The multi-day virtual event brought together students from across disciplines and sparked conversations about what it is to be a researcher.
By Kristen Mitchell
George Washington University's student researchers gathered virtually last week to share their research projects with the university community, a celebration of hard work in an unparalleled year.
GW students submitted 384 total projects to the GW Research Showcase, a multi-day event previously called GW Research Days. Participants across disciplines presented their work in subject-specific Zoom sessions throughout the week. They answered questions about their projects and received feedback from faculty and industry judges.
GW Provost M. Brian Blake applauded students for their perseverance and for continuing to strive toward their research goals over the last academic year.
“The creativity and innovation of GW’s students was on full display this week,” Dr. Blake said. “It was inspiring to see so many strong submissions from a broad range of disciplines and research interests. Students and their mentors should be commended for finding creative ways to continue meaningful research experiences through an unprecedented year.”
Last April’s GW Research Showcase was canceled as the university transitioned to virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, 96 student researchers submitted projects related to the impact of COVID-19 on public health, medicine, education, business and the humanities.
Undergraduate and graduate students competed for poster prizes in each subject room and special prizes that spanned disciplinary boundaries. They also engaged with additional opportunities to receive grant funding through the InnovateGW I-Corps Site Program. A list of winning projects will be posted on the GW Research Showcase website.
Additionally, the showcase featured panel discussions centered around the barriers facing women scientists, how to get involved with research as a GW student and the emerging field of public interest technology.
Students Persevere in a Virtual Environment
Jacob Winn, B.A. ‘21, knew exactly what he wanted to do for his Elliott School of International Affairs Dean’s Scholars Program research project when he set out for a semester at the University College London last spring. A student of international affairs and political science, he wanted to understand the impact of populism on the British Conservative Party. He planned a schedule filled with in-person interviews and even a focus group—then COVID-19 happened.
Mr. Winn returned to the United States and reworked his research protocol. He continued interviewing individuals involved in British politics and policy over Zoom and deepened his analysis to develop the project he presented alongside his peers on Tuesday.
“Challenges aside, it really is a huge success story in terms of how the project came together and how much value ended up coming from it,” he said. “I’m proud of my personal perseverance through changing aspects of the project and kind of rolling with those punches.”
Mr. Winn published an article about his research in the newly-released Spring 2021 edition of the George Washington University Undergraduate Review and plans to continue presenting his work at conferences this spring.
For Camille Nwaefulu, M.S. ‘20, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the pandemic highlighted how bias in artificial intelligence (AI) is a challenge that urgently needs to be addressed. Unconscious bias can be baked into algorithms that can cause harm for people of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, self-driving cars are less likely to detect pedestrians with darker skin tones and facial recognition technology is more likely to misidentify people of color.
Ms. Nwaefulu presented her work on the impact of AI on mental health in women of color and underrepresented communities in the GW Research Showcase’s computer engineering and artificial intelligence Zoom session on Tuesday. With people relying on technology more than ever for virtual learning, remote work and connecting with loved ones, it’s important to understand the data collecting systems at work behind our favorite apps.
“There is an increased use of artificial intelligence in various realms of life, but a lot of people don't realize that because when you look at neural networks and algorithms and all these different functions...you're not seeing what goes on from the engineer or the data scientist,” she said.
When Alejandra Paredes-Marin, a senior majoring in biology and biological anthropology, applied for the Luther Rice Undergraduate Research Fellowship, she proposed a study on pigmentation and guinea pigs. When COVID-19 limited her ability to do in-person lab work, she opted to continue expanding on a GW Primate Genomics Lab project on lemurs she had been contributing to since her sophomore year.
Ms. Paredes-Marin examined whether eye patch shape and size on wild red-bellied lemurs were associated with aspects of reproductive success and found that males with the highest reproductive success have the smallest eye patches. Working virtually she focused on analyzing data for two new patch variables—brightness and symmetry.
“I’m really thankful I was able to continue this research online,” she said. “I’ve been with this project since the very beginning...being able to finish it, it feels like coming full circle.”
Getting Involved in Student Research
On Thursday, student scientists participated in a panel to help the next generation of GW undergraduates get involved in research. The panelists advised their peers on how to connect with faculty members and how to ultimately launch their own projects in their fields.
Jessica Bride, a junior majoring in psychology and criminal justice, encouraged students to reach out to faculty members they have taken courses with about opportunities in their labs.
“Talk to your professors, because even if they don't have an opportunity in their lab, they'll probably know of another lab that's looking for [research assistants],” she said.
Camille Leoni, a senior majoring in biology and editor-in-chief and president of the GW Undergraduate Review, said when she was looking for opportunities, she started combing through the Department of Biological Sciences website to get an idea of what kind of research each faculty member was working on. She encouraged students to email faculty members and visit their office hours.
“Put yourself out there,” she said. “You're going to find your way.”
Doing her own research gave Ms. Leoni a sense of self-confidence and personal motivation that extends far beyond the classroom, she said. The panelists spoke about how their research experiences have not just been academically fulfilling, but have given them transferable skills in problem solving and communication that help them succeed.
“Just like you have to be able to describe your dissertation to a panel, a roomful of people that have never heard it before, you have to be able to take your years of knowledge and condense it into something that's palatable for those around you,” said Jessica Schenck, a fourth-year neuroscience Ph.D. candidate. “You have to be able to communicate everything very effectively, and that's helpful no matter what you pursue, even if it's not the sciences.”
Fourth-year Ph.D. students Anna Gams and Rose Yin also participated in the event, which was moderated by Presidential Fellow Rachel Yakobashvili, B.A. ‘20.
Students interested in research can also find opportunities through GW Student Research Commons, a university-wide collaboration between the Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research, the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Office of the Provost, GW Libraries and Academic Innovation, University Career Services and the Office for Student Success.
Confronting Discrimination in Science
Members of the GW community had the opportunity to screen the film “Picture a Scientist,” a documentary that explores how women experience harassment in STEM fields and charts a path for a more inclusive academic environment. On Wednesday, the university held a panel with five female faculty members to discuss the film.
Shelly Heller, research professor and director of the SEAS Center for Women and Engineering, spoke about an experience she had many years ago when she met a man in a professional setting and instead of shaking her outstretched hand, he kissed her.
“Even though it was a stupid little thing on his part, two things came to be. Now whenever I shake hands with anybody, since then, I have the most rigid handshake—very far, very strong. You can't get that close,” she said. “And No. 2, I've really come to understand this concept of how it doesn't leave you and how it really marks your psyche.”
The film explored how harassment and mistreatment pushes women out of STEM fields or stunts their career growth. The panel also included Sharon Lambert, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Cindy Dowd, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, Karen McDonnell, an associate professor in the Department of Prevention and Community Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health; and Evie Downie, associate professor in the Department of Physics.
The faculty members gave advice on the importance of finding allies, how to get support dealing with an individual you believe is treating you unfairly in an academic setting and how to handle microaggressions.
“I think there are many teachable moments, and then sometimes I get tired of having to teach people about myself and why I would prefer that they don't do certain things,” Dr. Lambert said. “Sometimes I can take the opportunity to do some teaching. I think it also helps if from a higher level, people hear that type of behavior and certain language is not appropriate or not accepted.”