy. Utilizing Greek and Latin plays, inscriptions, and prose for reference materials, she is incorporating modern and historical sociolinguistic research to synthesize data and establish whether the case can be made that comedic playwrights were portraying registers of language accurately or, for example, exaggerating particular features of language simply for laughs.

“Taylor has made great progress in the collection of data and development of her own methodology in applying modern theory to dead languages,” says her thesis advisor Simon Oswald. “This approach is still a relative novelty in the field and has huge potential for significant results,” he adds.

Cassidy is the recipient of the William F. Bulger Classics Award for outstanding achievement among classics majors and the Joseph and Elizabeth Rountree Scholarship for academic merit.

William Johnson '20Biology major and Commonwealth Honors College student, William Johnson ’20 joined Professor Craig Martin’s lab in 2018 and quickly became an outstanding contributor, conducting both joint and independent research on transcription by T7 RNA polymerase. With applications to RNA therapeutics, RNA nanotechnology, and basic molecular biology, Johnson hopes his discoveries will push the boundaries of nucleic acid research.

Johnson’s efforts garnered him an Honors College Research Grant to fund his investigations, and inclusion as co-author on a peer-reviewed manuscript published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research, the premier journal in DNA/RNA/proteins in biology. Johnson has also spent two summers as an intern with New England Biolabs, conducting various aspects of research on a microbiome sequencing project.

“Troubleshooting countless experiments in the Martin lab has shown me why absorbing relevant background literature in depth and having concrete understandings of basic principles underlying biochemistry can make the difference in lab. Learning through undergraduate research, I can clearly see how obtaining higher education in my field is, and will continue to be, invaluable to my goals as a scientist.,” says Johnson.

Colin Lemire '20Colin Lemire ’20 has been involved in independent research in Assistant Professor Sibongile Mafu’s lab since the fall semester of his sophomore year. A Commonwealth Honors College student and biochemistry and molecular biology major, Lemire's research focuses on the biosynthesis of natural products (plants and fungi). Given that 25 percent of drugs are derived from natural, bioactive compounds, the goal of Lemire’s research is to better understand their metabolic pathways to enable future research into their function and potential pharmaceutical applications.

“Colin was awarded an Honors College Research Grant that supports his current research on the elucidation of the biosynthetic pathway of chemically distinct terpenes (organic compounds that can form a chemical defense) in fungi. His work involves gene discovery and pathway reconstruction of terpene molecules that have demonstrated activity as antimicrobials,” says Mafu.

Lemire has received a number of other grants and scholarships for his work, including a grant from the UMass Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment; an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Student Chapter Travel Award to present his research at the 2020 ASBMB Annual Meeting; a UMass Life Sciences Junior Fellow award, and acceptance into the Sophomores Serve program.

As part of Sophomores Serve, Lemire was able to combine his interests in research and public policy. He collaborated with peers on a research-guided policy proposal for alleviating food insecurity among children in Massachusetts. “We presented this research to the Massachusetts Senate at the State House, which was undoubtedly the best experience I have had as an undergraduate. My time at UMass has taught me that effective research should incorporate stakeholders inside and outside of the scientific community,” says Lemire.

Joseph McGaunn '20Commonwealth Honors College student Joseph McGaunn ’20 has been involved in five research projects in Associate Professor Alexander Suvorov’s lab. McGaunn is investigating the role of molecular mechanisms in mediating interactions between an individual’s genetics and their environment, in transferring non-genetic information from one generation to the next, and the clinical applications for such mechanisms. A double major in biochemistry and molecular biology and psychology, his many investigations as an undergraduate researcher have led to a number of impressive discoveries and outcomes.

“Joseph conducted an experiment in my lab in which he discovered a link between paternal exposure to environmental chemicals and neurodevelopmental outcomes in offspring,” says Suvorov. Working in collaboration with the Pilsner lab, McGaunn identified intergenerational effects of paternal exposure to phthalates, a group of chemicals found in plastic products and cosmetics. He discovered that mice whose fathers were exposed to the phthalate DEHP were more active than controls, but when their fathers were exosed to the phthalates DEHP and DBP simultaneously, mice were slower and had lower average body weights as compared to controls.

McGaunn’s investigations also include experiments to identify a potential link between environmental exposure to toxins and changes in male fertility and epigenetics, and a rigorous bioinformatics analysis to understand how changes in liver RNA might be linked to flame-retardant exposure. He has worked on a meta-analysis of over 600,000 chemical-gene interactions that revealed cellular pathways not previously known to be highly sensitive to chemical exposure.

McGaunn has presented his work at the Northeast Society of Toxicology Regional Chapter annual meeting and the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology, which Suvorov says is the most respected toxicological forum in the world.

“Joseph will coauthor four manuscripts that will be published by my lab. He has tremendous promise as a young researcher,” says Suvorov.

Jack Merullo '20Computer science major and Commonwealth Honors College student Jack Merullo ’20 conducts research that applies natural language processing (NLP) to help solve research questions pertaining to social issues, information retrieval, and deep learning.  

For his honors thesis, he worked with Assistant Professor Mohit Iyyer to research the presence and degree of bias in sports commentary. One major contribution of his work is the creation of a large dataset of NFL and NCAA football broadcast transcripts containing comments of players who are tagged by race, allowing analysis of comments for racial bias that was not previously possible. “The data we compiled contains an order of magnitude greater number of games than any previous work on this topic,” says Merullo.

Merullo, along with Iyyer and his computer science lab mate Luke Yeh, published a peer-reviewed study of his research at the 2019 conference Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing, and ESPN recently published an article about his work on their sports and pop culture website The Undefeated.

“Being able to publish at a top conference in my field has given me the confidence to pursue graduate school more seriously and has affirmed my passion for research in natural language processing,” says Merullo.

Kit Newell '20Theater major Kit Newell ’20 has performed outstanding work as an actor, which is “a creative research achievement of impressive depth and substance,” according to Newell’s advisor Harley Erdman, chair of the department of theater.

An aficionado of heightened language and classic texts, Newell played the leading role of Gila in the campus’s 2019 Main Stage production of Wild Thing. This complex tragedy from 17th century Spain, in which Newell as Gila was on stage almost every moment, charts the demanding emotional journey of a character who, in our world, might be considered queer or gender nonbinary.

“Kit's work in this leading role was skillful and courageous, combining ferocity and tenderness in this vivid depiction of a rebel and outsider. I believe Kit has a great future ahead as a Shakespearean/classic actor,” says Erdman.

“Playing Gila was the biggest challenge of my college career. It was intellectually, emotionally and physically demanding, and gave me the opportunity to synthesize knowledge from a range of my classes at UMass,” says Newell.

Newell credits their involvement in Wild Thing for leading to other creative opportunities, such as the role of Tiresias in the Main Stage production of The Bacchae of Euripides, and work on a feminist reimagining of Hampshire Shakespeare Company’s Taming of the Shrew. “From being part of this production, I am more excited than ever before about pursuing a career in performance,” adds Newell.

Madeline Scott '20Mechanical engineering major Madeline Scott ’20 has been working in Professor Robert Hyers’ lab on two research projects that broaden understanding of new and existing materials and processes for advanced manufacturing.

The first project was to re-build and modify an experimental apparatus for electroplating powders to be used in cold spray processes. “Cold spray is a newer repair process for metal components that are exposed to corrosive or high-wear applications. It allows an economical and ecological route of salvaging and repairing damaged parts rather than discarding them,” says Scott.

The second project is a study of the density and viscosity of superheated and undercooled liquid metal samples in levitation through a contactless method. Scott had the opportunity to spend a week conducting some of these experiments at NASA’s George Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. While there, she helped prepare samples, observed and directed sample processing, and made adjustments to their electrostatic levitator.

 “Maddy has made significant contributions to other projects as well, including the measurements of properties of superalloys for additive manufacturing for aerospace, and of novel high-entropy alloys that may displace some of these superalloys for cryogenic turbomachinery in rockets. Her work has resulted in significant contributions to two accepted conference papers, with three journal papers and an additional conference paper in preparation, all in 5 months,” says Hyers.

“These projects have helped me in my confidence and ownership of the science and engineering I learned in my coursework. I look forward to continuing to apply the things I have learned in the lab as I go on to pursue my goal of becoming an astronaut,” says Scott.

Commonwealth Honors College student and chemical engineering major Elizabeth Voke ’20 has worked in Professor Sarah Perry’s lab since 2017. Her experimental research projects investigate the fundamental principles of self-assembly of large polymer systems.

Voke focuses on complex coacervation, a dense, polymer-rich liquid phase that results from the interaction of oppositely-charged polymers in water. While these types of materials have been used in industry for years, basic understanding of their self-assembly is limited.

“Complex coacervation has a long history of use in food and personal care products, which has been the subject of increasing excitement and research in the areas of encapsulation, drug delivery and stabilization, and underwater adhesion," says Voke.

Her honors thesis research, which looks at the encapsulation of proteins into coacervate phases for drug delivery applications, has landed her an opportunity to collaborate with a Fortune 500 company headquartered in the United States. Voke has also worked in the Keasling lab at UC Berkeley as an Amgen Scholar.

“Research and class studies have intertwined and complemented each other throughout my undergraduate experience. My research projects have fueled an interest in drug delivery and tissue engineering applications. They have taught me to think critically about problems, investigate solutions, and adapt quickly—all skills which have helped me navigate my rigorous curriculum,” says Voke.

Karen J. Hayes '85