August 04, 2016, BY Matt Hughes

From the wilds of the Australian Outback to the shores of the Susquehanna River, from inner city Philadelphia to bucolic Lewisburg, this summer Bucknell University undergraduates engaged in research projects that can improve communities far and near. At a symposium July 27, more than 50 Bucknell students showed off the work they'd done in partnership with professors, local physicians and community organizations, and demonstrated some of the myriad ways in which research can make a difference.

The sixth annual Susquehanna Valley Undergraduate Research Symposium, hosted this year by Bloomsburg University, brought together more than 80 students from four institutions to share the research projects they conducted over the summer in four disciplinary categories: social sciences and humanities; biological science; clinical and translational; and natural science and engineering. In addition to Bucknell and Bloomsburg, students from Susquehanna University and interns with the Geisinger Health System also presented original research.

The researchers explored topics as diverse as medical science, computing, public policy and history, but a commonality shared by many projects was the ability to directly contribute to communities local and afar.

Dikendra Karki '19 demonstrates his project on a computer screen. Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications

A team of computer science and electrical engineering majors, for example, collaborated with Professor Philip Asare, electrical & computer engineering, and Geisinger doctors on a project that could improve hospital operations at Geisinger and in hospitals around the world. Supported by a grant from the Bucknell Geisinger Research Initiative, the team of Yuxuan Huang '17, Dikendra Karki '19 and William Kyaw '19 worked on a platform to control the many pumps and monitors used in hospital operating rooms from a single computer, which would allow doctors to spend more time attending to patients and less time checking equipment.

"We want to make it open source," Kyaw said. "Our aim is to create a non-proprietary interface that anyone can download and customize to meet their requirements and to add new medical devices. We want to improve care for everyone."

Mae Lacey's summer research resulted in the discovery of a new plant species, a significant contribution to the science of biodiversity. Lacey, a senior animal behavior major, spent more than two weeks in the Australian Outback hunting for uncatalogued species of wild eggplants with Professor Chris Martine, biology, postdoctoral researcher Jason Cantley and Australian botanist Peter Jobson. She spent the rest of the summer on campus examining physical evidence to come to the conclusion that one of the species they returned with had not been described previously. The researchers plan to confirm that conclusion with genetic evidence, and will be publishing the new species soon.

"It's really exciting to be an undergraduate with the ability to publish," Lacey said. "I never thought going into Bucknell that I would have published a research paper in my four years here. And to be naming a species — it's surreal."

Amarachi Ekekwe '18 won two awards, including the Audience Favorite award, for her social science research project. Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications

Other projects had a much more local focus, but have no less potential for impact. Amarachi Ekekwe '18, a psychology and women's & gender studies major whose project was selected for two awards at the symposium, including the Audience Favorite, interviewed female black students and recent alumni about their perceived personal safety in various locations on campus and around Lewisburg, as well as their positive and negative associations with those places and how they might respond to a crime on campus. Ekekwe, whose research was funded by an interdisciplinary emerging scholars grant from the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP), mapped her findings and used them to develop policy recommendations, which she hopes will have a direct impact in improving the Bucknell experience for black women.

"I plan on creating a pamphlet for Dean [of Students Amy] Badal and [Bucknell Public Safety] Chief [Steve] Barilar with all of my findings and suggestions from students about what would make them feel safe on campus," said Ekekwe.

Zemeng Zhou '17's research had a deeply personal connection. A math and economics major whose project was funded by BIPP, Zhou analyzed information about diabetes patients from around Pennsylvania, and discovered significant correlations between the risk for amputation and patient age, race, gender, income and insurance status.

Zemeng Zhou '17 explains her project to professors Philip Asare (left) and Evan Peck. Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications

"My father has diabetes, so I care about this disease, and frequency of amputation is a serious issue," Zhou said. "Once I make a fuller analysis of this data, I hope I can make recommendations for policy based on my evidence."

In the future, she hopes to expand her study to examine potential correlations with education, place of residence and family history of diabetes.

In addition to the intrinsic rewards of research that makes a difference, the symposium also offered the students the opportunity to explain their work to a mass audience — a valuable skill for any researcher — and recognized outstanding projects with awards.

Four researchers or research groups were selected in advance to present their findings before the assembled group of symposium attendees. Among them, Bucknell students Brooke Bullek '18 and Stephanie Garboski '18 were chosen for their summer research examining how trusting internet users are of algorithms intended to preserve their online privacy. Elizabeth Wilkey '17 and Patrick Newhart '18 won for the visualization they created mapping maize cultivation globally over 10,000 years. And Abigail Garrett ’17, a Geisinger summer research intern, was chosen to present her work on a protein potentially involved in senile osteoperosis.

During the symposium, four groups were also also chosen by faculty judges from each of the sponsor institutions at the conference.

Ekekwe tied for best poster presentation in the social science and humanities category with Bucknell students Louis Tobias '17 and Maggie Carlson '18, whose project "Dreamers: Immigrant Youth Fighting for Opportunity" explores how young immigrants have pushed immigration policies to better serve themselves and their communities.

Kyle Haddock '17, a neuroscience major, also received an award in the clinical and translational category for his work with physicians at the Geisinger-Bucknell Autism & Developmental Medicine Center to improve genetic-screening techniques for diagnosing autism.

But even for students who didn't win, sharing their work with others and seeing how their classmates spent the summer offered its own rewards.

"The point of research is to be constantly learning," said Will Bordash '18, a biology and economics major who mapped rates of drug-related hospitalization and income to draw conclusions about the nature of the connection between the two. "Although you're presenting your findings, people ask more questions and offer advice. It helps you constantly evolve your idea and discover what you're interested in."  

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