2016 Winners Abstracts

Government and Law


Judge’s Winner

The Police Officer Perception Project (POPP): An Experimental Evaluation of Factors that Impact Perceptions of the Police

Rylan Simpson
A plethora of research has explored how sociodemographic and contextual factors can impact the public’s perceptions of the police; however, much less research has explored how cosmetic factors associated with the police can impact the public’s perceptions of them. The present research, therefore, employs a novel strategy in order to explore how an individual’s perceptions of the police can be impacted by officers’ use of different patrol strategies (e.g., bicycle patrol, foot patrol and vehicle patrol).

Using an experimental methodology, I present participants with sets of images of police officers in various poses, and ask them to rate each image on the following five dichotomous variables: (1) aggressive versus not aggressive, (2) approachable versus not approachable, (3) friendly versus not friendly, (4) respectful versus not respectful, and (5) accountable versus not accountable. The results reveal a number of significant findings. First, high-visibility patrol strategies are associated with more positive perceptions of the police than lower-visibility patrol strategies. Second, the presence of police uniforms exerts a significant impact on participants’ perceptions of officers wearing those uniforms.

This is the first known study to use an experimental methodology in order to measure how cosmetic factors of different patrol strategies can impact the public’s perceptions of the police. During a time when public-police relations are experiencing increasing strain, exploring factors that can impact the public’s perceptions of the police are crucial if attempts to alleviate the potentially troubled relationship will be made.

People’s Choice Winner

Why States Changed Their Firearms Restrictions Before and After the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

Eulalie Laschever
Sociology Ph.D.
By disrupting the normally stable political agenda, “critical events” can create short-term opportunities for social movements to advance their legislative goals. However, we know little about the conditions under which social movements secure desired policy change after critical events, whether these conditions differ from those that result in similar policy changes before the event occurred, or how opposition from a competing social movement can foil these goals. The mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in December 2012 was a critical event for both the gun rights and gun control movements. Buttressed by public attention and an influx of resources, both sides worked hard to make legislative gains at the state level. Both sides had successes and defeats. Using qualitative comparative analysis (QCA), I determine the conditions under which the gun control movement and the gun rights movement each secured desired state-level policy changes across all 50 states in the legislative sessions immediately before and after the Sandy Hook shooting. I find that before the shooting, it was far easier for the gun rights movement to secure looser firearms restrictions that it was for the gun control movement to secure tighter ones, but that the shooting had an equalizing effect. After the shooting, the gun control movement overcame many of its disadvantages from before the shooting. I also find that the conditions under which each side secured favorable policy change were similar before and after the shooting, but that the shooting had a consolidating effect and an amplifying effect. The conditions under which states either tightened or relaxed restrictions were more uniform after the shooting, and the same conditions that led to minor legislative gains before Sandy Hook led to meaningful legislative change after the shooting.



Society and Urban Planning

Judge’s Winner Tie

Aggravated but accurate: People show enhanced memory for information that makes them angry

Daniel Bogart
Psychology and Social Behavior Ph.D.
If anger decreases the use of systematic information processing in favor of heuristic processing as some researchers have argued, we would expect anger to have detrimental effects on memory accuracy. In two experiments, we assessed memory accuracy and confidence for verbal statements conveying different emotions. In Experiment 1, participants (N = 645) viewed and empathized with statements that conveyed anger, fear, or happiness. Recognition memory accuracy and confidence was tested 20 minutes later. Angry statements were remembered more accurately than fearful or happy statements. Greater accuracy was driven by more correct rejections of novel foils. Calibration between memory accuracy and confidence was greater for angry statements than for fearful or happy statements. Moreover, the greater the intensity of anger participants reported feeling in response to the angry statements, the higher the calibration between memory accuracy and confidence. In Experiment 2, all participants studied and later had their memory tested for an informational passage about the terrorist group ISIL. Prior to reading the passage, emotion was induced via an emotional prime that encouraged empathizing either with another’s anger or fear response. Empathizing successfully with the emotional prime in the anger condition, but not the fear condition, was associated with more correct rejections of emotional foils and greater accuracy for emotional information contained within the passage. Together, these findings challenge the view that anger necessarily decreases systematic information processing, at least in the domain of recognition memory. Many of today’s most pressing issues–e.g., terrorism, income inequality, global warming–are ones that tend to elicit negative emotion. Our results suggest that which emotion is elicited influences what is subsequently remembered; anger promotes being better able to reject subtly manipulated differences regarding the emotion-eliciting material. This is important generally, but especially so in an election year when politicians sometimes take liberties with the facts.

Judge’s Winner Tie

Exploring the Unnoticed: An Analysis of Carless Households in California.

Suman Mitra
Transportation Sciences Ph.D.
Mobility is an important prerequisite for equal participation in society and the satisfaction of basic human needs. The capacity to undertake most social activities depends on mobility, yet mobility is unevenly distributed across social and geographical boundaries. Compared to mobile households, mobility-impaired households are at a disadvantage for employment, education, and other essential opportunities. However, many households in the United States are not able to access the benefits of transportation services due to various limitations (i.e., some members cannot drive due to a disability or medical condition, some members cannot afford a car, or some members have no access to transit services). People with physical disabilities are most at risk but elderly households are increasingly at risk as well. Approximately 10.5 million US households do not own cars (2008-12 American Community Survey). Unfortunately, our knowledge of car-less households is lacking, as is our research on their predicaments.

Therefore, the focus of this study is to contribute to the growing interest in social justice issues in urban transportation planning through examining the transportation needs of car-less households in California, based on the 2012 California Household Travel Survey (CHTS). These households, who often seem forgotten in transportation policy discussions, can be organized in two groups: involuntary and voluntary car-less households. Using discrete choice models, we analyze the characteristics of voluntary and involuntary car-less households and their travel behavior using the CHTS travel diaries. In addition, we explore the degree of choice available to car-less households and the wider impacts their transportation choices have on their lives.

The study shows that, given the well-document link between income and car ownership, most households with no cars are in that situation because they cannot afford a car. Households that are forced into being carless face restrictions to their mobility which will in turn have a negative impact on their life participation and well-being. However, households who voluntarily choose to live without cars do not face the same access restrictions and have more opportunities for jobs, social connections, access to care, and entertainment.

The findings of this study have the potential to contribute to a better understanding of individuals’ unmet transportation needs due to being car-less. Consequently, the study will allow policymakers to better understand the hardships of car-less households, and help formulate appropriate policies that will provide better mobility to this disadvantaged group and promote social equity in California.

People’s Choice Winner

The Long-Term Negative Effects of Work-to-Family Spillover on Sleep and Health

Dimitry Tsukerman
Psychology and Social Behavior Ph.D.
Sleep problems in America are now being considered an epidemic, with nearly one-third of U.S. adults reporting poor sleep quality. Anecdotal experiences have been supported by research literature demonstrating that poor quality sleep leads to difficulties in next-day functioning. After just one night of poor sleep, cognitive capacity is diminished, such that information processing slows and memory is poorer. Emotion regulation and coping abilities in response to stressful situations are also reduced. Long-term effects of sleep problems have been linked to increased risk of a number of physiological and emotional health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression.
Chronic stress is directly related to increased health risk, but chronic stress may also increase risk for health problems through its association with poor sleep quality. To add to this complexity, chronic stress and sleep problems share a bidirectional relationship; high stress leads to poor sleep and in turn, poor sleep increases people’s vulnerability to stress. Today, with increasing numbers of dual-income households, a major source of chronic stress is the conflict between work and family life. After a stressful day at work, people often carry negative feelings and worries home with them (work-family spillover), and these worries are likely to influence their sleep quality. With the high prevalence of sleep problems and prolonged stress experienced today by working adults, understanding the exact mechanisms by which sleep and stress interact with one another to affect long-term health outcomes is critical.
The present study examined the effects of long-term work-family spillover stress on sleep quality and physical and emotional health. Data were collected from a large representative sample of U.S. working adults at two time points assessed approximately ten years apart. Results indicated that the amount of work-family spillover stress people reported at time 1 was associated with poorer sleep quality and poorer physical and emotional health ten years later. Additionally, part of the relationship between initial work-family spillover stress and later physical and emotional health problems was due to the effects of work-family spillover stress on perceived sleep quality. Our findings suggest that chronic stress has negative long-term effects on sleep as well as on physical and emotional health, and that the stress-sleep connection is partially responsible for these adverse health outcomes. Efforts aimed at better managing the stress from work-family conflicts may help people achieve better quality sleep and reduce their risk for developing long-term physical and emotional health problems.




Biology and Medicine 1

Judge’s Winner Tie

Understanding how the brains work

Nitin Agarwal
Computer Science Ph.D.
With the advent of President Obama’s Brain Initiative in 2013, there has been a continuous effort, from both private and public institutions, to understand the complexities of the human brain. It is widely acknowledged that understanding neuronal connections in the brain (brain connectomics) is the next level in neuroscience research. The ability to automatically visualize and explore the connectome data in a standardized brain space (like a common atlas) is crucial for brain circuit mapping. Such explorations require automatic alignment of high-resolution brain slice images to a standardized atlas space. However, currently, in most neuroscience laboratories, this is largely performed manually. Few that do it automatically, use extremely expensive microscopes, which remove all the artifacts from the brain slices making it much easier for alignment. Our work focuses on the automatic alignment of high resolutions brain slice images, which are produced from conventional histological procedures being carried out in most of the existing neuroscience research labs. During this procedure, brain is sliced into extremely thin slices and is manually placed on glass slides for further imaging. This causes deformation of these slices (shear, tear, fold, etc.), making it extremely difficult for automatic alignment. Using our algorithm we can successfully perform automatic alignment for all brain slices including the damaged slices to the standardized atlas space.

Once the alignment is complete, we can perform 3D volumetric reconstruction and later carry out various complex computations to analyze the brain. As our algorithm is easily adaptable, it can be used by most neuroscience researchers today to align all their data to a common space, making it much easier for inter-specimen comparisons. One of our future goals is to also create a centralized database of all these 3D brains, tag them with experimental data so that every neuroscience researcher can later query them to perform their required analysis. Imagine having a big data-center, which contains brain data from all the experiments carried out in labs across the world. The applications of this could be endless.

Judge’s Winner Tie

The Roles of Cellular Adhesion Molecule 1 in the Development and Maintenance of the Insulin Secretory Machinery

Tom Caldwell
School of Medicine
Recent advances in neurobiology have yielded important insights into how transcellular interactions drive neuronal synaptogenesis. Our prior results revealed that this new knowledge is applicable to the beta cell insulin secretory machinery: Many of the proteins—such as neurexins, neuroligins, and CASK—that are involved in the development of the pre-synaptic terminals of neurons have parallel roles in the assembly of the insulin secretory machinery. We asked whether CADM1, a neural transmembrane protein also present in beta-cells, is important for the maturation of the secretory machinery. We have previously shown that CADM1 inhibits insulin secretion, which was revealed by an increase in the stimulation index of INS1 cells treated with CADM1-targeting siRNA. Here we show that CADM1 transcellular contact is sufficient to induce assembly of the insulin secretory machinery. This was indicated by a correlation between syntaxin-1 punctateness in INS1 cells and CADM1 expression levels in cocultured, transfected COS7 cells. CADM1 directly interacts with proteins in the insulin secretory machinery as shown by coimmunoprecipitation of CASK and syntaxin-1 from INS1 cell lysates. The effect on insulin secretion of CADM1 transcellular interactions differed between INS1 cells (enhancement of secretion) and rat islets (repression of secretion). CADM1 is known to influence actin polymerization. Here we test the hypothesis that transcellular CADM1 contact enhances actin polymerization and thereby inhibits secretion in rat islets. Treatment of rat islets cocultured with CADM1-expressing COS7 cells in 5 μM Latrunculin-B significantly enhanced insulin secretion, corroborating prior findings that filamentous actin acts as a barrier to insulin secretion. The data presented here strongly suggest that CADM1 is a functional participant in the insulin secretory machinery and that it may exert its effect on insulin secretion in part through cytoskeletal remodeling. These findings may have translational benefit for the treatment of Type-2 Diabetes.

People’s Choice Winner

Where do blood cells come from?

Ankita Shukla
School of Biological Sciences
Successful bone marrow transplants (BMTs) are the only cure for leukemia, lymphoma, and all blood-related disorders. This is because BMTs aim to replace the diseased hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), which give rise to all the blood and immune cells, with healthy ones. Approximately twenty thousand BMTs were performed in 2014. However, this procedure is only prescribed in the most severe cases due to its complexity and potential adverse effects. Primarily, it is difficult to get a “pure” HSC population due to their rarity. Also, there is a lack of consensus in the field as to what is considered a pure, true HSC population. Secondly, even with matched donors there is a risk of graft rejection or graft failure (around 40% of BMTs performed in 2014) or, in the worst-case scenario, graft vs. host disease (approximately 20% in 2014). Unfortunately, this amounts to only 60% success rate of HLA-matched BMTs, according to the Center of International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. Thus, experts theorize that using patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) is the best way to avoid these complications. However, despite decades of research, scientists have not been able to successfully generate HSCs from iPSCs. Many believe that a better understanding of where HSCs arise during development and dissecting the molecular mechanism behind HSC emergence will bolster the efforts to create these cells in the laboratory. Therefore, we study HSC development in the mouse using a technique called “lineage tracing”. Using a specific gene-driven labeling with fluorescent proteins, we can delineate the ancestry of any given blood cell, including the blood stem cell or HSC. Thus, we have identified a population of cells, which are putative precursors to mature HSCs (pre-HSCs). Using our lineage tracing system we have determined that most of these cells originate in the yolk sac and the placenta, tissues that are extra-embryonic, or in other words, no longer present at birth. Having identified the site of origin of pre-HSCs, our system has shown the novel contribution of extra-embryonic tissues to the adult HSC pool. Further study will aim to determine the molecular events that led to the formation of HSCs and how they can be recapitulated in vitro. Collectively, results from this study will not only elucidate ways to generate HSCs from iPSCs. And until that is possible, these data will also help clinicians enrich the donor cells for HSCs to avoid post-transplant complications.




Judge’s Winner

The Influence of Reference Group Contributions on a Family’s Charitable Giving

Keegan Skeate
Economics Ph.D.

Giving to charity seems to arise from interpersonal comparisons of relative well-being. The purpose of this study is to test if reference group comparisons of charitable contributions influence the propensity to give to charity. Apart from purely altruistic motives, the economics literature on charitable giving suggests that individuals receive utility from their own gifts, from the joy of giving, and supplementary utility if they believe that their contribution will increase their relative status. I hypothesize that when reference group members contribute to charity, individuals of the same group who use donations as a social signal will donate so to maximize utility as their marginal utility from signaling status changes. To test this hypothesis, I undertake an empirical examination of the effect of the average amount contributed by a reference group on the amount an individual in the group donates. The study spans the tax years from 2002 to 2012 and relates charitable giving of a panel sample of U.S. residents to the average amount contributed by their reference group members. During this period, individual federal income tax rates were reduced and certain limitations on itemized deductions were phased out. Changes in the U.S. tax code changed the effective price of giving to charity for donators who itemize their charitable contributions, causing them to change the amount that they contribute. Consequently, their reference group members were affected.

People’s Choice Winner

The Search for Pollution Halos – Environmental Argument for Freer Trade between Developing and Developed Countries

Paul Stroik
Economics Ph.D.

My research challenges the argument that freer trade between developed and developing nations is bad environmentally, because it leads to developing nations becoming havens of heavy-polluting industries. Specifically, my work has been, and continues to be, the gathering and analyzing of developing-country case studies that tell us whether clean technology spreads to domestic firms from foreign firms operating in developing countries. To date my work has looked at Vietnam, finding domestic Vietnamese firms that supply local foreign firms become more pollution-intensive through adoption of new technology from their supplier relation to a foreign firm. My ongoing work will look at the case study of Chile, and future work will look at the cases of Colombia and Mexico.

Understanding the validity of claims made against freer trade is important not only for policy makers to know whether they should pass trade-agreement policies, for example the North American Free Trade Agreement or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Freer trade incites investors from developed nations to invest in developing nations, bringing new job opportunities to developing countries, thus raising the national income and prosperity of developing countries.

The results of my research have implications on optimal environmental- and trade-policy design. If a consensus of developing countries experience the dissemination of pollution-intensive technology spreading within their countries as a result of foreign investment, then sustainable development will require relaxing trade restrictions being paired with policies to combat pollution. If, on the optimistic side, a consensus of developing countries experience the dissemination of pollution-saving technology spreading within their countries as a result of foreign investment, then trade restrictions should not be deterred based on environmental grounds.



Engineering, Math and Computer Science

Judge’s Winner / People’s Choice Winner

Parallel Performance-Energy Modeling and Prediction of Web Browsers: Case Study of Servo

Rohit Zambre
Computer Engineering Ph.D.
Web browsers are critical software applications especially on laptops and hand-held devices. However, they
haven’t kept up with the multi-core processor technology trend. As a result, today’s browsers are mostly executed sequentially and are inefficient in terms of both performance and power-efficiency. Servo, an experimental browser engine being designed by Mozilla Research is one attempt at bridging this gap. This new web rendering engine explores the challenges in parallelism and concurrency present in the various components of a web browser. Servo is written in Rust, a memory-safe language, with the vision of incorporating its features into the future releases of Mozilla Firefox.

However, not all web pages benefit from a parallel execution. For instance, the web page of google.com has minimal elements with a simple text box and some text. A parallel execution of laying out such a web page would most likely result in poorer performance than a serial execution of the same due to the overhead of a parallel implementation. On the other hand, the web page of a Pinterest user’s home page would most definitely benefit from a parallel execution due to the large number of independent images on the page.

In our research, we aim at building a model that can capture the relationship between web page primitives and the parallel performance of a web browser. We do so using Servo as a case study. Such a performance model enables us to make a decision on whether or not the browser should lay a web page out in parallel. This model also allows us to predict the degree of parallelism available in a web page. This is critical for both improving performance and minimizing energy consumption especially on a mobile platform. We identify opportunities to apply this model to other stages of the browser architecture as well as other performance and energy critical devices. Our work can positively affect the development of current and new parallel web browsers. The browsers can utilize such a model to make smart decisions about parallelizing their work in various stages of their architecture.



Chemistry and Materials

Judge’s Winner

Tracking cancer and the immune system with the light-emitting chemistry of the firefly

Colin Rathbun
Chemistry – Ph.D.
How and when does cancer metastasize? How do our immune systems respond to cancer and chemotherapy? Where are the cancer cells in our body before we can see the tumors? My work seeks to develop new imaging technologies to answer fundamental questions about cancer formation, progression, and treatment. Researcher have found that the bioluminescent reaction evolved by the firefly can be repurposed to image individual cancer cells throughout the body of a mouse. This technique is exquisitely sensitive and noninvasive. However, the technology is currently limited to observing a single cell type at a time. I am improving this tool to enable imaging of multiple cell types. In this way, we will be able to monitor tumor cells and the immune cells that fight them simultaneously, throughout the entire body of a mouse. This would enable us to probe key interactions that remain unexplored in cancer research.

People’s Choice Winner

Discovering the mechanism to destroy anthrax: A single-molecule study

Mariam Iftikhar
Chemistry – Ph.D.
Bacillus anthracis is the bacterium that causes anthrax, a serious infectious disease. Anthrax can form spores that remain dormant but still able to cause the disease for decades, making it exceptionally dangerous. Symptoms depend on how the spores enter the body, however most are indistinguishable from many other diseases. Thus, it is imperative to treat the disease with antibiotics early, if not, anthrax results in guaranteed death.

Due to its stable spore state, anthrax has been weaponized in several countries, including the United States. After the bioterrorist attack in the US using anthrax-laced letters, the government has funded research efforts into combating the symptoms and the spread of this bacterium.

The human body has natural mechanisms to combat bacteria, such as enzymes that degrade bacterial cell walls composed of a compound called peptidoglycan. Specifically, the enzyme, lysozyme found in human tears and saliva, destroys peptidoglycan by snipping the bonds between the molecules. Even though human lysozyme can destroy most bacteria, it cannot degrade anthrax because the bacterial cell wall is different than normal bacteria. However, another lysozyme from hen-egg whites (HEWL) has been shown to effectively cleave peptidoglycan from anthrax bacterial cell walls.

In our research, we developed a novel single-molecule nanodevice that can listen to individual enzymes. Single-molecule studies of enzymes reveal important information about the kinetics and dynamics of enzyme activity. This approach can uncover fundamental aspects of the enzyme’s underlying mechanism. Thus, using this nanodevice, we have studied lysozyme from the organism, T4 bacteriophage, as a model system for human lysozyme. Furthermore, we are able to study the mechanistic differences between lysozyme and HEWL. Understanding why HEWL can destroy anthrax can give us insight into potentially making human lysozyme degrade anthrax too.





Judge’s Winner

Are Double Dose Math Courses in Seventh Grade Helpful for Low Performing Students?

Ryan Lewis
School of Education
In hopes of boosting achievement for students with low math skills, some schools and districts have employed the policy of “double dose” math courses in middle or early high school. These extra class periods replace a traditional elective and offer students additional math instruction time with similarly skilled peers. Only a handful of empirical studies within two school districts have analyzed this specific intervention, with most finding at least moderately positive short-term effects on math test scores. Analysis of course grades and course failure in the short-term have yielded less clear results, although these effects seem at least moderately positive as well. All but one of the analyses has focused on ninth grade students taking double dose courses in the same large school district.

Since students are generally recommended to enroll in a double dose course based on performance on a standardized test measure or some other measure, the policy lends itself well to analysis using a regression discontinuity design (RDD). In an RDD, comparing students just below and above a designated assignment cutoff score simulates a randomized control trial to provide a causal estimate of the treatment effect of policy implementation for students within the designated bandwidth. This analysis utilizes administrative data received from a large, diverse Southern California school district to test the following research question: What are the effects of double dose course policy implementation on low performing 7th grade math students? I use a fuzzy regression discontinuity approach to account for incomplete policy adherence within this school district.

Final analyses are underway and results will be presented at the AGS Symposium. As this is a unique grade level, school district setting, and implementation structure compared to those previously studied, the results have potential policy implications for the design and implementation of double dose math courses in middle schools.

People’s Choice Winner

The Dilemma of English as Medium of Instruction in Higher Education Settings Abroad

Christopher Stillwell
School of Education
A seemingly simple change is coming to higher education in Asia, Europe, and many other parts of the world, in places where English is not the local language, but where the ability to speak English is thought to open doors to opportunity. Lecturers in content areas from business to nursing to engineering are being asked to change from teaching in the local language to teaching in English. Administrators believe this shift can raise a school’s standings and increase opportunities for all, but teaching and learning in a foreign language complicates nearly every aspect of education, adding a layer of difficulty to all communication. Whereas administrators, students, and even lecturers may embrace a shift to English mediated instruction because of its supposed benefits, the reality is that in many cases such instruction leads to a double loss as students fail to learn either the content or the language.

My research with lecturers from various parts of Asia reveals that many lecturers lack awareness of the various challenges English mediated instruction can pose, and they are thus underprepared to address these challenges. My work further addresses this dilemma by identifying which aspects of lecturers’ work are most compromised by English language instruction, as well as which parts may be most readily improved through professional development. Along the way, I am discovering fascinating parallels to the California higher education context, in which international students and lecturers may face very similar challenges. Ultimately, this work aims to uncover techniques that can improve instruction in higher education across a range of contexts, and it also seeks to give voice to struggling lecturers and students so that stakeholders and participants can better understand the challenges that instruction via a foreign language brings, and what support is necessary for students and lecturers alike.



Physics and Astronomy

Judge’s Winner Tie

Optimizing Nanobatteries through Interface Science

Timothy Plett
Physics Ph.D.
The battery biz is in the middle of an overhaul. With the emergence of corporations like Tesla and demands for alternate energy sources like wind and solar, storing large amounts of energy efficiently with strong reusability has become a top priority. And it has come with several technological benefits and inventions, like ultra-light computers, tablets, and smartphones, electric cars with more viable driving distances, and home energy storage units to name a few. All of this has been made possible through one important concept: optimization.

The conceptual design of a battery has not changed greatly in the last century, however the details of its construction have been revolutionized in the last 25 years since the lithium-ion battery became mainstream. Batteries have progressed to hold more energy longer in a smaller space, with recharge capability. Now, we are trying to take it to the limit by incorporating nanofabrication techniques to potentially double these capabilities.

These ‘nanobatteries’, batteries which possess components on a length scale a thousand times smaller than a human hair, are currently made in designs which stack millions of tiny rods close together to maximize energy storage. While this seems like common sense, the concept of optimization comes back with an important question: What kind of impact does stacking all of these rods close together have on the system as a whole? In agriculture, crops need their space to grow. How much space do these nanobatteries need between their tiny rods to maximize the energy potential of the system as a whole?

Studying lithium ion transport at nanoscale interfaces can help us understand that question of “How much space?” We use a tool from biophysics to help us accomplish this: a synthetic nanopore. A hole on the same length scale as the tiny rods in nanobatteries, the nanopore gives us a platform to test a variety of battery materials, such as suggested electrolytes, and examine the impact of space (or nanoconstriction) on ion flow in and around structures of this size. Recently, we have succeeded in testing two important electrolytes, one liquid and one gel, for their interface properties of surface charge and ion transport, both of which have significant impact on optimizing energy costs for the millions of components in a nanobattery. We hope that understanding these properties will help guide future designs for nanobatteries as a viable technology in the future.

Judge’s Winner Tie / People’s Choice Winner

Searches for physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics at the Large Hadron Collider

Aaron Soffa
Physics Ph.D.
In an invisible arena that surrounds our everyday experience, unimaginably small bits of energy perform dances all around us. The number of molecules in an ordinary cup of water is more than ten million million million million, and each molecule is further made of atoms. Each individual atom is further made of even smaller subatomic particles, and if we peer closely enough, everything that we observe around us is made of what we have come to call the “elementary particles” of the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model has been remarkably successful in describing all known particles and forces (except for gravity) and has provided the most precise predictions in all of science. However, lingering inconsistencies continue to keep particle physicists awake at night. For starters, the Standard Model describes only about 5% of the observed energy content of our Universe. The remaining 95% is attributed to dark matter and dark energy, so called “dark” because we have so far not been able to detect them directly. This and a variety of other unsatisfactory aspects and inconsistencies has led the particle physics community to search for new physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics. The Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator that was built to push the frontier of our understanding of particle physics by colliding protons at 99.999999% the speed of light. It accomplishes this by accelerating two beams of protons around a 17-mile ring in opposite directions at over ten thousand revolutions per second, and the subatomic particles produced in these high-energy collisions are what the physicists of the ATLAS collaboration study. The high-energy collisions of the protons result in a large number of different types of interactions and produce particles of all sorts, most of which are in close agreement the predictions of the Standard Model, at least as far as we have been able to measure so far. At the Large Hadron Collider, we have doubled the energy of the proton beams in the spring of last year. This is now allowing physicists to peer more deeply than ever before in the history of humanity at the structure of matter and the fundamental forces of Nature. Much no one knows, and what we discover over the next few years at the Large Hadron Collider may very well revolutionize our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of the Universe in which we live.



Biology and Medicine 2

Judge’s Winner

Targeting Slug in Tumor Vessels

Nan Hultgren
School of Biological Sciences
Blood vessels are EVERYWHERE in our bodies. They’re vital for sending nutrients and oxygen to support the growth and functions of our tissues and organs. Unfortunately, cancerous tumors take advantage of that, and hijack the blood vessels to supply their malignant growth. Not only that, they also use blood vessels as a channel to hitch a ride into our circulation and spread to other parts of the body, or to metastasis.

Therefore, scientists have proposed to control the growth of tumor blood vessels, or what we call, tumor angiogenesis, as a strategy to combat cancer. By doing so, we would be able to trap tumor cells at one location, and starve them to death. However, not much progress has been made despite decades of intense research effort. This is because we still lack a complete understanding of the difference between the normal blood vessels vs. vessels growing in tumors. These characteristics promote tumor cell dissemination, reduce drug delivery efficiency, and consequently contribute to the failure of various cancer therapies.

My project focuses on recognizing these unique features of the tumor vessels, and aim to identify the key players or genes that make them the way they are. And the gene I am working on is called Slug. I found that when Slug level is too high, normal vessels can be transformed into abnormal tumor-like vasculature. This made us believe, that Slug might be a key cause to abnormal tumor vessels. My research has also shown that we can reduce tumor growth by up to 80% by removing Slug. Now we are working on translating this success to actual therapies for patients!

People’s Choice Winner

Eyes wide open: On the effects of eye blinking on failure of eyelid slings in patients suffering droopy eyelids

Omid Rohani
Biomedical Engineering Ph.D.
Frontalis suspension is a commonly used surgery that is indicated in patients with droopy eyelids (ptosis) and poor function of levator muscle-the muscle that is responsible for lifting the eyelids. This surgery is based on connecting the droopy upper eyelid with various cord-like slings to the frontalis muscle, which is located on the forehead and above the eyebrow. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, more than 200,000 ptosis surgeries have been performed in the United States just in 2014. However, one of the main complications of this surgery is the high rate of droopy eyelid recurrence of up to %35, which requires to repeat this surgery after a few years. Noting that an average person blinks tens of thousands of times per day suggests that plastic (permanent) elongation may occur in the implanted sling due to the cyclic loading effects caused by eye blinking. We have been studying the effect of cyclic loading on the most common eyelid slings used in frontalis suspension. In our experimental studies, we have discovered that cyclic stretch and relaxation of the implanted eyelid slings caused by eye blinking could be a main reason for failure of the sling and hence the need to repeat the surgery. The results of our research gets us one step closer to preventing the recurrence of droopy eyelid after frontalis suspension surgeries. Furthermore, based on the outcome of this research, we are developing more resistant eyelid slings that avoid the need to repeat the painful frontalis suspension surgery for those patients who suffer droopy eyelids.



Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts

Judge’s Winner

Racist or not racist? How politics shapes the way we define racism

Rebecca Grady
Psychology and Social Behavior Ph.D.
“Is that racist?” While sometimes the answer may seem obvious, other times it may be more controversial. Heated debate in the U.S. about the extent that racism is still a problem may be partially due to disagreements about what counts as racism. These debates often divide people along partisan lines, such as in discussions of voter ID laws or in racial disparities in policing behavior. Conflict arises when what one group calls “racism,” while the other calls “playing the race-card.” In a series of studies, I explored how U.S. adults judged a variety of behaviors and scenarios on whether or not they were racist. The key predictor was political ideology – I found large disparities between liberals and conservatives in both the number and content of behaviors judged to be racist. This was shown to be due at least in part to differences between liberals and conservatives in how they define the word “racism,” with liberals having a broader view of racism and conservatives having a narrower view. I investigated this both by explicitly asking participants about their definitions of racism and by having them judge scenarios that were structured to investigate definitional differences, for example between overt, intentional discrimination, and more subtle, disparate impact situations. I found that conservatives favored individual-focused definitions, meaning definitions that considered “racism” to be an act or belief held by individual people. Liberals, on the other hand, leaned more towards a systemic/structural definition of racism, considering “racism” to be a societal-level construct that does not require individual, overt discrimination. When judging scenarios, conservatives placed more importance on whether an act treated people differently based on race, while liberals were relatively more open to also judging an act racist that affected people differently, even if people were treated the same. In all, liberals and conservatives do not see racism the same way, which likely makes it harder for them to understand each other’s viewpoints. Today’s racial conflicts are less about whether racism is wrong, but rather whether something is racist in the first place, which is why examining these perceptions is so important. Further exploration of these differences, and of ways to find common ground, will reduce the partisan hostility in order to make meaningful progress on this critical issue.

People’s Choice Winner

When You’re Angry, it Pays to be a Man: A Target’s Race and Gender Elicit Differential Evaluations of Emotion Expression

Kevin Cochran
Psychology and Social Behavior Ph.D.
Research examining men and women’s differential treatment in the workplace has shown that people rate men who express anger as more competent and want to pay them higher salaries than non-angry men. When women express anger, however, people rate them as less competent and want to pay them lower salaries than non-angry women. Researchers on this subject often conclude that these findings demonstrate an incurred penalty (e.g., salary reduction) resulting from stereotype violations of how men and women are expected to express emotion. That is, whereas men are allowed and sometimes encouraged to express anger, women who express anger are seen as “out of control.” However, this research is limited because the evaluative targets have been almost exclusively of European background. If this stereotype violation penalty stems from evaluators’ negative reactions to people who deviate from their expected behavior, we might expect different effects based on the race of the target. That is, while anger might be perceived as a “good” attribute for European American men and a “bad” attribute for European American women, does this effect vary for different racial groups?

In the present study, we measured how a target’s gender, race, and emotion expression influenced evaluators’ ratings of the target’s competence and subsequent salary recommendation. Participants were shown an employee profile of a target. We manipulated the target’s gender (male or female), race (European-, African-, Asian, or Latino American), and emotion expression (angry or sad). Participants then rated the target’s competence and suggested a starting salary. Findings revealed that angry men and women were rated as more competent than sad men and women across all races. However, higher competence ratings did not necessarily translate into higher suggested salaries. For men, whether angry expressions led to higher salaries depended on the target’s race; whereas for women, anger did not lead to higher salaries for any racial group.

These findings have important implications for our understandings of racial and gender biases. In order to address systematic biases, we must understand their causes and consequences. Research has shown that female political candidates are seen as more emotional when cry or express anger than when male candidates do the same. Furthermore, agreeable men earn lower salaries than non-agreeable men. However, these effects have not been examined across races. Thus, to comprehensively understand these biases, we must take an intersectional approach to examining the consequences of racial and gender bias.



Health, Society and the Environment

Judge’s Winner / People’s Choice Winner

Introducing a Pilot Program for International Digital Mentorship in Africa

Sahil Aggarwal
School of Medicine
UNAIDS statistics depict an emerging demographic of HIV-positive adolescents globally. Within developing nations that have high HIV prevalence rates, there exists a stigma against those who are infected. Stigma, as defined by Goffman (1963) is a “differentness” associated with a group affiliation, one that can lead to the improper treatment and isolation of that group. This stigma towards HIV-positive individuals in developing nations manifests specifically in the form of family rejection, isolation by community members, denial of healthcare access, and barring from social institutions and festivals. Due to this stigma, individuals in such countries fear going to clinics to get tested for HIV or receive medications, fail to disclose their HIV status to partners, avoid condom use due to implications of infection to partners, develop feelings of hopelessness for the future, and lose their self-identities. As such, HIV stigma—and disease stigma as a whole—has profound public health implications that medications alone cannot alleviate.

Adolescents who are HIV-positive—and exposed to stigma and isolation—can benefit from confidence-building role models who can help them recognize that their HIV status is not a death sentence and who can provide opportunities for them to express their potentials as future leaders. However, it is often difficult for these adolescents to seek out local mentors and supporters due to long-standing stigma towards HIV infection within their communities.

Here, we propose a unique model of adolescent empowerment—international digital mentorship—that was first implemented as a pilot program in Swaziland, Africa starting in 2015. The model consists of a comprehensive education of volunteer mentors, a one year, one-on-one digital exchange, and practical service projects conducted by the adolescents who graduate from the program. Swaziland, a sub-Saharan country, has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, with nearly 38% of all unborn children infected with HIV. With mother-to-child transmission acting as the second most common cause of HIV infection in Swaziland, widespread infection coupled with stigma has led only 60% of infected individuals to seek out regular antiretroviral therapy. A lack of treatment of HIV infection is a significant contributor to the low life expectancy in Swaziland—under 50 for both men and women. The purpose of this pilot program is to introduce the international digital mentorship model, its strengths to empowering adolescents and improving their psychosocial health, and obstacles faced during a test of the model in Swaziland.