Undergraduate Symposium put UO students on the big public stage

Tyler Lantz came to the University of Oregon to study biochemistry, but her research poster at the second annual Undergraduate Symposium in May was about literary illustrations.

"My goal was to prove that literary illustrations aren't just for children's books," said Lantz, a freshman from Hillsboro, Ore., as she discussed her poster based on her work in a literary colloquium of the Robert D. Clark Honors College. "They can be used to improve and add upon an author's intent in all kinds of literature."

She made her case through a comparison of illustrations used in Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens" (1919) and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" (1937). The illustrations, she noted, used setting and landscapes rather than characters, and they served to help frame the stories — running counter to the often-held perception that authors and illustrators usually don't play well together.

There were 139 UO undergraduates registered for the event at the Erb Memorial Union, where they had the opportunity to show off posters or deliver oral talks about the research projects they had taken part in during the year. The second rendition of the symposium was part of the inaugural UO "Celebrate Undergraduate Achievement Week."

A guest speaker at the Undergraduate Symposium's luncheon event was Daniel Wildcat, professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell Indian Nations University and Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma. He was at the UO to attend the two-day Indigenous Peoples, Climate Change and Environmental Knowledge Conference.

Wildcat stressed the importance of communications skills. He told two stories, one in which NASA chief Daniel Goldman visited a campus and heard graduate students talk about their work.

A student, Wildcat said, gave a presentation steeped heavily in mathematical equations and jargon. At the conclusion, Goldman asked the student to describe the potential application of his research, to which the student had no answer.

In his second story, a Native American from Oklahoma went to college in Chicago, and at the end of each year his grandmother asked for a description of what he had learned. Each year, he said he had learned a lot but couldn't describe it to her. After four years, she told him not to go back since he wasn't able to bring back what he'd learned to his people.

"What good is all the technical knowledge if we have people who cannot talk about it?" Wildcat said. "My challenge to you is to keep in mind that it is important to be able to discuss your work with people outside your discipline, who don't have your technical knowledge, in clear, coherent language."

Jordan Millar, a senior in Product Design Program, said the symposium provides an opportunity to "get outside of our program and talk to other academics." Through his studies of "molecular gastronomy," he said, he developed a low-cost version of an expensive cooking appliance that like a crockpot slowly cooks a meal but with the food items placed in vacuum-sealed bags to keep nutrients and flavors intact.

For Regan Greenhill, architecture major from Sacramento, Calif., and her research partner Tyler Mavichien of Corvallis, Ore., the symposium helped to open their eyes to work being done by students in other fields, because, Greenhill noted, "architecture is a small world." Together they studied conditions that lead to and prevent the presence of mildew in a UO residence hall.

UO biologist Karen Sprague, vice provost for undergraduate studies, said she was pleased with the student participation, noting that it had doubled over the event's inauguration in 2011. "I want to know what's going on out there around campus," she said. She claimed to have read every abstract submitted.

Sprague, in her luncheon address, told a story about her interactions with local artist Allan Kluber, known for his work with porcelain clay. Holding up a "vase or bowl" made by the artist, she explained how artists and researchers, who often view the world differently, actually pursue their projects with some similarities, including the use of logic, imagination and systematic thinking. She urged student researchers to "appreciate your blend of head and heart."

Haley Gillham of Damascus, Ore., said that her participation in the symposium was "a really great experience."

She detailed her research in human physiology on preeclampsia, a life-threatening condition involving hypertension in pregnant women. She tested, in rats, the use of a potential drug therapy on selected cells believed to be involved. The findings, she said, were opposite of what was expected, but help to refocus the effort on different cells where the drug may provide benefits in combating the condition.

"I think it is a good opportunity to present data. Everyone is on a different level of scientific knowledge," she said. "It's really interesting to explain my data to different groups of people to see what they think about my findings."

Gillham is continuing her research as a recipient of a 2012 American Physiological Society Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

Here's a brief look at other projects (poster or oral talks) we visited:

  • Matt Crocker, human physiology major, is on professor Li-Shan Chou's lab looking at the effect of concussions on student athletes. The study involved 12 high school athletes (10 males, 2 females) who were entered into the study within 72 hours of having a concussion, and then matched with non-concussed subjects. Subjects were tested over a two-month period for their ability to respond to auditory cues while walking. The testing took place in the Motion Analysis Lab, which uses sensors on subjects' bodies to create real-time computerized imagery of the subject's movements. The findings showed that concussed subjects had more difficulty maintaining normal gait while responding to the auditory cues.
  • Jasmine Dickinson, biology major, presented research on the interaction of specific cells — "place" cells and "grid" cells — involved in the formation of the hippocampus, which is critical to memory. "By looking at single cells," she told her audience, "there's something concrete to say about what your brain is doing."
  • Tristan Pettigrew, geography major, analyzed energy, waste and manipulation related to the U.S. food system. The research indicates that consumers can play a critical role in promoting sustainable practices by decreasing caloric intake and meat consumption, for example. "It all boils down to voting with our dollar," he told his audience.
  • Hannah Pruse, computer and information science, analyzed cloud computing and the sharing of resources between customers and unknown and untrusted parties, which can leave sensitive data vulnerable to unauthorized access. Her demonstration illustrated how the exploitation of side channels threatens the cloud-computing model and underscores the need to defend both software and hardware.
  • Matt Villeneuve, history major, studied the Congressional termination of "special treatment" for the Klamath tribe in southern Oregon, asking whether the action was one of liberation or abandonment. He focused on the intermediary between the tribe and the government — Thomas Watters, former mayor of Klamath Falls. Watters came to oppose the termination law he was hired to execute, advocating for the tribe even as Congress fired him for failing to carry out his directive. Villeneuve told his audience that Watters’ ouster was "demonstrable evidence" that the termination law was one of abandonment and not liberation.
  • Kelsey Stilson, paleontology major in the Clark Honors College, discussed her research on arthritis as seen in the bones of North American rhinos dating from 50 million years ago to the present. She's documented telltale cysts and on more than 3,000 bones in her travels to look at specimens in various museums.
  • Ariana White, geography major, described the pollen data going back 10,500 years from a central British Columbia lake. Using such data, she said, scientists can reconstruct a lake's history through time, including changes in vegetation during climate-change events. With such information, she added, predictions can be made on the potential effects of global warming. White, a non-traditional student found her way into Dan Gavin's lab through her expertise as a medical lab tech, including four years at the UO's student health center.
  • Ashlin Larsen, biology major from Anchorage, Alaska, developed a poster on her research into how a specific bone develops in the craniofacial region of zebra fish. She specifically studied the roles of a gene (mef2ca) and a molecule (indian hedgehog). The symposium, she said, is a great learning experience than enhances critical thinking. Research, Larsen added, allows her to apply hands-on techniques in lab, "seeing what goes on with the material that you read about in textbooks."
  • Mirjam Staeb, psychology major, presented a poster with the intriguing title of "The Angry Cookie—Adults' and Children's Attribution of Human-like Facial and Emotional Characteristics to Inanimate Objects." Under the mentorship of psychology professor Marjorie Taylor, the study explored the human tendency to perceive faces and emotional states in objects such as a piece of toast with raisins arranged in a "crying face" pattern. The first phase of the study, which involved adult subjects, explored the extent to which each individual's tendency to perceive such faces and emotions correlates to their scores on the Differences in Anthropomorphism Questionnaire. The next phase of the study will involve children, and researchers will modify the baseline questionnaire to use puppets to elicit responses.
  • Nick Hayman, marine biology major, presented a poster on an ongoing study conducted by the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in support of the establishment of a marine reserve in the Oregon Territorial Sea. Most studies of this kind have focused only on the diversity of fishes and large invertebrates in this ocean region, but this project is specifically concerned with a comprehensive survey of invertebrates, using dredge samples from cobble and gravel substrata.
  • Alexander Robinson, a human physiology major, is part of a UO research team that is partnering with the Slocum Center for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Eugene to look at interventions that may facilitate recovery from Total Knee Arthroplasty (TKA) — specifically the extent to which amino acid supplementation post-surgery can reduce the amount of muscle loss in the quadriceps that typically results from TKA.

The UO Division of Undergraduate Studies, Division of Academic Enrichment in the Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence, University Housing, Robert D. Clark Honors College, UO Libraries, Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity and Division of Student Affairs were sponsors of the 2012 Undergraduate Symposium, which was held May 24.