Learning by doing

Undergraduate research involves a variety of projects

Published Mar. 13, 2017

Taylor Wolf was seeking a lab experience to complement her studies and wound up discovering her life’s passion.

“Research is my thing,” said Wolf, a fourth-year biochemistry major from Norwich, N.Y., who is working on a research project in infectious disease. “I like the problem-solving aspect. You’re engaged, you’re involved, and you learn things that you never set out to learn.”

It’s an experience RIT is encouraging more and more students to incorporate into their undergraduate years, an extension of the university’s commitment that every student be engaged in some form of experiential learning, be it through a co-op assignment, senior labs, capstone or independent research project. Experiential learning has many benefits, from teaching students independent thinking in a collaborative environment, to nurturing mentorships that help develop careers.

Photo of Taylor Wolf with beaker

Biochemistry major Taylor Wolf is doing research to create a test that will identify substandard and counterfeit pharmaceuticals, helping reduce what has been a significant problem around the world. Wolf says her lab experience helped her discover a passion for research, which she now intends to make her career.

It’s a commitment RIT feels so strongly about that it’s been written in to the 2025 Strategic Plan, “Greatness Through Difference.”

“A cornerstone of our strategic plan is the concept of being a ‘student-centered research university,’” said Ryne Raffaelle, RIT’s vice president for research and associate provost. “One important metric to us as a university is how many of our students present at our annual undergraduate research symposium. The good news is that this number continues to grow steadily. This year, we had the largest number of presenters, with 313 authors giving 235 presentations.”

RIT is growing as a research university, and undergraduate participation in that growth is part of the formula, fueled by increased funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes for Health, as well as increased proposals for future funding, that make more opportunities available, Raffaelle said.

RIT is also building its research infrastructure, with $5 million invested in five signature interdisciplinary research areas.

“Areas were chosen in which RIT can be an international leader in helping to make progress on some of the biggest challenges facing society today,” Raffaelle said. “One of the specific criteria used to determine these areas was the extent to which undergraduate students would be involved in the research.”

Engagement in research is also essential to their complete education.

“We believe it is extremely important for students to learn how to be scientists and mathematicians from Day One,” said Sophia Maggelakis, dean of the College of Science. “The classroom teaching gives students the tools that they need, the fundamentals, but if we do not teach them how to practice it and do the research and analysis that is required to discover new knowledge, I don’t think we have done our job.”

Research, especially when conducted in interdisciplinary teams, teaches students valuable skills, said James Winebrake, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

“Mastery of critical thinking, communication and collaborative problem solving skills are important for students who wish to become leaders in today’s interconnected world,” Winebrake said.

Large crowd at last year's Undergraduate Research Symposium

Further evidence of the growing interest in research was displayed when a record number of student presenters participated in this year's Undergraduate Research Symposium, an annual program at RIT. More than 300 students took part in the daylong event, hosted at Sustainability Institute Hall.

The emphasis on becoming a research university requires faculty to balance research pursuits with their teaching responsibilities, said Scott Williams, professor in the School of Chemistry and Materials Science. This means undergraduate researchers have more opportunities to become independent researchers themselves.

A small army of 17 students drives Williams’ research areas. Wolf leads his drug quality assurance group, which is affiliated with the RIT-Rochester Regional Health Alliance. Wolf has contributed research that can verify the components of the drug cocktail used in the treatment of tuberculosis, the leading infectious disease worldwide.

She cites a 2014 World Health Organization Global TB Report which found that 480,000 people had developed multi-drug resistant TB and 190,000 had died from the drug-resistant disease. The simple test Wolf developed identifies substandard and counterfeit pharmaceuticals, purporting to contain Streptomycin, a frontline antibiotic in the treatment of TB. Her research could lead to reduced TB-related deaths and multi-drug resistance in developing countries. “We took this test further than where we thought we’d be able to and there was a moment where everything fell together in an unexpected way,” she said.

Williams is a mentor to many of his students and former students. Wolf credits him with helping her land opportunities that she otherwise wouldn’t have had—such as presenting her work at regional chapter meetings of the American Chemical Society and at the National Undergraduate Research Symposium at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Tennessee, and co-writing a paper on her research findings.

The role of a mentor is an important component to the research experience, said Anne Haake, dean of the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences.

“The individual attention and guidance necessary to carry out research can make a real difference to the educational experience,” Haake said.

“One of the most important experiences I’ve gotten from RIT has been the undergraduate research by far,” Wolf said. “It’s given me so many opportunities, to travel, to make friends, to practice my science, to contribute to my science and just really understand as a whole, why I’m here and why it matters.”

A look inside the laboratories

RIT undergraduates are engaged in a wide variety of research experiences. Here are just a few examples:

Joan Bempong, a fourth-year RIT/NTID student in the computer engineering BS/MS program from Irving, Texas, is working with Assistant Professor Deirdre Schlehofer to help improve health knowledge and perceptions among deaf and hard-of-hearing female college students. Bempong’s research will contribute to a new understanding of health disparities in this underrepresented community.

Kayla Davis, a fourth-year software engineering major in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences from Middlebury, Vt., is working on the Vulnerability History project with Andy Meneely, an assistant professor of software engineering. The research and development project is focused on discovering, distributing and displaying the history of vulnerabilities in software, creating a way for researchers, students and developers to analyze and learn about software vulnerabilities.

Alexandra Harrison, a BS/MS computer engineering undergraduate from Baltimore, Md., is working with Shanchieh (Jay) Yang, professor and department head of computer engineering in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, on developing algorithms to predict cyber-attacks using non-conventional data from resources such as social media and “the dark web.”

Garrett Parlo, a fifth-year packaging science student in the College of Applied Science and Technology from Clarks Summit, Pa., is part of a student team working with Assistant Professor Carlos Diaz-Acosta on the reduction of food waste at grocery stores. They are studying the use of antimicrobial packaging and “intelligent labels,” or alerts to consumers and store personnel related to product rotation and quality control.

Nathan Raw, a third-year management information systems major in Saunders College of Business from Canandaigua, N.Y., is a member of the team working on a data analysis project for Stupid Cancer, a nonprofit charity that addresses young adult cancer through advocacy, research and support. The project, part of Assistant Professor Yang Yu’s business intelligence class, analyzes demographic and behavior data to provide a comprehensive model connecting treatment, side effects and concerns of patients.

Tayler Ruggero, a third-year criminal justice major from Philadelphia, is a research assistant with RIT’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives in the College of Liberal Arts. She works with the Rochester Police Department and the Monroe County Crime Analysis Center examining area disputes, looking for trends so authorities can intervene before retaliatory violence occurs.

Geoffrey Sasaki, a fourth-year photographic sciences major in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences from Fremont, Calif., is working on a team, led by Christye Sisson, associate professor and chair of photographic sciences, contributing to the Media Forensics program. Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the MediFor program develops technology for forensic analysts to automatically detect manipulated imagery and determine the method of alteration. Sasaki gathers ground-truth images and video data, and develops manipulated imagery for other teams on the project.

Tara Snyder, a fourth-year biomedical sciences major from Williamstown, N.J., conducts research on sickle cell disease and malaria with Bolaji Thomas, associate professor of immunology and molecular biology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the College of Health Sciences and Technology. Snyder will give a poster presentation on how host genetic variations enhance susceptibility to Plasmodium falciparum malaria infection in West Africa at the Experimental Biology conference in Chicago on April 22-26.

Wyatt Wetzel, a third-year physics major in the College of Science from Taneytown, Md., is a member of the Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics Theory Group led by Assistant Professor Mishkat Bhattacharya. Wetzel presented his research on “Multistability in Torsional Optomechanics” during the Symposium on Undergraduate Research at the Frontiers in Optics: The 100th Optical Society of America Annual Meeting, held in Rochester in October.