Students present projects at Research Symposium

By ISAAC CHEN | October 18, 2018

The annual Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS), sponsored by both the Hopkins Undergraduate Society for Neuroscience (Nu Rho Psi) and the Hopkins Office for Undergraduate Research (HOUR), took place last week on Oct. 8. 

URS is an opportunity for students to share their projects with the greater Hopkins community. This symposium further broadens students’ intellectual horizons by bringing together those from various disciplines and backgrounds. 

This year’s URS featured research from 33 students across multiple disciplines. Each student had the opportunity to give an eight to 10 minute presentation, followed by two to three minutes of questions from the audience. 

Three students shared their research experiences in an interview with The News-Letter

A senior majoring in International Studies, Ramya Prabhakar conducted interviews, surveys and a literature review to explore the underlying reasons behind gaps in educational access of Syrian students in Jordan. 

Her findings indicate that while policies targeting primary education have generally succeeded in enrolling more Syrian students, policies targeting secondary and university-level education are generally ineffective at addressing this gap. 

Jonathan Andersen, a junior majoring in Neuroscience, studied DNA sequences that are involved in familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). 

It is known that a six-nucleotide repeat in the non-coding region of chromosome nine open reading frame 72 (C9orf72) is common in patients with ALS and FTD. 

Andersen manipulated C9orf72 to further understand its dynamics in the pathogenesis of familial ALS and FTD. 

Ariana Ginsberg, a senior majoring in Neuroscience, looked into the mechanisms of reward anticipation in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) using mice trained to complete a task based on a reward. 

Ginsberg and her advisors hypothesize that PFC neurons will show different activity depending on reward probability and timing. 

Each shared a story about how they got interested in research. Prabhakar first gained interest in higher education through her experience working as college consultant with low-income students last fall in Washington, D.C. She became even more interested since her trip to Jordan. 

“When I went to Jordan, I wanted to focus my research project on education for disadvantaged students, and Syrian refugees were a really pressing issue for Jordan. But not a lot of research exists on refugee higher education, so that’s why I studied higher education,” she said. 

This is Prabhakar’s first research project. She plans to take this project to the next step with a thesis and hopes to receive a Fulbright Scholarship. 

“This year I’m doing my thesis on the evolution of national identity in Palestinian refugees living in Amman, and I hope to go back to Jordan over intersession. I also applied to a Fulbright to Jordan after graduation to study the link between higher educational demand and access to the labor market for Syrian refugees,” she said.

Recalling his experience looking at moss with a microscope kit as a kid, Andersen has developed a strong sense of curiosity since his early childhood. He continues to explore his curiosity in neuroscience.

“When I found an academic interest in neuroscience, I knew that I wanted to be at the bench working on some of the biggest questions of today. It was an opportunity to make an impact while also feeding my personal curiosity,” he said. 

Ginsberg was inspired by her Cognitive Neurophysiology professors who linked their research to larger concepts learned in class during freshman year.

“I wanted to get involved and be a part of the unlocking of new knowledge, [so I] started to look into different research opportunities,” she said.

Having both started their research careers in their first year of college, Andersen and Ginsberg have gained lots of experience. Both shared their favorite aspects about the research process.

“My favorite part of the research I have conducted has been getting to perform actual surgeries on our animals. Learning how to do these surgeries safely and effectively has been incredibly fascinating and exciting. To see their progress from the first day of training to days later when they have improved markedly just proves to me how intelligent these creatures are and how much we can learn from them,” Ginsberg said. 

In addition to loving the work he does, Andersen has realized the importance of the network of people around him. 

“I never could have anticipated how much I have come to value the people I have worked with. They have given me essential insights into how to refine my curiosity to ask the right questions, how to go about answering those questions and finally how to navigate a lifelong career in science — something that I am extremely grateful for,” he said. 

Lastly, the three veteran student researchers have some valuable advice to offer for those who might feel intimidated by research. 

“If you are applying for positions, just know that the people who work in those labs really and truly want your help. You can be an invaluable asset to so many people,” Ginsberg said.

Prabhakar added that taking the first step to getting involved in research can lead to other opportunities in the future.

“Once you get that first project done, you’ll become a lot more interested and confident in subsequent research, and you can build your own ‘story’ by following your study’s trail of breadcrumbs and specializing in a certain field,” Prabhakar said. 

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