Envisioning the Future: Student Scholarship on Display at GW Research Days

The event showcases research from a wide variety of disciplines.

William Rone
Ph.D. student William Rone (right) explains his research project to Jim Chung, executive director of the Office of Entrepreneurship, during day one of GW Research Days 2014.
April 07, 2014

By Kristin Hubing and Lauren Ingeno

Inspired by the tails of lizards, cheetahs, monkeys and dinosaurs, George Washington University Ph.D. student William Rone is in the process of designing a continuum tail that could address the shortcomings of legged robots.

“If you’ve ever watched a baby learn to walk, it’s not easy. So imagine trying to teach a piece of software how to walk, how to stay upright when one of its legs slips or how to lean into a turn while running so it doesn’t fall over,” said Mr. Rone, who is studying under Professor Pinhas Ben-Tzvi in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

If successfully executed, the adaptable tail will stabilize the robot in response to external disturbances and enable it to move at high speeds without having to change its leg motions—making it an ideal tool for search and rescue, reconnaissance and other applications.

Mr. Rone was one of more than 430 students who presented their original research in the Marvin Center last week during GW’s Research Days 2014, tying for first place in the graduate student category, along with Rebecca Ella Biermann, a master’s student in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

The first day of the 19th annual two-day event—hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Office of the Provost—showcased research from the arts, business, education, engineering, humanities, law, sciences and other topics, while the second day focused on research from the health and medical sciences.

Stephen C. Ehrmann, vice provost for teaching and learning, said the purpose of the event is twofold: It not only gives students practice in scientific communications, but it also helps make the connection between learning in the classroom and real-world applications.

“Some students have the view that school is about checking off boxes, getting certain grades and earning that degree, and then you get to enter ‘real life.’ But the other way of looking at education is that it is the real world,” he said. “You can’t do research without thinking about how you’re applying things you’ve learned in classes for a purpose that has a transcendent importance in the world, which goes far beyond the question of whether you get this grade or that grade.”

Research Days also serve as an opportunity to highlight the research, by undergraduates in particular, that can go unnoticed, Dr. Ehrmann said. Twenty percent of undergraduates at GW graduate with some type of mentored research experience, he added, and he expects that number to continue to grow. Dr. Ehrmann spent three hours walking around the Marvin Center Grand Ballroom observing posters and talking with student presenters on Tuesday.

“The energy that the students, the mentors and the judges put into this event is enormous and very impressive,” he said. “I saw more posters that I personally found accessible and fascinating this year than I have in any previous years.”

One of those students was April Brisky, who is in her final year of the Integrated Information, Science, and Technology Bachelor’s Degree program. She was awarded second place in the “physical science” category on Tuesday for her “Gestational Prediction Project.”

After giving birth to twins through in vitro fertilization, Ms. Brisky enrolled at GW with an interest in the reproductive sciences. While IVF is becoming a popular form of conception for women who have difficulty conceiving, these treatments often lead to high-risk pregnancies, Ms. Brisky said. Studies show that increasing folic acid levels before conception and during the early days of a pregnancy can substantially lower infant mortality. Since a mother’s folic acid intake should increase depending on the number of fetuses she is carrying, it is critical to identify multiple fetuses early in the pregnancy.

By surveying expecting mothers, Ms. Brisky studied the relationship between Beta-HCG levels in pregnant women and the number of fetal heartbeats seen at the first ultrasound, in order to see if these levels could predict the number of implanted embryos much earlier than an ultrasound is able to predict a pregnancy. After finding a positive correlation, Ms. Brisky hopes she will be able to continue her research to prove that early detection methods, along with an early prescription of folic acid, will ensure the survival of multiple fetuses.

Health and Medicine Research Day on Wednesday featured research from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the Milken Institute School of Public Health, the School of Nursing and SEAS.

“Today we celebrate one of the three key missions of our school—education, training and research,” said Jeffrey Akman, Walter A. Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine, vice president for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “We celebrate the work of our undergraduates, our grad students, our faculty, our fellows and mentors who generate new information, new ideas and who develop scholarship to advance our fields in health and medicine.”

Two internationally recognized scientists gave keynote speeches during a ceremony on Wednesday—Elaine Ostrander, chief and distinguished investigator at the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute, and Lance Price, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

In her speech, titled “Genetics of complex traits: Understanding breed variation in the domestic dog,” Dr. Ostrander encouraged her audience to think creatively.

“When faced with a problem, don’t do the tried and true,” she said. “Think about a novel way of attacking the problem.” Dr. Ostrander, who is credited with founding modern canine genetics, has made numerous contributions to the field through her parallel research pursuits on the genetic basis of phenotypic variation between dog breeds and on genome-wide associations in human cancers.

“With Dr. Ostrander, you see the humanity behind the research,” said Dr. Akman, who introduced Dr. Ostrander, noting that understanding the genetic underpinnings of diversity in any species can shed light on the evolutionary process, as well as provide insights on human diversity.

In his speech, titled “Foodborne urinary tract infections: a new paradigm for food associated illness,” Dr. Price stressed the importance of research, innovation and education in public health interventions.

“Antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest threats in public health that we face today,” Dr. Price said. “Our misuse and overuse of antibiotics, particularly in animal production, is driving us toward what some call the post-antibiotic era in medicine.” Dr. Price encouraged the adoption of science-based health policy as a method for averting the crisis.

Poster award winners from Tuesday were announced by Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa and Dr. Ehrmann in a video message. Award winners from Wednesday’s poster session were announced during an afternoon awards ceremony.

Other awards from Wednesday included:

  • The Stuart Kassan Research Fellowship Award: Bradley Anderson, Devin Patel, Anita Sivaraman, and Sarah Todd, all fourth-year MD students in SMHS
  • The 2014 Doris Deford Speck and George Speck, MD Endowed Prize: Maureen Banigan, a fourth-year MD student
  • The 2013 Elaine H. Snyder Cancer Research Award: Wenge Zhu, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine
  • The 2014 Distinguished Researcher Award: Dominic Raj, professor of medicine, epidemiology and biostatistics, biochemistry and molecular biology