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University Funds Six Undergraduate Projects for Summer Research

UM students involved in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program this summer are (front, from left) Madison Dacus, Rachael Pace and Jacqueline Knirnschild, and (back, from left): John Hendershot, Madison Morrow and Joshua Smith. Photo by Bill Dabney/UM Foundation

Six University of Mississippi undergraduates are spending this summer immersed in further academic exploration through the UM Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program.

Begun in 2018, the program’s goal is to expand and enhance undergraduate research and creative achievement. The program involves undergraduate students conducting research or creative scholarship projects for nine weeks this summer with a faculty mentor.

The proposals are intended to result in or contribute to a finished product for the student that is significant, such as a publishable paper or the production or presentation of a creative work.

“Experiential learning experiences are increasingly important for our undergraduate students, and UM looks for every opportunity to expand those offerings,” said Josh Gladden, UM vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs. 

“Getting involved in a research project at the undergraduate level can be so impactful for a student. It has the power to bring the subject to life and inspire the student to pursue the next level of education.”

The proposals were evaluated by faculty volunteers working with the UM Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, which funds and manages the program with financial support from the Office of the Provost.

The six students and their projects, which include a $3,000 stipend, are:

  • Madison Dacus, of Jonesboro, Arkansas, a rising senior majoring in communication sciences and disorders

Dacus’ project, titled “Use of Hearing Aids and OTC Hearables in Adults Over the Age of 50,” examines “the practicality and suitability of one type of commercially available hearable for adults over the age of 50,” according to her application.

Hearing loss is a leading cause of disability, with the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reporting about 15 percent of American adults ages 18 and over experiencing some trouble hearing. Still, only 16 percent of adults ages 20 to 69 who could benefit from wearing hearing aids have ever used them, Dacus wrote.

Factors such as price, stigma, negative word-of-mouth about hearing aids and the inconvenience of multiple appointments with hearing professionals are reasons people don’t wear hearing aids, her application stated.

Dacus’ research focuses on a solution to the price and stigma of traditional hearing aids through personal sound amplification products or “hearables,” an over-the-counter product. Her research will involve testing hearables on 30 adults over age 50 from Oxford or surrounding communities who have normal hearing or some degree of hearing loss.

“I intend on becoming an audiologist, so this project would assist me in becoming more competitive when applying to doctoral programs to attend post-graduation,” she wrote in her application. “Public access to health care is very important to me both personally and professionally, so reporting on the applicability of some type of less-expensive or more attainable alternative to an otherwise expensive and stigmatized medical device would be incredible.”

Dacus’ mentor is Vishakha Rawool, chair and professor of communication sciences and disorders.

  • John Hendershot, of Franklin, Tennessee, a rising senior majoring in chemical engineering

Hendershot’s research experience is titled “Tumor Immunotherapy Using Nanoparticles” and involves building and testing nanoparticles that could be effective in the treatment of certain tumors.

“This project will provide valuable experience conducting and reporting research,” he wrote in his application. “This experience will prove invaluable, as I hope to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical and/or biomedical engineering.

“It will also provide experience for my professional goals, as I hope to build a future career conducting research at a nonprofit research organization or university.”

Hendershot’s mentor is Thomas Werfel, assistant professor of chemical engineering and joint assistant professor of biomolecular sciences.

  • Jacqueline Knirnschild, of Brunswick, Ohio, a rising senior majoring in English with an emphasis in creative writing

Finding inspiration in Leslie Jamison’s 2014 collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” Knirnschild is working on what she calls a “genre-defying essay collection” for her senior creative writing honors thesis.

“The collection, which is tentatively titled ‘Versatile Vulnerability,’ will utilize literary, journalistic and ethnographic methods,” she wrote in her application. “Through reportage, research and memoir, the essays in ‘Versatile Vulnerability’ will unravel the elaborate complexities of human vulnerability.”

Through essays that cover topics ranging from YouTubers’ influence on adolescent girls to expat nightlife in Shanghai and volunteer-tourism in Ghana, Knirnschild wants readers to “understand that the ability to be vulnerable is a strength, not a weakness.”

Knirnschild’s mentor is Beth Ann Fennelly, professor of English.

  • Madison Morrow, of Oklahoma City, a rising senior majoring in theatre arts and general business

Morrow’s project is “Women’s Leadership in the Theatrical Avant-Garde: An Exploration of the Radical,” an analysis of the women leaders of the major avant-garde theater movements of the 20th century. She’ll focus on artists from the Symbolism, Dadaism, Expressionism and Postmodernism movements.

“Specifically doing this project about women in theatre helps advance my artistic career goals,” she wrote in her application. “I want to create my own production company because I believe theatre has the power to make true social change a reality.

“By analyzing women who have influenced this craft, I can appreciate how they created impactful art in spite of a society in which they were marginalized. Through this, I can find ways to pay homage to their efforts and work, learning from their examples so that I too can affect society through art while also dealing with today’s issues.”

Morrow’s mentor is Jeremy Meuser, assistant professor of management.

  • Rachael Pace, of Brandon, a rising senior majoring in biochemistry

For her project, “Nutrition Education Pathways in Traditional Health Care Settings: An Analysis of Pediatric Nutrition Health Education between Rural & Urban Spaces,” Pace is exploring how “information flows from health care providers to parents and ultimately to child health outcomes,” according to her application.

“There remains a gap in research on how health care provider education is perceived by parents and how that information, when relayed to children, is perceived,” she wrote. “An analysis of this health communication pathway in underserved areas, particularly rural spaces, will identify disconnects in the pathway of health education from physician to parent to child and potentially highlight an area of focus for future health literacy initiatives.”

Pace will investigate if there is a difference in health education communication between urban and rural areas, with particular reference to pediatrics; how are physicians communicating nutrition and physical activity information to parents in rural versus urban areas; and other questions.

Pace’s mentor is Anne Cafer, assistant professor of sociology.

  • Joshua Smith, of Birmingham, Alabama, a rising senior majoring in biology

Smith’s project is titled “The Unexpected Relationship Between Humoral Immunity and Stress-Level Response in Eastern Bluebirds,” and he plans to use the research to write his senior thesis project. The research also will be submitted to journals for publication.

“The data that I gather will either support or refute my hypotheses that 1) vaccinated individuals will contain higher levels of corticosterone than non-vaccinated individuals and 2) vaccinated individuals given a corticosterone supplement will generate more antibodies than individuals that are only given the vaccination,” he wrote in his application.

“This project has the potential to provide experience and development capable of advancing my career to the next level,” he wrote. “As it stands right now, my goal is to be accepted into medical school and graduate as a specialized physician in a subfield of primary care.

“Since the admission process for medical school is holistic, a unique project such as this proposed study could make me stand out.”

Smith’s mentor is Susan Balenger, assistant professor of biology.

By Shea Stewart

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