Projects & Mentors

Summer 2020 Projects and Mentors

  • Melissa Johnson
    From a Plantation to a Liberal Arts College: The Racial history of Southwestern University, 1830-1900.

    What is Southwestern’s racial history? How did mid-19th century racial formations and racial capitalism on the Texas frontier shape Southwestern’s five root colleges and their integration into one campus in Georgetown, Texas, shortly after the Civil War? In what ways did profits earned from racial slavery fund Southwestern’s emergence as Texas’ first university? How did national and global racial currents intersect with the root colleges, and then Southwestern itself through to the end of the 19th century? This project addresses these questions and stems from three points of information about Southwestern University’s history. First, the institution’s root colleges were founded by European-descended peoples who were settling indigenous lands that had been otherwise claimed by Mexico in the mid-19th Century. Second, there is evidence that students at the root institutions went “Indian hunting” for fun. Finally, one of the root institutions, McKenzie College, was located on a cotton plantation that used enslaved people of African descent for labor. This project thus joins a recent push by a number of universities and colleges who are researching their institution’s historical relationship to slavery and racism. The Universities Studying Slavery project is a major movement in higher education, and one that some of our sister Associated Colleges of the South schools have joined.

  • Hazel Nguyen
    CEO Turnover and Corporate Culture
    Through companies’ annual reports, this paper explores how their corporate cultures evolve when the CEO first takes office, later departs and a new CEO steps in. Corporate culture is measured in four different cultural dimensions: control, compete, collaborate and create. It is quantified by searching in companies’ annual reports for words that denote each of the cultural dimensions – a form of textual analysis. If culture is inherited, there should not be notable changes when a new CEO joins the company. If culture is influenced by leadership, the changes should be more pronounced with an outside CEO than an inside CEO. And by relating the change in the corporate culture to corporate performance, we can evaluate whether the change is good or bad for the companies.

  • Mike Gesinski
    Gold(I) Catalyzed Synthesis of 1H-Isochromenes and Related Heterocycles

    Gold complexes are unique among transition metals because they typically act as π-Lewis acids activating alkynes toward nucleophilic addition without the propensity toward redox processes. While much has been reported on gold-catalyzed intramolecular cyclizations, most of these transformations occur through a 5-exo-dig process affording five-membered rings.Described herein are the reactions of ortho-substituted phenylacetylenes that are proposed to proceed, instead, through a 6-endo-dig pathway. This mechanism can be applied to the synthesis of a variety of valuable heterocyclic compounds.

    Isochromene derivatives appear as structural motifs in a variety of naturally occurring small molecules and pharmaceuticals. These include molecules that are cytotoxic against leukemia, HIV inhibitors, antibiotics, and antileishmanials. Previously reported syntheses of these valuable organic moieties employ stoichiometric iodine, tetrabutylammonium fluoride, or a palladium catalyst but are limited to tertiary alcohols; primary and secondary alcohols produce 5-membered rings. We have shown that careful selection of a gold catalyst exclusively affords the 6-endo-dig cyclization product in good yields. Currently, we are interested in probing the mechanistic rationale for these observations; it appears that the presence of a benzylic gold carbene drives this selectivity.


    Sara Massey
    Determining the effect of environmental niche on light harvesting machinery in
    photosynthetic diatoms
    How does an organism adapt its light harvesting machinery to tailor to its environment? Diatoms are photosynthetic algae that thrive in varied aquatic environments. The same species may be found in coastal regions with cloudy waters due to wave activity and also in the oceanic water column where static waters result in less abundant minerals. Despite being responsible for up to 25% of Earth’s carbon fixation, these organisms are not well studied. This project aims to understand the light harvesting machinery in diatoms and how that machinery adapts to the organism’s environment.

  • Jacob Schrum
    Artificial Intelligence for Video Games
    This project involves applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to video games. Video games are a popular testbed for many AI techniques because they are simulated, controlled environments, but have a level of complexity that makes optimal decision making by in-game entities difficult. The development of engaging content for video games is also possible with AI techniques, and allows for interesting research at the intersection of computer science and art. General research questions that apply here are: 1) Can AI agents emulate or surpass human behavior in complex games? 2) Can AI agents serve as helpful companions for human players of games? 3) Can AI be used to generate content (art, levels, etc) in a way that makes games more fun or interesting?

  • Scott McLean                                                                                                    
    Effect of Starting Block Design on Segmental Contributions to Angular Momentum During a Competitive Swimming Start                                         
    Early starting blocks in competitive swimming were flat and simply elevated the swimmer above the pool so the swimmer could dive from an increased height. Block
    design began to incorporate an inclined platform to promote the production of more horizontal force and to facilitate forward movement. Recent design changes have introduced the use of a wedge on top of the inclined platform (similar to that used in track and field) to further increase the horizontal force production. Previous work on the effect of the use of this wedge has demonstrated changes in performance that include, increased force production from the back foot, slight increases in takeoff velocity, but substantially more negative takeoff angles for the starts (Vint et al., 2009). The notably more downward trajectory of starts performed from these new blocks is of concern from a performance perspective. Swimmers may be able to perform movements during the start to mitigate this downward rotation but little evidence exists to support the use of these techniques.


    Ed Merritt                                                                                                         
    Muscle Health Requirements for Successful Exercise Induced Weight Loss Prescription
    Recommendations for weight loss and prevention of weight regain often focus on an individual’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. Physicians, fitness professionals, and individuals themselves often overestimate the ability for exercise to cause substantial weight loss. In order to burn an adequate number of calories to experience weight loss, one must have adequate muscle mass with a high metabolic capacity capable of maintaining power output for an extended time. These criteria can be measured in our laboratory. Body composition scans, cardiorespiratory fitness tests, and muscle function measures can determine which patients can realistically expect substantial weight loss on an exercise-based weight loss prescription. The purpose of this study is to identify differences in the skeletal muscle mass, function, and metabolic capacity of several groups of people who have or have not lost weight (see groups below).

    1) Those who have struggled to lose weight through 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 through exercise programs and maintained the weight loss.

    We aim to determine retrospectively if weight loss success or lack of success can be explained by muscle mass, function, and metabolic capacity. The 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 lose significant fat mass, whereas those who struggle to lose weight likely have lower muscle mass/CRF.

  • John Ross
    Discovering Isoperimetric Regions in Spaces with Density
    The classic Isoperimetric Problem asks us to find “a shape in the xy-plane that has a fixed length of perimeter but that encloses the maximal possible area.” Indeed, the name “isoperimetric” suggests this goal (“iso” meaning “same,” while “perimetric” referring to the perimeter of the shape). The answer is beautiful and intuitive: the shape that encloses as much area as possible, given a fixed perimeter, is a circle!

    Variations on the isoperimetric problem are plentiful in higher mathematics. These problems involve trying to find an “isoperimetric region,” that has an “optimal measurement” but are subject to a “fixed constraint” (in the classic example, we were seeking an object with optimal/maximal area, subject to a fixed/constant perimeter). Oftentimes, the isoperimetric regions that optimize these quantities (such as the circle) have symmetric or otherwise “nice” geometry. In such problems, there is a deep relationship between the stated problem and the geometry of the solution.

    My research program is largely based on finding isoperimetric regions in spaces with density, and studying the geometry of such solutions. In such problems, we are interested in considering an ambient space that is imbued with a “density” that affects how measurements of “area” and “perimeter” are calculated. In such a space, area and perimeter are location-dependent: points in the space with less density will contribute less towards enclosed area, but will also count less towards the perimeter. This makes solutions more challenging to find, and the resulting geometry more challenging to study.

  • Emily Sydnor
    Uncivil Boundaries: Contesting the Civility of Protestors and Political Elites
    For my next book project, I plan to focus on this notion of a civility contest and its effects on public attitudes towards protest groups and political elites. First, I ask how civility contests are portrayed in the national media. Who is more likely to be branded as uncivil? Second, I am interested in the extent to which labeling groups or politicians as civil or uncivil affects citizens’ perceptions of protest as a legitimate form of democratic engagement, and their attitudes towards those individuals being labeled as uncivil. During the summer of 2020, we will focus on the first of these two questions: who is more likely to be branded as uncivil?

    To answer this question, we will conduct a content analysis of newspaper coverage of specific protest movements and political events, looking at how the language used to cover different groups or individuals might vary in traditional reporting. Over the course of the summer, we will finalize a coding scheme, collect a sample of U.S. newspapers on the relevant topics, and apply the coding scheme to the sample to investigate our research question.

  • Fay Guarraci
    Modeling the Long-Term Effects of Poverty on Reproductive Physiology and Behavior in Rats
    We will use a model of early life scarcity and poverty (i.e., limited bedding and nesting model) to evaluate the effects of early-life stress (ELS) on female and male reproductive physiology and behavior in Long-Evans rats. On postnatal day (PD) 2, dams and pups will be transferred to cages containing 100 mL of bedding (LBN condition) or to cages containing 500 mL of bedding (control condition); bedding conditions will remain until PD 10. After all pups were weaned (PD 23), we will measure puberty onset, estrous cyclicity, female sexual behavior and motivation, development of male copulatory behavior and sexual motivation, and anxiety.


    Carin Perilloux
    The ASMR Video Project
    I am continuing my research on the phenomenon of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). ASMR is a psychological phenomenon that – uniquely – was discovered on YouTube rather than in a lab. It refers to a tingly, warm, pleasant sensation that some people feel in response to specific triggers such as whispers, personal attention, tapping, and visual movements, among many others (Barratt & Davis, 2015; Roberts, Beath, & Boag, 2018). The ASMR community on YouTube has generated millions of videos for a huge subscriber base. Most people who watch these videos do so for the “tingles” and relaxation it elicits (Barratt & Davis, 2015; McErlean & Banissy, 2017), but many viewers also report that it decreases symptoms of depression, anxiety and even chronic pain (Barratt & Davis, 2015). ASMR is becoming so mainstream that magazines and late‐night talk show hosts are even having their celebrity guests try their hand at making ASMR videos as a “bit”. Yet its fame in pop culture has not translated into much empirical research from the psychological community. As my first step into this area, I used my SCOPE lab last summer to conduct a survey of ASMR viewers and obtained a sample of
    nearly 30,000! This is an exciting new area of research and I hope to continue my work on a new experiment.