2017 Winners Abstracts


Judge’s Winner and People’s Choice Winner

Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down

Christie Mortales
Microbiology & Molecular Genetics

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the neurons of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).  This leaves people affected with MS with any number of disabilities such as impaired speech and mobility.  There is no cure, and current treatments often have toxic side effects.  My research focuses on (1) how a molecular network called the galectin-glycoprotein lattice controls the functions of immune cells, (2) how a compromised lattice on specific immune cells cause them to promote MS, and (3) how one special sugar can fix a damaged lattice and become a potential, safe treatment for MS.


Judge’s Winner

Lock, Load… and Smile? Facial Expressions and Perceptions of the Police

Rylan Simpson
Criminology, Law and Society

Following the social media release of a photo of two armed police officers smiling at a Christmas market in the United Kingdom, much discussion surrounding the effects of smiling in the context of policing has emerged. Despite immense interest, however, little research has empirically examined the effects of facial expressions on perceptions of the police. Using novel data from my experiment, the Police Officer Perception Project (POPP), I investigate the effects of smiling on participants’ perceptions of police officers as (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. My results reveal a number of significant findings. I discuss these findings with respect to public-police relations.


People’s Choice Winner

Art or Confession: The Threatening Nature of “Rap” Lyrics

Adam Dunbar
Criminology, Law & Society

In cities across the United States, police and prosecutors are using rap lyrics as autobiographical confessions, rather than treat the lyrics as a form of entertainment, a process virtually unheard of for other genres. Notably, the vast majority of these cases involve aspiring rappers—most of whom are young black men from inner-city communities.  One concern articulated by scholars and attorneys is that introducing rap lyrics as evidence potentially introduces stereotypes into the courtroom, which might shape how jurors interpret the lyrics and ultimately evaluate the case.  The current study uses four experiments to test the impact of genre-specific stereotypes on the evaluation of violent song lyrics, and those who write them, by manipulating the musical genre (e.g. rap, country, etc), but holding constant the actual lyrics. Results indicate that lyrics were uniquely viewed as threatening and the writer as criminal, across a number of dimensions, when the lyrics were categorized as rap compared to other genres. These findings highlight the possibility that rap lyrics could inappropriately impact jurors when admitted as evidence to prove guilt.


Judge’s Winner

Your Smartphone as a “Digital Security Blanket”

John Hunter
Psychology & Social Behavior

This study tests whether smartphone presence alters psychological and physiological responses to a social exclusion stressor. Participants (N=148) were randomized to one of three conditions: (1) phone present with use encouraged, (2) phone present with use restricted, or (3) no phone access. Saliva samples and self-report data were collected throughout the study to assess salivary alpha amylase (sAA) and feelings of exclusion. Those in both phone-present conditions reported lower feelings of exclusion compared to individuals who had no access to their phone, p=.005. Multi-level modeling of sAA responses revealed that the those in the restricted phone condition had a significantly different trajectory compared to the phone use condition (p=.032) and no phone condition (p=.008). Specifically, those in the restricted phone condition showed a decrease in sAA following exclusion, those in the no phone condition showed a gradual increase, and phone users exhibited little change. Taken together, these results suggest that the mere presence of a phone (not necessarily phone use) can buffer stress and serve purposes akin to a digital security blanket.


People’s Choice Winner

Methane: Sources of the Other Greenhouse Gas in Los Angeles

Nick Vizenor

While carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted, methane, another greenhouse gas, needs to be considered as well as it can absorb 86 times more heat per molecule over a 20 year period. Methane emissions are not as well quantified as carbon dioxide as they stem from many aspects of urban life such as landfills, dairies, and combustion sources. In order to continue to cut methane emissions, it is important to have an inventory of where it is coming from.

We collected over 500 air samples over two years from a site downwind of the Los Angeles megacity. These samples were analyzed for many volatile organic compounds that are emitted from both human and natural sources. The concentrations of these gases were analyzed via a mathematical program that separates out the varying emissions sources and determine a signature for each. We calculated that roughly two thirds of all methane from Southern California is from the leakage of pipeline natural gas. This is a higher percentage than other estimates and this difference could be due to inventories not accounting for leakage from homes and kitchens after the gas meter.


Judge’s Winner and People’s Choice Winner

Modeling blood-brain barrier breakdown in Alzheimer’s Disease using patient stem cells

Tannaz Faal
Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

Every sixty-six seconds an individual in the United States develops Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). It is an incurable disorder of the brain that robs individuals of their memories and also leads to cognitive impairments such as difficulty in speech and writing. Dysfunction of a structure called the blood-brain barrier (BBB) has been implicated in the progression of AD. The BBB protects and regulates the health of our central nervous system through the interaction of three cell types called endothelial cells, pericytes, and astrocytes. These three cells form a network of blood vessels that regulate the flow of substances into and out of the brain. A hallmark of AD is the inability of the BBB to remove a toxic molecule called amyloid beta (AB) from the brain. Accumulation of AB plaques leads to neuron death and cognitive decline. The primary focus of my work is to create a model of the BBB in a dish to understand the role of the three cell types in the removal of AB in Alzheimer’s Disease. This model will allow us to study this disease in a patient-specific manner and it will serve as a platform for future drug screening to identify compounds to prevent or slow BBB breakdown in AD.


People’s Choice Winner

Thinking Outside the Box of Learning Disability Deficits

Masha R. Jones

Children with learning disabilities face real struggles, but they also have unique strengths. While it’s important to develop supports for their struggles, we must also think about where their strengths lie, so that these can be harnessed and enhanced. This is important, because focusing on a child’s relative weakness, rather than strength, will over time erode the child’s confidence, sense of self-esteem and, perhaps, even that child’s overall happiness. In this talk I draw from theories of cognitive functions in learning disabilities and theories of cognition and creativity to suggest that children with learning disabilities may have a unique ability to think outside the box.


Judge’s Winner

Battle to Belong: Keeping our Underrepresented Students in STEM

Peter McPartlan
School of Education

Of UCI’s freshman Bio majors last year, first generation students accounted for a disproportionate 75% of those who dropped out. Although traditional explanations for this have blamed a lack of preparation in high school, recent studies have shown that underrepresented students often experience an acute lack of belongingness when they step onto campus and into STEM disciplines. Often, the interdependent and community-based values these students are raised with clash with the culture of independence and the sink-or-swim mindset found in STEM disciplines. To address this, our research is testing interventions specifically aimed at helping retain first generation students in the sciences by promoting their sense of belonging. By enrolling students in learning communities that keep groups of students together for their entire first year, we can assess the effectiveness of a simple program that allows for social support networks to develop around academic pursuits. Additionally, we are tracking those who decide to leave to non-STEM disciplines, investigating the role of belongingness in these decisions. Ultimately, this will boost the program’s ability to provide equitable education.


People’s Choice Winner

You Might Feel a Pinch: Misinformation for Prior Appraisails Influences Subsequent Memory and Behavior

Kevin Cochran
Psychology & Social Behavior

Previous research on choice blindness has demonstrated that, when given a choice between multiple options, people often fail to notice if they option they are given is different from the one they chose. A separate line of research on the misinformation effect has shown that when people are given misleading information about an event they previously experienced, they often incorporate that misleading information into their subsequent memories for the event. The present study merged these two phenomena. Subjects underwent a painful laboratory task. Immediately afterward, they were asked to rate how painful the task was on a scale from 0 to 100. Later in the experiment, they were reminded about their pain rating, but some subjects were told their pain rating had been 20 points lower than it actually had. In a follow-up visit, subjects were asked to recall how painful the task had been. Results indicate that many subjects failed to detect that their pain rating had been manipulated, and that subjects who were exposed to misinformation about their pain ratings remembered the task as significantly less painful than subjects who were not misled.


Judge’s Winner

Tough on Cops: Youth, Race, and the Police

Adam Fine
Psychology and Social Behavior

In the US, there has been a long and complicated relationship between police and adolescents. This is particularly true for youth of color. Media coverage has become increasingly pronounced, and several high-profile deaths of unarmed youth of color at the hands of police have ignited national conversation about law enforcement, casting a spotlight on the relations between police and youth of color. The present study tracked a sample of 1,216 first-time, male, juvenile offenders for 2.5 years after their first arrest to explore: a) racial/ethnic differences in the longitudinal patterns of youths’ attitudes; and b) reciprocal associations between attitudes and offending. White youths’ attitudes remained largely stable, Black youths’ attitudes became more negative, and Latino youths’ attitudes became more negative but only among those who reoffended. Although the youths’ attitudes were related to reoffending, the bidirectional relation between attitudes and offending weakened across time. These findings suggest that youths’ first arrest largely set their attitudes towards the system. When it comes to young offenders’ interactions with the justice system, first impressions matter.


People’s Choice Winner

Towards Privacy-Aware Big Data:  Specification and Enforcement of Privacy Policies at Scale

Primal Pappachan
Computer Science

The Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the way we interact with our surrounding environment in domains as diverse as health, transportation, office buildings or our homes. In smart building environments, information captured about a building’s infrastructure and its inhabitants will help develop services that can help us become more productive, increase our comfort, enhance our social interactions, increase safety, save energy and more. But by relying on the collection and sharing of information about a building’s inhabitants and their activities, these services also open the door to privacy risks.

We are developing a privacy-aware IoT framework, which deals with two important problems with respect to privacy in smart spaces. The first is a mechanism and language for specification and management of privacy preferences of users that is flexible enough to represent complex requirements but without inducing privacy fatigue. The second is a data management system which is able to efficiently handle millions of these preferences at run time within reasonable bounds on the collected user data.


Judge’s Winner

Single molecule imaging: Opening next Pandora’s box

Faezeh Tork Ladani
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Photo-induced force microscopy (PiFM) is an emerging microscopy technique that is based on detecting the photo-induced force that a nano-object exerts on a sharp probing tip. PiFM is a near field detection technique that is sensitive to the chemical and physical properties of the sample. Hence, by analyzing the force signal we can extract chemical information of nano-objects with very high spatial resolution down to the ~5 nm scale. Near-field detection demands a higher complexity both in the setup and also interpretation of the experiments. But at the same time, it provides more accuracy and more information, which cannot be easily obtained in the far field.
We are developing the technique both experimentally and theoretically to open up new applications. We have reported a successful experimental demonstration of this technique in imaging of surface plasmon polariton (SPP). The results clearly showed that the PiFM technique is capable of mapping propagating SPP modes on flat surfaces. The PiFM method is also promising for the real space visualization of other propagating surface modes, such as plasmons and the evanescent fields of semiconductor waveguides in photonic circuits.


People’s Choice Winner

One step closer: using math to better understand fusion power

Justin Smith
Physics and Astronomy

Nuclear fusion energy is always perpetually 50 years away. The pursuit of that dream has until recently required massive facilities costing billions of dollars due to the immense technical challenges in sustainably fusing two small atoms together. In the past decade we have begun using a method called thermal density functional theory (DFT) to calculate the attributes of incredibly hot substances like the cores of gas giants, explosions, and fusion reactions. However, thermal DFT is imperfect and in my research I work to improve the theory so that it can be more accurate. Improved accuracy leads to a better understanding of the physics, and that can lead to improved technology at a fraction of the cost.


Judge’s Winner

Using computers to fight disease: Stopping the Hv1 protein

Victoria Lim

Proteins are tiny molecular machines that are involved with nearly all cellular functions, with diverse roles such as structural support and cellular signaling. Malfunction of individual proteins results in diseases, such as cancer, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s disease. Consequently, most therapeutic drugs are small molecules that bind to proteins to modify their actions. Drug discovery is a long and costly process, on average taking at least ten years and up to $2.6 billion for each successful drug. Computational chemistry methods can provide a “shortcut” in the drug discovery pipeline by providing insights to key molecular interactions on what could make a good drug for some specific protein. My work focuses on the human protein Hv1, a voltage-gated proton channel whose function is to remove excess protons from inside the cell. This protein is implicated in a number of maladies, including the metastasis of breast and colon tumor cells as well as a substantial contribution to brain damage in ischemic stroke. The objective of my work is to understand, improve, and predict small-molecule binding of Hv1, which can lead to clinically useful therapeutics.


People’s Choice Winner

Shuffled Complex-Self Adaptive Hybrid Evolution: A New Hybrid Optimization Framework

Matin Rahnamay Naeini
Civil and Environmental Engineering

The increasing number of optimization methods, make testing and validation of the algorithms impractical for different problem space. However, different optimization methods have strengths and limitations, and the performances of individual algorithm obey the “No Free Lunch” theorem. The variability of these capabilities, cause challenges and difficulties for users to select a suitable optimization algorithm for a particular problem. In this research we introduce a new generic, hybrid framework for optimization, entitled Shuffled Complex-Self Adaptive Hybrid EvoLution (SC-SAHEL) algorithm that employs multiple evolutionary algorithms as search cores in a parallel platform. The advantage of the newly developed SC-SAHEL algorithm is the intelligence of selecting best performing algorithms during the search, and the effectiveness of finding global optimum that over-performs single search mechanism. Besides, SC-SAHEL provides information regarding the performance of each of the evolutionary algorithms at each optimization step and gives a general overview of evolutionary algorithms performance.

Judge’s Winner

A Childhood View of the Future

Sarah Wang

Electricity comes from many different sources. There are renewable energies, such as solar and wind; there are fossil fuel based energies, such as gasoline and natural gas; and there are energy storage systems, such as batteries and potentially hydrogen. It’s important that as California attempts to achieve higher renewable penetration it is well understood the effects of new technologies on the electric grid. For example, when the sun is setting, people are heading home and start using a lot of electricity. Since the sun is down, solar power is no longer available. Wind is difficult to predict, so it’s uncertain whether wind power could meet the demand. Therefore, Peaker Power Plants need to be utilized, which emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) and pollutants. These peaker power plants will end up increasing the GHG and pollutant emissions in order to produce electricity to meet the demand. This problem could be mitigated with energy storage, through technologies such as batteries or hydrogen.  Only with coupling of renewable power and energy storage will California be able to achieve high renewable penetration and low GHG and pollutant emissions.