By Prachiti Dalvi & Pranali Dalvi

(See our video from this event! It also appears below.)

In every field from humanities, to behavioral sciences, to biological sciences, Duke undergraduates are tackling current research questions, developing new technologies, and proposing new theories on Duke’s campus and around the world!

Approximately 200 students showcased their research findings from summer internships, independent research projects, and field work projects at Visible Thinking, an undergraduate research symposium sponsored by the Duke Undergraduate Research Support Office and the Duke Undergraduate Research Society (DURS). The event was held in the Bryan Center on Wednesday, April 18.

Joshua Weiss (T'14)

Joshua Weiss found his scientific niche in the laboratory of Daniel Wechsler, MD, PhD, while doing a summer research project funded by the Dean’s Summer Research Fellowship the summer after his freshman year. Hoping to eventually attend medical school, Josh was intrigued by a chromosomal change leading to the development of leukemia in children. It’s a translocation that causes increased activity in two genes called Hox a7 and Hox a9. Hox genes play an enormous role in development and are believed to ultimately cause the leukemia. The Wechsler Lab is interested in understanding the molecular basis behind the genetic change with the hope that it could lead to targeted therapies. Josh is looking at a recent discovery of some molecules that inhibit this chain of events to see whether they’d work with chemotherapy.

Senior Stephanie Patterson found a project that combined her interests of public health, pharmacology, and psychology in the lab of Dr. Nicole-Schramm-Saptya, PhD. A chemistry-major with a concentration in pharmacology, Stephanie was interested in understanding how ethanol exposure during adolescence would affect acute impulsivity and chronic impulsivity in rats. Adolescents have immature brain development, especially in regions of the brain associated with impulsivity and decision-making. Exposure to drugs of abuse has been demonstrated to increase impulsivity. Rats were exposed to ethanol at two developmental time points (adolescence and adulthood) and the delay discounting paradigm was used to measure impulsivity.

Charmaine Mutucumarana (T'13)

Charmaine Mutucumarana, a Trinity junior double-majoring in Biology and French, became involved with research in the laboratory of Dr. Marilyn Telen, MD through the Howard Hughes Research Fellows Program. For the past two years, she has been studying the adhesive properties of blood cells. In sickle cell disease, red blood cells become more adhesive and stick to vascular endothelium. Previously, researchers have found elevated levels of laminin, a plasma factor, in sickle cell patients than in non-sickle cell patients.  Charmaine tested whether soluble purified laminin and plasma laminin enhanced the ability of sickle cell red blood cells to adhere to endothelial cells. She hopes to continue working in the Telen lab to see whether laminin levels in plasma correlate with cell adhesion. These findings could lead to a better understanding of the role of laminin in sickle cell disease.

Melanie Sperling (T'14)

Melanie Sperling is a sophomore majoring in Psychology with a minor in Philosophy and a certificate in Children in Contemporary Society. During her freshman year, she received summer funding from the Hart Leadership Program to study the barriers and opportunities for engaging parents in their children’s education in the Boston area. Melanie worked with the BELL Foundation, which provides after-school and summer opportunities for underprivileged children, to understand why some parents are invested in their children’s educations while others are not. After emailing and setting up phone interviews with more than 500 parents, Melanie explored home-to-school and school-to-home communication and how frequently parents engaged in “learning at home,” or assisting students with homework and other curricular activities.

Sperling found that many parents did not perceive the importance of being involved in their child’s education, while others were busy due to work, other  children, and personal relationships. For instance, some parents returned home late after work when their children were already sleeping. Additionally, parents often felt they lacked the technical knowledge to help their kids with homework. There was a general consensus among the parents that school-to-home communication is lacking. Thus, Melanie suggested that the BELL Foundation can improve communication by sending children home with a checklist every day of homework assignments. She also suggested that parents start weekly meetings with other parents to discuss personal struggles and get advice from one another and also increasing the frequency of parent-teacher conferences. By working with the BELL Foundation to implement these leaders, Melanie hopes to launch parents as leaders in their children’s educations.

Tawnee Sparling, a senior in biological anthropology and anatomy, studied the

Tawnee Sparling (T'12)

shoulder of Autralopithecus sediba, a species of hominids dating to 2 million years ago that was discovered from the partial skeletons of a juvenile male (MH1), an adult female (MH2), one other adult, and an 18-month infant. Taking Steven Churchill’s osteology class during her sophomore year piqued Tawnee’s interest in anthropological research. Her passion for research took her to Johannesburg, South Africa where she compared bone collections from other finds to understand the evolution of the human shoulder with funding from the Dean’s Summer Research Fellowship.

Tawnee explained that there is controversy over the evolution of the hominin shoulder. With the advent of bipedalism, the upper limb became used for manipulation rather than climbing trees. Early australopiths had the ancestral condition in which the shoulder blade was positioned high on the thorax, while modern humans exhibit a lower shoulder blade. However, it’s unclear how much australopiths still climbed trees because anthropologists have found both ape-like and Homo-like fossil shoulder blades. To figure out this controversy, Tawnee  compared measurements from modern humans as well as hominin fossils at the University of Witwatersrand. Her measurements of MH2’s shoulder blades revealed that australopiths were probably involved in substantial climbing. After graduation, Tawnee plans to work in an orthopedics biomechanics lab for a year before attending medical school.