Virtual Undergraduate Exhibition brings together nearly 200 students

Sean Yoder and Nicolette Hylan-King
April 19, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The ability to concisely communicate research is considered an essential academic skill, and undergraduate research fairs and exhibitions are where many present for the first time in formal settings.

The Undergraduate Exhibition at Penn State — the largest research event for undergraduates at the University — is usually held each April in the HUB-Robeson Center at the University Park campus.

Even though the COVID-19 outbreak forced the cancelation of public events across the country when it began to spread in the U.S., organizers in the Office of Undergraduate Education still wanted to provide some avenue for undergraduates to gain the experience of communicating their research and be able to compete for prizes.

For the 2020 Exhibition, nearly 200 participants used OneDrive to upload their research posters and short explanation recordings for judges and the Penn State community. Presenters and performers recorded and uploaded short videos. The virtual format also provided an opportunity for students to participate from campuses other than University Park. This year saw 11 campuses represented.

Senior Abigail Cowser majors in civil engineering and is an experienced undergraduate researcher, but this was her first experience presenting her research in an exhibition. Her poster on “Investigating Water Access Challenges for Vietnam: Bottled Water in the Mekong Delta” asks whether water bottled in household bottling plants is cleaner than piped water.

To gather the data, Cowser traveled to Vietnam under the direction of Caitlin Grady, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and principal investigator in the Food-Energy-Water Systems (FEWs) lab; and Lauren Trepanier, a doctoral student researcher in the FEWs lab. Cowser traveled to six different household or factory water bottling plants and gathered quantitative and qualitative data. Their findings showed that among the sites tested there was a low risk of E. coli for the bottled plants, but a higher risk for piped water. The project was partially funded by the Schreyer Honors College, Student Engagement Network and Civil Engineering Department.

Abigail Cowser holding water test

Abigail Cowser, of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, was among this year's participants in the Undergraduate Exhibition. Her research poster documented a trip to Vietnam to test water in household bottling plants.

IMAGE: Provided

Cowser was connected with Grady through the international service organization Engineers in Action.

“Between mission trips from high school and my involvement with Engineers in Action, I knew that I wanted to combine my passions of service and engineering for my thesis,” Cowser said.

Cowser, originally from Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, has accepted a full-time position in Falls Church, Virginia, with HITT Contracting as a project engineer.

“I love the sense of community that builds around the undergraduate exhibition. ...It was important to show up, virtually, and support the talented, hard-working students who have done such good work in such strange times!”

-Stephanie Scott, returning Undergraduate Research Exhibition judge

Fellow presenter Stephen Worrell shares Cowser’s enthusiasm for scholarly inquiry. A senior studying Immunology and Infectious Diseases in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Worrell participated in the exhibition for the third consecutive year. 

Worrell’s project examines the role of a particular protein, ER stress sensor protein IRE1alpha, in the UVB-induced inflammation response that contributes to skin cancer. The study aims to advance knowledge that could lead to a potential therapy to mitigate UVB-induced damage. Worrell conducted the research under the direction of faculty member Adam Glick, who first sparked Worrell’s interest in cancer research when Glick delivered a guest lecture in one of Worrell’s first-year seminars.

“At the time, all I knew was that cancer impacts the lives of virtually everyone in some way, and I wanted to contribute to the fight against it,” said Worrell.

Worrell reached out to Glick, who welcomed Worrell into his lab. Worrell explained that he was motivated to study the UV response in particular because it is the primary cause of skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer in the United States.

“The opportunity to conduct hands-on research changed my life,” said Worrell. “I love how each experiment requires in-depth critical thinking, especially when the experiment doesn’t go as expected.”

Stephen Worrell posing in front of research poster

Stephen Worrell poses in front of his research poster during a previous Undergraduate Exhibition.

IMAGE: Provided

Worrell participated in his first Undergraduate Exhibition in the spring of 2018, and he credits the experience for significantly honing his ability to present his research to individuals outside his field.

“I think it’s important to develop these skills as an undergraduate, particularly for someone who wants to continue research after college," he said.

After graduation, Worrell plans to pursue his research further as a post-baccalaureate research fellow in the skin biology laboratory at the National Institutes of Health. From there, he hopes to attend medical school. Worrell’s research has been funded by three undergraduate research grants through the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Students presented in the categories of engineering, health and life sciences, physical sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and arts and humanities, including the visual arts.

A special exhibit this year was from Penn State Behrend students in ART 50: Introduction to Painting. Professor Michelle L. Ghisson’s students — like all of Penn State — are working remotely, with the unique challenge of painting at their homes. The virtual exhibit features a number of different assignments, from painting a single object and matching hues, values, temperature and intensities and “activating the picture plane by exploring compositional issues,” to recreating famous works of art and plein air (outdoor painting).

Tucker Johnson’s performance, “A Presence Within Reassembly,” in Johnson’s words, “addresses and deconstructs my practice as a bassoonist.” Johnson recorded more than 200 samples of sounds created with the bassoon, “some of these traditional, and some not.” Those samples were then mapped to the keys of a piano, the piece recorded and mixed down.

Alan Rieck, associate vice president and associate dean of Undergraduate Education, said events like the Undergraduate Exhibition play an integral role in the research process and offer hope for our collective future.

"The work our students have shared during the exhibition demonstrates a very real hope for the future. They are doing amazing work that will greatly enhance the human experience in the days and years to come.”

— Alan Rieck, associate vice president and associate dean of Undergraduate Education

“Research, inquiry and creative activity are done to create new knowledge and express human experiences that make a difference in life and community,” Rieck said. “The sharing of these projects is very important in the completion of the cycle of inquiry.”

Rieck continued, “The work our students have shared during the exhibition demonstrates a very real hope for the future. They are doing amazing work that will greatly enhance the human experience in the days and years to come.”

The Undergraduate Exhibition wouldn’t be possible without the help of volunteer judges, and this was a record year for judge participation.

While judges hail from many corners of the Penn State community, all have a background in doctoral-level research. Returning judge Stephanie Scott, a stewardship communications specialist in the College of the Liberal Arts, holds a doctorate in contemporary Irish and Irish-American literature from Penn State.

“I love the sense of community that builds around the undergraduate exhibition,” said Scott. “In past years, I’ve enjoyed browsing the presentations and talking to the students about the subjects that motivate them. While the experience this year was different, of course, I felt it was important to show up, virtually, and support the talented, hard-working students who have done such good work in such strange times!”

This year, Scott had the opportunity to judge presentations on quadraphonic sound and Middle Eastern archaeology, and she said that she enjoyed the opportunity to learn about subjects outside her area of expertise.

“These opportunities for undergraduates do not happen without the dedication of faculty, staff, graduate students and administrators,” Rieck added. “The response by these individuals to serve as judges in this unique year was outstanding — they are to be commended and thanked for making this experience so rich.”

Based on feedback from judges, event organizers will announce the winners of prizes across nine different categories on April 27. Some prizes come with cash awards.

The Research Opportunities for Undergraduates program is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at undergrad.psu.edu

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Last Updated April 20, 2020