VCU students in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program are studying everything from archaeology to zebrafish

Undergraduates present study findings at the annual VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Resear...
Undergraduates present study findings at the annual VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity. (Photos by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

Understanding the secrets of Skeleton Lake, using zebrafish to study neuron development and mapping tick infestations seem to be unrelated. But they are all tied together as topics researched by students in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

The program, an initiative of the Office of Research and Innovation, gives undergraduate students a unique chance to conduct real-world studies alongside nationally and internationally recognized faculty. It often represents one of the biggest highlights of their undergraduate careers.

Aishwarya Nugooru, a biology student in the College of Humanities and Sciences and pre-medicine, said conducting research and presenting findings gave her valuable experience translating research to the public.

“[The program] prepares undergraduates to be future scientists and researchers,” she said. “I believe that being able to clearly articulate your research to all audiences is crucial. UROP gives students the opportunity to do this before entering their careers.”

Many undergraduates introduced to faculty mentors have the opportunity to work in research settings in the UROP work study program. UROP funds a limited number of undergraduate student fellowships for research produced under faculty mentorship. The program also hosts the annual VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity, part of the eighth annual Research Weeks in April. The event is a chance for undergraduate researchers to present research across disciplines in the arts, humanities, math and science.

VCU News interviewed several UROP researchers about their work: 

The allure of Skeleton Lake

William Swilley is uncovering the secrets of the Skeleton Lake archaeological site in India.
William Swilley is uncovering the secrets of the Skeleton Lake archaeological site in India.

“That sounds like the name of a death metal band,” William Swilley said when he first heard about Roopkund Lake, a mysterious archaeological site more than 16,000 feet high in the Himalayas in northeast India. The site is more popularly known as Skeleton Lake. 

Swilley, a senior who studies anthropology in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, learned about the site from his mentor, Bernard Means, Ph.D., a VCU instructor of anthropology and director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory. The lab specializes in 3-D scanning and 3-D printing artifacts for museums and archaeological sites across the country. Means worked with archaeologist Vinod Nautiyal, Ph.D., of Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, to 3-D scan and print skulls from Roopkund Lake.

The small lake, with a depth of about 6.5 feet, is known for the bones and artifacts strewn across its shore. The remains are remarkably well-preserved and dated more than 1,000 years ago to roughly 850 A.D. But not much else is known about the possibly nomadic group that died in the harsh extremities of the mountains.

“The fact that all of these people have expired on this mountain is tragic, but it’s actually a bittersweet moment for the archaeological community,” Swilley said. “At over 16,000 feet you have cold and dry conditions that preserve hair, skin and leather excellently. It’s almost like mummification.”

The site was discovered in the early 1940s by a British forest ranger. The remains were first suspected to be that of a Japanese invasion force but the absence of firearms, mess kits and uniforms suggested otherwise. An archaeologist dated the remains and discovered they belonged to individuals indigenous to the area and another ethnic group. Growing popularity of the site coincided with a movement to promote tourism of Indian cultural and ecological sites following the country’s independence in 1947. The remarkably well-preserved condition of the remains has allowed archaeologists to generate a number of competing theories about what killed the trekkers.

After researching the theories, Swilley agrees with the popular hypothesis that some members of the group died instantly when struck by large hailstones, or lost consciousness after impact and died from exposure.

Swilley hopes future studies will provide more information on the specific ethnic groups represented by the remains. But the removal of artifacts from the site by tourists could hamper research efforts, Swilley said.

“The removal of any artifact, eco-fact, feature or human remains without proper examination and notation can create errors in research,” he said. “It’s like taking pieces out of a puzzle box before the puzzle is complete. I can understand the desire to bring a trinket back from vacation, but gift shops exist for a reason.”


Zebrafish and development

Aishwarya Nugooru explains the impact of nesprin proteins on human development.
Aishwarya Nugooru explains the impact of nesprin proteins on human development.

Aishwarya Nugooru, a senior studying biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and pre-medicine, is investigating how abnormalities and mutations in nesprin proteins might affect neural development. Nesprins are found in the nuclear membrane, which encases the nucleus of cells. The proteins are responsible for maintaining the structural integrity of the nuclear cell membrane. Mutations in the nesprin gene are associated with some forms of muscular dystrophies. 

Nugooru investigated the role of nesprins in neural and muscular development using a zebrafish model in the neural development lab of Gregory Walsh, assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences in collaboration with Daniel E. Conway, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering. The researchers hypothesize that the inactivation of nesprin could result in defects in neuronal migration, or movement of neurons from origin to final position in the brain that occurs during an embryo’s gestation. Neuronal migration is essential for the assembly of neural circuits during brain development. Defects in neuronal migration could lead to several disorders.

Studying the impact of nesprin abnormalities in zebrafish models could later be translated to clinical settings to better devise therapeutic strategies for patients with mutations in nesprin.

Nugooru was responsible for much of the benchwork of the study, which included regulating nesprin expression in the embryos, imaging, embryo microscopy and breeding the zebrafish.

“In class I had learned about neurons and their functions but applying my knowledge by performing experiments and working on the in vivo model definitely helped me to further grasp the concepts,” she said. “It felt so much more abstract when learning in the classroom and from textbooks. But now I really understand the molecular mechanisms behind it and the connections to real-life applications.”


Pro sexual health practices

Jackie Offeh researches pro sexual health attitudes among young African-American women.
Jackie Offeh researches pro sexual health attitudes among young African-American women.

When Jacqueline Offeh volunteered as a facilitator for Voices, a program that promotes student discussion of safe sex and self-advocacy, she was excited about the opportunity to help other local college students. But Offeh was stunned to find that many women in the program were not aware of low-cost or free reproductive health services and current HIV preventive therapeutics. They also were less likely to negotiate condom usage with their partners and were not aware of various condom types, such as female condoms. 

The senior, who studies psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, decided to examine the issue and found that self-advocacy in sexual situations, or pro sexual health, and awareness of sexual health resources was lowest among poor, African-American women.

“I found that many of these young adults, especially in the Richmond area, are less likely to emphasize pro sexual health in their lives,” Offeh said. “Pro sexual health is knowing that you’re able to say no, knowing that you are able to demand that your partner wear a condom, and that there are different types of condoms to use in different situations.”

The Voices program mostly serves African-American students attending Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia Union universities. Participants attend pro sexual health discussion groups with students of the same sexual orientation. In her role as facilitator, Offeh was able to gather information from consenting students to inform her conclusions. She collected demographic information from the participants, including race, gender, income level, housing location and where they attended high school.

“African-American women of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who attended high school in economically disadvantaged districts, tended to be less likely to negotiate with partners on condom use, insist on STI and HIV testing for their partners and to have less knowledge of HIV preventative therapeutics.”

Socioeconomic barriers to health care, housing and HIV prevention education have been linked to increased risk of HIV transmission, especially among African Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. African Americans are less likely to be connected with care providers, which prevents access to viral suppression therapies. The CDC also notes that in 2016, African Americans accounted for 44 percent of HIV diagnoses but comprise 12 percent of the population.

During her senior year, Offeh plans to continue facilitating Voices and aims to help expand the program to other college students, sexually active teenagers and other local stakeholders. Offeh was led in her study by mentor Mona L. Quarless, a doctoral student studying psychology; and Faye Belgrave, Ph.D., professor of health psychology and social psychology. Both are part of the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention.


Ticks and white-tailed deer

Emma Davis is studying tick biodiversity and the population of white-tailed deer.
Emma Davis is studying tick biodiversity and the population of white-tailed deer.

Emma Davis, who graduated on Saturday with an undergraduate degree in biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, wants to help visitors of the James River Park System avoid tick-borne diseases. She is currently working with Anne Wright, outreach director at the Center for Environmental Studies and an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, to determine if there is a correlation between tick biodiversity and high numbers of white-tailed deer in the park system.

For part of years 2016-18, Davis used wildlife cameras to record deer activity in the parks and observed more instances of white-tailed deer movement than any other mammal. The cameras were installed four years ago by Wright to document the biodiversity of animal species within the parks. Davis and Wright suspect that tick biodiversity in the James River Park System, which reflects the number and variety of tick species present, is tied to the location of white-tailed deer populations.

“We are thinking that when there are more white-tailed deer in the area, they will act as hosts for ticks, which could be carriers of bacteria they get from deer which could spread to humans,” Davis said.

Lyme disease spreads when ticks take blood meals from animals infected with disease-causing bacterium, which is transferred to humans by latching ticks.

The researchers noted that the Pony Pasture and Wetlands sections of the park system, located to the south, had the highest numbers of white-tailed deer. In March, Davis attempted to collect ticks in those areas by running pieces of white denim material over grassy areas. Scientists use this method to detect ticks that are questing, or raising their front legs in search of warm bodies on which to latch. Davis was not able to find any ticks and suspects it was because the weather was unseasonably cold.

She plans to continue the search this summer and will use coarser material, which she suspects will allow the ticks to better adhere. Davis and Wright hope to eventually gather enough data to produce a map of areas within the park system most infested with ticks.

“We could hopefully put signage in those areas and encourage people to stay on trails, keep their dogs on a leash and other helpful hints to avoid ticks,” she said. “Hopefully we can keep people a little safer.”