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Ohio State's Denman Forum showcases undergrad research

March 20, 2014

At Ohio State's Denman Forum, hundreds of undergraduate researchers show off their studies. Their projects seek to solve a gamut of complicated problems, from cancer to energy crises to discrimination.

For 19 years, the annual Denman Undergraduate Research Forum has been an academic tradition at Ohio State — a chance for young researchers to show off projects they've worked with, alongside faculty mentors.

The forum has grown into one of the largest events of its kind in the country, with hundreds of students participating. At the Denman, one sees everything from costume design to cancer research; students from the arts to zoology present research in their areas of study.

Below, read three undergrads' research stories.

Undergrad researcher: Devin Oliver

Major: Geography
Project: "Interrogating paradoxes of Rio de Janeiro’s gay-friendly city branding and marketing"

In other words: Oliver studied how Rio de Janeiro's gay-friendly tourist marketing efforts contrast with daily life: “What do urban elites and city authorities in Rio mean by diversity? And how does this sanitized notion of diversity and inclusion actually perpetuate other systems of oppression and exclusion?”

A chance encounter with a gay-friendly postcard in a Rio de Janeiro pub led Oliver down the path of investigating how authorities in the multicultural Brazilian city market themselves as inclusive.

Oliver, who is minoring in Portuguese, began thinking about the project during a 2011 study abroad trip.

“At first glance, the city is very friendly and tolerant of LGBT people — as least on paper and in the literature and branding campaign materials,” he said. “I’ve come to learn it means a certain type of person based on certain social markers like race, class and gender expression.”

On a second trip to Rio de Janeiro last summer, Oliver surveyed the city's gay-friendly tourism campaign; analyzed archival tourism materials; informally interviewed LGBT activists; and went to demonstrations held by Rio’s gay community. He made several trips into low-income favelas that house the Afro-Cuban gay population, in an effort to determine how lower-income gay activists are viewed in the community.

He observed a Rio de Janeiro that is eager to appear inclusive and welcoming as it prepares to host the June World Cup and 2016 Olympics — a process that involves demolition in low-income areas as the city clears space for new facilities.

“The tourism campaigns are diverting attention away from the ways in which city government is actually devaluing other types of history and culture,” he says. “You see the city at the same time demolishing homes and demolishing low-income settlements.”

“What I’m finding is that it’s not as rosy and clean as what is being portrayed in those campaigns."

Undergrad researcher: Robert Warburton

Major: Chemical engineering
Project: "Modeling oxygen reduction on nitrogen-doped graphene from first principles"

In other words: Warburton builds molecular models as part of a project to build a cheaper, more efficient fuel cell. “Ohio State has helped me look at alternative energy problems a little more critically," he says. "What directions do we need to take to sustain human life?"

As the search for alternative energy sources becomes a key focal point for a new generation of engineers, Warburton is working on a possible solution the hard way — one molecule at a time.

Warburton runs computer models that show how molecules of different materials interact. Those models set the stage for researchers to experiment with the actual materials.

“A fuel cell is kind of like a battery, there is an anode (negative charge) and a cathode (positive charge), and a reaction that happens on one side and a reaction that happens on the other side,” he explains. “The reaction in the cathode is very slow, and it’s largely due to the materials we use to catalyze that reaction.”

“What we try to do is we develop atomic-level models. Using quantum calculations, we identify properties at the molecular level, and then we try to scale them up to explain what is happening in an experiment,” Warburton says.

Warburton’s research is being led by Aravind Asthagiri, his advisor and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Warburton plans to keep working in the alternative energy field in grad school. He credits Ohio State for bringing him “an educated approach” to tackling the energy problems of the future.

Undergrad researcher: Kelly Ward

Major: Biology
Project: "A genetic approach to identify genes in EGF signaling and cell division"

In other words: Ward, a 2013 Pelotonia Research Fellow, is studying what genetic mutations in worms can tell researchers about human cancer. “It’s kind of like a big puzzle to work on and a challenge to get all of the pieces together," she says. “It keeps me excited to come back into the lab.”

Could one of the building blocks of curing cancer be found in a slimy worm?

Ward has spent her last three years at Ohio State taking tissue samples of fish bait. Her goal: determine whether certain genes correspond with abnormal cell divisions in worms that mimic cancer in humans.

“Basically, my project is looking at different mutations that occur within this worm and finding out different ways to manipulate certain pathways that a have a real tight relationship with cancer progression and development,” she explains.

Ward takes tissue samples of a worm, then amplifies copies of the DNA, then analyzes the genetic evidence for mutations.

Working with Molecular Genetics Professor Helen Chamberlin, Ward says the experience “has been probably one of the best decisions of my undergraduate career.” It has inspired her to want to continue on to medical school.

The child of a pair of high school science teachers from Cleveland Heights, Ward said with a laugh that even her parents have problems following all of the micro-genetic science behind what she is doing.

"My mom says, 'You are moving way beyond me,' ” Ward says. “She will call and say she was trying to tell some people what I was doing and ask, ‘Now, did I explain it right?’ ”