Student scientists work to improve health and human development around the world

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At University Park and around the world, Penn State students are actively involved in research that supports health and human development.

Undergraduate kinesiology student Andrew Oneglia spends many of his days inside a laboratory wearing a white coat and protective gear as he processes various samples from study participants.

His work is part of a larger effort at Penn State to find a solution for women at risk of osteoporosis and other ailments caused by bone loss.

Oneglia is assisting Mary Jane De Souza, professor of kinesiology and physiology, with a study on dried plums, in the Women’s Health and Exercise Laboratory.

Essentially, researchers want to know if daily consumption of dried plums can help prevent or reverse the loss of bone due to osteoporosis in postmenopausal women.

Oneglia processes fecal, urine and blood samples to check for biomarkers of bone turnover, phenolics, vitamin D3 and expression of immune and inflammatory mediators to assess potential mechanisms contributing to changes in bone health with dried plum consumption. He also will assist with drafting the academic article that outlines the study’s findings.

“I’m gaining experience in every aspect of being a researcher,” Oneglia said. “Dr. De Souza is making sure I have all aspects developed to become a top researcher.”

Carissa Heine, a nutritional sciences major, conducted research in Ghana with Alison Gernand, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and Ann Atherton Hertzler Early Career Professor in Global Health.

Heine and Gernand have been working with women planning to become pregnant to identify vitamin and mineral deficiencies that are co-occurring and may influence the health of a future pregnancy. Now Heine is examining what lifestyle practices and behaviors may influence micronutrient status in pre-pregnant women.

“Universally, more research is needed in this planning-to-become-pregnant stage so that you can have a really healthy pregnancy that you’ve planned for,” Heine said.

The research experience has several benefits for Heine. She is learning how to apply for a grant, prepare and conduct interviews, and enhance her communication skills. She also has had the opportunity to travel internationally, improving her cultural competency and awareness.

“To gain these skills during my college experience as an undergraduate student is huge,” Heine said.

Katie Smith, a health policy and administration major, has had multiple opportunities to conduct research as a student. For example, Smith conducted in-person interviews as part of an embedded international experience for instructor Celeste Newcomb’s course "Exploring the Health Care System in Costa Rica."

Each day, students visited a hospital or clinic and talked with the doctors and staff. Students also shadowed Attention Technical Assistants of Primary Care workers, who travel to residents’ homes and assess patients.

Ultimately, Smith formulated her analysis into a capstone project for the course and research poster titled, "Examining Primary Care Organizational Structure in Costa Rica." The poster earned second place in the Undergraduate Research Exhibition for course-based projects and first place in the College of Health and Human Development Alumni Society Research Poster Competition.

“The trip to Costa Rica taught me to always keep a broader perspective and be open to new experiences,” Smith said. “It also taught me how think critically, seek multiple sources, and really look at the full picture.”

Steven Hanna interviews park visitor

Student Steven Hanna surveyed park visitors about their experience in nature as part of a Penn State study.

Image: Photo Provided

Steven Hanna, a biobehavioral health major, works in the Stress, Health, and Daily Experience (SHADE) Laboratory with Joshua Smyth, director and distinguished professor of biobehavioral health. In the lab, Hanna has completed literature searches and summaries, literature reviews, data entry and analysis and helped compile a project book and methods section for a study.

Through research funded by the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, Hanna also conducted field research with Derrick Taff, assistant professor of recreation, park and tourism management, at Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland as part of a collaboration between SHADE and Healthy Parks Healthy People, a National Park Service program aimed at promoting and encouraging use of national parks and other protected natural areas as health resources.

At the park, Hanna surveyed visitors about how their experience in nature influences their health and well-being. Hanna is also using these data to understand how different locations and features found in the park may elicit different emotional responses for his honors thesis.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to work in a National Park, so I got to fulfill that while also doing some research and helping the National Park Service,” Hanna said. “I also now understand the differences between field and lab research. In field research, you have to be a bit more flexible and able to work with what’s given to you in the environment. It’s been beneficial to have both of those experiences.”

As a double major in nutritional sciences and food science, Felicia Gater, who graduated in May, spent three semesters as an intern in the Sensory Laboratory where she worked closely with Pete Bordi, associate professor of hospitality management and director of the Center for Food Innovation (CFI), and staff.

Felicia Gater sets up samples for food test

Felicia Gater, right, prepares samples for food test participants. 

Image: Rob Peeler

One activity the CFI conducts is testing products with participants, then providing data to help hospitality organizations make decisions about formulation, marketing and other areas.

“I have learned how consumer testing works within the food industry, including the types of products tested or compared, the types of questions that are asked, and the type of test administered,” Gater said.

The experience helped Gater secure an internship with McCormick & Co., which gave her a view into the world of product development and helped her better understand how sensory science works in the food industry.

“Research opens our eyes to things we don’t know,” Gater said. “It helps us understand both the world and the people in it.”

Inspired by her own experience as a Renaissance Faire performer, Aubrey Tallon is studying the ways gender may impact how one conducts themselves as an independent performer.

“My work focuses on the use of ‘erotic capital,’ or the influence and earning power a person has as a result of their sexual attractiveness, by independent performers to improve their tips and show attendance,” Tallon said. “In other words, how performers use sexuality to make a living on the road more lucrative.”

The Recreation, Park and Tourism Management student took a closer look at the phenomenon by conducting one-on-one interviews with independent performers from three Renaissance Faires in the Northeast and issued short questionnaires designed to collect demographic information of performers.

“I believe that this is an important area to study because society, as a whole, equates the use of erotic capital with the female gender. It is my goal to uncover ways in which all genders use erotic capital, and use this data to create an open dialogue about the use of sexuality as a tool to increase earnings and influence,” Tallon said.

Oneglia, Heine and Tallon are Rodney A. Erickson Discovery Grant recipients. The program supports undergraduate student engagement in original research, scholarship, and creative work.

Heine, Smith, Hanna and Tallon are Schreyer Honors Scholars.

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Last Updated October 26, 2017