2022 Undergraduate Entries – 9th Annual Competition

FIRST PLACE $300 Award

“3D Visualization of Binary Black Hole Merger” by Mit Kotak

What happens when two black holes merge? Spectacular new images show the magnetic swirl action like never before.

By simulating this merger on a supercomputer, we can understand astronomical observations made by NASA and ESA telescopes. Our research focuses on developing mathematical models to couple Einstein’s equations, which describe the gravitational field around a black hole, with equations that govern the motion of matter moving close to the speed of light in a magnetic field.

The image grid was created by solving these equations on a supercomputer over a span of 6 months. The t/M metric tracks simulation time and the scale bar at the bottom helps calculate black hole mass. The jets coming out of the black holes can be detected by electromagnetic emission detectors whereas the colorbar contains information about light intensity fluctuations that can be detected by large telescopes such as Pan-STARRS in Hawaii.

Images like these not only help researchers analyze the behavior of spacetime around black holes, but they also offer a lesson in humility; black holes remind us that no matter what we do, there will always be things out there in the cosmos that continue to elude our wildest imaginations.


“Too Cool to Cry” by Jaylon Muchison

Captured below is the grief of a young Black man turning away to cry in solitude. Watching him attempt to conceal his tears from embarrassment, a mural of a black family responds to this public vulnerability with concern and confusion. My study deals with young Black men and spaces where they feel safe or threatened to cry in. There are public and private spheres of vulnerability, with private locations as the most preferred. Social media and social cycles teach young Black men that expression of emotions in a vulnerable and public manner, such as crying, leads to emasculation, embarrassment, and scrutiny. This prompts the reaction that “crying is weak.” Due to socioeconomic status, affiliation, or household role, weakness is a trait many Black men cannot afford. Many turn to coping with “coolness,” instead: escapism with drugs and alcohol, expression through anger or violence, or isolation. This theory from Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson discusses how Black men defend themselves against the inequities of our society. “Coolness” suppresses vulnerability and has direct links to overrepresentation of Black men in reported cases of suicide (11%), depression and anxiety (24.6%), and homicide (55.5%) despite only being 6% of the U.S. population.


“Evolution of a Milky Way-like Galaxy and its Satellite Galaxies” by Bhavya Pardasani

The panels depict the gas density in a simulation of a Milky Way-like galaxy (“Louise,” at center) as it consumes smaller satellite galaxies over a period of 10 billion years. From top to bottom and left to right, the images show Louise and the surrounding galaxies every 2 billion years until the end of the simulation (z=0 or today). The simulation is meant to represent the evolution of our own galaxy and how it interacts with and has been built up from smaller galaxies. The small dark/bright spots in the gaseous host halo are infalling low-mass satellite galaxies that are consumed by the larger host galaxy. The snapshots show how satellites that fell in earlier no longer exist as independent galaxies, but they leave behind dense trails of gas in the local environment illustrating the path of the pre-existing satellite. This figure exemplifies my efforts to study the evolution of the Milky Way and its satellites via cosmological simulations, focusing on the hydrodynamic interactions of the gaseous halo surrounding the Milky Way with the gas in satellite galaxies.


“Pink, Green, and the Cure to HIV” by Neha Arun

Upon first glance, it’s an abstract scattering of colorful blobs across a dark background, which reveal some hints of pink and green following closer inspection. Enticing hints of color that my eyes have been begging to detect over the past six months. This is an image of fluorescently stained cells that are expressing the HIV provirus.

In Dr. Collin Kieffer’s lab since my freshman year, I have investigated HIV, the causative agent of the AIDS epidemic, which is responsible for 38 million current infections and 36 million total deaths worldwide. My current project seeks to understand aspects of the HIV life cycle during infection, to define how the virus operates in a state of producing virus (active) vs. dormant integration (latent), and advance towards a cure.

This image captures my first successful experiment, demonstrating efficient latency reactivation and virus production in a majority of cells, as represented by the fluorescent pink and green. Though it took half a year of failed experiments and dead ends, this image of triumph represents a step towards evaluating next-generation HIV drugs to combat the latent reservoir, which remains the greatest current roadblock to an HIV cure.

“Late Nights” by Nishant Balepur, Computer Science

I took this photo one night in particular when I struggled to propose a solution to a research problem. Plagued with a mental block, I spent that night drinking coffee and reading papers related to my work, searching for something to lead me down the right path. After being led down multiple dead ends, I went to bed defeated, but hopeful for tomorrow, where I could try again.

While this photo does present a daunting perspective of research, it’s why I love it. I feel that I have taken many difficult classes, but I cannot think of an experience that has pushed me to think as deeply as research. It embodies everything that learning should be about: constantly pushing towards challenges without expecting a reward. There may be late nights fueled by caffeine or notes riddled with scrambled, incomplete thoughts, but the satisfaction of getting closer to a solution is the best reward for me.

“Negative Internal State In the Midst of Chaos” by Yoobeen Choi, Psychology

Losing an item must have happened to every individual at some point. While the incident of losing an item is not a sole indication of a disorder, there have been numerous studies supporting its relation to attention and memory loss. Based on the extensive literature on how neuroticism, a trait that involves negative emotions, correlates with cognitive failures, my research examines several factors such as social contexts and lacking attention that draw connections between negative internal state and the frequency of losing items. Since overwhelming circumstances faced by individuals result in a negative internal state such as stress and anxiety, they may deteriorate one’s ability to concentrate and negatively influence him or her to lose items more frequently. Therefore, my research aims to investigate how losing items in familiar settings positively correlates with one’s negative internal state. Here I created an image that expresses hectic external situations in daily life that negatively influence an individual’s internal state. Various colors represent stimuli in the environment that permeate the individual’s brain, which symbolizes his or her cognition and emotional state. The individual in the image feels overwhelmed and stressed due to excessive external stimuli, preventing allocating attention to other objects.

“Critical Periods of Neurogenesis During Male to Female Sex Change in Clownfish” by Sarah Craig, Psychology

Clownfish change sex from male to female as a normal part of their life history. This process involves a complete reorganization of the brain, behavior, morphology, sex hormone expression, and gonadal composition. Previous research suggested that during the process of sex change, more neurons appear in a part of the brain that controls the gonads, the preoptic area of the hypothalamus (POA), before the gonads change their composition and release female sex hormones. For my senior honors thesis, I conducted an experiment to identify the time course for neurogenesis and to determine whether there is a critical period for proliferation and survival of new neurons in the POA during the course of sex change. Outlined in pink is the POA of a clownfish in the midst of changing sex. Black dots indicate new cells appearing after the fish began to change sex, while the blue dots are pre-existing cells. Humans show a similar sexual dimorphism but the increase in neurons occurs during embryogenesis and has no known trigger. The clownfish may help uncover the mystery of how brain feminization unfolds without guidance from sex hormones.

“The Shape of Misinformation” by Ethan Grinberg, College of Media

Having information at our fingertips should theoretically leave us more informed and knowledgeable, but it has left us more confused than ever. Social media’s upheaval of our information ecosystem has been a catalyst for the proliferation of misinformation and what some scholars call a ‘post-truth’ society. The information age’s contrast between expectation and reality has motivated me to wrestle with the problem of misinformation in my research. Specifically, I study how misinformation spreads on social media by analyzing diffusion networks, a graph where a node represents a user that posted an article and an edge represents a share or comment. This image shows the variety of shapes and sizes of Twitter diffusion networks for a set of misinformation articles. My goal with this project is to group similarly shaped diffusion networks together to identify patterns in how misinformation spreads on social media. With this project and future research, I hope to guide social media policy and algorithm design that leads to a more informed society.

“Confocal Imaging of GLDC Protein Localization in a Schizophrenia Mouse Model” by Jenna Horner, Molecular and Cellular Biology

Because of its wide range of positive and negative symptoms, schizophrenia has become a model disorder for many other psychoses. While the mechanism is still unknown, many theories have been developed to explain the pathophysiology of this disorder. Most schizophrenia research focuses on the neuron’s play, but drugs targeting these structures have had little success. We decided to focus on astrocytes (shown as light green astral cells), cells that play a key role in regulating the environment around the neurons. Changes in these environments can lead to regulatory effects on the neurons causing downstream consequences, like changes in neuronal morphology and gene expression. This image was taken with confocal microscopy and provides a nice visual of the mouse hippocampus and the localization of cells (blue), astrocytes (light green), and GLDC (red) expression. Copy number variants of GLDC have been identified in related schizophrenia patients and results of behavioral analysis and biochemical tests revealed that the GLDC gene plays an important role in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia, however, due to a large number of types, it may be a rare player in all cases. This is just a small piece of a very large puzzle.

“Neonatal Mouse Ovary Culture Incorporated in Cisplatin Treatment Using the Hanging Drop Method” by Erica Joo, Comparative Biosciences

My research focuses on BLM helicase’s role throughout meiotic recombination. BLM helicase is an enzyme that unwinds DNA and contributes to DNA repair mechanisms. BLM is a part of the RecQ helicase family, and a mutation of the BLM gene causes Bloom’s Syndrome – characterized by premature aging and/or a predisposition to cancer. In order to visualize BLM helicase’s role during the earlier stages of meiosis, I conduct mice dissections on neonatal (newborn) mice that are 1-2 days old. Using a petri dish, I would hang a drop of ovary culture media onto the lid and insert an ovary into the drop. Placing the lid on the dish, the “hanging drop” helps promote more treatment into the sample. I am doing a 48-hour culture using the hanging-drop method with/without a range of cisplatin concentrations, then using immunolabeling to see if the control group induces intensive gamma-H2AX staining. Further insight into BLM can expand our knowledge in the mechanisms driving these meiotic pathways and ultimately infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, and cancers. This image visualizes the mouse ovary (center white dot) in a drop of ovary culture medium (pink) with an additional cisplatin concentration.

“Radiation Rainbow” by Matthew Koska, Nuclear, Plasma & Radiological Engineering

Radiation detection and measurement is an important field in nuclear engineering. Lead is a very effective shielding material due to its large cross section and high density. We placed varying thicknesses of lead in between a 2 micro-Curie cesium-137 source and a sodium iodide inorganic scintillator. Scintillators turn the energy from radioactive particles into light. These photons are converted into electrons and then pass through a photomultiplier tube which increases the number of electrons by a factor of one million. These electrons are collected by a wire and read as a voltage by a multichannel analyzer which plots counts for a spectrum of energies. The plot shown is a section of that spectrum in a log scale revealing the beauty of science.

“Molecular Movies Reveal Cellular Gatekeeping of Water Transport Influenced by Plasma Membrane Complexity” by Anh Nguyen, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Cells were first observed with a compound microscope in the 17th century. Today, research concerning cells components and activities has continued to make great strides in science. In particular, the plasma membrane – with the compositional diversity and adaptive nature of its lipid composition – remains critical to understanding cellular functions. What happens between these lipids, proteins, and transmembrane-crossing cellular cargo they handle, occurs on the pico- to nano-second timescale. Unlike our 17th century contemporaries, we can now track every atomistic detail of these lipid interactions. Here, we utilize molecular dynamics simulations, a computational microscope, to observe how varying lipid compositions of cellular membranes affects the critical process of water transport in living cells. Simulations produce a “movie” of the system to reveal the movements of each molecule over time. This illustration showcases a hypothetical membrane bilayer containing two conformations of an aquaporin protein as two frames in a billion-frame simulation production. The findings from this work not only enhance our understanding of aquaporin water transport mechanisms in different environments but also contribute perspective as to how lipid chemical diversity universally affects general membrane protein function. If lipids impact something as simple as water transport, imagine what else they regulate!

“McKibbens Actuator Relaxed and Pressurized” by Omolola Okesanjo, Electrical Engineering

As seen in the image, the McKibbens actuator is a pneumatic muscle that is able to contract and expand with respect to changes in pressure. The muscle is made with soft materials, specifically, heat sealable fibers, inflatable bags, straws, and bolts to keep the end of the fibers in place. The muscle is able to contract and expand accordingly because of the individually woven fibers and the thin membrane of these fibers. McKibbens muscle’s have wide applications in soft robotics, such as prosthetic limbs, force multipliers, and in different types of soft grippers. This actuator has lots of advantages, in that, it’s self limiting, can be easily controlled, and can be easily manufactured.

“The Steward” by Daniela D. Pope, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

The December wind blew fiercely against the long, glass halls of the Turner greenhouse. The whistling wind sneaks through the glass panes as it harmonizes with my own hummed tune – working steadily along the crepuscular sky, serenading the sun to its slumber. The darkened sky tries to swallow the illuminated structure, but fails in its effort. An earthy petrichor perfumes the room; wet earth and soybeans. It is here we invigilate over life cycles – ones with secrets we uncover through our work, ones that have passed us by for generations. Here, in an artificial womb, we steward the circle of life.

“Interactions Between Brochosomes and Wing Topography in Macrosteles Quadrilineatus” by Shreyas Rajagopalan, Integrative Biology

This scanning electron microscope image of the distal forewing of the Macrosteles quadrilineatus (leafhopper) allows for a better understanding of its topography. The small spikes may represent sensory receptors that help the leafhopper detect vibrations. The image clearly illustrates how the brochosomes (the small dots) and topography interact with each other on the wing surface. The spikes provide an adhesive surface for the brochosomes to attach to, which can provide the leafhopper hydrophobicity and antimicrobial protection. This helps our lab’s research because we can see how the topography may affect the number of brochosomes found on various bodily structures on leafhopper wings.

“Immunofluorescence of Mouse Hippocampus – Memory and Schizophrenia” by Jacob Reyes, Comparative Biosciences

This is a three-strain merged image of the CA1 region of a mouse hippocampus. The three stains consist of glycine decarboxylase (GLDC) protein (red), the nucleus of cells such as neurons and astrocytes (blue), and astrocytes (green). The purpose of this merged immunofluorescent image was to observe any co-localization of GLDC protein and astrocytes in genetically modified mice (possessing a duplicate of the GLDC gene) to investigate the role of GLDC in astrocytes. GLDC is an enzyme that degrades glycine and may play a role in regulating NMDA receptor-dependent activity in the brain, specifically memory function in the hippocampus. The relevance of this protein is that it was found to be over-produced in individuals with schizophrenia. Rudolph Lab created the genetically modified mouse model of this overexpression so that we could understand how this overexpression affects memory through analyzing the hippocampus in experiments such as this. The knowledge gained from this research will hopefully be able to aid in making the lives of those with schizophrenia better through improved memory function.

“A Novel Approach to Make Listening a More “Real” Experience Through Audio Signal Processing and Low-Level App Development” by Mankeerat Sidhu, Electrical and Computer Engineering

We have been accustomed to raising our voices to talk in a group environment, just nodding when we can’t hear someone and dealing with the inaudible speaker at a conference. The photo here showcases an experiment, consisting of human-replica heads which have speakers in their ears, speakers, audio-interface and a smartphone app. The heads can hear what a human would and the experiment here is to measure the latency between the audio processing app and the the actual sound heard by humans (one of the biggest challenges in audio research). The final product would focus on low-level development of an app where we can hear someone just like we would in real life no matter what way the person is facing, ignoring all the different noises and accounting for change in movement using non traditional ways which are performing localization and motion tracking and then applying simulated social cues. We are focusing on an adaptive filter to avoid doing explicit localization. Clear and better listening is a solution to eliminating many confusions in meetings in crowded areas, conferences and can be expanded onto other technologies in the future. We like to call it – Steering the way for better hearing.

“Luminescence in the Black Ocean of Brain-Gut Axis Connection” by Emily Tung, Comparative Biosciences

The enteric nervous system (ENS) is the most significant system that controls gastrointestinal behavior, located within the intestines. There is currently a vast, black ocean of ENS information that scientists have yet to uncover: this is reflected in the lack of world research characterizing the ENS, which could be a major factor in understanding the neurological brain-gut axis and fatal diseases stemming from this connection. My research focuses on elucidating this remarkable link between the ENS and brain neuronal genes, and I swim through the trenches of research to gather data on this mysterious ENS. I primarily work on zebrafish models with a deletion mutation in hnRNPI, a gene that manages neural brain splicing. This immunofluorescence photo reveals neuronal subtypes from an hnRNPI-mutant zebrafish intestine, in which we have observed differences in abundance and distribution compared to wildtype (normal) zebrafish intestines. Much like life, discovering links between seemingly unconnected topics can be the key to building foundational knowledge and developing novel solutions. Characterizing the connections between the ENS and neurological illnesses will take us one step closer to developing effective treatment for our next generation of neurological/gastrointestinal patients.