Two students with their poster project

Celebration of Scholarship and Creativity highlights student research

May 9, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

Worcester State University’s annual Celebration of Scholarship and Creativity kicked off in the morning of April 26 with student presentations covering a range of topics including the impact of 19th century domestic policy on the Wounded Knee Massacre, a comparative analysis of insulin-like peptides, an assessment of the watershed habitat of a local brook, and the search for the earliest signs of star formation.

In the afternoon, the competition gym in the Wellness Center came alive as students and faculty presented an array of research and creativity posters from a variety of disciplines including the humanities, health and natural sciences, business administration, computer science, and mathematics.

“This is one of the most exciting events that Worcester State has,” Henry Theriault, associate vice president for academic affairs, said. “It’s an opportunity for students from just about every department across campus to show what happens when they have this great education and then are at the point where they can do their own projects and their own thinking. They’re creating new things, new ideas in their fields, and it’s great to see.”

The morning sessions featured two presentations from the Philosophy Department under faculty advisors Professor Joshua Koenig from the History and Political Science Department, and Theriault.

Senior Andja Kola started the session with her presentation, “Intersectionality and Witch Hunting in Early Modern Europe.” Kola examined how intersecting identities such as gender, class, religion, and nationality together could lead to an individual being labeled a witch. This theoretical approach contrasts with previous scholarship, which has tried to determine a dominant cause for witch hunting.

Caitlyn M. Ferrecchia, a senior, presented “The Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee Massacre: Was U.S. 19th-Century Domestic Policy the Culprit?” Her research—conducted as part of her Commonwealth Honors Project Oral Presentation—suggested that U.S. 19th-century domestic policy, which caused deprivation, destruction of Native culture and land, and death, led to the rise of the Ghost Dance as a religious practice. The Ghost Dance, in turn, precipitated the Wounded Knee Massacre, as American troops mistakenly thought that the ceremony would lead to an armed rebellion.

In her presentation, “Choiceless Choices: What Lies on the Other Side?” senior Kimberly T. Vo considered how perpetrators of three historical cases of genocide presented “choiceless choices” (i.e., two choices, but lead to destruction) to targeted groups as part of the process of destroying them. The term “choiceless choices,” coined by scholar Lawrence Langer regarding the Holocaust, is mostly used in studies of psychological trauma and ethical dilemmas. Vo asserted that the use of “choiceless choices” proves intent and can be used by the United Nations Genocide Convention to condemn perpetrators.

In a later session, Biology major Aspen Zheng, a junior, gave a presentation titled International Students’ Post-Graduation Immigration Choice. Zheng is an international student from China and a Resident Assistant and a Presidential Student Ambassador at Worcester State.

Through her research, Zheng found that international students tend to have limited work and research opportunities, and most of the time are allowed to work only 20 hours a week. There also are limits on pursuing certain degrees, with only about 300 international students being able to go into pre-med programs throughout the U.S. in a year.

Earlier this spring, Zheng gave the same presentation to some assistants of members of Congress in Washington, D.C., as part of a trip several students made under the guidance of Carl A. Herrin, chief of staff to President Maloney, to learn about the legislative process. International students face some restraints that are not often discussed, and Zheng wanted to bring her research to the attention of policymakers.

On the same trip, Lisbeth Alcantara Ruiz ’and Jessica Rancourt used their time in Washington to lobby for revisions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Their poster presentation about those efforts noted that food insecurity is becoming more prevalent on college campuses, exacerbated by confusing SNAP eligibility requirements and the need for more donations to college food banks.

“Many students have to choose between paying for school or getting a healthy meal,” Alcantara Ruiz said. “Often, they decide to just pay for the school and getting a meal is the last option they focus on, which is a problem because it leads to not being able to focus in class and then to bad grades.”

One change they recommended to staffers in Congressional offices is to update the confusing SNAP website so that it is easier for college students to determine whether they qualify.  

“We suggested that they add a college student section to the website so it will be easy for students to see, ‘Yes, I actually do qualify for it,’ and then they can go ahead and apply for it,” Alcantara Ruiz said. “That’s something so simple but it can really help a lot of students so they’re not food insecure anymore.”

Eighteen students from the Earth, Environment and Physics Department presented posters at the event, including an electronic poster by Harley Westgate and Shelby Brooks titled, “California Wildfire Intensity from 2000 to 2020.” Their research showed that we can expect more wildfires in the future due to climate change, as well as a gradual increase in the intensity and severity of these fires.

“We have seen effects from California wildfires even here in Massachusetts several times, with smoke causing cloudy skies, so as wildfires become more prevalent, it doesn’t just affect one area. It affects the entire country and even other parts of the world,” Westgate said.

Doing the research project made Westgate, an environmental science major, more confident as a scientist, she said. “It gave me a lot of experience analyzing data and understanding how it works,” she said. “It made me realize that this is a real-world set of information that is relevant. These aren’t just numbers. They are events that affect people.”

Brooks said the project whetted her appetite for doing more research. One of the most surprising things she learned was that the distribution of fires seems to be moving south toward Los Angeles. “I’m assuming it has something to do with air pollution, but I thought that was really interesting and I definitely want to do more research into why they are migrating down to the south,” she said.

One of the more intriguing presentations was titled “Virtual Reality Immersion Measured Through Heart Rate Responses to Visual Cliffs,” a psychology project undertaken by Brooke Gagne and Maureen Grady under the guidance of Professor Luis Rosado.

The project explored the coupling of human perception with action. The experiment involved research participants wearing virtual reality goggles that made it look like they were stepping off cliffs of various depths as they walked forward. Depths ranged from a few inches to virtually bottomless. Heart rate was measured for each instance.

Participants saw a VR simulation of a real lab in the Ghosh Science Building, where the experiments were conducted. So, they could safely move around the actual lab in real time with the headset on, but the researchers dropped the floor out from underneath them at points in the simulation, so it looked like they were standing on the edge of a cliff at various depths.

“In most cases we saw a significant jump in heart rate,” Grady said. “We showed everybody all three cliffs in different order, and what we found that was kind of interesting was that the one place we didn’t see a significant increase was when the first visual cliff that they experienced was the deepest cliff, while we had significant increases with the shallow and the medium cliff.”

They have a theory for that surprising result: “We think that we didn’t see a significant response because in the two shallower cliffs you could see actually see the texture of the floor at the bottom, but the deepest one was and so low that the bottom was kind of shrouded,” Grady said. “So, it looked more like just a black hole, which wasn’t very realistic. “

I think there’s a lot of implications for the future with VR, especially in the healthcare world, which is what I’m personally going into. And I was excited to be a part of something that’s working towards that.”

Among posters presented by Chemistry Department students was “Synthesis of NNN Manganese Complexes and Potential Catalytic Applications” by student researchers Hamza A. Khan and Wafic M. Ellakis, under the guidance of Professor Jeremy Andreatta.

The complex chemical reactions they studied have potential applications as a better fuel additive than ethanol during the transition to alternative energy sources, among many other possibilities.

“I wanted to see if the catalysts that we made actually gave any results that could be applied in the real world,” Khan said. “As I went along in the project, I realized that there are a lot of applications of this research, such as the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and in a lot of different industries.” Khan said.

While similar reactions have been extensively studied using other metals, using manganese in their research added a practical dimension. “Manganese is an earth-abundant metal,” Khan said. “It’s the third most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust. Traditionally they would use a palladium or platinum or gold catalyst, so there are plenty of methods you can use, but they either produce toxic byproducts, or they use really expensive metals, so this is why we went with manganese.”

Linda S. Larrivee, dean of the School of Science, Technology, and Health said scientific research such as Khan’s, as well the research presentations from the other academic fields, adds depth to student experience at Worcester State.  

“It shows our students the importance of primary research and how they can contribute to their chosen fields going forward,” she said, as she perused students’ work at the poster presentation. “The students here have done excellent work and they’re so well prepared to explain their research to a wide audience using terms and vocabulary that are accessible to all, and that it’s important so that the research findings can be understood in a broader way than just by people within their field.”

To view a booklet with the full listing of panel discussions and poster presentations, visit the Celebration of Scholarship and Creativity web page.

Staff writers Rebecca Cross and Allison Coppinger contributed to this report.


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