Biology Students Named ASPB Scholar, Present in Texas

Roshani Budhathoki and her research mentor Biology Professor Vijaykumar Veerappan.

Written by Raven Dillon

Roshani Budhathoki ’19 and Jacob Dayton ’19 had big Octobers as biology students at Eastern Connecticut State University. Budhathoki was named a 2018-19 ASPB-Conviron Scholar by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), and Dayton presented research in Texas at Rice University’s Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Budhathoki was one of 43 scholars selected from a pool of more than 200 applicants. ASPB is the professional society for plant biologists and Conviron is a partnering company that manufactures plant-growth chambers.

Within the realm of biology, Budhathoki focuses on plant science and breeding. She is inspired to pursue plant breeding because of the possibility of improving agriculture and food production, especially in developing countries. Budhathoki has given oral presentations at several professional conferences, including the ASPB-Northeast Section Meeting and the Eastern Colleges Science Conference, receiving best oral-presentation awards at both conferences. She was also the recipient of an ASPB undergraduate research fellowship this past summer.

ASPB-Conviron scholars receive a one-year membership in the ASPB, virtual mentoring and résumé review sessions with established plant science professionals, and the opportunity to submit an article to the ASPB blog for editorial feedback and support, with the possibility of publication.

As an undergraduate at Eastern, Jacob Dayton has conducted research at the Jackson Laboratory.

On Oct. 6 at Rice University in Houston, TX, Dayton presented at the Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium. The annual symposium features several hundred speakers in disciplines that span topics from engineering to natural science.

Dayton’s oral presentation, titled “Metapopulation Connectivity Mitigates Permanent Loss of Historical Genetic Diversity in a Federally Endangered Seabird,” concerns the federally endangered seabird known as the Roseate Tern. His findings show increasing genetic diversity among the terns. Dayton’s research mentor at Eastern is Biology Professor Patricia Szczys, with whom he has studied terns throughout his undergraduate career. 

The Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium gives undergraduate students an opportunity to gain presentation experience and to meet peers at other institutions from around the world. Students submit an abstract and present for 10-12 minutes about their research and receive feedback from Rice faculty and graduate students.

Researchers at Eastern Analyze the Baseball Pitch

• A pitcher from Eastern’s baseball team wears a motion-capture suit so that his biomechanics can be analyzed.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Health sciences researchers at Eastern Connecticut State University analyzed the biomechanics of the baseball pitch this past weekend, using pitchers from Eastern’s own baseball team as study subjects. Titled “Analysis of the Baseball Pitch: Effect of Foot Placement on Body Movement and Pitching Accuracy,” the study was led by Health Sciences Professor Paul Canavan, visiting biomechanical engineer Nicholas Yang and Eastern students Christina Gosselin ’19 and Ashley Kennison ’19.

“Improper mechanics can lead to shoulder and elbow injury,” said Canavan. “The placement of the front foot of the pitcher during the pitch can affect the timing of motion in the hips, trunk, shoulder and elbow, possibly resulting in future injury and decreased accuracy.”

• Student Ashley Kennison uses a radar gun to measure the speed of the pitch.

Student athletes from the baseball team agreed to participate in the study, which occurred in the Geissler Gymnasium with a slew of high-tech equipment, provided by Yang, a colleague of Canavan’s from San Francisco. Using high-speed cameras, a radar gun and a motion-capture suit (Xsens) worn by the study subjects, researchers were able to analyze the minute movements that happen during a baseball pitch.

“Providing individual athletes and coaches in the future with results that could optimize mechanics may improve performance and decrease injury risk,” said Canavan of the study’s implications.

This study provided an opportunity for undergraduates in Eastern’s health sciences program to participate in practical research. Gosselin and Kennison assisted in setting up equipment and data collection. They also read literature reviews on similar studies and considered ways to improve upon their study.

“I’m honored to have participated in this research,” said Gosselin, who aspires to become a physical therapist. “I reached out to Professor Canavan this summer, hoping to aid him in any upcoming research projects and we started right away. I’m always searching for new ways to expand my knowledge, and this study has been the perfect opportunity for me to gain experience in the field of sports research.”

Eastern Receives Major NSF Grant to Study Camel Spiders

The camel spiders being studied at Eastern are preserved in ethanol. This specimen, held by Biology Professor Matthew Graham, has a large chelicerae — jaw-like appendage used for catching food.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Eastern Connecticut State University is the recipient of a major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund research on a little-known type of arachnid known as the camel spider. Led by Biology Professor Matthew Graham, the grant will total more than $500,000 over the course of four years in an effort that will develop young scientists and contribute to the understanding of climate change in deserts.

The project is a collaboration between Graham’s lab at Eastern, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the University of Colorado. With more than $1 million in NSF funding split between the Connecticut- and Colorado-based teams, the project represents cutting-edge research that could well make an impact on the global stage.

Camel spiders are actually not spiders at all, but another type of arachnid called solifuges. While they do have eight legs and are in fact arachnids, solifuges don’t have venom or make silk (webs) — unlike their spider relatives. Their most obvious difference, however, is the presence of enlarged chelicerae — ferocious jaw-like appendages — rather than venomous fangs.

Camel spiders do not have 10 legs; the right-most appendages are used for smelling and feeling their environment. Scientists recently found that they also act like suction cups.

Native to deserts and arid habitats throughout the world, camel spiders — also known as sun spiders and wind scorpions — are an understudied taxonomical group, as they are notoriously difficult to find, collect and keep alive in captivity.

Unlike their scorpion relatives, which can survive for months with no food or water, camel spiders have high metabolisms and voracious appetites, and are a challenge to study in a laboratory setting.

One of the NSF’s initiatives is to investigate understudied organisms. Graham and colleagues are tasked with understanding how changing desert landscapes and climates have shaped the evolution of camel spiders. Doing so can help predict how they — and desert ecosystems at large — will respond to global climate change, as well as inform desert-conservation efforts.

“Deserts of the American Southwest are my passion,” said Graham, who is an expert on scorpions. “I’ve been collecting scorpions throughout these deserts and using DNA to learn about their evolutionary history. But scorpions are one piece of the puzzle. Now that we’ve got them somewhat figured out, we can look at other arachnids.”

As the NSF-funded arachnologists study camel spiders, other scientists are beginning to use genomic techniques to look at desert mammals and reptiles. “Together,” said Graham, “we should begin to understand how our desert ecosystems formed, how they have changed, and how they respond to ongoing and future climate change.”

Graham’s team at Eastern will focus on camel spiders of the American Southwest. The team consists of a soon-to-be-hired postdoctoral scholar who will work full time on the project; an REU student from Eastern — REU stands for Research Experience for Undergraduates, which is an intensive NSF research program — and other Eastern undergraduates who are conducting research with Graham for independent study credits.

The second team, led by Paula Cushing and her colleagues at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as well as graduate students from the University of Colorado, will focus on understanding the relationships among North American camel spiders and the discovery of new species.

“The most important thing Eastern is getting out of this is student training in some very marketable laboratory skills,” said Graham. “The genomics techniques they are learning are really powerful and generate exponentially more data than traditional approaches.”

Genomics is a branch of molecular biology focusing on the structure, function, evolution and mapping of genomes. A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes.

Graham and Eastern student Michelina Pinto utilized a new method of trapping camel spiders this past summer in the Mojave Desert. Attracted by a light that hangs from the stake, the camel spiders wander into the fence (landscape edging), which guides them into a pitfall trap with propylene glycol — a mixture that preserves DNA but is safe for wildlife to drink.

As part of the project, the Eastern team will travel to deserts of the United States and Mexico to trap specimens. This past summer in the Mojave Desert, Graham and Eastern biology student Michelina Pinto used a new method to trap camel spiders, which resulted in many more collections. Their method involves installing pitfall traps with lights (lures) above them. Graham, Pinto and Cushing co-authored a manuscript describing the technique and recently submitted it for publication in a scientific journal.

After specimens have been collected, they are preserved in ethanol and sent to Cushing’s team in Denver for species identification. Back at Eastern, the genome is extracted from muscle tissue using a laboratory procedure. The genome occurs as long strands of DNA. Using special enzymes, which Graham describes as “tiny molecular scissors,” they’ll chop up the DNA into manageable pieces and tag them with molecular barcodes before sending them off campus for DNA sequencing.

“After sequencing, we’re going to have tons of DNA data,” said Graham. “We hope to team up with our math department and use bioinformatics to analyze all this data. Patterns in the DNA will show us how populations of these desert animals have responded to climate change.”

Graham’s team will perform this process on numerous samples collected from deserts across the Southwest. They will return to the Mojave and other arid landscapes throughout the American Southwest over the next four years, as well as go on an extensive sampling expedition along the Baja California peninsula in 2020.

“A lot of what we thought we knew about camel spiders turned out to be wrong,” said Graham, referring to new science that has rejected previous assumptions about solifuges.

The primary goals of the project are to (1) revise the taxonomy (classification) of species of North American camel spiders, (2) provide new online resources about their biology, (3) expand digital records within the NSF’s arthropod database, (4) create an online guide to camel spiders of North America, and (5) inspire and train the next generation of arachnologists.

For more information, visit http://www.solifugae.info/proposal%201733117.html.

Eastern’s Tropical Biology Field Course Reaches Milestone

50 Years of Students becoming Scientists

A group of Eastern students crosses a suspension bridge into the Costa Rican jungle at dusk.

The sun was setting on Costa Rica. The air was thick with humidity and adrenaline. The rain was coming down, and Nicholas Kukla, a biology student at Eastern Connecticut State University, was about to step foot on a narrow suspension bridge.

Roughly 30 meters off the ground and 100 meters away from their destination, this was the moment that Kukla and his group had been waiting for. They were venturing from the comfort of their lodge into the deepness of the rainforest for the first and only night-hike of their field trip in the Central American country.

“Once we got into the rainforest, the first thing I noticed were the sounds,” recalled Kukla. “A rush of sounds from different directions had my head swiveling. I wanted to know what each twig snap and leaf rustle could be.”

Using artificial light to see in the pitch-black forest, the researchers spent hours investigating tropical organisms. Among their finds, they discovered the bullet ant, named for a debilitating sting that some say is the most painful in existence. The creature rested comfortably on the handrail of the guided trail, unbothered by its visitors.

“It was the process of turning over every log and exploring every dark hole we encountered that made the night-hike so special,” Kukla said. “This trip really shows you how science works at the smallest levels.”

Since 1968, Eastern’s biology department has taken students on a tropical biology field experience—known as a “global field course” (GFC)—in international locales. This May, a riveting trip to Costa Rica marked the department’s 50th annual trip. The country is a frequent destination due to its tropical rainforests and rich biodiversity.

 

The biology GFC is the longest running program of its kind at Eastern. Destinations have changed over time, initially taking students to Bermuda. In 1984, the department introduced Jamaica as a second location, though Belize took its place by 1986. Bermuda and Belize alternated each year until 2001, when San Salvador Island in the Bahamas replaced Bermuda. Costa Rica replaced the Belize course as a destination in 2008.

Biology Professor Charles Booth has seen much of this evolution, teaching more than 20 global field courses throughout his Eastern tenure.

“My first trip was in May of 1985 to Bermuda with former professors Barry Wulff and Michael Gable,” he said. “I have many great memories — nighttime walks through the Belize rainforest, using a headlamp to spot animals; scuba diving with hammerhead sharks off San Salvador; visiting spectacular Mayan ruins in Belize and Guatemala. My best memories are sharing the experiences with students.”

“Every time I teach the course, I have unique experiences,” said Biology Professor Patricia Szczys. “What I love most about the tropical biology course is to witness the first-time rainforest experiences of my students. Plants, animals and cultural differences that have become familiar to me over 20 years feel new and exciting when I travel with them. Each student brings me a new perspective.”

 

Szczys, alongside Biology Professor Matthew Graham, accompanied 14 students on the trip this May. During the school year preceding the trip, students worked in groups to read the literature and design an experiment later to be executed in Costa Rica. This coming fall 2018 semester, they will analyze the data and create posters that convey their research. Several students are planning to submit their work for publication.

Biology student Jessica Purick and her group studied the effects of visual and olfactory cues on behavioral responses of the strawberry poison dart frog. “It was a very hands-on adventure with lots of hiking and sightseeing. It definitely made me want to do another research trip in the future and travel more in general.”

“The knowledge and experiences that I gained during my days in Costa Rica were invaluable,” added student Nathan Murphy. “Not only did the trip allow me to explore places I’d never imagined seeing before, it also allowed our class to perform scientific research projects involving real-world data collection and experimentation that would not be possible in the United States.”

Eastern students scuba dive in the Bahamas.

“For students in our tropical biology courses,” said Booth, “the biological concepts they read about in textbooks and hear about in lectures come alive when they visit an oceanic island, snorkel on a coral reef or walk through a tropical rainforest. They see exotic plants and animals up close and gain a sense of how tropical organisms interact. They learn how plant and animal communities are structured and how they differ from the communities that we have in New England.”

Booth continued: “The students also learn about new cultures. They see how the local people interact with their environment, how they use native plants and animals for food and medicine. Bermuda, Belize and the Bahamas are English-speaking countries, former British colonies, but they have distinct histories, cultures and customs. The Costa Rica course exposes students to a very different, predominantly Spanish-speaking culture. Among the students who go on these trips, some have never been out of New England, some have never flown on a plane before and some have never been out of the United States. The trips become a transforming experience for many, exposing them to a world they may have only read about or perhaps never knew existed.”

Speaking to the transformation, Kukla added, “These trips really make you feel like you’re transitioning from a student to a scientist.”

In San Salvador, students study the biology of tropical terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Marine studies focus on coral reef, sea grass bed, mangrove, beach and rocky shore communities. Terrestrial studies examine cave, mud flat, sand dune and upland shrub communities. San Salvador’s flora and fauna include both native and introduced species, making the island a natural laboratory for studying island biogeography.

Studying in Costa Rica increases student understanding of tropical ecosystems by reviewing fundamental concepts of tropical ecology, as well as various topics currently attracting research attention. Considerable effort is devoted to assignments and activities designed to enhance educational value. In addition to factual and conceptual content, the course centers on the design and execution of field studies in tropical biology.

 

“All students return changed in some way,” said Szczys. “Some students realize that they love and have a talent for field work, others realize that they are much more interested in laboratory-based biology. All return with an appreciation of tropical biodiversity and the complexity of tropical field studies, along with an understanding of a new culture. Our students return having overcome environmental, cultural and intellectual challenges.”

These challenges, according to Szczys, include handling wildlife, lack of air conditioning amid intense humidity, and troubleshooting experimental designs with limited Internet service.

“For most, perhaps all students, the trips offer a chance to reflect on their personal lives and goals,” added Booth. “Some students decide they want to travel more, and they have newfound confidence in their ability to travel internationally, while some want to go to graduate school to study tropical environments. Others simply have a new perspective on their lives in the United States after having experienced life in another country.”

He also noted that global field courses are as much a learning experience for faculty as they are for students. “I learn something new on every trip — not just biology, but I have gained a better understanding of countries we have visited, and have gotten to know the students better. These experiences helped, I think, to make me a better teacher and mentor back on campus, and to make me a more informed citizen.”

Szczys concurred, “It is a privilege to share my interests as a biologist and experience as a global citizen with my students.”

“The Costa Rica trip was absolutely unforgettable,” concluded Kukla. “I am so thankful to Eastern for providing me with this opportunity that has sparked a permanent interest in rainforest biology.”

Written by Jordan Corey

Summer Fellowships Delve into Industrial Psych, Music Performance

Among her percussion instruments, Emily Miclon trained with the marimba during her summer fellowship.

Two Eastern students participated in Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity (UGRCA) Fellowships this summer, which are intensive research experiences on the Eastern campus that pair students with faculty mentors. Psychology major Kelly Bielonko ‘18 conducted a project on employee support groups while music major Emily Miclon ‘18 prepared for advanced percussion performance.

Bielonko partnered with Professor Peter Bachiochi to execute her study titled “The Relationship Between Employee Resource Groups and Occupational Health Outcomes.” She has prior experience as a research assistant in Bachiochi’s industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology lab. I/O psychology focuses on human behavior in relation to work.

Bielonko attended the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference this past April in Chicago.

“I became personally interested in I/O psychology over a year ago when I realized we spend nearly one-third of our lives working,” said Bielonko. “I’ve always been one for statistical representations or nuanced ways of looking at everyday occurrences, and this one hit home. Workplace behavior and health are very interesting topics that are often overlooked, yet they are a critical component of any successful business infrastructure.

“Within any workplace, there are a variety of backgrounds, from gender to race, ethnicity, religion, talent, disability and more,” she added. “The question is, how can an employer support such a diverse workforce?”

Miclon, on the other hand, partnered with Music Professor Jeff Calissi on a project titled “The Preparation and Performance of Advanced Percussion Repertoire.” Their research included preparing advanced pieces of music on marimba, snare drum and timpani.

“Throughout the program, I had intensive lessons that focused on performance practice, with the goal of preparing me as a musician for performance and competition,” said Miclon. “This advanced repertoire — including transcription works — helped me properly understand how to approach the instruments in a musically effective manner to be presented in front of audiences.

“I believe this will help my contribution to the ensembles I play with at Eastern,” she continued. “Musical performances can unite people and communities, and I hope that I can use my skills to impact others.”

With each fellowship experience came different goals, ranging from personal development to enhancing the lives of others. Miclon, for instance, wants to move on with increased confidence as a performer.

“Musical performance can be a vulnerable thing,” she said, “and I hope to not only feel comfortable taking on challenges in my musical career, but also to feel more comfortable presenting myself as a musician.”

Bielonko noted the possibility of refining workplace environments through her analysis, calling attention to the effectiveness of employee support groups (ERGs). “Not feeling supported by an organization can lead to negative outcomes for both employer and employee. We want individuals to feel happier and healthier in their place of work, and we hope to highlight with our study that the conceptual framework of an ERG can enhance everybody’s experience.”

She also acknowledged her own professional growth. “Going through the entire grant and fellowship process, along with generating an I/O research study from beginning to end, has allowed me to better understand the life of a psychology researcher in academia. The ultimate goal is to publish and present our findings at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference next spring.”

Miclon concluded, “Working closely with faculty over an extended period of time is an incredible opportunity. Professors at Eastern are so willing to spend time doing research with students, and it’s amazing that the school provides opportunities like this fellowship.”

Those selected for the competitive UGRCA fellowships each receive a stipend of $1,000 and $250 to be used for their projects or travel to present/exhibit their projects. Students and faculty members must apply as a pair.

Written by Jordan Corey

South Dakota to Kentucky, Eastern Students Conduct NSF Research

Taylor Brown and a team of researchers in the East Fork Indian Creek.

Two Eastern Connecticut State University students have spent the summer working on National Science Foundation-sponsored research projects in Sioux Falls, SD, and Menifee County, KY. Psychology major Kelly Bielonko ’18 has been learning about the challenges faced by rural Native Americans in Sioux Falls, while biology major Taylor Brown ’18 has been monitoring river restoration efforts of the East Fork Indian Creek in Kentucky.

Both students are participating in 10-week Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs), a program of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In South Dakota, Bielonko has tackled a number of projects at the Sanford Research institute in Sioux Falls. Among them, she’s been conducting an analysis of the factors and outcomes of burnout-related teacher attrition in tribal and rural schools in the United States.

Kelly Bielonko at Sanford Research in Sioux Falls

“The focus of my topic comes from my passion for organizational psychology, occupational health and serving those who are underserved,” said Bielonko. “I am looking at cultural, community, school-level and student-level factors that contribute to teachers becoming ‘burned’ out, as well as the outcomes that follow.”

Brown, on the other hand, has been examining the impact of “cross-vanes” on fish diversity and habitat quality along a restored site of the East Fork Indian Creek in Kentucky. Cross-vanes are U-shaped structures made with rocks or boulders to direct energy toward the center of the channel rather than toward the stream bank, which is supposed to reduce erosion, improve habitat and provide stability of the channel.

“This interests me because my goal is to work in conservation,” said Brown. “By doing this project, I am able to provide information to researchers of organizations, such as the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, regarding the impact that their stream management structures are having. I get to see if these structures are actually benefitting the area.”

Both students have had to navigate certain challenges during their REU. For Bielonko, the lack of existing research available on American tribal teacher attrition has made it difficult to carry out a systematic literature review. Meanwhile, Brown has had to familiarize herself with previously foreign topics of study and work around weather conditions that impact the data collection process.

Taylor Brown

Each challenge, however, has made them stronger researchers, as has conducting research out of state versus doing it locally.

“It’s been a wonderful experience to travel to Kentucky, specifically the central Appalachia,” said Brown. “I had never been here before, so I’ve gotten to learn about the environment while simultaneously doing research, which I really like. I’ve also met a diverse group of people that I most likely wouldn’t have met without doing this REU. I’m the only person out of the 10 interns from the Northeast.”

Bielonko concurred, “The experience of being away from home has been incredible, even though I miss Connecticut greatly. Being in a new place, with new people and new things to do, is refreshing and widens your perspective. In the past nine weeks I have learned an incredible deal about myself, industry, academia and the world itself. I will be coming home refreshed to take on my senior year and am motivated to bring back to Eastern what I’ve learned here in Sioux Falls at Sanford Research.”

Some objectives of the NSF-funded program are to enhance students’ overall knowledge of the research process, develop their communication skills and assist them in short- and long-term goal setting to increase future educational and research-related career success.

“The REU has had a significant impact on my research insight,” said Brown. “I have done a considerable amount of fieldwork, learned new techniques and have figured out the direction that I want to go in from here. I am excited to do more research in the future.”

NSF REU participants work directly with faculty mentors and collaborators, including agency professionals, and engage in all aspects of research including study design, data collection, analyses and presentation of results. Those accepted into the program include individuals from the study region, and from other parts of the nation, often from diverse socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Written by Jordan Corey

Eastern is Top School in New England for NCUR Participation

• Eastern student Yohan Krumov ’18 presents “Divided Attention and Learning Without Awareness” at NCUR 2018.

Eastern Connecticut State University was New England’s most prolific representative at this year’s National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR). Held April 4-7 at the University of Central Oklahoma, the conference was among the premier gatherings in all of U.S. academia, with more than 3,500 students representing more than 460 colleges and universities from across the country. Remarkably, Eastern was the 12th institution in terms of participation, with 45 students presenting research – the most in all of New England.

Of the top 12 schools, only four have student bodies of 6,000 or below – Eastern’s enrollment is a modest 5,300. The rest range from 9,000 to 35,000 students, and two of them are based in Oklahoma. In the past five years, Eastern has sent more than twice as many students to NCUR as all other Connecticut schools combined.

“Undergraduate research is clearly a strength of Eastern,” said Carlos Escoto, psychology professor and director of Eastern’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity. “We had students from 15 different departments represented and the majority of presenters were students outside of the university’s Honors Program.”

Departments ranged from Environmental Earth Science to Music, Economics to Health Science, Mathematics to Visual Arts. Research topics included global water shortages; media and mental illness stigma; childhood poverty and educational outcomes; non-drug therapies and cancer patients; political rhetoric; and much more.

• Eastern student Elizabeth Hilton ’18 presents “Sleep Hygiene, Psychological Distress and Acceptability of Sleep Hygiene Practices in College Students” to a packed room at NCUR 2018.

Escoto continued: “This ranking, coupled with our first Goldwater Scholar (Jacob Dayton ’18), a second Fulbright award recipient in two years (Adam Murphy ’18), and many more students succeeding in the realm of research, speaks to the quality of instruction and faculty mentorship at Eastern.”

Reflecting on her experience at the 2017 NCUR conference in Memphis, TN, communication major Olivia Godin ’19 said, “Presenting at NCUR has been one of the most valuable experiences in my collegiate career. I was able to give an oral presentation to several students and professors about my research, which discussed the differences between how men and women communicate – a project I spent several months working on with my advisor.”

“Learning to conduct research is a major component of a liberal arts education,” said Eastern President Elsa Núñez. “That is why Eastern is committed to supporting our undergraduate students so they can conduct research and present it at regional and national conferences. We know that students who are engaged in applied learning activities such as research projects get better grades and graduate at higher rates.”

The National Conference on Undergraduate Research was established in 1987. From a pool of several thousand applicants, students are accepted into the conference if their research demonstrates a unique contribution to their field of study. NCUR offers undergraduates the opportunity to present their research findings to peers, faculty and staff from colleges and universities across the nation, providing a unique networking and learning opportunity.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Eastern Named a 2018 College of Distinction

WILLIMANTIC, CT (06/18/2018) Eastern Connecticut State University has been recognized as a 2018-19 College of Distinction by the college-guide/ranking organization Colleges of Distinction.

The organization praised Eastern for its student-centered approaches and high-impact educational practices. High-impact practices of note include Eastern’s community-based learning programs, intensive writing courses, living-learning communities for residents, undergraduate research, internships and other hands-on learning experiences.

“We are absolutely thrilled to recognize Eastern Connecticut State University as a College of Distinction for its effective dedication to student success,” said Tyson Schritter, CEO for Colleges of Distinction. “Colleges of Distinction is so impressed with Eastern’s curriculum, which is enriched with the kind of high-impact educational practices that are most crucial for student development. Such innovative engagement is preparing the next generation of young adults to thrive after college.”

Colleges of Distinction’s selection process consists of a review of each institution’s freshman experience and retention efforts alongside its general education programs, alumni success, strategic plan, student satisfaction and more. Schools are accepted on the basis that they adhere to the Four Distinctions: Engaged Students, Great Teaching, Vibrant Community and Successful Outcomes.

“Colleges of Distinction is far more than a ranking list of colleges and universities,” said Schritter. “We seek out the schools that are wholly focused on the student experience, constantly working to produce graduates who are prepared for a rapidly changing global society. Again recognized as a College of Distinction, Eastern Connecticut State University stands out in the way it strives to help its students to learn, grow and succeed.”

Summer Research Institutes Expose Students to New Fields of Inquiry

Using motion-capture technology, the student in the background is rendered as a 3D image on the computer.

Eastern Connecticut State University held three inaugural Summer Research Institutes from May 14–18 to engage promising and high-achieving students in intensive, weeklong research programs pertaining to the fields of new media, network science and English. A fourth research institute for psychology occurred during the same time, although this has been an annual program.

The New Media Studies institute challenged seven students to develop a short film using motion-capture technology. The group made a three-minute noir-esque film that showed a 3D-rendered detective frog (the frog being a symbol of Willimantic) performing motion-captured actions such as drinking a martini, smoking a pipe and dancing.

Under the supervision of faculty members Kristen Morgan and Travis Houldcroft, as well as student mentor Zachary Parisella, students utilized a variety of motion capture equipment and animation software, including Motive, Blender, Adobe Premiere and After Effects, and Pro Tools for audio.

“In terms of the software, this project really forced me to utilize everything I know and consider solutions that I had never thought of before,” said Wasan Hayajneh ’19, who majors in new media studies and visual arts.

Students were also introduced to the fundamentals of animation post-production with an introduction to character visual design, voice-over recording, and the use of diegetic sound in an animated environment.

A student presents on his group’s network analysis of “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

The network science institute challenged nine students to perform network analyses of character interactions in a movie to evaluate a hypothesis about the movie’s social structure. Broken into three groups, the students analyzed “The Matrix Trilogy,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and Disney’s “Mulan.” 

Under the supervision of professors Megan Heenehan (mathematics) and Garrett Dancik (computer science), and student mentor Haley Knox ’18, students found their movie’s script online, wrote code to extract information and analyze that script, then used the software Gephi to visualize their network analysis.

“Our initial hypothesis for ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ was incorrect,” said Oliver Chase, who majors in New Media Studies. “At first we thought that Edmund was the most important character, due to his connection to both sides of Narnia. However, we discovered that Peter in fact had more interactions and scenes than any other character.”

Professor Allison Speicher works with her research institute students.

The English research institute challenged 10 students to select a work of literature and then pair it with other works and sources to craft meaningful arguments. Under the mentorship of English Professor Allison Speicher and student mentor Jessica Maloney ’18, students used their pairings to devise research projects based on intertextual analyses.

English major Julia MacKinnon selected the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini, a story about the struggles of two women living in Afghanistan. She paired it with book reviews, other novels and historical texts.

“I researched people’s stereotypic views of Afghanistan and its refugees by looking at media depictions,” said MacKinnon. “I also researched the history of the country to get a better understanding of the wars and how the fighting affects civilian’s lives. Then I compared the novel to other works by Hosseini in order to understand his purpose for writing about Afghanistan. I also read critical readings about the text in order to learn what others concluded about the novel.”

Reflecting on the institute, Kaylee Blackwood ’20 said, “I realize now how deep the pursuit of research can be. You can take one topic, start simple, and fall so deep into research that you end up with 20-30 pages of knowledge and arguments to use to write an essay.”

A student presents on her project during the conclusion of the research institute.

For the psychology research institute, nine students were introduced to topics in sensation, perception and cognitive neuroscience. Students dissected cow eyeballs, explored taste by blocking perception of sweetness with the herb gymnema sylvestre, and explored visual processing by working with an eye-tracking device. They also learned how to search and review peer-reviewed literature, develop a research question and design an empirical study to answer that question. A poster presentation concluded their institute.

“My favorite part of this experience was learning to collect data from your own experiment and choosing the correct test to run the analysis,” said Genesis Ramon ’20, who researched how social media influences the eating behavior of women. “This has shown me the value of research and the hard work that goes into developing a research project.”

The institute was led by Psychology Professors Luis Cordón and Lyndsey Lanagan-Leitze, as well as student mentor Malvina Pietrzykowski ’18.

The Summer Research Institutes were born of the university’s mission to foster student success and retention through structured research and creative activity. The institutes were a product of Eastern’s Undergraduate Research & Creative Activity Council as well as the University Retention Committee.

To see all of the Summer Research Institute final projects, visit Eastern’s undergraduate research website.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Top U.S. Mental Health Official Speaks at Eastern’s 128th Commencement

                                                                            Eastern Graduates 1,200 Students at XL Center

Written by Ed Osborn

Elinore McCance-Katz

Hartford, CT — Eastern Connecticut State University alumna Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), told the graduates and their families at Eastern Connecticut State University’s 128th Commencement exercises that the current opioid crisis facing the United States is “the nation’s greatest medical challenge since the AIDS epidemic of the 1990s. It is a tragedy of major proportions, and we need to work together to help those addicted get treatment and recover from this disease.”

Eastern’s annual graduation ceremony was held at the XL Center in Hartford on May 15, with more than 12,000 family members and friends cheering on their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, as 1,105 undergraduates and 85 graduate students received their diplomas.

McCance-Katz told the audience that Eastern had grown from a small college when she attended Eastern Connecticut State College in the 1970s to become “a comprehensive university that has flourished.”

The commencement speaker also received an honorary doctor of science degree from Eastern in a special hooding ceremony during the graduation exercises.  She graduated magna cum laude from Eastern in 1978 with a degree in biology. Following a sterling career in medicine, psychiatry, academic achievement and public administration, McCance-Katz’s DHHS appointment in August 2017 made her the first assistant secretary-level director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

After earning her degree from Eastern, Dr. McCance-Katz went on to earn a Ph.D. at Yale University in Infectious Disease Epidemiology in 1984, and then received her M.D. from the University of Connecticut in 1987. 

After completing a residency in psychiatry, she held teaching positions at the Yale School of Medicine, Brown University, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of California in San Francisco, the University of Texas and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Prior to her HHS appointment, McCance-Katz was Chief Medical Officer of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals from 2015 to 2017, and served as professor of psychiatry and human behavior and professor of behavioral and social sciences at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University.

Describing how her professional journey had taken her from treating AIDS patients in the 1990s to her current national leadership role in treating substance abuse and mental illness, McCance-Katz described federal and state efforts to develop new recovery services and support services.  “We will turn the tide on this epidemic,” she said, urging graduates to get involved as medical professionals, nurses, counselors and social workers.

 “Be adventurous. Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Be an advocate for those who have not had the advantages you have had.  There is no greater satisfaction than helping others.”

Eastern President Elsa Núñez

Other speakers at the Commencement Exercises included Eastern President Elsa Núñez; Yvette Meléndez, vice-chairof the Board of Regents for Higher Education; and Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State College and Universities System. Additional members of the platform party included Justin Murphy ’98, president of the ECSU Foundation; Father Laurence LaPointe; and other Eastern officials.

Núñez told the graduates their liberal arts education at Eastern was highly prized by American employers.  “In five separate surveys conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities over the past decade, the vast majority of employers — over 90 percent! — say they are less interested in specialized job proficiencies, favoring instead analytical thinking, teamwork and communication skills — the wide-ranging academic and social competencies available through a liberal arts education.”

Núñez also urged the graduates to give back to their communities, saying, “I know that the majority of our seniors have found ways to donate their time and good will to making our community a better place to live.  Wherever you end up — in Connecticut or beyond — make sure you continue to give a portion of your time to make a difference in your community.” 

Lastly, Núñez encouraged the Eastern seniors to be active citizens as they participate in the American democratic system of self-governance. She quoted New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who has written that disagreement is “the most vital ingredient of any decent society. It defines our individuality, gives us our freedom, enjoins our tolerance, enlarges our perspectives, makes our democracies real, and gives hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere.”

“So never abdicate your responsibilities as a citizen to someone else,” said Núñez. “Be willing to question the status quo.  And stand up for the values you believe in.”

More than 40 percent of the graduates were the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. As Connecticut’s only public liberal arts university, Eastern draws students from 163 of the state’s 169 towns. Approximately 85 percent of graduates stay in Connecticut to launch their careers, contribute to their communities and raise their families.

Senior Class President Charlotte MacDonald presented the Senior Class Gift to President Nunez — an annual Class of 2018 scholarship — and thanked her classmates’ families, friends and faculty for supporting the senior class in its journey. Recalling the Eastern tradition where freshmen toss a penny into a fountain on campus as they make a wish — presumably to graduate in four years — MacDonald shared her own three wishes with her classmates. “My first wish is that you go confidently in the direction of your passions . . . the education you have received at Eastern has prepared you for this.  My second wish is for you not only to better yourself but others around you. Contribute to your community, offer things you no longer use to those in desperate need, volunteer your time . . . My last wish is that you find a path to happiness. . . your willingness to conquer challenges is what will separate you from the majority.”

Meléndez, former vice president of government and community alliances for Hartford Hospital, spoke on behalf of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, expressing gratitude to all who had supported Eastern’s graduates — parents, family, friends and especially Eastern’s faculty. “Their commitment to your success is what makes this university so special. Today is a significant milestone.  We hope today is merely a catalyst for a fulfilling life as each of you pursues your goals.”

Michele Bacholle, Distinguished Professor of the Year

 

Ojakian also offered remarks, commending Eastern President Núñez, her administrative team and “an exceptional faculty that guided you onyour journey to get to today.  The journey is now yours. It is your own path and your own truth that will motivate you . . .  Trust your instincts . . .  You have an obligation to leave this world a better place.  Take charge!”

This year’s graduation ceremonies again reflected Eastern’s Commencement traditions, ranging from the Governor’s Foot Guard Color Guard, to the plaintive sound of the bagpipes of the St. Patrick’s Pipe Band and the pre-event music of the Thread City Brass Quintet. University Senate President Maryanne Clifford presided over the commencement exercises; seniors Halie Poirier, Michael Beckstein and Hannah Bythrow sang “America the Beautiful”; Senior Nathan Cusson gave the invocation; and French Professor Michèle Bacholle was recognized as the 2018 Distinguished Professor Award recipient.