2018 Winners Abstracts


Judge’s Winner

Creating biofuels from pollutants using a hybrid enzyme

Megan Newcomb

The enzyme nitrogenase can convert carbon monoxide (CO) pollution into fuels. Nitrogenase is like a race car; it relies upon a high-performance engine and a sleek body for optimal performance. Nitrogenase’s engine is a group of metal atoms called a cofactor, and its body is a protein scaffold that supports and helps the cofactor as it converts CO into biofuels. I study two different types of nitrogenase enzymes, each containing a different atom within its cofactor: one utilizes a vanadium atom in its cofactor while the other utilizes a molybdenum atom at the same site. While their cofactors and protein scaffolds are similar, the two enzymes react very differently with CO. The vanadium-containing nitrogenase is 600 times better at making fuels. To determine if the engine or body of the vanadium-containing nitrogenase is responsible for that remarkable difference, I created a hybrid enzyme that combined the body of the vanadium nitrogenase with the engine of the molybdenum nitrogenase. My results indicate that the body plays a larger role in allowing the vanadium-containing nitrogenase to make fuels from CO.


People’s Choice Winner

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

Eva L. Morozko
Neurobiology and Behavior

Huntington’s disease (HD) is a genetic neurodegenerative disorder caused by a mutation that produces an abnormal huntingtin (HTT) protein. Mutant HTT can take on improper shapes and accumulate, disrupting the normal balance of proteins within neurons and affecting cellular processes leading to cell death. After a protein is made, its fate can be altered by Post Translational Modifications which are small molecular changes or additions to a protein that can influence its function. The HTT protein is subject to these modifications, including the Small Ubiquitin-like Modifier (SUMO) and accumulation of proteins modified by SUMO in HD patient brains is associated with disease progression. To understand how SUMO contributes towards HD, we showed that PIAS1, the enzyme that attaches SUMO, impacts accumulation of mutant HTT and pathology. Now, I am assessing reduction of PIAS1 at different disease stages in a mouse model of HD to evaluate how SUMO affects mutant HTT and associated cellular and molecular processes both before and after onset of symptoms in HD. Overall, this study will help us understand more about the processes that affect protein balance during disease progression.



Judge’s Winner

Preventing Crime in the Suburban City: Foot Patrols, Police Stops and the Challenges of Bidirectionality

Rylan Simpson
Criminology, Law and Society

Crime is a pervasive problem which impacts communities across the world. Given the saliency and magnitude of its impact, police agencies are faced with immense pressure to control and prevent crime, often via proactive means such as foot patrols and police stops. The present research, therefore, utilizes nine years of monthly data (2006-2014) from a large, suburban city to explore the bidirectional relationships between crime and police actions at the block-level. I find that while changes in crime often precede changes in police action, changes in crime also tend to follow them. For example, blocks with more burglaries receive greater numbers of police stops, and blocks with more police stops have reduced odds of experiencing burglary. Police actions must be neatly tailored to crime incidents at precise levels in order for prevention at these levels to be achieved.



Judge’s Winner

They All Look the Same to Me: Quantifying and Combating the Other-Race Effect

Jessie Yaros
Neurobiology & Behavior

People tend to recognize faces of their own race better than those of other races. While behavioral research suggests this so-called Other-Race Effect (ORE) is due to extensive experience with one’s own race group, the neural mechanisms underlying the effect remain unclear. We employed a novel mnemonic discrimination task to hone in on the memory-processing mechanisms employed for same- and other-race face recognition. Our findings demonstrate distinct responses modulated by race of face and similarity between faces. This suggests that the ORE is caused by differences in the ability to process interference between faces for same- and other-race stimuli. This research has strong implications for the criminal justice system, given the dire consequences of the ORE in the context of eye-witness testimony.


People’s Choice Winner

Intellectual Pleasure

Darby Vickers

The humanities have been under fire in recent years and those in the humanities have been challenged to justify their existence and continued funding. Many, including myself, would defend the ability of humanities education to promote critical thinking. However, this is not the only way to marshal support for humanities. Another way is to argue that the humanities investigate what it means to be human. In that form, the idea is rather abstract. However, Plato argues that we should study the arts, humanities, and most particularly philosophy because they generate intellectual pleasure. He claims that intellectual pleasure-the pleasure that results from learning and knowing-is what makes us quintessentially human. For Plato, intellectual pleasure distinguishes humans from animals, that do not have the capacity for intellectual pleasures, and from the gods, who experience no pleasure at all but exist only in the realm of the intelligible. While this may sound slightly ethereal, Plato’s theories forcefully argue that intellectual pleasure not only makes us distinctly human, but drives us to discover new knowledge and reach our fullest potential.



Judge’s Winner

Neural Stem Cells as a Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

Laura McIntyre
Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a debilitating disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. Damage in the brain and spinal cord affect patient’s ability to coordinate movement. There is currently no cure for MS. In MS, immune cells known as T cells attack the brain and spinal cord resulting in damage. All current therapies are focused on preventing T cells from attacking, but for patients in later stages of disease these therapies don’t work. In my lab, I am taking a different approach to treat MS using transplantation of Neural Stem Cells. These cells can make any of the cells in the brain and spinal cord. My research has shown promising results that we may be able to use these neural stem cells to replace damaged cells and prevent T cells from causing future damage creating a better therapy for patients with MS.


People’s Choice Winner

Electronically listening to Single Enzymes

Kristin Gabriel
Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

DNA polymerases are enzymes that copy DNA, an essential step in the life cycle of all organisms. This enzyme can make errors that become permanent mutations in your DNA. DNA sequencing can identify disease-causing mutations and profoundly change the way we practice medicine. However, current DNA sequencing technologies face problems with high background noise. Single-molecule techniques are promising ways to resolve this issue since they reveal dynamic movements otherwise lost through averaging in a population. The Weiss Lab and Collins Lab at UCI collaboratively developed a new single-molecule technique using bio-nanocircuits to generate electric signals from the enzyme motion, which can distinguish the motion of DNA polymerases when incorporating nucleotides into a DNA template. Through my lab’s collaboration with Illumina, the world leader in DNA sequencing technology, we are working to advance DNA sequencing technologies, eventually making DNA sequencing a standard technique in health care.



Judge’s Winner

Improving the “Social Status” of Online Education

Peter McPartlan
School of Education

What happens to the quality of our day-to-day experiences when they get moved online? Although everyday activities such as shopping and communicating with friends can become more convenient, converting education to online spaces poses serious threats to its quality. What could be wrong with online education? Anybody who has ever agonized over whether to use a period or exclamation point at the end of an email has seen the risk we run when we take tone and body language out of communication. The quality of our interactions suffers. In my research, I explore how lower interactional quality in online college courses here at UCI may be limiting student’s motivation and achievement. I demonstrate how accounting for motivation helps us understand who takes online courses and whether or not they succeed, offering solutions for future research and practice.


People’s Choice Winner

Is texting like talking? Sharing emotions online

Joanna Yau
School of Education

Smartphones have forever changed the landscape of communication. What used to require aligning schedules for a phone call or a face-to-face meeting can now be sent instantly in a digital message. Digital communication may especially benefit college students as many are living away from home for the first time. With access to support networks right in their back pockets, they can immediately celebrate with friends and family when something positive occurs and ask for support when they encounter something negative. In this study, we explore the extent college students use messaging when they experience an emotional event. Do college students use messaging more when they feel stressed and when they are in a good mood? People are not very accurate at estimating their own media use (Junco, 2013) or recalling daily events such as incidents of stress (Stone et al., 1998), so we must use methods that go beyond surveys administered at one time point. We installed logging software onto participants’ phones for seven days to capture when and for how long participants use messaging apps. To further illustrate the fine-grain connections between well-being and messaging, we surveyed participants.



Judge’s Winner

Infection Detection: Artificial Noses Smell Disease

Will Thrift
Materials science and engineering

Over twenty years have elapsed since the first report of single molecule surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) yet quantitative sensing in the single molecule regime remains elusive. We have recently introduced a new self-assembly method for fabricating sensor surfaces capable of single-molecule SERS with uniform SERS enhancements of 109 over 100s of μm. Yet, the main challenge in quantitative single molecule SERS is the complex, system dependent, hotspot occupancy rate of analyte. In this work, we solve this problem using a new big data method for quantifying analyte concentration in the single molecule regime. Specifically, deep convolutional neural networks are trained with SERS spectra acquired across large sensor surfaces. We demonstrate quantitative detection of rhodamine 800 as low as 1 femtomolar. Finally, this new quantification method is used to sense small molecules produced by bacterial biofilms.


People’s Choice Winner

Velcro Spaghetti: Strong Self-healing Materials

Hurik Muradyan

The environment has been significantly impacted by the production and eventual discarding of plastic materials. Great strides have been made to assuage adverse effects, including improved recyclability, decreased material usage, and increased material lifetime. One strategy for increasing a material’s functional lifetime is to endow it with the ability to self-heal. Self-healing materials often rely on dynamic interactions that can break and reform to heal microcracks. Implementation of these motifs into systems with robust mechanical properties is difficult because of the trade-off between strength of a material and self-healing efficiency. Here, we show that a material can be switched from a “strong” state to a “self-healing” state using a simple photo-trigger. Specifically, the dynamic exchange of a metal-imidazole crosslinked material is controlled through the light-activation of a latent spiropyran ligand. In this system, metallopolymers with a ligand to metal ratio (L/M) of 4, show slower dynamic exchange but have robust mechanical properties, while L/M of 4.2 has fast dynamic exchange but exhibits weaker mechanical properties. This allows for a mechanically robust material.



Judge’s Winner

Pain Buddy: A mobile application that delivers pain and symptom management interventions for children with cancer

John Hunter
Psychology & Social Behavior

The current study describes the preliminary efficacy testing of a mobile health intervention that aims to manage cancer pain and symptoms in children. The web-based application, Pain Buddy, includes a validated pain and symptom diary, cognitive and behavioral coping skills training, an electronic tool for communicating with healthcare providers, and a three-dimensional avatar to guide the child through the program. 50 children (69% male, ages 8-18 years) were randomly assigned to the Pain Buddy intervention (n=20) or attention control group (n=30). Both groups completed symptom diaries twice daily for 8 weeks and rated their pain using a 100-mm visual analog scale. The intervention group additionally received cognitive and behavioral skills training and remote symptom monitoring by healthcare providers. Mann-Whitney tests of pain severity revealed that children randomized to the intervention group experienced lower overall pain severity (U=4532, p=0.013, η2= .03) and average pain since last diary entry (U=5580, p=.036, η2=.02) compared to those in the control condition. Pain Buddy is an innovative mobile health application that effectively reduces pain among children with cancer.


People’s Choice Winner

Sensing a Predator

Amberle McKee
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Predation is arguably the single most threatening event in the life of prey, and escaping it is crucial. To escape predation, a prey animal must recognize an approaching predator and choose a response that will ensure survival. I study the first step in this process: sensing the predator’s approach. Using high-speed videography and simulated approaching objects, I investigate how prey fish use visual information to sense danger. In another protocol, I create a stimulus that simulates the fluid flow produced by a predator’s mouth opening. This allows me to investigate how the flow sensing organs alert prey fish of the danger. Comparing these results with results from real predation events, I can construct a clear picture of how prey fish integrate sensory information from vision and water flow to determine when a threat is imminent.



Judge’s Winner

Fire and Ice: Quantifying pre-industrial fire emissions through ice core gas measurements

Melinda Nicewonger
Earth System Science

Global fires are an integral part of the climate system and add greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) to the atmosphere. Therefore, it is important to understand how climate controls fires in order to better predict how fires may change with a warming climate. To do this, we turn to the history books to see how fires changed as the climate changed in the past. For the atmosphere, our history books are ice cores — samples from the polar ice sheets which have tiny bubbles of the ancient atmosphere trapped inside. Here I will discuss how we can analyze these air bubbles for trace gases which help us to reconstruct fire history over the last 1,000 years. My research shows that 1) fires have changed significantly over the past 1,000 years and 2) the changes observed in fires are linked to changes in climate.


People’s Choice Winner

Rainfall Estimation and Forecasting using Satellite Imagery

Negin Hayatbini
Civil and Environmental Engineering

Being capable of detecting and tracking cloud is very useful for precipitation estimation, and forecast. Satellites excel in providing full-time observations over a large space scale. However, developing an accurate and automatic cloud detection and tracking algorithm based on remote sensing data is still challenging and desire more effort due to the instability of the storms. Recent advances in cloud-based big-data technologies now make data-driven solutions feasible for such complex problems. Therefore, in my research, the tracking problem through a data-driven approach is explored by formulating it using Image Understanding techniques, and data analysis tools. As a result, we are able to implement different complementary types of satellite data to perceive more information about the cloud structure and capture the storm-moving trajectory more accurately.



Judge’s Winner

Characterization of Stimulation Artifact Behavior in Simultaneous Electrocorticography Grid Stimulation and Recording

Jeffrey Lim
Biomedical Engineering

Bi-directional brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) require simultaneous stimulation and recording to achieve closed-loop operation. It is therefore important that the interface be able to distinguish between neural signals of interest and stimulation artifacts. Current bi-directional BCIs address this problem by temporally multiplexing stimulation and recording. This approach, however, is suboptimal in many BCI applications. Alternative artifact mitigation methods can be devised by investigating the mechanics of artifact propagation. To characterize stimulation artifact behaviors, we collected and analyzed electrocorticography (ECoG) data from eloquent cortex mapping. Ratcheting and phase-locking of stimulation artifacts were observed, as well as dipole-like properties. Artifacts as large as ±1100 µV appeared as far as 15-37 mm away from the stimulating channel when stimulating at 10 mA. Analysis also showed that the majority of the artifact power was concentrated at the stimulation pulse train frequency (50 Hz) and its super-harmonics. Lower frequencies (0-32 Hz) experienced minimal artifact contamination. These findings could inform the design of future bi-directional ECoG-based BCI.


People’s Choice Winner

Robust Multi-Path Communications for UAVs in the Urban IoT

Sabur Hassan Baidya 
Computer Science

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) systems are being increasingly used in a broad range of scenarios and applications. However, their deployment in urban areas poses important technical challenges. One of the most prominent concerns is robustness of communications between the ground stations and the UAVs in such a highly dynamic and crowded spectrum. Additionally, the network being used by other users causes congestion impairing the ground stations to control the UAVs. We propose a robust multi-path communication framework for UAV systems that continuously probes the performance of multiple wireless multi-hop paths from the ground station to each UAV, and then dynamically selects the path providing the best performance in terms of packet delay which is one of most critical aspect in many applications in UAV. We have conducted real-world implementation and extensive field experimentation to demonstrate the ability of the proposed framework to provide robust control against exogenous interference and network congestion.