Undergraduate Exhibition shows students' range of scholarly interests

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Freshman John Swab’s interests have taken him far during his short time at Penn State. His research on the impact of streetcars on the historical growth of Baltimore won the freshman award at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Undergraduate Poster Exhibition, and he was one of the few freshman students to join more than 240 others from across the University to present his findings at the University-wide Undergraduate Exhibition in the HUB-Robeson Center.

He credits his late grandfather for leading him to his interest in the subject. The duo used to spend many holidays building miniature trains and wooden cities.

“Somehow that’s manifested itself in my interest in geography,” Swab said. “I’ve always found that interesting, that idea of how the world operates.”

Swab started researching Baltimore’s history when he took a geography class as part of his high school’s International Baccalaureate Program. Until the time came for Swab to look at colleges, he hadn’t thought he would come to Penn State. His dad is an alumnus, but his mom is a Boston College alumna.

“Back when they both went to school, the schools were big rivals,” he said, noting that he used to side with his mom during friendly family rivalries. “But when I started looking for schools that had geography programs, I saw that Penn State has a very highly ranked geography program. I met some of the faculty, and I just thought, ‘Ok this is definitely where I want to go to school.’ It just clicked, and I love it.”

John Swab-freshman, geography major

John Swab, a Penn State freshman majoring in geography, will present his research project findings at the April 9 Undergraduate Exhibition. Swab's project defines how the Baltimore streetcar system played a considerable role in the growth of the city.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Swab’s research shows suburban growth of the city between the 1850s and 1920s, and its changing shape until the final piece of land was annexed in 1918.

“As these streetcars develop, some people are beginning to speculate on the land, and you have this switch from this idea of urban growth where the city can’t grow up anymore because building materials aren’t that good,” he said. “You can’t get any more land within the city because it’s already in use, so you have to go out and build another street and build more houses.”

Instead of traditional single-family homes on one-acre lots, Swab said Baltimore grew street-by-street in the form of row homes, eventually engulfing separately named towns that were once on the outskirts of the city. “You would never today think of those as suburbs because they look exactly like any other part of the city,” he said.

A human geography major and a Schreyer Honors College scholar, Swab says he is happy to share his research — including at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' no)Boundaries Graduate Student Conference in March — and also to debunk a common assumption about it.

“People always say, ‘Oh, you’re going to make maps all your life,’ but that’s not true. Maps are a critical part of geography, but to say they’re the only part, that is definitely not the case,” Swab said. “For me, human geography involves the process of looking at people and how they interact with the environment. Not talking about how they physically change or alter it, but more about how humans are spread out on the face of the planet and how the things that they do in those environments interacts with other humans in other areas.”

Nature plus nurture

Junior Rhoda Moise, who also presented at the exhibition, embodies her interests through her research and campus involvement.

Moise, a Schreyer Honors College scholar majoring in biobehavioral health (BBH), conducted a nine-week research project through the McNair Scholars program at Penn State, which sponsors undergraduate students from traditionally underserved backgrounds whose goals are to teach and research at the collegiate level.

“I’m interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in public health, so I’m going to capitalize on any opportunity to present. It gives students an opportunity to share their research as well as critique other students. That experience is paramount.”

— Rhoda Moise, junior, Undergraduate Exhibition 2014 presenter

Moise worked with Emilie Smith, a professor of human development and family studies, to explore the relationship of children’s participation and connectedness in after-school programs to problem behavior.

“I’m interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in public health, so I’m going to capitalize on any opportunity to present,” Moise said of the Undergraduate Exhibition. “It gives students an opportunity to share their research as well as critique other students. That experience is paramount.”

Overall, her research found that the more involved and connected children in grades two through five felt to their programs, the less likely they will be to use alcohol, tobacco products and marijuana, or to be delinquent.

“A lot of studies have looked specifically at attendance, but we realized through our studies that it’s more than that,” Moise said. “You can go every single day, but not be engaged. How connected are you to the peers, the program, the staff?” The overall conclusion was to promote programs that allow students to build self-awareness, she said.

Moise came to Penn State as a biology major with the intention of going to medical school because she wanted to help people.

“I realized that I need some type of edge,” she said, which led her to discovering the biobehavioral health major. “I really like the interdisciplinary approach because it’s not just ‘Is there a presence of a pathogen?’ — it’s also the mental state, the environment. I really liked the prevention and proactive measures of health that BBH offers.

“That shifted my gears from wanting to go to medical school toward wanting to do research,” she added, “and to pose those questions that no one has asked or has answers to.”

Moise has gotten involved on campus in other ways beyond her research, too. She’s a education member of HealthWorks, a peer education/outreach program in University Health Services.

She’s also a scholar advancement team volunteer, serving as an ambassador for the Schreyer Honors College, and is involved with the National Council of Negro Women, advocating for women on campus through philanthropy, prosperity and promotion of educational values.

“All of those encompass my ultimate vision of combatting health disparities, specifically for underrepresented populations,” she said.

This was Moise’s second year presenting at the exhibition.

Finding energy 

Like Swab and Moise, curiosity and interest drove Danhao “Spark” Ma to seek out undergraduate research opportunities and get involved early in his collegiate career.

When starting his studies at Penn State Altoona, Ma sought out physics professor Kofi Adu.

“My first semester with him, I learned how to prepare carbon nanotubes,” which are tiny pieces of carbon rolled up, Ma said. “After that semester, he taught me how to think through the research process. We started to think, ‘How can we apply this material in the real world?’ ”

International student takes advantage of opportunities at Penn State

Danhao Ma or Spark, the name his American friends know him by, is a student from Shanghai, China. From a young age he has always wanted to explore and experience more academically than he believed China could offer. When his parents offered to allow him to attend high school in the U.S., he jumped at the chance, landing Atchison, Kansas. In search of a good engineering school to continue his studies, he chose Penn State, where as an undergraduate researcher, he is working on the next generation of power cells–flexible batteries. These batteries are bendable with a fraction of the volume and weight of the ones we use today.

C Roy Parker

Adu and Ma worked to combine the nanotubes with superconductors — less resistive materials — in order to enhance the superconductive material’s ability to function at a higher temperature.

“By applying the carbon nanotubes, we changed the properties of the materials to make it more adaptive,” Ma said. “We successfully increased the superconducting temperatures by almost 20 percent.”

During his sophomore year, Ma participated in the Undergraduate Exhibition with a poster explaining the carbon nanotubing research and won first place in the physical sciences category.

“That was really encouraging for me,” Ma said of the prize, adding that the experience is what encouraged him to choose an energy engineering major. “To present the work and to share it with professors around the whole University was really exciting, and I really appreciated the opportunity because I got the chance to meet different people. The judges’ comments were really helpful.”

He worked with other student researchers to submit two additional posters that also took home prizes that year.

“To present the work and to share it with professors around the whole University was really exciting, and I really appreciated the opportunity because I got the chance to meet different people. The judges’ comments were really helpful.”

— Danhao “Spark” Ma, senior, Undergraduate Exhibition 2012, 2014 presenter

After publishing a journal article on the carbon nanotubing findings in Physica during his junior year, Ma set his sights on returning to the Undergraduate Exhibition this year, where he won the first place University Libraries Award for Information Literacy and took third place overall in the physical sciences category. He presented a poster detailing ultrahigh-power supercapacitors using flexible and self-assembled carbon nanotube electrodes, which — simplified — can be thought of as powerful, flexible batteries.

Ma explained that the supercapacitors he’s working on with researchers at Penn State aim to harness the higher energy quality of a battery combined with the faster speed of a conductor. That research led to the idea that these supercapacitors could have a different, more functional structure than in the past, which is what Ma’s poster will focus on.

Ma, now in his senior year, helped the team of researchers establish their own “self-assembly techniques” to cut out the less conductive binders that are normally part of superconductors. Initial findings on this research were published in the “Journal of Physical Chemistry” in January.

After establishing those techniques, the team is now working on solid-state supercapactiors, which are lightweight and flexible and don’t require the heavy steel casing that batteries do. The supercapacitors are six-dimensional, meaning they have high power, have sufficient energy, have flexibility, are lightweight, work at a safe temperature and have the capacity for easily increased voltage.

“After we did some research on carbon nanotubes, I transitioned to the University Park campus and got in touch with another professor who was a collaborator with my professor in Altoona,” Ma said. “We’re trying to develop energy storage systems, which could harvest small-input energies like solar power or your heart pulse.”

Ma said that in the long range, the supercapacitors could save money and wasted energy and could have many uses, such as for watches or in devices for soldiers working in rural areas without an energy supply.

He has been working on the new research at University Park with Clive Randall, a materials science and engineering professor and the director of the Center for Dielectric Studies, and Ram Rajagokapalan, a research associate in Materials Research Institute who joined the Department of Engineering at Penn State Dubois this year.

Originally from Shanghai, Ma came to the United States to participate in an exchange program in Atchison, Kan., as a senior in high school. That year, Ma presented a poster in the Kansas State Science Fair and found his calling.

Having lived in a small town and in an environment where he was immersed with English speakers to perfect his own language skills, Ma felt comfortable starting his college experience at Penn State Altoona before moving to the University Park campus. He entered the Schreyer Honors College his junior year through the Gateway admission process.

“I really like the 2+2 program,” Ma said. “I started from a small campus and learned a lot of basics. I really learned a lot of fundamental knowledge for my junior and senior years here.”

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Last Updated July 31, 2014