Research Days Highlight Students’ Original Scholarship

Record number of students participated in 18th annual event.
Research Days 2013
April 08, 2013

By Laura Otto and Laura Donnelly-Smith

In more than 450 poster presentations, George Washington University undergraduates, graduate students, medical students and residents presented research showcasing the depth and breadth of the scholarship taking place at the university during GW’s18th annual Research Days event, held April 2 and 3. Tuesday focused on natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, creative arts and other fields, while Wednesday focused on health and medical research.

GW’s Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa called the event a great success.

“It was exhilarating to hear our students speaking so knowledgably about their research activities and findings,” he said. “I was astonished to find that a few posters were by freshmen! It is really gratifying to get a firsthand account of how the research efforts of our faculty are positively impacting the education of our students, both graduate and undergraduate.”

There was a 25 percent increase in the number of non-medical poster presentations over 2012’s Research Days, and the quality of all the posters continued to be extremely high, Dr. Chalupa said.

Topics for the first research day ranged from the natural sciences to the humanities. Senior Patricia Michelson, a psychology major, presented her research on the role of personal choice in encouraging young men to use sun protection. She found that when sun protection information was presented as a personal choice to make rather than as recommendations to follow, men were more likely to indicate a willingness to protect themselves from the sun. The research has implications for how public health campaigns aimed at preventing skin cancer are designed, she said.

Jaishri Atri, a student in the biological sciences five-year combined B.S./M.S. program, conducted research on endosymbiotic bacteria, a type of bacteria that reside within other organisms. In her research, Ms. Atri, who worked with junior biology student Julia Accetta, studied two types of fruit flies and two types of endosymbiotic bacteria. They found that flies that were infected with two kinds of bacteria lived longer than flies injected with either one type or no bacteria. The bacteria provided a measure of protection from infection in the host organism. The research is important because the fruit flies’ immune systems are surprisingly similar to humans’ systems, Ms. Atri said. The results have implications for understanding human immunity.

“When something works in nature, it often works for everyone and everything,” she said. “After all, humans share something like 60 percent of our DNA with bananas.”

Senior Joel Uyenco conducted a qualitative study about racial minorities’ service-learning experiences at predominantly white universities. He found that while minority students sometimes benefited from being able to more easily connect with populations being served, the students also found that they were often singled out as “spokespersons” for their racial or ethnic group during classroom portions of service-learning activities. His findings indicate the need for greater exploration of minority students’ experiences when designing service-learning curriculum, he said.

Wednesday’s health and medicine-focused research day activities highlighted the partnership between GW’s Office of the Vice President for Research, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), the School of Nursing, the School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) and Children’s National Medical Center.

Students and residents presented more than 300 posters, the scope of which ranged from basic science research projects to translational efforts seeking to convert discoveries into patient-focused applications to human-subject investigations exploring the effectiveness of new therapies and practices.

“The students are as excited about presenting their research as we are about seeing their outcomes and hearing about the data,” said Vincent Chiappinelli, interim associate vice president for health affairs and associate dean at SMHS.

Research day, for many presenters, is the culmination of years of hard work. “Some of the presentations we saw today were four years’ worth of research work,” Dr. Chiappinelli said.

The theme for 2013 was HIV/AIDS, said Jeffrey Akman, M.D. ’81, vice president for health affairs and dean of SMHS.

“Health and Medicine Research Day is a celebration for the school to highlight the research efforts of our faculty, graduate students, residents and medical students,” Dr. Akman said. “We decided to focus on HIV/AIDS because our faculty has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS research for decades. Today our students really got a sense of the national prominence that GW has in the work of HIV/AIDS.”

Gary Simon, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases, vice chair of the Department of Medicine, Walter G. Ross professor of medicine and of microbiology and tropical medicine and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at SMHS, delivered Wednesday’s first keynote address.

Dr. Simon shared his professional journey with HIV/AIDS—from researching its causes and prevalence in the District to experimenting with different treatment drugs to uncovering new preventative measures. 

Dr. Simon played a seminal role in the history of HIV/AIDS at GW, as well as in Washington, D.C. On Aug. 29, 1981, he diagnosed a young Haitian girl with HIV/AIDS, the first recognized case in the city.

In 2011, the World Health Organization estimated that 34 million adults and children were living with HIV/AIDS nationwide, said Alan Greenberg, M.D. ’82, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at SPHHS, and director of the District of Columbia Developmental Center for AIDS Research (D.C. D-CFAR), who delivered Wednesday’s second keynote address.

Dr. Greenberg gave an overview of HIV/AIDS epidemiology and prevention and addressed the HIV/AIDS work that is currently being done in Washington, D.C. There were several barriers to care and prevention when HIV/AIDS first exploded in the District, Dr. Greenberg said. These problems included inadequate surveillance data to guide prevention and research response, limited capacity for and history of conducting community-based HIV prevention research, and the fact that no single dominant research institution existed.

In an effort to break down these barriers and improve HIV-infected Washingtonians’ access to quality care, GW partnered with the D.C. Department of Health to improve HIV/AIDS surveillance activities in the District in 2006. The collaboration was extremely successful, and in 2007, the institutions compiled D.C.’s first HIV/AIDS data.

“Our success in HIV/AIDS research and prevention in the District is due in part to these critical collaborations between the university and community institutions,” Dr. Greenberg said.

In the future, Dr. Greenberg said he and his colleagues are working to transform the District into a true center for HIV/AIDS research prevention and translate those results into containing the epidemic.

Wednesday’s session ended with a panel discussion featuring both keynote speakers and HIV/AIDS experts Erin Athey, assistant professor at the GW School of Nursing; Manya Magnus, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at SPHHS; Natella Rakhmanina, associate professor of pediatrics at SMHS; Amanda Castel, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at SPHHS; and David Parenti, professor of medicine at SMHS. The panelists addressed the current issues surrounding HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

A list of award winners from both days is available on the Research Days website.