Researchers and roommates head to national conference

Sean Yoder
February 02, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — They don’t work in the same lab or in the same building at University Park, but these two undergraduate researchers have certainly shared space.

Seniors Lauren Onofrio and Carley Miller have been roommates since their sophomore year and both were recently selected to present at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

It’s the top research event in the U.S. dedicated solely to undergraduates, said Alan Rieck, assistant vice president and assistant dean for Undergraduate Education.

This year NCUR is scheduled from April 4 to 7 at University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.

Rieck said it was a great honor to have two students representing at a conference that receives submissions from all over the nation, and the conference would provide Onofrio and Miller an opportunity to interact with other students who are also doing quality work.

“It’s phenomenal to have two students from Penn State from different colleges doing unique projects go there and represent the University,” Rieck said.

The two have been friends since their first year at Penn State. Both knew they were interested in research early on in their undergraduate careers.

They agreed that surrounding yourself with other hard-working people was important.

“I think who you're friends with makes a difference,” Miller said.

Onofrio, of Fairfield, Connecticut, will be presenting a research poster on “Local adaptation and populations’ growth responses to climate in Pinus resinosa." Pinus resinosa is commonly known as red pine.

A senior majoring in biology, Onofrio has worked under Laura Leites in the quantitative forest ecology lab since fall 2015. Last summer, she worked for the U.S. Forest Service at the Northern Research Station. In the summer before, she conducted research in Sadinia, Italy, through the National Science Foundation-funded, U.S.-Italy International Research Experience for Students.

She said her poster focuses on tree growth rates and how they’re affected by new climates.

“Generally, tree species are adapted to the climate in which they grow,” she said. “However, some species exhibit adaptive phenotypic plasticity, meaning, when grown in a new climate, they can acclimate and exhibit similar growth rates. On the other hand, some species exhibit local adaptation to the climate they inhabit and when grown in a new climate, they exhibit decreased growth and survival rates. In the case of red pine, an important species for timber and pulpwood production, the literature is inconclusive on its adaptation to climate and whether or not it exhibits local adaptation.”

Onofrio said the lab team uses common garden tests, where populations presumably adapted to one climate are grown in a significantly different climate. These data combined with historic climate data help researchers model how a species may respond to a changing climate.

“Our preliminary results provide evidence of local adaptation in red pine which indicates that populations within the species may respond differently to changes in climate,” Onofrio said. “Ultimately, our data can help guide population selection for reforestation and conservation under a warming climate.”

Leites said Onofrio was a wonderful addition to the team and has been a very passionate and productive undergraduate researcher.

Onofrio began her work by recovering data from old forest provenance tests, a meticulous task that requires solid organizational and communications skills, Leites said.

“As an undergraduate research assistant, she was not content with just helping to collect or manage data, although she is great at it. She wanted to work on projects tailored to her skills and didn’t hesitate to ask,” Leites said. “Her level of initiative is outstanding.”

Onofrio said she hopes to continue studying forest ecology in graduate school and become an academic or government researcher of forested ecosystems.

“It’s phenomenal to have two students from Penn State from different colleges doing unique projects go [to the conference] and represent the University.”

— Alan Rieck, assistant vice president and assistant dean for Undergraduate Education

Miller, of Spring City, works in the Biobehavioral Neurogenetics Laboratory under it's director, Helen Kamens. Miller joined the research team during her first year.

“As a lab, we seek to identify genetic mechanisms that contribute to complex behaviors with a special emphasis on alcohol and tobacco use,” Miller said.

With 20 percent of Americans continuing to smoke despite the known health risks, Miller said her work focuses on those first few puffs a smoker might take as a young person.

“Adolescence is a period of heightened vulnerability to drugs of abuse due to developmental changes in the adolescent brain,” Miller said. “Many factors may lead an individual to use nicotine, including the age at which they try their first cigarette, and genetics.

“In my project, I investigated these factors. Additionally, I investigated how initial exposure leads to later nicotine intake. Our preliminary results suggest that age and genes interact to influence nicotine responses. By understanding the mechanisms that underlie differences in and individual’s behavioral response to nicotine, we might gain insight into nicotine dependence.”

Miller will present her poster, “Age and genetic background influence initial nicotine sensitivity in C57BL/6J and DBA/2J mice,” in Oklahoma in April. Her work was partially funded by a Penn State Erickson Discovery Grant and the Broadhurst Career Development Professorship for the Study of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Kamens said Miller has taken on more and more responsibilities since starting at the lab in spring 2015. That work has culminated in Miller’s own research project, which she’ll present this spring.

“I am really proud of Carley’s achievements,” Kamens said.

“We know that 90 percent of the individuals who go on to become dependent on cigarettes start smoking before the age of 18,” she said. “Carley’s project was designed to understand how genetics and age influence behavioral responses the first time an individual uses nicotine.”

Miller said she plans to enter a medical scientist training program after finishing her degree.

Penn State undergraduates from all campuses interested in pursuing research and creative activity are encouraged to inquire with professors about possible collaborative or lab positions, or visit to view a list of projects in a variety of disciplines.

Last Updated February 02, 2018