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Paper Wasps to Fenceline Communities: Top Student-Led Research from Spring and Summer

2020 CoAS Research Day Winners


December 7, 2020

The College of Arts and Sciences’ first-ever virtual Research Day showcased unique and innovative research conducted last spring and summer by Drexel students and their CoAS faculty mentors. The research may have been conducted as part of a research co-op, STAR Scholars project, independent funding and more. Learn more about the students who received the day’s top prizes and how the awardees have used the projects to push forward in their academic and professional careers.

Undergraduates, humanities & social sciences, 1st place

  • Awardee: Annie Schillo, BA global studies ’22
  • Project title: “The Fenceline Community Experience and Unmet Needs in Environmental Policy”
  • Adviser: Gwen Ottinger, PhD

Project description: To identify the major concerns of communities that live near oil refineries, I analyzed two public comment databases. From there, I compared the concerns I found against existing rules that regulate refineries to determine where current policy is lacking in protecting community members.

The main conclusion I came to be was the need for real-time, continuous monitoring and data that communities have access to. Implementing this type of monitoring would address many of the communities’ concerns I found in the databases including increasing the accountability of refineries, helping to decrease the communities’ distrust towards refineries, and providing communities with answers and closure after pollution events.

Background: I had my first introduction to the topic of oil refinery pollution and the impact on surrounding communities during a class, Theories of Justice, that I had taken with my mentor Professor Ottinger last fall term. Our final project for the class was to use various justice theories to argue whether there was any “just” placement of oil refineries and the pollution they bring with them.

My original plan for spring-summer co-op had been a job in Mongolia. Unfortunately, only a few weeks before I was supposed to leave, it had to be cancelled because of COVID-19. Fortunately, my co-op adviser sent around a list of job opportunities. Out of the list, I was immediately drawn to this position both because I had wanted to try research for a while, and also because of how interesting I had found the topic during my class.

Did you have any obstacles in the research project?

The most challenging thing for me in this research project was the sheer number of comments I had to sort through. One database, with comments responding to a proposed EPA rule, had over 500 comments. The other database, with comments on the Louisiana Bucket Brigades iWitness reporting site, had almost 4,000 comments! I had to figure out early in the process how best to sort the data to find the overarching themes of the comments.  

Can you describe your relationship with your faculty mentor and how they contributed to the research?

Professor Ottinger was a great mentor for this project! This was my first time doing research in this capacity, and she was very supportive both as I was conducting the research, and in helping me think more critically about my conclusions. It was also interesting to work with Professor Ottinger because she had so much background and interesting work on the topic of environmental justice. This gave me the opportunity to learn more about the various issues surrounding oil refineries, fenceline communities and environmental regulations outside of what my project covered.

Did the research inspire you to continue with the project?

Yes, it did, and it also helped me to get a job this fall term! Although in my research project I argued for a form of real-time monitoring to be implemented in communities, there are other types of effective air monitoring that communities can use, including something called “bucket monitoring.” I’ve been working with my mentor and an organization called Public Lab to put together a comprehensive resource on what bucket monitoring is, how communities can get started monitoring, and the history of the various usages of the bucket.

Undergraduates, Sciences, 1st Place

  • Major: Timothy Hanlon, BS biological sciences ’21
  • Project Name: “Dissecting the Impact of Radiation Induced DNA Damage and Repair Processes on Immunotherapy Response in Muscle Invasive Bladder Cancer”
  • Adviser: Kent Mouw, PhD, Harvard Medical School

Project description: This project aims to understand the synergy between immunotherapy and radiation therapy in muscle-invasive bladder cancer (MIBC) utilizing the cancer MIBC cell lines BBN963 (Basal-like) and UPPL1541 (luminal-like). To date, we have successfully identified viable cell injection methods and radiation treatment schedules to develop proper tumor growth and tumor reduction, respectively, in mouse models. In the coming weeks, we will be further exploring the role of immunotherapy in this relationship.

Our early data shows that radiation treatment decreases PD-L1 expression in cell lines 27 days of post-radiation therapy. Further trials are being conducted to determine if this relationship holds in a shorter period post-treatment. We will begin incorporating immunotherapy trials in the coming weeks.

Background: I did this project for a co-op at Harvard Medical School/The Dana Farber Cancer Institute. I randomly emailed a Principal Investigator (PI) who was researching cancer and biological imaging. Surprisingly, he answered and sent my information to the PI who I ultimately ended up working for, Dr. Kent Mouw. From there, Kent hired me for the co-op and assigned me to start and run this project — a project his lab had wanted to do for years. I was fortunate to be in this position and was even luckier to have a great time with lab techs and postdocs to work with.

Did anything surprise you about the research?

We were amazed to see decreased levels of PD-L1 expression in radiation-treated tumor, as other researchers have shown data suggesting the opposite would happen. This spurred the question of how best to administer anti-PD-L1 immunotherapy with radiation to allow for an optimal effect. In other words, does this mean we observe both treatments simultaneously, or is there some stagger period between the two? 

Can you describe your relationship with your faculty mentor and how they contributed to the research?

Dr. Kent Mouw, a Harvard Medical School faculty member, has been accommodating in my discovery of science and what it means to be a researcher. I think him trusting me to lead and design this project, while supporting me along the way, has allowed me to immerse myself in scientific discovery fully. Kent has always made himself available to answer questions or provide guidance on how best to move forward and interpret data, which made the work much more digestible.

Any future goals related to the research?

After graduation this coming spring, I will be returning to HMS/DFCI to continue this work for at least the next year or two. The goal is to see how immunotherapy synergizes with radiation treatment. My ultimate goal is to become a physician, and this research has piqued my interest in oncology. While it is too early to say where I will end up, becoming a radiation oncologist is not off the list.

Graduate students, 1st place

  • Awardee: Katherine Fiocca, PhD candidate in biology
  • Project title:“Body Size Does Not Predict Reproductive Development in a Primitively Eusocial Paper Wasp”
  • Adviser: Sean O’Donnell, PhD

Project Description: Paper wasp nestmates compete for resources, which may lead to some having nutritional advantages over others. Their colonies have one queen responsible for laying all eggs, while the remaining females work and do not reproduce.

We have previously found that nutritional advantages go to those who are more dominant towards nestmates. They are often also reproductively developed. However, we did not measure how females’ slight body size differences may affect aggression and, ultimately, reproductive development. We found that, although body size did not predict reproductive development, body size increases were related to a rise in dominant behaviors.

Background: My previous fieldwork has led me to explore the role of nutrition and aggression in the reproductive success of tropical paper wasps in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Since I could not travel to the field in 2020, I used my previously collected datasets to explore critical unanswered questions in my system.

Did anything surprise you about the research?

I was most surprised to see that tiny body-size differences amongst females (in millimeters!) were related to a change in aggression. These wasps all look the same size to the naked eye, but there may be factors at play that shape reproductive opportunities that we had not thought of or seen before.  

Can you describe how your adviser has contributed to your research?

My adviser and I have a very collaborative relationship. At the same time, he allows me much independence, so I have been able to work on projects that I am passionate about. He is hugely supportive and collaborates on experimental design and analysis when I hit a snag in my work. His mentorship has contributed directly to my success in publishing research that I am proud of. 

What’s next for your research?

I hope to travel back to the field to explore how body size may impact a female’s ability to gain nutritional advantages over her nestmates. Before I defend my dissertation, I hope that I can travel to my field site again to work on the questions that have popped up because of this project.

Alumni Prize for Best Poster

  • Awardee: Shauna Zodrow, BS psychology ’21
  • Project Name: “Neural Activation Patterns Predictive of Emotional State, and their Resting State Connectivity”
  • Faculty Mentor: Karol Osipowicz, PhD

Project description: This was a study that aimed to describe the neural pathways involved in the processing of negative stimuli. We used neutral and negative words, pictures and sounds categorized by the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) to elicit an emotional response in healthy subjects evaluated by fMRI. We intended to identify specific neural regions activated during the exposure to negatively valanced stimuli.

Background: In high school, my father was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme. Glioblastoma multiforme is a rare type of brain cancer that rapidly grows and always comes back. Throughout my father’s diagnosis, the most challenging thing I had to experience was his mood swings. I still remember one day -- I placed an empty water bottle in the trash instead of recycling. My action prompted such an outraged response in him that I never understood.

After my father’s passing, I dove into neuroscience as one of my main interests, consequently focusing on emotions and how they are processed. After finding my place in a neuroimaging lab, I quickly found my interest in negative emotional processing. I wanted to initiate my research on healthy individuals first to provide somewhat of a "baseline" of how emotions are processed.

Did you have any obstacles in the research project?

One obstacle with our study was the difficulty of persuading healthy individuals to be examined by an fMRI. Most individuals believe it is unnecessary to use such equipment for clinical uses; consequently, we had some difficulty gathering a large group of subjects that agreed to be examined by the fMRI.

Relationship with faculty mentor:

Dr. Osipowicz and I have been working with one another since my second winter term at Drexel. I quickly gained interest in Dr. O’s lab because it was one of the few neuroimaging labs on campus. Since my time in the lab, I was forced to grow in so many ways I never imagined. First, I learned how to create presentations, interpret data, write up results, etc. However, it’s what came after that experience that changed me completely.

As a freshman, I had little to no confidence in my abilities and ideas. After joining Dr. O’s DUN lab, I found myself arguing my ideas, asking more questions, and bringing up my thoughts rather than those I think will be praised. Dr. O and I have many similarities within our mannerisms and communication; therefore, I find it easy to talk to him like a brilliant friend rather than a professor. I believe that my relationship with Dr. O and his lab group helped me blossom into the researcher I am today.

What’s next for the research?

This current research focuses on the interconnected negative brain pathways that are integrated into healthy individuals. I am interested in comparing our recent results to other groups that are not considered healthy (emotionally speaking). For example, I would like to research individuals with depression, anxiety, post-partum depression, schizophrenia, conduct disorder, etc. — searching for an overactivated negative brain. One day, I hope my research is used clinically to assist individuals who struggle with emotional processing deficits.

Learn more about Undergraduate Research and Enrichment Programs through the Pennoni Honors College!