Projects & Mentors

Summer 2019 Projects and Mentors 


The SCOPE Open House event will be Thursday, September 5, from 5:00-7:00 pm in the Atrium of the Fondren Jones Science Building.  At this event you will have the chance to chat one-on-one with SCOPE faculty and students.

  • Romi Burks
    The Case Continues: Still Detecting How eDNA Works to Identify Apple Snails
    SCOPE students will join a research team exploring the potential of a novel detection tool (i.e. environmental DNA or eDNA) for invasive species, in our case apple snails (genus Pomacea). Two SCOPE Students from 2018 successfully demonstrated detection of apple snails in a field setting and throughout a stretch of an urban stream.  2019 SCOPE students will be able to consider how other environmental factors (presence of antibiotics or plastic particles) might affect the detection likelihood of eDNA. Although we will need snails from the field,  we will place a renewed emphasis of understanding the mechanisms and limits to eDNA detection by developing controlled laboratory experiment(s) in 2019.

    Martin Gonzalez
    Characterizing the contribution of the ICE391 genes lon391, croS, and rumAB in genetic transfer and mutagenesis

    Integrative conjugative elements (ICEs) constitute a unique class of mobile genetic elements that can move between different species of bacteria. The ICE391 carries a gene for the resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin and also harbors the genes that make up an error-prone DNA polymerase V (RumAB) capable of imparting to the host resistance to several other antibiotics. We recently identified a potential repressor of the expression of the rumAB genes designated CroS. Our SCOPE 2019 summer research project will focus on characterizing the activity of CroS with the hope of identifying how this protein inhibits activity of RumAB. We will be utilizing genetic, biochemistry and molecular biology techniques to fully characterize CroS activity and further our understanding of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. 


  • Hazel Nguyen
    CEO Gender and Leadership Styles
    Research on the gender of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position finds that firms with female CEOs earn higher profits, generate higher abnormal returns, have lowers leverage, less volatile earnings, and have a higher chance of survival than firms run by male CEOs. These findings suggest that female leadership contributes to a firm’s overall cultural diversity as well as good governance and management practices. This project contributes to the literature by examining differences in the languages used by female CEOs versus male CEOs in the CEO’s letter to shareholders published in firms’ annual reports and exploring whether these differences represent the difference in firms’ culture.

  • Mike Gesinski
    Synthesis of Novel Compounds Using Low-Valent Titanium Intermediates
    Cyclobutanes are small organic molecules that have a huge influence on the biological properties of a compound. For example, carboplatin is a cyclobutane-containing alternative to the cancer chemotherapeutic, cisplatin. Treatment with carboplatin results in significantly fewer and more manageable side-effects, especially with regards to renal function. It is therefore important that pharmaceutical researchers have ready access to a variety of methods to synthesize these valuable molecules in order to develop new and more potent drugs. We will employ a fundamental understanding of organic chemistry to explore the use of titanium reagents for the synthesis of cyclobutanes. Through the optimization of this reaction, we hope to develop a thorough mechanistic understanding of the nature of these titanium reagents and further expand the scope of their utility.


    Erin Taylor
    DNA Repair Mechanisms in Bacillus Subtillis
    Cells evolve multiple pathways to protect their DNA from damaging chemicals. In bacteria, the adaptive response is used to upregulate the expression of DNA repair proteins when cells are exposed to such chemicals. This upregulation allows the cells to “adapt” to their chemical-laden environment and withstand higher doses of damage. We will study direct repair proteins in the soil bacteria Bacillus subtilis.Using molecular cloning techniques, we will delete various DNA repair proteins from the Bacillusgenome and observe the effect on cell survival.


    Willis Weigand
    Synthesis and Characterization of Sulfur and Nitrogen Containing Ligands with Transition Metals as Antibacterial and Anti-Cancer Agents
    Many compounds containing nitrogen and sulfur have been used as anti-cancer and anti-bacterial medications.  However, some of these compounds can have unwanted or unintended side effects. Furthermore, due to increasing bacterial resistance, we are quickly exhausting our options for antibiotic treatments.  Reacting these or similar compounds with transition metals may reduce the side effects and enhance the potency of these compounds. 

    This project will involve synthesis of new antibiotic or anti-cancer compounds by reacting select transition metals with nitrogen and sulfur containing ligands.  The first step in the project will be the synthesis of the new ligands and then reacting them with the transition metals.  The new compounds will be characterized using NMR, IR, melting point determination and elemental analysis.  An X-ray diffraction analysis will also be conducted if a crystal of the new compound can be produced.  There is the possibility of conducting some bacterial and/or DNA testing after the compound is characterized if the student has interest in that aspect of the project.

  • Jacob Schrum
    Developing Artificial Intelligence for Video Games
    Video games are a popular testbed for many Artificial Intelligence (Al) techniques because they are simulated, controlled environments, but have a level of complexity that makes optimal decision making by in-game entities difficult. Students will work in a team to design intelligent agents for a game or other simulated environment using cutting-edge Al techniques such as Evolutionary Computation and/or (Deep) Reinforcement Learning. Available environments include simulated robot mazes, abstract predator/prey scenarios, and video games such as Ms. Pac-Man, Super Mario, Doom, Unreal Tournament, Tetris, and more. This research is geared toward the writing of a peer-reviewed conference publication. Depending on the game chosen, there is also potential for participation in one of many international game Al competitions. There are also opportunities to develop intelligent agents/artifacts for non-game domains.

  • Ed Merritt
    Muscle Health Requirements for Successful Exercise Induced Weight Loss Prescription
    Recommendations for weight loss and prevention of weight regain often focus on the patient’s exercise and physical activity levels. Exercise is nearly always beneficial for overall health; however, exercise alone is usually ineffective for weight loss and long-term weight maintenance. In order to burn an adequate number of calories to experience weight loss through physical activity alone, patients must have adequate muscle mass with a high metabolic capacity capable of maintaining power output for an extended time. Physicians, fitness professionals, and the individuals themselves often overestimate the ability for exercise to cause substantial weight loss. Body composition scans and cardiorespiratory fitness tests could determine which patients could realistically expect substantial weight loss on a primarily exercise-based weight loss prescription. The purpose of this study is to identify differences in the skeletal muscle mass and metabolic capacity of 3 groups of people (see below) to  determine who could benefit from an exercise prescription for weight loss.

    1)       Those who have struggled to lose weight with exercise in the past
    2)       Those who are capable of losing weight when regularly exercising, but are
              ineffective at maintaining weight loss when exercise is stopped
    3)      Those who have successfully lost weight with exercise programs and maintained
               the weight loss.

    This working hypothesis is that individuals who have lost weight and  kept it off and those who have experienced weight fluctuations through  on again off again exercise interventions have higher muscle mass and  cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) and therefore have the capacity to  burn enough calories to cause significant loss of fat mass, whereas  those who struggle to lose weight likely have lower muscle mass/CRF. 

  • Fumiko Futamura
    Visualization and classification of free diagonalization
    What’s the geometric interpretation of the eigenvalues and eigenvectors of a matrix, especially when a matrix is diagonalizable and has a full basis of eigenvectors? How do they help us to understand how a matrix transforms, say, a circle into an ellipse, or understand the behavior of a point as it evolves through repeated multiplication by the matrix? What happens if those eigenvalues are complex? These are fun and interesting questions to explore, and will constitute the first part of the summer project. But all of this is known. The rest of the project will focus on what is unknown, namely, what’s the geometric interpretation of a new kind of diagonalization called frame diagonalization (a concept I introduced in 2012)? A frame is merely a spanning set that can include more vectors than a basis. So this frame decomposition goes into a higher dimension for the diagonalization and is able to diagonalize matrices that are not diagonalizable. What does that look like? There are infinitely many ways to frame diagonalize a given matrix - are there ones that are particularly well suited for a helpful geometric interpretation? These are the ideas we will explore in this project.

  • Steve Alexander
    Generating Energy from Hot Sidewalks
    If you’ve ever experienced a Texas summer, you know that concrete can absorb a large amount of heat during the day. Students in this project will learn how to convert some of this energy into mechanical or electrical energy by building a simple heat engine. As part of this project they’ll measure the performance of their engine and estimate how much energy a full-scale model would produce.

    Becca Edwards
    Stratospheric Science: Evaluating Climate-Scale Influences on the Vertical Structure of the Atmosphere and Implications for Air Quality
    Tropospheric ozone, an air pollutant and oxidant which is harmful to human and agricultural health, is influenced by locally emitted ozone precursors, long-range transport of ozone, and downward transport of ozone from the stratosphere as a result of changes along the tropopause, the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere.  Using vertical profile data collected by weather balloons, as well as model data, the effect of climate-scale phenomena like the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation on the tropopause will be evaluated. As part of this project, students will gain experience with computation and analysis of large datasets, MATLAB, and an understanding of atmospheric chemistry and stratospheric dynamics.  Two weather balloon launches are also planned during the summer.

  • Fay Guarraci
    Understanding the Long-Term Effects of Soy: Amazing Supplement or Disastrous Additive
    In my lab, we are interested in: (1) how experiences during development shape and change sexual behavior and emotion; and (2) how experiences in adulthood alter sexual behavior and emotion. We use an animal model, with a specific emphasis on female behavior. Because sexual behaviors and emotional behaviors are closely linked to gonadal hormones and catecholamines in the midbrain, we have studied how exposure to endocrine disruptors and dopaminergic drugs during critical periods early in life affect later development of sexual motivation and emotional behavior. For example, we are interested in understanding how phytoestrogens (i.e., compounds found in plants, such as soy) can act as endocrine disruptors and alter the development of reproductive physiology and behavior. We are also interested in how drugs, such as those prescribed to young children (e.g., Ritalin aka methylphenidate) can alter physiological and behavioral development. In addition, we are interested in understanding how drug reward (e.g., amphetamines, opioids) interacts with natural rewards, such as sex in adult female rats. The midbrain dopamine system is a link between both the development of motivated behavior and the expression of behavior in adulthood.


    Carin Perilloux
    Exploring Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)
    Have you ever felt a warm, tingly, pleasant feeling when someone traces letters on your back or plays with your hair? Or when someone reads a book to you or asks you questions on the phone, or just taps their fingers on an object in a satisfying way? That’s called ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) and it’s the first psychological phenomenon to be discovered on YouTube rather than in a lab! ASMRtists generate thousands of videos on YouTube to give people tingles, lull them to sleep, or promote relaxation. This summer, we’ll be working on two ASMR projects. First, you’ll help create and implement a coding system to catalog ASMR videos on YouTube. Second, you’ll help conduct an online survey about individuals’ experiences with ASMR, personality traits, ASMR trigger preferences, and perceptions of ASMR’s therapeutic value. You’ll learn applied skills such coding system design, web-based survey design, online data collection, and SPSS statistical analysis. Our goal is to present at a conference during the following academic year, and possibly publication. For this project, the most important thing is your level of interest in the topic and dedication to pursuing it scientifically.