By Karen J. Hayes
The Rising Researcher program celebrates undergraduate students who excel in research, scholarship, or creative activity. This year, all six Rising Researchers are Commonwealth Honors College students.
Every few years an undergraduate researcher comes through Alejandro Briseño’s laboratory with extraordinary talent. Such scientists, says the polymer science and engineering professor, are in the top one percent of the research population. According to Briseño, Victor Champagne ’17, a mechanical engineering and Commonwealth Honors College student from Dudley, Massachusetts, is one of those researchers. Champagne and five of his peers are being honored by the campus as 2016-2017 UMass Amherst Rising Researchers.
“Victor is a brilliant engineer. We need to support young talent like this, as they will be the future generation of outstanding scientists that will change our world through their scientific and engineering contributions,” says Briseño.
Champagne’s extraordinary abilities are evident from his research accomplishments in the development of high-performance, organic, single-crystalline nanostructures for use in electronic devices. His research centers on the investigation of single-crystal organic nanopillars for applications in energy harvesting/storage, sensors, and antibacterial surfaces.
“As a result of his research on antibacterial coatings, we have prepared a manuscript for publication of his work and our collaborators on campus. Victor also received an invitation to present his work at the Council on Undergraduate Research in Washington, D.C.,” notes Briseño. Champagne is also a recipient of the Jack Welch Scholarship at UMass. Welch scholars are chosen for their academics, leadership, and social responsibility.
John (“Jack”) Duff ’18, is pursuing innovative research at the intersection of linguistics, classics and psychology. The triple major and Commonwealth Honors College student is conducting a linguistic analysis of Horace's poetry to find out how ancient Romans attributed text to different speakers without modern punctuation. His project is tackling important questions about how ancient readers understood their texts.
“This project combines some of the best research methods of its allied disciplines,” says Brian Breed, professor and chair of the classics department. According to Breed, Duff utilized the quantitative and technologically enabled methods that are well tried in linguistics and the close reading and attention to the nuanced demands of genre and characterization that are foundational for criticism of Latin literary texts.
“Jack has demonstrated his mastery of the different tools required, including the Natural Language Toolkit software and a high level of proficiency with Latin, as well as related issues such as genre and literary theory,” adds Breed. Duff’s current research expands his initial work to take modern experimental psycholinguistic theories of narrative into account, work he plans on continuing as his honors thesis.
Breed believes Duff’s research shows high promise. “Jack has demonstrated creativity by identifying a problem and a method for tackling it. There is potential for publishable work to emerge from it,” says Breed. To that end, Duff presented his findings this spring at an undergraduate research conference organized by the University of New Hampshire classics department and at an international undergraduate research conference convened by Department of Linguistics students at the University of Toronto.
Commonwealth Honors College student Robert Johnston ’17, a double major in physics and chemical engineering from Pepperell, Massachusetts, spends his time working on experimental nuclear physics. He’s currently investigating ways to measure how much a sub-atomic particle, called the “pion,” stretches when you apply an electric field to it. The experiment, says Rory Miskimen, professor of physics and Johnston’s research advisor, will help us understand the fundamental symmetries of nature that are responsible for the presence of complex nuclei in the universe.
Johnston has been leading the effort to design and construct relatively small prototype multi-wire proportional chamber (MWPC) detectors, which range in size from 10 to 20 inches. He’s been working on the mechanical design and the construction of the electronics used to read small electrical currents caused by the passage of subatomic particles on the detector.
"Our detector electronics utilize a 'trans-impedance' amplifier circuit. It was Bobby’s job to design the printed circuit board (PCB) used to carry the electronic components, to install the components on the PCB, and then to test the assembled electronics. He is now finalizing our electronics design, and is getting the final CAD files ready for PCB manufacturing and assembly,” says Miskimen.
Although Johnston had limited electronics experience when he began his research, Miskimen notes he was able to quickly pick up those skills by interacting with other students and by teaching himself. “Bobby’s a fast learner and one of the strongest students I’ve had in my lab. His level of expertise and accomplishment are unparalleled for an undergraduate, at a level usually seen in master’s-level electrical engineers and PhD-level physicists working in national laboratories,” says Miskimen.
Randa Kallin ’17, environmental science and Commonwealth Honors College student from Hudson, Massachusetts, has worked in Professor Rick Peltier’s aerosol lab for the past two years. Driven by her innate curiosity, dedication to hard work, and her outstanding intellect, Kallin has had a big impact on the work the lab does on exposing conditions in our world that have public health implications.
Kallin played an integral role in collecting and analyzing data for the lab’s recent high-impact paper on face mask safety, work that was covered by the New York Times, National Public Radio, and other high-profile media outlets. “This work was highly dependent on the quality of the primary data we collected—most of which was collected by Randa. Her dedication to research and commitment to seeking scientific truth, especially to problems that have global health relevance, are clearly evident in her work,” says Peltier.
Kallin is currently executing a complex field research project that examines occupational exposures to kitchen pollutants. The idea for the study, which compares mobile food vendors to traditional commercial kitchens in an attempt to characterize the potential public health hazards, was entirely Kallin’s.
“This hypothesis-driven study requires long hours, engineering and refinement of sample collection approaches, full comprehension of complex analytical laboratory chemistry techniques, and the ability to adapt to changing requirements necessary in real-world sampling environments—all skill sets to which Randa excels. While the project is just getting off the ground, her preparedness rivals that of any graduate student, or even postdocs, in planning for contingencies, coordination and consideration with our study partners, preparation and design of equipment, and rapid quick-look analysis of data she collected. She continues to impress me,” says Peltier.
As a member of the Physical Activity and Health Laboratory since his sophomore year, kinesiology major and Commonwealth Honors College student Greg Petrucci ’17 from Norwood, Massachusetts, has demonstrated research capabilities and experiences that according to his advisors, Patty Freedson and John Sirard, are “unmatched at the undergraduate level.” Petrucci is interested in developing more accurate measurement techniques to better understand the dose-response relationship between physical activity and health.
Petrucci has shown an extremely high aptitude for working on studies that validate and assess wearable computers and mobile sensors for health, a movement termed “The Quantified Self.”
One of his projects examines the ability of a consumer activity tracker, the Misfit Shine, to detect changes in habitual physical activity. The project is novel, says Sirard, in that it is the first study to provide empirical evidence suggesting the sensitivity of a consumer activity tracker to detect change.
Petrucci is interested in the utility of wearable devices in medicine and behavioral interventions as well. To this end, he was selected as the one undergraduate researcher to present his work at the October 2016 grand opening of the campus’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS). He will also present new data from his studies at the 2017 American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting in Denver, Colorado.
“Greg is one of the best undergraduate students I have supervised in my 35 years at UMass,” says Freedson, professor and former chair of the kinesiology department. “I anticipate that he will embark on a successful research career in physical activity health, becoming a leader in the art and science of discovery to advance our field in the coming years.”
Sarah Welch '17 is conducting research on race, space, and resource accessibility in the UMass Amherst Libraries for her honors thesis using a participatory design ethnography framework. The anthropology major and Commonwealth Honors College student from Westford Massachusetts, explores the historical and contemporary literature on libraries as a site of community-building and social change.
Having conducted archival and ethnographic research in the university library as a junior, Welch is now launching a yearlong project that combines anthropological research methods and environmental design. She plans to conduct interviews and participant observation with student users of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. Her efforts will engage both students and librarians in developing design and policy recommendations informed by her research findings.
Welch presented her initial work to the UMass Amherst librarians in May 2016, which was positively received, says Krista Harper, associate professor of anthropology and Welch’s thesis advisor. “I am confident that Sarah’s research will be intellectually rigorous and original,” says Harper.
Welch recently edited a special issue on "Library Transformations" for the national undergraduate anthropology journal, AnthroZine. In the special issue, Welch contributed an introduction with UMass librarians and Harper as coauthors, an original article on her own research, and she also took on the task of collating and editing her peers' undergraduate research reports as contributions to the special issue.
“Sarah is a brilliant and motivated student,” says Harper. “She is absolutely dedicated to using her skills to make UMass Amherst a better higher education institution.”