Undergraduate Research Day Offers Students a Chance to Stretch

UH Students Take On Variety of Topics for the Annual Showcase of Presentations

Hyaneyoung Olvera studied violence in women for her undergraduate research project.
St. Hilaire
Brian St. Hilaire worked on a structural study of a lipoprotein.
Abby Zinecker worked on a flexible battery system over the summer.

Joshua Hollie has been spending Saturdays at the mall, but don’t get the wrong idea. It was for research. Really.

You can find out what he was doing at Undergraduate Research Day, when Hollie and his research partner, Matt Caballero, both fourth-year interior architecture students, join more than 150 other University of Houston undergraduates to present their findings on topics ranging from biochemical structures to academic achievement.

This will be the 10th year for Undergraduate Research Day, which begins at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, in Rockwell Pavilion and the Honors College at M.D. Anderson Library.  It is sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research.    

"Every year, hundreds of UH undergraduates conduct research with faculty members at the University,” said Stuart Long, associate dean of undergraduate research and the Honors College. “This experience gives them a competitive edge when they enter the professional world or start graduate school. Undergraduate Research Day is an opportunity for the UH community to see the contributions these students make to their fields and celebrate the students and their faculty mentors."

Undergraduate research has drawn increasing attention as pressure mounts for universities to raise graduation rates, because evidence shows that students who conduct research are more likely to graduate on time.

Karen Weber, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, said 92 percent of students who entered UH between 2002 and 2005 and participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), the Provost's Undergraduate Research Scholarship program or the Senior Honors Thesis program, graduated within six years.

Nationally, 59 percent of full time, first time undergraduate students who entered a four year institution in 2006 had graduated by 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But Weber said students also gain something intangible from the experience. They each work with a faculty mentor, a relationship that usually continues after the presentations end.

Mercedes Anderson, a senior human development and family studies major, came to Undergraduate Research Day through SURF, open to undergraduates in all colleges and offering a $3,500 stipend to allow students to dedicate themselves in research for the summer. She developed a survey to determine where middle school students lose self-confidence in math and science so that this loss could be stemmed through mentoring and other programs.

The project is ongoing – the survey hasn’t yet been approved by the UH Institutional Review Board, which oversees research involving human subjects – but Anderson already knows one thing she has gained: getting to know Sam McQuillin, an assistant professor of educational psychology, who served as her mentor and offered advice about graduate schools and future careers along with teaching qualitative research methods.

Brian St. Hilaire, a junior biochemistry and biophysics major, undertook a structural study of a lipoprotein related to the Campylobacter jejuni bacterium, among the most common causes of bacterial infections. Working with mentor Hye-Jeong Yeo, associate professor of biology and biochemistry, St. Hilaire succeeded in growing crystals to help determine the structure.

But he also learned that science isn’t only about success.

“I learned confidence,” he said. “But failure is part of this, and I don’t think we get enough of that in academia. You have to keep moving forward.”

Success doesn’t necessarily mean the work is finished, however. Abby Zinecker, a junior mechanical engineering major, spent the summer working with Haleh Ardebili, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, on the thermo mechanical properties of flexible batteries.

It was her first time to conduct research outside of a classroom, and Zinecker ended up accomplishing more than she expected. The work is not complete, however, and now she has a part-time job in the lab to continue the work.

She gained something else, as well. A summer of hands-on research made her current classes, including  materials science,  much more interesting and fulfilling.

“It was so cool to be involved with making something real, instead of just reading about it in a book,” she said.

Like Zinecker, Hyaneyoung Olvera spent the summer doing hands on work, although hers was more esoteric.

Olvera, a senior psychology major, tackled the subject of romantic attachment in women who are non-violent, who commit violence only in self-defense and who are the initiators in violence. Looking at factors including heart rate, skin conduction and vagal tone, a measurement involving the nervous system, she found no differences among the three categories. That’s a stark difference from men, according to previous research.

The results suggest new treatments need to be developed for women who commit violent acts, rather than using the same treatment modalities that are used for men who commit violent acts, said Olvera, who combed through datasets provided by her mentor, associate professor of psychology Julia Babcock, to reach her conclusion.

As for Hollie and his weekends at the mall?          

It was all for a good cause, as he and Caballero studied factors that have shaped mall developments in Houston and the other 24 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, looking at demographics, immigration, bus routes and changing shopping habits. Gregory Marinic, assistant professor of architecture and director of the interior architecture department, and Ziad Qureshi, adjunct assistant professor, served as their mentors.

Greenspoint Mall in north Houston, where Hollie spent every Saturday for two months, offered a good perspective on changing retail patterns. The major department stores that originally served as anchor stores moved out as the neighborhood changed, and the stores that replaced them have tried to cater to the neighborhood’s new residents.

“It’s stable,” he said of the mall. “There are people there. It’s not what people think of as a traditional mall.”

But it’s also not empty, and the transition from yesterday’s mall to the shopping malls of tomorrow will provide valuable information for architects in the future.

Undergraduate research matters to students today, regardless of their discipline, Hollie said.

“It widens your perspective. You gain skills. I think it’s very important for a college student to learn how to do research.”