Meet the Winners of the 2021 Bass Connections Student Research Awards

April 7, 2021

Student Research Award winners.
Top row: Rishabh Jain, Hadeel Hamoud, Bhamini Vellanki, Athanasios Burlotos, Kelly Goo, Ainsley Buck, Jonathan Nunez, Sama Elmahdy; Middle row: Claire Huang, Adam Stanaland, Kelly Hunter, Mohanapriya Cumaran, Maddie Paris, Justin Rasmussen, Rishi Dasgupta, Lauren Mitchell; Bottom row: Cameron Cucuzzella, Suraj Upadhya, Linda Tang, Savannah Johnson, Emily Campbell, Sahil Malhotra, Mahgul Mansoor, Sophie Hurewitz

Ten graduate students and fourteen undergraduates will pursue faculty-mentored research projects this summer and next year with grant funding from Bass Connections. These projects explore a diverse range of topics, including access to modern contraception, equity in early childhood autism spectrum disorders services, the implementation of a virtual family wellness intervention for COVID-19, biomedical device design and innovation, and barriers to men’s healthy engagement on college campuses.

Bass Connections Student Research Awards provide support for students to pursue self-directed research projects under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Student projects can be either individual or collaborative in nature, and many projects continue an aspect of research begun on a Bass Connections project team. Some students will be pursuing collaborative projects that tackle interdisciplinary challenges that are not directly related to a specific project team’s research.

Analyzing Access to Modern Contraception and Understanding Reproductive Rights Among Women with Intellectual Disabilities in North Carolina*

Lauren Mitchell ’22 (Global Health and Neuroscience), Linda Tang ’22 (Biology and Statistics) and Bhamini Vellanki ’22 (Public Policy Studies and Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies) plan to analyze differences in contraceptive access among women of reproductive age with intellectual disabilities in North Carolina. The group will expand upon the work of the Big Data for Reproductive Health project and examine a robust Medicaid claims dataset to evaluate prescription of various contraceptive methods by disability status. Megan Huchko and Kelly Hunter (Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy and Political Science) will mentor the team. 

The reproductive health needs of persons with intellectual disabilities have been historically overlooked. Women with intellectual disabilities face significant barriers to accessing contraception, and there are many gaps in publicly available data surrounding the landscape of sexual and reproductive health services (SRH) within public residential facilities. This mixed-methods project will apply big data techniques to evaluate the prescription of contraceptive methods by disability status and will conduct interviews with both staff and residents at North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Developmental Facilities to assess SRH offerings, needs, barriers and knowledge. The final goal will be a manuscript publication that will inform future clinical and policy guidelines.

Assessing the Impact of a Cervical Cancer Screening Intervention on Women’s Empowerment in Rural Kenya

Doctoral student Kelly Hunter (Public Policy and Political Science) will explore the downstream effects of cervical cancer screening on women’s empowerment in Kenya. By collecting survey data from Kenyan women, Hunter’s project will identify mechanisms that increase women’s empowerment, quantify various dimensions of empowerment and assess resiliency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunter is a member of the Big Data for Reproductive Health team which has been working for three years to analyze and visualize data from demographic and health surveys to inform policy makers and health providers on contraceptive use globally. Megan Huchko will serve as her faculty mentor.

Scholars and practitioners recognize that there are downstream, indirect effects of international development programs. Interviews conducted with study participants suggest that in 2016, Dr. Huchko’s randomized controlled trial (RCT) for cervical cancer screening in Western Kenya strengthened women’s empowerment as well. Through exploring the indirect effects of this health intervention on women’s empowerment, this project aims to increase understanding of various mechanisms for promoting women’s empowerment.

Breaking the Delivery Barrier: Fulfilling Gene Therapy’s Promises with Split Intein Systems

Mohanapriya Cumaran ’23 (Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience) and Sahil Malhotra ’23 (Neuroscience) are members of the Gene Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease team, where they examined CRISPR-Cas9 and viral vectors and their roles in creating a gene-editing therapy for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). This split intein project will further the team’s efforts to build a gene-editing therapy targeting the APOE gene involved in AD. Creating a successful model would sidestep the viral capacity barrier and enable the construction of more robust gene editing therapies. Boris Kantor will serve as their faculty mentor.

The goal of this project is to optimize viral vector delivery of CRISPR-spCas9 construct in order to deliver gene therapy safely and effectively. The project will utilize split intein systems, in which spCas9 is split between two AAV vectors and reconstituted within target cells at the DNA, mRNA or protein levels. We eventually hope to develop more robust gene editing constructs specifically targeting APOE, a gene implicated in Alzheimer’s risk and pathology.

Education for Conservation: Systematic Review of Ecological, Social and Conservation Outcomes of Education Programs in Tropical Coastal Communities

Master’s student Claire Huang (Environmental Management) and Maddie Paris ’22 (Biology and Environmental Sciences) plan to advance work stemming from their Ocean Evidence Gap Map team to develop a systematic review that assesses the effectiveness of education and outreach for marine conservation. This project will focus on a subset of the research on conservation interventions within global tropical coastal communities that rely on fisheries, coral reefs, sea grasses and mangroves. The team will produce a shareable/interactive ArcGIS StoryMap, a database compiled of studies and a manuscript. David Gill will serve as their faculty mentor.

Education and outreach are crucial to the implementation of conservation management plans. Conservation education programs can increase awareness and change perceptions of environmental issues, yet conservation education is still underfunded in many coastal communities. The results of this interdisciplinary project would provide useful information on the types of education and outreach interventions that are most likely to contribute to successful conservation outcomes, either ecological or social, to inform NGO practices.

Elucidating the Role of Genetic and Epigenetic Factors in the Development of Neuropsychiatric Symptoms in Alzheimer’s Disease Patients

Suraj Upadhya ’23 (Biomedical Engineering) is a member of the Gene Therapy for Alzheimer's Disease team, which has been working for two years to explore gene therapies and their application in Alzheimer’s disease, including ethical questions related to affordability and access. In order to advance the understanding of the interplay between neuropsychiatric symptoms (NPS) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), Upadhya plans to test the contribution of genetic risk variants of major depression and general anxiety disorders and DNA-methylation signatures to the development of depression and anxiety in AD patients. Ornit Chiba-Falek will serve as his faculty mentor.

Neuropsychiatric symptoms are common in AD patients, with depression and anxiety being the most prevalent. However, the underlying genetics of NPS heterogeneity in AD has not been fully investigated. The goal of this project is to progress the field by characterizing the genetic and epigenetic heterogeneity of depression and anxiety in AD. This deeper understanding will facilitate earlier diagnoses and personalized treatment of NPS in AD.

Ensuring Equity in Early Childhood Autism Spectrum Disorders Services in North Carolina*

Ainsley Buck ’22 (Neuroscience) and Sophie Hurewitz ’22 (Neuroscience) will research the barriers and facilitators to early childhood diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among Black and Latinx children in North Carolina. This research stems from their work on the North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan team and will help inform the state’s efforts to improve outcomes for all children. The team will conduct a systematic review of the literature and conduct focus groups with stakeholders in North Carolina, including pediatric clinicians, ASD researchers, advocates and policymakers to identify potential solutions for addressing barriers. Michelle Franklin and Gillian Sanders-Schmidler will serve as their faculty mentors. 

Children from racial and ethnic minority populations are diagnosed with ASD at a significantly later age, and with more severe symptoms, than their white counterparts. As such, Black and Latinx children experience poorer outcomes. The goal of this project is to improve access to timely, culturally appropriate, quality services for Latinx and Black children between the ages of 0-5 with ASD in North Carolina.

Examining Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene during COVID-19 in Egypt and Sudan

Sama Elmahdy ’22 (Global Health and Psychology) and Hadeel Hamoud ’22 (International Comparative Studies and Political Science) plan to map the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in Egypt and Sudan, and examine how, if at all, organizations are expanding access WASH in an attempt to alleviate COVID-19 impacts. Their study will be used to offer guidance for supporting sustainable and resilient peace-building efforts through illustrating the connections between WASH and peacebuilding. The project will build on the Mapping WASH and COVID-19 in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) team’s recent work to track the spread and impact of COVID-19 cases and vaccinations in the MENA region. Erika Weinthal will serve as their faculty mentor.

Over a decade of conflict has led to the collapse of WASH systems and services in the MENA region. These weakened systems have exacerbated the consequences of COVID-19, especially among refugee populations. This project seeks to understand how COVID-19 has affected existing efforts by humanitarian actors to expand the capacities of the WASH sector; illuminate how the pandemic has fostered new interventions; and identify opportunities for building resilience, especially among humanitarian actors serving refugee populations.

Implementation of a Virtual Family Strengthening Intervention in Kenya

Cameron Cucuzzella ’22 (Psychology), doctoral student Savannah Johnson (Clinical Psychology), master’s student Mahgul Mansoor (Global Health), and doctoral student Justin Rasmussen (Clinical Psychology) are members of the Coping with COVID-19: Using Behavioral Science and Digital Health to Promote Healthy Families team, which has spent the year addressing the need for feasible, scalable interventions to strengthen family relationships in low-resource settings, during the pandemic by implementing a virtual family-based mental health program. This group plans to continue their work and pilot the newly developed implementation methods in Kenya. This project will establish a parallel virtual implementation strategy in Kenya that would allow the group to continue reaching families during and after the pandemic. Eve Puffer will serve as their faculty mentor.

Around the world, physical distancing measures implemented to reduce transmission of COVID-19 have resulted in an emerging secondary mental health crisis with family relationships acting as a major source of risk or protection. There is an urgent need for accessible interventions that can be feasibly scaled up during the pandemic in low-resource settings and this project’s self-directed, asynchronous delivery of content could address current mental health care gaps in Kenya, as well. Our project’s goal is to begin a parallel adaptation and piloting process for our intervention in Kenya.

Reducing Psychological Barriers to Men’s Healthy Engagement on College Campuses

Doctoral student Adam Stanaland (Psychology and Public Policy) was a member of the 2018-2019 Prevention of Sexual Misconduct on University Campuses team, which explored the structural, interpersonal and psychological drivers of sexual assault. Stanaland will research how factors related to masculinity prevent men’s healthy engagement on college campuses and may drive harmful behaviors. He and his team will test an intervention aimed at facilitating college men’s ability to recognize and challenge harmful norms. Sarah Gaither will serve as his faculty mentor.

In the United States, norms of masculinity often demand that men be dominant and unemotional to display their manhood. These traits may be useful in competitive contexts such as sports and job-seeking. However, on college campuses – where engagement and pro-sociality are vital to community success – these masculine traits can manifest as low self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, sexual aggression and disengagement from academics. Our study aims to better understand the nature of the negative relationship between certain masculine norms and men’s healthy engagement on college campuses and improve outcomes for men and people of other genders on college campuses.

Utilization of Free Volunteer Pop-up Clinics in Medically Underserved Communities in the United States

Rishi Dasgupta ’22 (Neuroscience), Rishabh Jain ’22 (Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry), medical students Athanasios Burlotos and Kelly Goo, physician assistant student Emily Campbell, and Doctor of Physical Therapy student Jonathan Nunez will investigate healthcare disparity in the U.S. by studying the patient population that utilizes Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinics. Using empirical data from patient surveys and existing public health datasets, this project will characterize the RAM patient population and assess patient experience with care. Janet Prvu Bettger, Christine Everett, Truls Ostbye and Lawrence Greenblatt will serve as their faculty mentors. 

Eighty-two million people in the United States currently live in health professional shortage areas. RAM is a nonprofit that delivers free healthcare services in such underserved communities through single weekend pop-up clinics. This project will help characterize which segments of the population rely on pop-up clinics and identify experiential differences between them, highlighting disparities in healthcare access and providing insight into the patient population that falls through the cracks of the US healthcare system.

*These projects are supported by the Eberts Family Fund in partnership with the Duke Undergraduate Research Support Office. 

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