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Student work celebrated at annual CREATE Conference

Published on April 24, 2024

Student work celebrated at annual CREATE Conference

Students John O'Connell and Marcus Grant and Professor Barbara Murdoch win awards

More than 250 students from Eastern Connecticut State University showcased their academic and creative achievements at Eastern’s annual CREATE conference on April 19. Students shared their work with friends, family and faculty, and two undergraduate researchers and one professor received awards.

CREATE stands for "Celebrating Research and Creative Activity at Eastern," and is an annual “celebration of the breadth and depth of Eastern’s undergraduate research, experiential learning and artistic talent,” said President Elsa Núñez. 

“We are witnessing the work of our students, who with the support of their faculty mentors, are all taking deep dives into their fields of study,” Núñez said. “Whether utilizing research methods long ago mastered or through the introduction and use of progressively advanced methods, Eastern students with the intellectual curiosity to ask questions and the academic drive to seek the answers will have outstanding opportunities to learn and to grow.” 

Student work ranged from sculpture, painting and graphic design to oral and poster presentations about climate change, artificial intelligence, mental health, genetics, historical analysis, marketing and more.  

“As a public liberal arts institution focused on undergraduate education, we place a great deal of emphasis on faculty-mentored student research and creative activity,” said Emily Todd, dean of arts and sciences. “We take pride in the many opportunities our students have to work directly with faculty on independent projects.” 

The conference aims to connect students across majors. In discussions, students can think about the potential of their research and how it can be expanded in the future.   

For those who haven’t previously presented at conferences, CREATE offers “a wonderful opportunity for our students to develop effective communication skills, demonstrate their creativity and receive feedback from the wider university community,” said Niti Pandey, dean of education and professional studies. 

Each year, two students are honored with the President's Award for Student Research and Creative Activity, recognizing outstanding contributions in scholarly activities including inquiry and discovery.  This year's President’s Awards were presented to English major Marcus Grant ’24 and biology major John O’Connell ’24. 

Grant’s work, “Free in Body and Spirit: Spectral Liberation of Objectified Peoples in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Literature,” looks at depictions of ghosts in the 19th and 21st centuries. Through his study, he found that ghost characters or those they haunt face oppression and objectification and can fight against systems of oppression through haunting. 

“I’m in awe,” Grant said. “When I set out to complete my research, I never expected any sort of recognition. I’ve been so very blessed by the support I’ve received here at Eastern, from my mentor, Professor Allison Speicher, and my other professors in the English Department and beyond. I can’t thank them enough.” 

“I was delighted to see Marcus Grant honored with the President’s Award ... I can’t think of a more deserving recipient,” said Speicher. “During his time at Eastern, Mark has presented at six conferences and published two scholarly articles, accomplishments of which many a graduate student can only dream. Beyond his impressive CV, Mark is a wonderful person to think with and to know. He is an exceptionally agile thinker and a talented writer, driven by keenly developed intellectual curiosity and a genuine desire to learn.” 

Grant will enter the Ph.D. in literature program at Tufts University this fall. He hopes to continue studying the 19th century and become a professor of English. 

From left to right: Professor Barbara Murdoch, John O'Connell, Marcus Grant and Professor Allison Speicher

President Elsa Núñez (left) and Marcus Grant

President Elsa Núñez (left) and John O'Connell

O’Connell’s research, “Impaired Neurogenesis Following Simulated Microgravity,” works to understand the effects of microgravity on cognitive ability due to space travel. In his study, he found that neural stem cells exposed to microgravity produced fewer neurons than control cells, or cells not exposed, and that the neurons’ structures had changed. He then looked at gene expression and found that many of the proteins responsible for neuron production were reduced under microgravity. 

“Winning the President’s Award was a great surprise and made me feel like all of my hard work was recognized and valued,” O’Connell said. “It has been a truly arduous path and getting this award felt like winning the lottery.” 

Murdoch and Salka
Professor Barbara Murdoch (left) and Provost & Vice President of Academic Affairs Bill Salka

His mentor, biology Professor Barbara Murdoch, said, “John's research project was extremely difficult to execute due to the challenges and technical skills required for growing brain cells in the lab. John's ability to complete this project is a testimony to his true grit, perseverance and ability to think creatively while conquering the many challenges he faced along the way. John is a rising star and a pleasure to work with. I look forward to our future collaborations.” 

O’Connell will be entering the Ph.D. in physiology and neurobiology program at the University of Connecticut this fall. He hopes to obtain his Ph.D. in a neurobiology-related field to perform research and teach at the college level. 

In addition to the President’s Award, one faculty member is honored each year with the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Mentor Award. This year’s recipient was Professor Murdoch. 

“It's a great honor to receive this award,” Murdoch said. “It means that you have made a lasting impression on your student that will serve them long after leaving Eastern. In the classroom, I strive to create a supportive learning environment that encourages active participation to help build critical thinking skills using real-world problems. Outside of the classroom, I see myself as a mentor, someone who helps students navigate their academic and professional trajectories by talking with students about their dreams and formulating an action plan to accomplish their goals.” 

O’Connell, who nominated Murdoch, credits her with much of his success. “Dr. Murdoch’s mentorship played a major role in my path to graduate school, as she provided me with many opportunities to develop my research skills, present my research, and gain recognition for it, which helped me get accepted,” he said. “She pushed me out of my comfort zone and thus gave me the opportunity to learn and grow.” 

Written by Marcus Grant