The University of Texas at Austin
  • Spotlight on undergraduate research

    Published: April 16, 2012
    Spotlight

    Research Week showcases the exciting work of undergraduates across campus and highlights opportunities for students interested in getting involved. Co-sponsored by the Senate of College Councils and the School of Undergraduate Studies, Research Week takes place April 16-20 this year. To celebrate undergraduate research and creative activity, we’re highlighting five profiles of student researchers.

    Ashvin Bashyam

    Majors: Biomedical Engineering and Engineering Honors
    Research Topic: Photoacoustic Imaging, Photothermal Therapy, Gold Nanoparticles, Macromolecular Synthesis
    Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Stanislav Emelianov, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering

    Ashvin Bashyam

    “I can’t get enough of the thrill surrounding a new discovery that I unexpectedly make after many long hours of work.” — Ashvin Bashyam

    Briefly describe your research project.

    My project is focused on assessing the viability of functionalized gold nanoplates as a contrast and photothermal agent for photoacoustic imaging and photothermal therapy. I design and synthesize gold nanoparticles, apply surface coatings, and prepare them for imaging and therapeutic applications. I conduct tests using photoacoustic imaging and photothermal therapy on both in-vitro and in-vivo models to learn about the properties of these particles and how to develop them for further, more advanced applications.

    What was the most rewarding part of your research experience?

    I can’t get enough of the thrill surrounding a new discovery that I unexpectedly make after many long hours of work. Often these new phenomena go on to amaze other members of the lab, which inspires me to pursue my research with even more dedication.

    What surprised you during the research process?

    The highly collaborative nature of my research laboratory came as a big surprise to me. I envisioned research projects as isolated occurrences in a research lab, but in reality each project contributes to a vast network of knowledge that extends throughout the world in the form of publications and conferences. In addition to the high level of collaboration, the members of my research lab also have a genuine interest in learning about the intricacies of each others’ projects. This community of like-minded scientists and engineers focused on a similar issue has been instrumental in ensuring the success of my projects as I have sought out help from more experienced members.

    How has participating in research affected your undergraduate experience?

    My research has helped add context to my engineering coursework by helping me understand the importance of what I am learning when it comes to its applications. Many of the techniques that I have learned as a part of my research are grounded in fundamental concepts such as organic chemistry, physiology, and medical imaging. When I learned more about each of these topics through my coursework, I immediately made the connection between my research and my classes. These sorts of experiences have not only kindled an ever-increasing interest for more biomedical engineering courses, but also have expanded my horizons as a researcher as I apply my coursework to my research.

    How do you think getting involved in research will be helpful to you in the future?

    Primarily, my participation in research has developed my problem solving, critical thinking, pattern recognition, and collaboration skills in ways that a traditional undergraduate education cannot come close to achieving. This personal growth will prove invaluable as I progress to graduate school and future experiences that will leverage my skills in unpredictable ways. Even if I don’t continue on to a career in research, the lessons I’ve learned and the skills I’ve developed will stick with me throughout my life.

    What advice would you give incoming students about getting involved in research?

    Be aggressive and don’t give up.

    Everyone is looking for research, but you have to want to get involved more than the rest of them. Know more about the group that you want to get into than your peers and demonstrate that knowledge when you have the chance. Emailing TAs is a great way to get your foot in the door if there’s a group that you really want to pursue research within. Remember, be aggressive and don’t give up.

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    Nadia Khan

    Major: Human Biology
    Research Topic: Alcohol Modulation on Vanilloid Receptor 1 (TRPV1)
    Faculty Supervisor: Dr. R. Adron Harris and Dr. Rebecca J. Howard, Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research, College of Natural Sciences

    Nadia Khan

    “Research has given me a deeper understanding and allowed me to appreciate my science on a whole new level.” — Nadia Khan

    Briefly describe your research project.

    I am attempting to characterize how alcohol modulates the activity of vanilloid receptor 1 (TRPV1) as a direct pharmacological target in the nervous system. TRPV1 is an ion channel responsible for transducing chemical and thermal stimuli such as protons or heat into neurological responses like pain. My hypothesis is alcohol affects TRPV1 similar to that seen in ligand-gated ion channels — an increasingly potent modulation with increasing chain lengths of alcohols up to a certain “cut-off.” Discovering this “cut-off” will allow me to further define the molecular dimensions of the alcohol-binding pocket.

    What was the most rewarding part of your research experience?

    Receiving the opportunity to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C., this past November. I’ve never seen so many brilliant minds in one place — and so passionate about their work! Also, through a recommendation from my research educator in the Freshman Research Initiative, I was able to receive a fellowship to research at Stanford University for one summer.

    What surprised you during the research process?

    How addicting the whole process can become. I equate it to watching a new TV show. In the beginning, everything is slow-moving as you learn the names of all the characters, their personalities and — most of all — their relationships with each other. However, you eventually get to a point where your curiosity takes over and your desire to know more and more consumes you. Research is kind of like that. The possibility of discovery becomes endless!

    How has participating in research affected your undergraduate experience?

    Research has really helped me to place what I learn in my undergraduate career into perspective. Learning about things such as PCR, gel electrophoresis or microarrays from a textbook can seem so abstract and even hard to grasp at first. However, when you actually perform such techniques in the lab, a whole new understanding of cellular processes comes to light. You begin to understand the reason why you add enzyme A, or what those funny bands on a gel really mean. Research has given me a deeper understanding and allowed me to appreciate my science on a whole new level.

    How do you think getting involved in research will be helpful to you in the future?

    In more ways than I can count! Because of the opportunity I received to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference, I was able to make connections to find a job as a research scientist after graduation. Moreover, I was able to make future connections for graduate school when I intend to apply.

    What advice would you give incoming students about getting involved in research?

    Become involved in the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). This was the biggest jumping off point for me into my research career. I was able to take every technique learned in the program and apply it to every research experience I ever had, and sometimes even some of my schoolwork. If you aren’t in FRI or if it’s too late for you to apply, don’t be afraid to explore the research on campus. UT is a great place with hundreds of professors doing earth-shattering science every day. Don’t be afraid to contact them and let them know you are interested! If you never try, you will never know.

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    Lindsay Taraban

    Majors: Psychology and English
    Research Topic: Self-Explanation and Young Children’s Understanding of Relational Nouns
    Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Catharine Echols, Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts

    Lindsay Taraban

    “My greatest gain was that through the work I did on my honors thesis, I learned that I genuinely love research and feel confident this is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.” — Lindsay Taraban

    Briefly describe your research project.

    Self-explanation is a learning tool that’s been demonstrated to be effective at helping grade-school children understand and solve complex problems in math and sciences. My research explored whether this tool would also help young children and whether it would be helpful for language-based tasks (instead of math/science).

    What was the most rewarding part of your research experience?

    It’s hard to say — I loved so much about the experience. I think my greatest gain, though, was that through the work I did on my honors thesis, I learned that I genuinely love research and feel confident this is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.

    What surprised you during the research process?

    Everything takes 10 times longer than you anticipate it will. You can have what you consider to be a foolproof plan and then once you get to ironing out the details, you realize there are all these challenges you haven’t accounted for. Then just when you think you’re on top of everything, something new comes up. You have to budget A LOT of time and energy into conducting a research project (totally worth it though!).

    How has participating in research affected your undergraduate experience?

    It has been the highlight of my time at UT. I understand a lot about the nitty gritty of the research process. I feel more confident about my graduate school applications, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

    How do you think getting involved in research will be helpful to you in the future?

    I think I will be able to get into a better graduate program than I would have otherwise, and I will be more confident going in. I know now what it’s like to conduct research — I know what I will be getting myself into — and I know that it is what I want to be doing!

    What advice would you give incoming students about getting involved in research?

    Do it! Even if you’re not planning on going to graduate school, it can be a hugely positive experience and you will learn so much! UT is a major research university — your professors are doing cutting-edge work, so pick an area of interest and get involved. If you’re unsure, I’d suggest volunteering in a faculty lab for a couple of semesters and see what you think of it. Doing an honors thesis is a major commitment, so you want to make sure you’re willing to put the effort in. It’s incredibly rewarding though!

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    David Fisher

    Majors: Plan II Honors and Spanish
    Research Topic: Ecotourism for Sustainable Development in Rural Honduras
    Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Rebecca Torres, Department of Geography and the Environment, College of Liberal Arts

    “My research was truly the capstone of my education here at UT. I was able to apply things that I learned in every aspect of my undergraduate education.” — David Fisher

    Briefly describe your research project.

    A field analysis and case study of how ecotourism can be used to carry out the goals of sustainable economic development, indigenous empowerment, and jungle conservation in rural La Moskitia, Honduras.

    What was the most rewarding part of your research experience?

    The most rewarding part of the research was being able to travel to the jungle and meet the indigenous groups I was trying to help. I climbed a mountain and trekked through the jungle to make my interviews and had the experience of a lifetime. Using the material I collected was incredibly satisfying because I really came to love the people and the place the research was about.

    What surprised you during the research process?

    I was astonished at how complicated it is to collect real, usable data using social science methods and apply theory that I had learned about in the classroom. Getting there is half the battle, and you have to overcome all sorts of social and political obstacles to take interviews in a faraway and crime-ridden environment like rural Honduras.

    How has participating in research affected your undergraduate experience?

    My research was truly the capstone of my education here at UT. I was able to apply things that I learned in every aspect of my undergraduate education, from my experience studying abroad to the social science theories I learned in the classroom. It has been an incredible opportunity to apply what I’ve learned to a real-world project that can actually help people.

    How do you think getting involved in research will be helpful to you in the future?

    My research was truly the capstone of my education here at UT. I was able to apply things that I learned in every aspect of my undergraduate education, from my experience studying abroad to the social science theories I learned in the classroom. It has been an incredible opportunity to apply what I’ve learned to a real-world project that can actually help people.

    What advice would you give incoming students about getting involved in research?

    Take every opportunity you can to do research! Working under a professor on their project is a great way to see the opportunities for research in your field, and will open a surprising number of doors for you in the future. They are usually very interested in getting students involved- never be afraid to approach a professor about a project!

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    Sarah Kettles

    Major: Psychology
    Research Topic: The Facebook Project
    Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Michael J. Telch and Annie K. Steele (graduate student), Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts

    “I have the ability to use all of the amazing resources that UT offers in order to help me explore, discover and truly take my education into my own hands.” — Sarah Kettles

    Briefly describe your research project.

    The Facebook Project is a study looking at social anxiety and response to negative feedback in online social networking contexts and also in face-to-face contexts. We are interested in discovering whether students (ages 18-24) have stronger reactions to negative feedback in face-to-face contexts versus online contexts.

    What was the most rewarding part of your research experience?

    The most rewarding party of my research experience has been the impact it has had on my education. I now look at my education at the University of Texas as something that I am in complete control of. I have the ability to use all of the amazing resources that UT offers in order to help me explore, discover and truly take my education into my own hands. I am incredibly grateful for that.

    What surprised you during the research process?

    I was very surprised at how much fun the entire process is and how much it is guided by your own creativity. I was shocked to find out that questions don’t simply ask themselves. My graduate student mentor has opened my eyes to the path that she has taken that has led her to the queries we are now investigating. Because of my research experience and my mentor, I now love exploring other areas of interest and asking new questions all the time.

    How has participating in research affected your undergraduate experience?

    Participating in research has defined my educational experience at UT and I honestly cannot imagine my academic life without it. It has allowed me to look at the world in a different way and know that no question is something that isn’t worth answering. I have learned, experimented and formed new goals and desires through my experience in research, and I am confident they will continue to drive me through the completion of my undergraduate degree, as well as through graduate study.

    How do you think getting involved in research will be helpful to you in the future?

    I plan to stay very involved in research through the remainder of my undergraduate career. The experiences I have had at UT are those that I plan to use to help me gain entrance into a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program for Fall 2013, where I hope to continue to pursue my research interests for many years to come.

    What advice would you give incoming students about getting involved in research?

    Students interested in becoming researchers should know that opportunities are plentiful, but you must go in search of them. Talking to professors about their labs and interests can be intimidating, especially for those who are new to the area and are not as well-informed. The important thing to remember is that every successful professor, faculty member and graduate student was also once a curious undergraduate student, too. They all have someone who introduced them to the area that became their passion and mentored them to success and they are all willing to give back. If you are willing to learn, they are willing to share.

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    • Quote 2
      Felisa Grace said on April 19, 2012 at 11:29 a.m.
      These are fabulous!! Congratulations to these students who are serious about making a difference in the world. The psychology department need only look across campus to have access to people who understand how to set up an important research project. I'm still steamed about the project they featured a year or so ago.
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