Graduate Student Research

At the University of Nevada, Reno, graduate students are producing exciting research which promises to help shape the course of the 21st century. Passionate exploration, innovation and dedication are fundamental to every program.

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The University has more than 60 research centers and facilities, and dozens of state-of-the-art laboratories. Our research enterprise includes the Nevada Terawatt Facility, which houses the most powerful laser on a college campus, the Nevada Seismological Lab, one of the most sophisticated large-scale structures laboratories in the country where pioneering earthquake engineering is accomplished, and the Academy for the Environment, which focuses on issues of sustainability in the Great Basin and Lake Tahoe areas.

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Engineering in the Elementary Classroom: The Connection Between Engineering Design and Self-EfficacyFour elementary students building with classroom materials

Andrew Westby, STEM Education Masters student

"As the need for a STEM-educated workforce becomes more readily acknowledged, K-12 education across the country must value engineering education as part of the overall strategy to prepare students more fully for participation in the 21st century economy. This valuing of engineering is evidenced in its specific inclusion in Next Generation Science Standards. Studies show that engineering education increases the STEM skill development process and overall competency in science.

Teaching that includes engineering has been shown as an effective instructional delivery model, and its connections to other areas of education such as mathematics and science with emphasis on critical thinking have also been demonstrated. This mixed methods study addresses the question: How does exposure to engineering instruction, with an emphasis on using the engineering design process, improve student self-efficacy toward solving real world engineering problems? Persevering with problem solving is a best practice according to the Common Core State Standards in both mathematics and English/language arts (ELA), and improving self-efficacy improves engagement, participation, motivation, and performance.

Stand-alone engineering design promotes higher level thinking and problem solving, but when combined with mathematics and/or ELA its influence on developing the skills teachers are trying to target becomes further reaching. This study shows that engineering design in the elementary classroom has a beneficial effect on student self-efficacy and positively contributes to the elementary learning environment."

*Image used with guardian permissions.

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Examining perceptions of police legitimacy

Jacqueline Kirschenbaum, Interdisciplinary Social Psychology Ph.D. programGraduate student Jackie Kirshenbaum giving a slide presentation

"Confrontations between police and racial minorities have received not only nationwide attention but also attention on the University’s campus. In an effort to examine diversity in perceptions of police, Alicia DeVault and I are working on a project that examines how diverse racial groups perceive police rule-bending and how this influences people's perceptions of police legitimacy.

Generally, this project will highlight whether students of varying races deferentially experience interactions with police and whether trust in police varies by students’ race. Specifically, racial groups might differ in their tolerance of police officers who bend or break rules with good intentions (e.g., bending a rule to capture a suspect). This tolerance might influence people's trust in police and people's belief that the police are authorities that should be obeyed.

We will interview University students about their interactions with and attitudes/beliefs toward police and examine potential themes that emerge from interviews regarding race, trust in police, and tolerance for police rule-bending and breaking."

Read more graduate student research profiles.


How to eat a toxic newt

Robert Eugene del Carlo, Cell & Molecular Pharmacology & Physiology Ph.D. program

Graduate student Robert Eugene del Carlo lectures while two snakes sit in terrariums before him.

"Along the west coast of the United States, there are garter snakes that are able to eat newts that are so toxic that no other predators even try to eat them. The newt's toxicity comes from a very potent nerve toxin in their skin. When a predator attacks, the toxin begins to paralyze the predator, allowing the newt to literally escape the jaws of death.

Previous studies have shown that the reason the garter snakes can survive the toxin is that they have evolved mutations in the protein the toxin normally inhibits. This protein is called a sodium channel and its job in the body is to carry the electrical signals that allow nerves to fire, muscles to contract, and hearts to beat. In the same way that blocking this channel with the toxin is devastating, you can imagine that messing around with its recipe is a pretty risky move in evolution's kitchen.

Our team of physicists and ecologists set out to use some of the most advanced biomedical techniques on these snake sodium channels to find out exactly what kinds of tradeoffs they suffer. So far, we have found that in exchange for becoming more resistant to the toxin, these snake sodium channels forfeit a lot of electrical power. This means that the muscles relying on these sodium channels are also weaker, putting our toxin-resistant snakes at risk for being preyed upon themselves. Our next step is to reconstruct the evolutionary path that these snakes took from sodium channels that look and work like ours to the resistant mutants they have now."

  • $5,000 Service Award to the Nevada Proteomics Center
  • NSF Grant to Chris R. Feldman and Normand Leblanc

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Do legal decisions differ when the defendant belongs to a minority group?

Graduate student Charles Edwards speaks to a jury in a mock trail.Charles Edwards, Interdisciplinary Social Psychology Ph.D. Program

"My research interests primarily focus on understanding legal decision-making, including legal decisions of both judges and jurors. This line of research also tends to focus on prejudicial decision-making and how legal decisions might differ when the defendant belongs to a minority group as compared to a non-minority defendant.
Currently, I am studying whether bias expressed toward religious minority defendants can be mitigated by modifying jury instructions. Specifically, the study manipulates the religion of the defendant to be either Christian or Muslim and participants receive one of four possible sets of jury instructions. It is my hope that we can use the results of this study, and future studies, to inform the legal system as to what potential modifications to the legal system might be effective in lessening prejudice toward religious minorities and minorities in general.

We recently submitted an article examining specific outcomes associated with stress in judges. A previously proposed Model of Judicial Stress predicted that a judge's personal, job, and environmental characteristics would relate to increases in judge stress and, in turn, cause negative outcomes in the judge's personal and professional life. The study we conducted examined the outcome side of the model in that we assessed whether judges' reported levels of stress related to negative personal and professional outcomes. The results of this study suggests stress in judges significantly relates to poorer mental health, lower levels of job satisfaction and job efficacy, and poorer perceptions of safety and security."

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Smart shoes aim to ensure safe walking conditions for non-sighted people

Arpith Siddaiah, Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. Program

Graduate student Arpith Siddaiah works with equipment in a lab

"A collaborative project named 'Smart-Shoe Project' aims to provide technological visual aid to sight-impaired people in our community.

In this project, we aim integrate a safe 3D-navigation system and terrain sensors (such as laser sensors and inertial measurement sensors) with a smart shoe that is equipped with a micro-mechanical system. Based on the input from the sensors and smart algorithms, this micro-mechanical system embedded within the shoe-sole will be able to engage specific types of textures. These textures will provide sufficient walking friction that will help visually impaired people avoid slipping in dangerous walking conditions on walkways and footpaths. The smart shoe will be capable of not only warning the user via mobile and/or audio warning system but will also ensure safe walking conditions in snow, ice, dust, oil and water contaminated floor conditions."

Collaborators: Ph.D. supervisor Pradeep Menezes, Luan Nguyen (from computer science department), Ph.D. supervisor Hung La

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University receives three National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awards and several honorable mentions

Fellows

  • David Knupp, CMB
  • Alberto Adan Nava, Biomedical Engineering
  • Aaron Unger, Chemistry

Honorable mentions

  • Alison Agneray, EECB
  • Salome Manska, CMB
  • Colin Morrison, Ecology undergrad headed for UT Austin
  • Manuel Retana, Engineering
  • Nicholas Winner, Materials Research
  • Heather Winslow, Geology

Three Minute Thesis Competition

Congratulations to the winners of tonight's Three Minute Thesis competition! All contestants gave terrific presentations! Check back soon for the presentation videos.

Doctoral Dissertation

  • First Place and People's Choice: Robert del Carlo
  • Second Place: Vanessa Gutierrez
  • Third Place: Kat Lambrecht

Master's Thesis

  • First Place: Valentina Alaasam
  • Second Place: Vicki Thill
  • Third Place: Cordelia Alexander-Leeder

Learn more about the competition.


Graduate Student Research

Our graduate and doctoral students continue to make amazing contributions to the research profile of the University of Nevada, Reno.

Impact of elaborate feedback on learning

Rita Olla - Ph.D. student in Behavior Analysis

The purpose of my study is to determine, in a laboratory setting, the EFFECTIVENESS OF DIFFERENT TYPES OF WRITTEN FEEDBACK provided to the students when they take their quizzes on line.

The participants, University undergraduate students, are invited to read a 12-page document on a topic on which they are not familiar and will be quizzed twice at the end of the reading.

After the submission of the first set of answers, the participants will be able to check their performance. Specifically, the participants will see one of the following three types of feedback, based on the condition they were assigned:Screen shot with green and red blurs covering text of user's gaze

  1. Basic feedback: Canvas platform will just inform the participant whether the answer is correct; and if incorrect, the system will show the correct answer.
  2. Elaborate feedback: Following the first quiz submission, the participant will receive the basic feedback, AND, if the answer is incorrect, the participants will see on the screen the specific feedback, which provides information as to why the answer selected is wrong, and a general feedback, which provides general information about the question; the general feedback is also showed when the participant gives the correct answer [figure 1: example of elaborate feedback for a wrong answer].
  3. Spaced feedback: Following the first quiz submission, the feedback provided is the same as the elaborate feedback except that the text will be presented in a different layout, specifically, characters in bold, and sentences separated by empty lines. Also, in this case, a correct answer will be accompanied by the general feedback [figure 2: example of spaced feedback for a wrong answer].

The first quiz submission will be followed by a mandatory break of 15 minutes. After that, the participants will receive, always through Canvas, a second set of different questions.

The performance on the two sets of questions will be analyzed in order to verify whether the elaborate feedback is more effective than the basic feedback, and whether the spaced feedback is even more effective than the elaborate feedback (given the different visual presentation of the text). The assumption to be verified is that a more salient text representation can help the student to learn more easily and be better on subsequent tests.

The spaced feedback represents an extension of a previous study conducted by Chase and Houmanfar (2009), during which they assessed the statistical significance of the better performance produced by the students who received the elaborate feedback compared to those who received only the basic feedback.

Moreover, an eye tracker will be used when the participants are reading the feedback. The purpose is to determine whether the spaced feedback determines longer gaze duration on the text, and if the longer gaze duration is correlated to a better performance. [Figure 3: an example of representation of the eye gaze of a participant when reading the elaborate feedback. The color red indicates longer gaze duration].

Understanding the immune systems of hibernating bats

Gabriela Rios-Sotelo - Ph.D. student in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology

Graduate student Gabriela Rios-Sotelo holds a batFor a mammal, hibernation is a dramatic physical and behavioral change. Bats comprise almost one quarter of all species of mammals and are well-known hibernators, but very little is known about their immune function during hibernation. Recently, however, hibernating bats are becoming infected and killed by a deadly new disease: White Nose Syndrome (WNS). Since 2006, WNS has caused unprecedented declines in populations of multiple species in North America with over six million deaths. It is thought that the pathogen causing WNS, Pseudogymnoascus destructans or (Pd), is opportunistically infecting bats because their immune system is suppressed in hibernation. Unfortunately, very little is known about bats or Pd, and much less is known about the mechanisms of bat's immune system during hibernation. Some researchers have observed that not all species of bats are similarly affected by Pd. It may be the case that some species can shift or control different aspects of their immune response during hibernation or change behavior to protect themselves from this disease.

We are interested in learning what shifts occur in immunity and behavior during bat hibernation in order to learn not only about the immune system of bats, but also to discover how we can conserve bat species in North America before it is too late. As key pest controllers and pollinators across North America, the presence of bats would be greatly missed.

Funding

  • 2018 Charlotte Mangum Student Support Program, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Conference, San Francisco, CA ($200)
  • 2017 UNR Fall Research Grant ($2,500)
  • 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with Nevada Department of Wildlife "Predicting Susceptibility to White Nose Syndrome in the West: The Innate Immune Defenses of Bats" ($70,000)
  • 2017 Graduate Student Association Travel Award ($500)
  • 2017 Graduate Dean's Merit Scholar ($5,000)
  • 2017 Graduate Student Access Grant ($3,000)
  • 2016 Graduate Student Association Travel Award ($500)
  • 2016 National Park Service, Carlsbad Caverns National Park with Dr. Diana Northup, University of New Mexico "Do Western Bat Species Possess Natural Defenses to White-Nose Syndrome?" ($4,000)

Graduate student Mahedi Anjuman sits at a table surrounded by various mirrors to use in her contemporary art."I'm researching contemporary conceptual art with experimenting performance, videography and sculpture. My art pieces come from personal experience and strive to express the way I think.

In my current work I am responding to the psychological impact of 'action and reaction' Sir Isaac Newton explained in his third law of motion that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In physics this means that in every interaction, there is a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects. I like to think of this law beyond the literal mathematical implications and believe that we exist in a contestant state of action and reaction - every being is psychologically reacting to every action and through actions reaction we transfer our emotions to other. Things begin to loose meaning and importance through repetition. As meaning is lost, a void is created. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche explains this as passive nihilism -- that unwillingly human beings believe their existence is meaningless. My recent work is a response to that void. 

As a result of thinking this way about action and reaction, I started to believe that ‘I' am basically nothing more than the reflection of my surroundings, which includes other beings. Their actions and reactions build my unique self."

Two monitors sit side by side. One shows images of plastic spoons. The other has real plastic spoons mounted on the front.

"Perhaps for practical and logistical reasons, the majority of contemporary studies in psychology tend to present images of objects instead of the real objects themselves. However, emerging behavioral and imaging data suggest that pictorial-based stimuli may not elicit the same degree or type of response as would the actual objects themselves. Therefore, my work examines differences in how the human brain processes things depending on the format in which the stimuli are presented.

In addition to showing conventional two-dimensional and three-dimensional image-based representations, I also present real objects. Although it is challenging to present a series of real objects and to, in some cases, alter the positioning and/or orientations of these stimuli within a very brief time interval (> 2 seconds), I have developed methods to overcome this obstacle. For instance, it is not only imperative that stimulus placement occurs quickly, but also that the movement of the objects remain precise and consistent for the duration of the experiment. Therefore, for many of my studies I have built microcontroller-based servo motor arrays to ensure that spatial positioning is similar across the real object and image trials. It is my hope that this work will provide us with a better understanding of how the visual system operates in the real-world.

Graduate student Ericka Kay stands on a ladder hanging a hemp rope in a tree"I am interested in understanding how interactions among organisms are mediated by biological compounds. Plants have defended themselves against a diverse array of natural enemies for over 250 million years, partly with plant secondary metabolites (PSMs), which include phenolics, terpenoids, alkaloids, and many other broad classes of small molecular weight compounds. PSMs do not play a direct role in growth, development or reproduction, but can have important functions such as defense against herbivores and pathogens, mediating interactions with pollinators, attracting insect herbivore predators, protecting against abiotic stress and participating in plant-plant signaling.

My dissertation experiments will provide insight into phytochemically-mediated mechanisms which have contributed to plant success over evolutionary time with a focus on synergistic effects. Synergistic plant defenses are those that have greater effects in mixtures versus the projected additive values of each individual compound. To examine such synergistic effects in an anti-herbivory context, I am examining industrial hemp which meet the standards of the state of Nevada Department of Agriculture hemp program of no more than 0.3% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol content. Cannabis is an ideal study plant because it has evolved a diverse mix of PSMs, with more than 480 compounds identified, including a number of classes of antiherbivore compounds. I am combining observational and experimental studies to characterize effects of chemical variation on naturally occurring insect communities associated with hemp, and to examine specific hypotheses about effects of plant chemistry on insect physiology.

My research includes field collections, rearing experiments with caterpillar herbivores and parasitoids, cultivation of hemp under experimental water-stress treatments, development of an infrared spectral library to characterize phytochemical diversity, and extraction of compounds to conduct Lepidopteran feeding experiments.

My research promotes good stewardship for both industrial hemp by reducing inputs of water and pesticides and therefore protecting environmental resources. Industrial hemp is a drought-tolerant alternative crop for Nevada producers who will have to adapt their crop choices to a changing climate. Research would not only have applications for industrial hemp, but will be relevant to the production of other agricultural crops including crops that have diverse secondary chemistry and are grown for spices and therapeutic compounds. The potential for multiple PSMs to act synergistically on insect-herbivores could aid in future less-toxic farming practices and have implications reaching beyond ecology and agriculture into human medicine."

Graduate student in snowy woods feeding a bird

Carrie's research focuses on how environmental variation in montane ecosystems shapes the behavior of individuals inhabiting harsher, high elevations when compared to milder, low elevations. More specifically, she studies pre-mating mechanisms that contribute to the separation of mountain chickadees inhabiting high versus low elevations in the Sierra Nevada.

She's found that female birds from high elevations have a preference for high elevation males over their low elevation counterparts, and that male song, which is used for mate attraction, varies significantly between high- and low-elevation males, suggesting that females use male song to identify mates from their respective elevation. This ability to discriminant between males is particularly important for these birds because they store food items in the summer, when food is abundant, to use later in the winter when food is scarce, and they use spatial memory to find previously stored food items. High-elevation birds have significantly better spatial memory than low-elevation birds, therefore, it behooves high-elevation females to mate with other high-elevation males to ensure their offspring will have superb spatial memory for finding their food stores, thus increasing the likelihood that they will survive the harsh winters.

Carrie is a highly research-‐‐accomplished graduate student in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology (EECB) graduate program. Carrie has authored/co-‐‐authored 18 peer-‐‐reviewed papers, of which 15 have been published while at UNR. Carrie is the lead author (in one case she shares the first authorship with Dovid Kozlovsky) on 8 papers!

Carrie's H-index of citation is already at a 7 with 133 citations overall -- impressive for a graduate student. Carrie's Research Gate Score is 20.69, which is higher than that of some postdocs, and according to Research Gate, Carrie's score is higher that 72.5% of all Research Gate members. Carrie's paper on elevation related song differences in chickadees (in Royal Society Open Science) is in the top 10% of all research output scored by Altmetric ("Altmetric has tracked 5,223,626 research outputs across all sources so far. Compared to these this one has done particularly well and is in the 93rd percentile: it's in the top 10% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric")(https://www.altmetric.com/details/3952657#score). The full text of that paper has been viewed 2,414 times in less than just two years since publication!

She is likely to be remembered as an EECB graduate with one of the most impressive publication records achieved during her tenure as a Ph.D. student.

Graduate Student Marcela Salazar

Marcela is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Atmospheric Sciences program and joined the Atmospheric Turbulence and Air Quality (ATAQ) research group for her Ph.D. after completing her MS degree at the University of Nevada, Reno. In the ATAQ group, she has been able to incorporate the experimental work in aerosol optical properties she did as a Master's student (advisor: W. Patrick Arnott, resulting in two journal publications) into a spatial investigation of wildfire smoke plume impacts in California and Nevada.

Her current work focuses on the ability to use satellite remote sensing to measure near-surface air pollution concentrations downwind of wildfires.

After starting this research in June 2014, she already has one accepted publication; one draft publication, expected submission March 2017; and has given five conference presentations. In addition to these, she plans to prepare two more first author journal articles before she graduates and will attend two national level conferences. One example of the impact of Marcela's research is her most recent article, it was published November 30, 2016 and had its first citation in a paper published in February 2017. Her results are timely and of great importance to the aerosol remote-sensing community.