Undergraduates Explore the World of Research with Faculty Mentors

Posted: August 31, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: February 5, 2010 at 10:28 am

By Devon Madison and Rashad Mulla

Each fall and spring semester, and during the summer session, an elite group of Mason undergraduates gets a taste of an experience usually reserved for graduate students: working one-on-one with a faculty mentor on a meaty research project.

Although the research topic is chosen by the student, it is selected after consultation with the mentor and is usually a direct or indirect extension of the mentor’s research interests.

The students in the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program complete a formal application process, and the selection process is competitive.

This summer, 15 ambitious students were selected and spent their summer delving deeply into topics in the fields of art, biology, chemistry, engineering, information technology, math, psychology, sociology, sport management and tourism and events management. Following is a glimpse into a few of those experiences.

Examining Anxiety from a New Perspective

Senior Yong-Bee Lim and psychology professor John Riskind. Creative Services photo

Senior Yong-Bee Lim and psychology professor John Riskind worked on a research project that might help identify new strategies to combat anxiety. Creative Services photo

Senior Yong-Bee Lim, whose research project is titled “The Distorting Effects of Anxiety and the Looming Cognitive Style on the Internal Clock,” has been working with psychology professor John Riskind.

According to Riskind, certain people possess a looming cognitive style, or the predisposition to construct mental scenarios of rapidly intensifying danger, even in the face of nonthreatening stimuli.

What Lim would like to research is how this looming cognitive style affects people’s ability to measure time.

“Have you ever heard those stories where people are about to be hit by a car and they say that time stands still?” asks Lim. “That’s precisely what we’re dealing with here — that distortion of time because of a fear-inducing event.”

Lim hypothesizes that those who score high on the looming cognitive style scale will demonstrate a more dramatic distortion of time.

Depending on his findings, Lim’s research project could be the first of several that could identify new strategies to combat anxiety.

“There are certainly things that can be said for present research about stress and individuals stressing about the future,” says Lim.

“Especially with the economy now, where people are wondering, ‘When am I going to be laid off?’ It would also be a healthy approach to look at how all these things interact and not just necessarily target the anxiety head-on, but see what else is contributing to the anxiety, and see if we can try to treat it in alternative ways.”

As for Riskind, the apprenticeship has also been an educational experience.

“It has been delightful working with Yong-Bee, and I have actually learned as much as I have taught him,” says the professor.

“He has a wide-ranging curiosity and an exceptional ability to grasp concepts and see connections.”

Though Lim’s apprenticeship officially ended at the end of July and he is still in the early stages of his experiment, he plans to implement and present his findings by spring 2010.

Putting a Spin on Basketball in India

Brahmbhatt and Robert Baker are interested in how sports take hold in a particular culture. Creative Services photo

Senior Robin Brahmbhatt and sport management professor Robert Baker are interested in how sports take hold in a particular culture. Creative Services photo

Senior Robin Brahmbhatt, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Individualized Study  degree with a sport management concentration, has been studying the prospects of basketball in India, a country dominated by cricket.

Brahmbhatt partnered with associate professor and sport management coordinator Robert Baker, who is also involved with a basketball project in India.

“This is traditionally more of a hard science program,” says Baker of the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program. “But [acceptance of his project] is a real recognition of the value of qualitative research and Robin’s insights. He’s looking at the development of a sport in India and development through sport.”

Brahmbhatt explored the ways basketball could be successful in the country of more than one billion people. He also found that any development of the sport in India would be pioneering work.

“I did a database search for basketball in India, and I found nothing,” Brahmbhatt said. “Nothing scholarly has been written on basketball in India.”

He adds, “Sports are on the tail end of development in India. It is still viewed as a frivolous activity [there].”

So, in his research Brahmbhatt looked at basketball’s popularity in China and cricket’s popularity in India to determine what factors were critical to those sports’ success. He also explored sports as a development tool and combated the notion of sports as a frivolous activity.

Brahmbhatt developed recommendations on how to popularize and improve the success, participation, competition and awareness of basketball in India.

The work is a first, according to Baker.

“Robin’s research is a building block in a much bigger puzzle,” Baker says. “In some places, sports is a leading component of development. In India, it’s trailing. Robin is trying to pinpoint a different approach for India.”

Brahmbhatt began to apply his research almost immediately.

He traveled to Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India – a city of more than four million people – on Aug. 12 to design, develop and implement a citywide Ultimate Frisbee league. This project is courtesy of a 12-month fellowship Brahmbhatt earned from Indicorps, a nonprofit organization dedicated to grassroots service in India. His goal is to ensure the league can survive after his stay in the country is over.

“He’s putting this research to work,” Baker says. “He chose to get involved in cultural and community development through sport. It’s an extension of his research interests and a broader interest in public service.”

Narrowing Down Causes of Epilepsy

Guy 1 and guy 2 talking about epilepsy. Photo by Rashad Mulla

Senior Aazim Siddiqui and physics professor Rob Cressman are studying the mechanisms that affect the brain and cause epilepsy. Photo by Rashad Mulla

Senior Aazim Siddiqui, an information technology major and pre-med student, has been working with physics professor Rob Cressman to pinpoint causes of epileptic seizures and diminish their frequency. This is Siddiqui’s second semester working on the project, “The Influence of Glial Strength on the Onset of High Potassium Induced Epileptic Seizures.”

Using mathematical models and laboratory experiments, the duo is focusing on mechanisms that affect the brain and cause epilepsy, the debilitating neurological disorder that causes frequent seizures and affects about 50 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

“Our goal is to study seizure-like activity,” Siddiqui says. “When that happens, different activities take place. We’re trying to incorporate those changes in mathematical formulas we have developed to help us find a way to control, and maybe even diminish, this seizure-like activity.”

So far, Siddiqui and Cressman have found that certain neurons and tissues in the brain are affected during seizure-like activity. Ions in the brain get out of balance and become hyperactive, Cressman says.

“Our model predicts different types of behavior we should see in the concentration dynamics. The ion concentrations are what drive the electrical activity in neurons,” Cressman says. “Aazim is developing a model that focuses on potassium, for example.”

The two have experimented on rats and mice, using different chemical agents to induce seizures. Using different types of drugs helps Siddiqui and Cressman pinpoint prospective causes for epileptic seizures.

“Epilepsy is a very debilitating disease for people who have it,” Cressman says. “The medications [for epilepsy] are too strong and generally have very strong side effects. More targeted treatment can be more effective.”

Using models Siddiqui made during the summer, Cressman will continue the research and conduct more experiments in the fall.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu