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STAR Summer Showcase Exhibits Advanced Research From 121 Undergraduate Students

September 01, 2023

Jaira Marcos and research poster
Jaira Marcos

In its 21st year, the STAR Scholars program is still innovating.

Drexel University’s STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) Summer Showcase took place on Aug. 31 and for the first time, it was held in the Pennoni Honors College’s home, Bentley Hall. In total, 121 students presented research in fields covering architecture, fashion design, esports, machine learning biomedical engineering and many more.

First-year students who partake in STAR conduct hands-on research during the summer quarter, often contributing to research projects that have real world implications, like Emily Woodland, a biomedical engineering student whose project, Drexel Dragon Heart, involved designing a next generation blood pump design for pediatric patients with heart failure. Because STAR students have only completed their first year of college, most haven’t had much time in research settings before this experience.

Jaira Marcos, psychology ‘26, hadn’t had much experience with research before embarking on her STAR Scholar journey, but that was part of what drew her in.

Now, after working with faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences including Evan Forman, PhD, director of the WELL Center and a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and Adrienne Juarascio, PhD, director of practicum training in the WELL Center and an assistant professor, she’s developed statistically significant results regarding weight self-stigma and social comparison through a study. She also worked with Meghan Butryn, PhD, professor and associate department head in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and graduate students Hannah McCausland and Lauren Taylor.

“Initially, we hypothesized that those with excessive eating have high levels of weight self-stigma; high levels of upward social comparison, meaning they compare themselves to someone they think is better than them; and lower levels of downward social comparison, meaning they compare themselves to someone they think is worse than them,” Marcos said. “We were partially supported.”

All participants were given the weight-self stigma questionnaire and social comparison scale and asked to rank how much they agreed with statements related to weight self-stigma and social comparison. Marcos and her mentors found that people with excessive eating have higher weight self-stigma, upward social comparison and downward social comparison.

“These findings were statistically significant, so these findings didn’t happen by chance,” Marcos said. “These results could serve as risk factors for excessive eating and would help with more effective behavioral weight loss programs. It will be interesting to put this into practice to see how effective targeting our variables can be.”

Marcos will continue working with her mentors after the summer on a WELL Center initiative called Project NeuroFit. It’s an app that gamifies behavioral weight loss programs to make it feel less like a chore by learning skills based off the game.

Sydney Rowley and research poster
Sydney Rowley

Sydney Rowley, who is pursuing a custom-designed major in the Pennoni Honors College, studied the impact of saltwater intrusion on marshes and coastal forests with Andrew Payne, a biogeochemistry student, and former Associate Professor Elizabeth Watson, PhD, from the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I wanted to do something in environmental science that included field work,” Rowley said. “I didn’t know a ton about marshes, but it was really cool to learn about them in my first year of college. There are very few plant species that can live and thrive in those conditions.”

Rowley studied the changing conditions in nearby marshes, where trees are dying and causing tree lines to move back, causing ghost forests. As the sea level rises, more saltwater intrudes into the soil, and trees can’t live in those conditions. The transition area between marshes and coastal forests is changing.

“Marsh plants can live in those conditions, so the marsh will move in to fill the area where the trees died,” Rowley said. “I used satellite imaging to see how the tree line is moving back and used the normalized difference vegetation index to measure how dense and green an area is on a scale of negative one to one, where a one indicates dense vegetation such as a tropical forest, and a negative value would be something like a rock. I created a curve to see how it’s changing throughout the year. It peaked in July and August and came back down.”

Though her days spent doing field work in the marsh were hot and tiring, Rowley wasn’t ever bored. She also spent time during her STAR stint studying scientific communication and how to best present her findings.

“You want to simplify your figures, because if it’s too busy, someone outside of your field won’t understand it,” Rowley said. “This is important, especially if we want to talk to people that live by the marsh. Obviously, they’re seeing the forests dying off and that flooding is affecting their houses, so if they can understand what’s going on and the reason the forests are dying, they can vote on legislation to protect not only their homes but the ecosystem where they live.”

Mackenzie Hughes and research poster
Mackenzie Hughes

Mackenzie Hughes, architecture ‘27, began thinking about what would eventually become her STAR research topic when she was still in high school, after she watched the documentary “13th,” which focuses on the American incarceration system and how it contributes to racial inequality. She was drawn to the issue and wanted to work on it within her eventual field of expertise — architecture.

Her STAR summer, during which she was mentored by Andrew Zitcer, PhD, associate professor in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design and program director of urban strategy, was spent studying prison design, from researching the abolition of prisons to the evolution of prison architecture.

Hughes found that as groups worked to abolish prisons, a lot of the focus was put onto utilizing schools to guide and educate people. The focal point was rehabilitation and identifying mental health issues rather than just putting people away, she found. Hughes also studied the code of ethics from the American Institute of Architects, which states that licensed architects must not design cruel spaces, like solitary confinement or execution chambers.

“As I focused on the evolution of prison architecture, I landed on the campus design as the best, as it allows for more of an open environment and welcoming area,” Hughes said. “Then I began on my design concept. My main inspiration was a form called a Kaleidocycle. It’s a continuous, three-dimensional form that changes as you move it. I extracted different sections of the form and projected them onto my design concept.”

Using different abstract forms allowed for a new type of space that transforms a prison into a campus and community, where people can be rehabilitated, learn, grow and not be separated from society like in current, more brutalist architectural designs. Using normalized designs, like natural views and lighting and furniture in social places, enhances the well-being of people in the prison, said Hughes. The goal would be for prisoners and guards to interact and develop relationships and community.

“Some of this concept also comes from the Scandinavian style of prisons, in which the guards and prisoners themselves have more of a friendship rather than the guards just trying to keep them in line,” Hughes said.

 After this summer of research, Hughes plans to keep working on her design concept at some point in the future, whether that's now or as her senior thesis.

“I want to focus my career on advocacy and utilizing architecture to create more space that’s healthy for all people,” Hughes said.