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UTRA projects pursue eclectic research

From drones to depression, students grapple with independent scholarship

This summer, the Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards program sponsored projects ranging from perfecting the flight of drones to mentoring local high school students and even exploring the meaning of time.

Since the 1980s, the UTRA program has fostered intellectual development and creativity by providing funding to students for summer research and scholarship.

This summer, the University added two new features to the UTRA program as part of an initiative to engage students more broadly with their UTRA experiences. A new “UTRA elevator pitch” allows students to describe their work to other students and faculty in a concise manner. The elevator pitch forces students to focus on the most important parts of their work and presents an opportunity for scientific communication, an essential skill for real-world researchers, said Associate Dean of the College and Director of Science Center Outreach Oludurotimi Adetunji, the UTRA program’s director.

Through a partnership with University libraries, UTRA students can also now publish their UTRA posters in a digital repository in the Center for Digital Scholarship’s database. Putting their posters in the repository makes their work more accessible to other researchers, which benefits the students when applying to graduate schools and jobs, Adetunji said. Though digitally publishing posters was optional for each of the 270 UTRA students, administrators encouraged them to do so, he added.

“This will make these students’ work more visible beyond the walls of Brown,” Adetunji said.


Message Motivation

Shubh Agrawal ’15 assisted in the development and test of a new text message-based intervention system

Preventing depression, one text message at a time, was the motive behind the summer UTRA undertaken by Shubh Agrawal ’15. Agrawal helped create and implement a text messaging system called iDove aimed to prevent depression in high-risk adolescents in hospital emergency rooms.

The project, led by Megan Ranney, assistant professor of emergency medicine, was based on the concept of cognitive behavioral therapy — an approach designed to assist people with defining their thoughts and feelings to correct negative thoughts and behavior, Agrawal said. The adolescents enrolled in the project’s related study receive daily interventional text messages for eight weeks. Each day, the teens rank their thoughts and feelings on a five-point scale, and based on their responses, they receive specific advice and motivational messages to mediate their feelings and actions.

Text messaging is a good medium for intervention in teens because of its privacy and prevalence, Agrawal said. Previous studies have supported the efficacy of text message-based interventional programs, but little research has been done concerning its use to fight depression, she added.

During the summer, Agrawal helped code the system and recruit eligible participants who were admitted to hospital emergency departments, she said. In order to qualify for the current study, the teens must meet certain criteria on depression scales and have a history of violence, she added.


Droning on and on

Adam Gosselin ’16 helped design and launch an autonomously flying drone

Avoiding major obstacles was one of the primary goals of the summer for Adam Gosselin ’16. Working in a computer engineering lab, he helped create a drone that can fly autonomously by recognizing and avoiding objects in its environment.

Along with his faculty mentor, Iris Bahar, professor of engineering, Gosselin attached a camera onto a quad-rotor drone, which maps features in its surroundings. When the drone flies close to an object, it changes its trajectory to move out of the way, Gosselin said. The overarching goal of the project was to increase autonomy in drone flight.

Though programming the on-board computer’s flight algorithms provided its own set of difficulties, the primary challenge the research team encountered was implementing the project’s hardware, Gosselin said. The drone crashed once and broke, but the team reassembled it and had it back up and flying around campus again by the end of the summer.

The cross-disciplinary nature of the research project was one of the most appealing features of Bahar’s work, Gosselin said. Working in a laboratory this summer gave him indisposable research skills that he will carry with him throughout the rest of his schooling and his career, he added.


Categorizing conflict

Camera Ford ’16 worked to create a comprehensive database detailing native Australian knowledge

As a geology concentrator, Camera Ford ’16 is interested in the social and political aspects of geology. Her summer UTRA project allowed her to explore these nuances in greater depth.

Ford worked with Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences Amanda Lynch, studying climate change’s impact on Australian agriculture and the subsequent conflict between the Australian government and an indigenous people — the Yorta Yorta.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap between the indigenous knowledge of the area and the strategies the Australian government is trying to use to restore the land,” Ford said. “Right now there’s a real disconnect.”

The Yorta Yorta see it as their obligation to take care of their land and everyone who lives there, Ford said. When the Australian government tries to restore land impacted by climate change, this creates conflict.

Yorta Yorta tribe information is highly confidential, Ford added, and not easily accessible to outsiders. By building a database for the Yorta Yorta people to access, Ford said the tribe will have a more efficient and organized way of helping the Australian government correctly restore their native land, while keeping generations of information within the confines of their tribe.

Ford said on top of being an interesting experience, her summer UTRA gave her an idea of different directions her concentration could lead her later in life. “I was really honored that I was allowed to work on this project,” she added.


Teaching time

Alex Meehan ’15 outlined a new course on the nature of time

Does time exist? At first glance, the question may appear absurd, but it is one Alex Meehan ’15 explored extensively through his UTRA. Working with Nina Emery, assistant professor of philosophy, Meehan helped prepare the course syllabus for PHIL1670: “Time.”

“The course is loosely geared around the question ‘Is time an illusion?’” Meehan said.

The intersection of philosophy and physics has been one of Meehan’s primary academic interests since he arrived at Brown, he said. The newly designed course will offer a prime opportunity to explore this intellectual crossover further. Covering disciplines ranging from the fictional depiction of time travel to the contribution made by quantum physics, the course will not limit itself in the ways that it investigates the concept of time.

Meehan’s primary responsibility this summer was shaping the syllabus, as he organized class periods into subsections and chose each meeting’s readings. For every article chosen for the class, he read about five additional ones, he said.

Increasing the number of writers from demographic groups  typically underrepresented in philosophy was  a primary goal and challenge in creating the syllabus, since “philosophy is an area with gender and racial disparities,” Meehan said.

In addition to compiling the roadmap of the course, Meehan will continue his involvement in the course as a teaching assistant and guest lecturer this semester. He will also manage an online blog about the class.

Meehan said  the UTRA project provided good experience in both philosophy and physics, as he plans to apply to graduate programs in philosophy next year, an amount of time that seems like anything but an illusion.


Work hard, play hard

Briana Garcia ’16 taught the nuances of science through camp activities 

Briana Garcia ’16 used her UTRA funding to help run the annual Spira Engineering Camp for girls. Each summer, Spira Engineering Camp counselors teach 15 rising sophomore girls from the Providence area  about engineering while connecting them to the Providence and Brown communities, Garcia said.

The camp covers a wide array of engineering topics, but with a slightly different twist than what is taught from textbooks. “We deal with more ethics and feminism” to help the girls learn about the nuances of the science, Garcia said.

Each day, the girls split their time between a short lesson and a field trip. Garcia said one of her favorite experiences was watching the girls participate in a “physics field day” where they went around the University campus and acted out different scientific concepts.

The campers did activities such as push-ups and stair climbing to calculate concepts like power and work and used a swing set to learn about energy and the pendulum equation, Garcia said. “It was nice to have an activity that connected them to physics concepts but also made sure they had fun.”

The activity reinforced for the girls that science “really is something that you do see in everyday life,” she said. The hardest part of the project, she added, was finding a balance between work and play for the girls.


Leafing through leaves

Eric Kalosa-Kenyon ’15 constructed a mathematical model to map leaf evolution

Eric Kalosa-Kenyon ’15 spent his summer attempting to answer the question of how leaves get their shapes.

Kalosa-Kenyon said he happened upon his project by accident. As a double concentrator in applied math and biology, he was asked by Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Erika Edwards to use applied math to calculate how leaves, particularly those in the genus viburnum, got their shapes.

Kalosa-Kenyon was given a stack of micro CT scans, upon which were the images of horizontal slices of a leaf buds. Kalosa-Kenyon was tasked with looking at venation in order to transform these images into unfolded leaves.

“The hypothesis is important because we will know whether viburnum actually moved from a tropical region to a temperate region,” he said, constructing 3-D models of leaf venation out of notebook paper as he spoke.

Kalosa-Kenyon said his results show that the venation of the deciduous leaves he was looking at matched those found in a more tropical climate. The hardest part of his research, he added, was the pages of calculations he had to make correctly for each leaf every time.

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