Undergraduate Research

Projects and Mentors

Summer 2023 Projects and Mentors
  • Jennie DeMarco

    Quantify the impact of Tamaulipan thronscrub restoration as a nature-based solution to climate change mitigation

    Mean global air temperature has increased by 1.2˚C since the industrial revolution and is on its way to reaching 2.0˚C by 2041, a scenario that will cause devastating impacts on both social and ecological systems (IPCC, 2021). Restoration of degraded ecosystems can provide a mitigation pathway that sequesters atmospheric carbon (C) into the biosphere and make ecosystems more resilient to a changing climate. However, restoration project efforts primarily focus on the restoration process itself with less focus on quantifying the impacts of restoration and rarely include accounting for C storage and resilience of the ecosystem to future environmental change. Here I propose to evaluate the soil C sequestration potential of Tamaulipan thornscrub restoration efforts in southern Texas. Specially, I will measure and compare the amount of soil C stored in restored thornscrub relative to the amount of C stored in unrestored sites to evaluate whether soil C has increased with restoration. In addition, I will measure soil C across a cronosequence of time since restoration to estimate the rate at which C can accumulate in the soil following restoration.

  • Mike Gesinski

    Gold(I)-Catalyzed Synthesis of Heterocyclic Compounds

    Generally, projects in synthetic organic chemistry involve the discovery and implementation of new chemical reactions that are used to make molecules of interest for the pharmaceutical, petrochemical, and materials industries. Toward these ends, I propose the continuation of a research project that expands on initial results involving gold(I) catalysis.


    Heterocyclic compounds are a class of organic molecule that are ubiquitous in pharmaceutical development. Of the top 200 selling pharmaceutical drugs, 106 contain at least one heterocycle. Two members of this class of compounds are naphthoquinones and isoquinolines. Both of these heterocycles appear in a wide variety of potent antibiotics that are useful against infections that are difficult to treat with other medications.


    Since initial reports by Teles and coworkers in 1998,2 gold catalysis has become an active area of research for the development of novel organic transformations. Formerly, the use of gold as a catalyst was overlooked because of its perceived expense and inertness. While gold is approximately twice as expensive as palladium, it is cheaper than platinum and rhodium and is considerably more abundant than all three common catalysts. Additionally, gold complexes have demonstrated a unique reactivity profile making it an important catalyst in the development of pharmaceuticals.3 Therefore, the development of reactions that employ gold catalysis allows unprecedented access to highly complex organic molecules that were previously inaccessible

  • Scott McLean

    Comparison of Kinematics, Kinetics and Muscle Activity of Walking on Motorized and Non-Motorized Treadmills and Overground

    As people age, the control of gait shifts from a distal strategy reliant on ankle musculature to a proximal strategy reliant on hip musculature (Schloemer et al., 2017). This distal to proximal shift has been suggested to be, in part, responsible for age-related declines in walking speed. Decreased walking speed in aging populations increases risk of falls, disability, cognitive deficiencies, and mortality (Hedrick et al., 2021). Conversely, increased walking speed in aging populations has been correlated with improved quality of life (Ray et al., 2018). Therefore, identification of effective interventions for improving walking speed, or slowing the decline of walking speed, is important for managing severe risks associated with declining gait ability in older adults. While overground walking offers an accessible option for all, monitoring overground gait can be difficult. Motorized treadmills have been used as an alternative to provide a means of controlling walking speed, providing a limited area which a clinician monitors during the trial and if needed a system for support (handrails) for those who may need them. However, the use of motorized treadmills with recovering stroke victims has not achieved meaningful increases in walking speed with training (Hsu et al., 2003; Mehrholz et al., 2017; Richards et al.,1999; Turnbull et al.,1995). Stergiou and Decker (2011) suggested that this may be due, in part, to limited ability to produce stride-to-stride variation in motor patterns which had been linked to improved motor recovery. Recently, curved, non-motorized treadmills have been developed that offer an alternative approach to treadmill use in gait training/rehabilitation that gives the user more autonomy to fully control gait. A non-motorized treadmill requires participants to move the surface of the treadmill themselves thus necessitating increased voluntary muscle activation. Recent work in our lab (Shaulis et al., 2022) found that use of the non-motorized treadmill produced enhanced plantar flexor muscle activity compared to other modes of walking. This provides a potential mechanism to address the distal-to-proximal shift of muscular control of gait observed in older adults. Our preliminary work has only evaluated muscular activity during gait and thus cannot address whether this altered muscular strategy on non-motorized treadmills changes the manner in which one walks and thus whether such an intervention is feasible in an older population. Therefore, a kinematic and kinetic comparison of walking on non-motorized and motorized treadmills and overground is warranted.


    Edward Merritt

    Peanut Consumption to Augment Adaptations to Concurrent Resistance and Aerobic Exercise Training

    Proper post-exercise nutrition is necessary for the body to recover and adapt to an exercise bout and thereby realize the health benefits of exercise. Many research studies attempt to optimize nutrition with supplementation designed for specific exercise adaptations (e.g., run faster, increase strength) aimed to optimize performance in specific populations. However, natural, whole foods are often overlooked in exercise training research. While maybe not optimized for specific populations and specific performances, whole foods still supply the macronutrients needed for beneficial exercise adaptations, and their associated micronutrients (vitamins/minerals) are likely important components capable of enhancing the long-term beneficial adaptations of exercise training in all humans. Afterall, humans evolved to consume whole foods and not specific isolated supplements. With relatively higher amounts of fats, peanuts are often overlooked as a nutritious, inexpensive, post-exercise snack, because they are not optimal for athletic performance. However, for middle-aged adults performing the recommended amount of weekly physical activity, the protein and carbohydrate content of peanuts is sufficient to provide the macronutrients necessary to achieve the beneficial health adaptations associated with exercise training. Other micronutrients and healthy fats in peanuts, might confer further benefits beyond those of other post-exercise supplements, and this has yet to be studied with exercise training


    The proposed randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial will provide valuable information on the health benefits of peanut consumption and determine if peanuts can augment beneficial exercise training adaptations in middle-aged adults. We will recruit 48 adults (30-55 years) to undertake a 4- month training program consisting of 4 days per week of structured workouts (2/week resistance, 2/week aerobic). Participants will consume either a peanut-based snack or an isocaloric, non-peanut carbohydrate-based snack immediately after each exercise session. Comprehensive health and fitness assessments will be conducted before training, after 6 and 12-weeks of training, and after 4-months of training.


    When completed, this study will provide the first evidence of the effect of post-exercise peanut consumption on long-term exercise training adaptations to both aerobic and resistance training in middle-aged adults. This will be the first study to determine the effects of peanut consumption with aerobic exercise training, and the longest study on resistance exercise training and peanut consumption.

  • Jacob Schrum

    Applying Artificial Intelligence to Open-Ended Exploration in Minecraft


    Games have long been testbeds for cutting edge Artificial Intelligence techniques because of our ability to better manage the complexity of a simulation in comparison with the real world, and because of the popular appeal of breakthroughs in such domains. Specifically, Minecraft is a popular survival crafting game that has allowed a massive online community to create aesthetically and functionally novel artifacts, even though these artifacts are seldom related to the game’s supposed goal of surviving to defeat the final boss. The open-ended nature of human play in Minecraft has attracted the attention of AI researchers, resulting in several competitions associated with the game. One of these provides an interface called EvoCraft (https://evocraft.life/) that is specifically meant to be used to explore the ability of AI systems to search for new and novel artifacts in an open-ended manner. My own SCOPE team from last year contributed to work in this area by being the first to successfully use evolutionary computation to generate novel and functional flying machines using quality diversity algorithms.


    This summer, I want to carry this work further by exploring the following Research Questions: 1) Can more complex machines, similar to known human artifacts or possibly beyond, be generated with these same methods? 2) Can hybridizing our methods with other recent approaches, such as Neural Cellular Automata and various types of Machine Learning, lead to improved results? 3) How can the exploratory process be more interactive and human-guided, and will such guidance lead to improved results?

  • Erin Crockett

    Self-Expansion and Physical Health

    Self-expansion theory suggests that as humans, we are motivated to grow. Our relationships with other people help us accomplish this growth in at least two ways. First, we engage in new and novel activities with friends and romantic partners that expand our own identity (i.e., behavioral self-expansion). For example, we might travel with our partner to Thailand, a place on their bucket list, and in so doing grow from that experience. Similarly, in relationships we take on others’ perspectives and gain new knowledge, which also expands ourselves (i.e., cognitive self-expansion). As an example, when we learn more about our partners’ position on a current political issue, we might develop a more nuanced perspective than we previously had, expanding our own self. Although there is a host of research linking both behavioral and cognitive self-expansion to relationship benefits, work linking self-expansion to an individual’s health, particularly physical health, is virtually non-existent. As such, the goal of my SCOPE project is to explore physiological consequences associated with both behavioral and cognitive self-expansion.

    Karen Lara

    Developmental Differences in How Expectations Shape Emotions

    Although there are many benefits to thinking positively about the future (e.g., Brown & Marshall, 2001), there are times when thinking negatively eventually leads to feeling good (i.e., after the awaited outcome occurs). After uncontrollable situations, adults typically feel better about an outcome when they previously held low versus high expectations (Bossuyt et al., 2014; Carroll et al., 2006; Mellers et al., 1997). They reason that others would feel this way as well (Shepperd & McNulty, 2002). Businesses, such as restaurants, overestimate customer wait times so that people feel better when they wait less time than they expected (Shepperd et al., 2007). Children as young as 6 years also experience more positive affect (preferences and emotions) after holding low (versus high) expectations (Lara et al., 2021); but it is unknown if children would follow this pattern in waiting contexts.


    Needing to wait for something that one wants is a common experience in childhood and adulthood. It is not just the wait time that can affect emotions, but the perception of how long the wait is. Anticipated wait time may match actual wait time (expected); alternatively, people can also wait shorter (low expectations) or longer (high expectations) than expected. For this project, the SCOPE students and I would answer the following research questions: (1) What is the developmental trajectory of children’s (aged 4 to 10 years) and adults’ (anticipated N = 200) experience of how expectations shape emotions? (2) How do people feel about a positive outcome (e.g., a treat), their wait time, and their overall experience in the lab, when they waited shorter versus as long as they expected

    Carin Perilloux

    ASMR U Tingly Yet?

    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 et al., 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 in 2019 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.


    This summer, I would like to continue to work with the students measuring how participants physiologically respond to specific ASMR triggers. Last year we created five trigger videos in the lab and Perilloux SCOPE - Summer 2022 Narrative 2 then recruited participants to watch and rate them while hooked up to physiological monitoring equipment (e.g., heart rate, galvanic skin response, respiration rate). We were able to collect data from 39 participants which was reasonable given the amount of time we had after creating the videos. We learned a lot from this study in terms of how to use the physiological equipment and video design, so I think this could be a promising Study 1 for a multi-study journal article. The next step is replicating and extending the effects. To that end, I would like to work with students this summer to create better videos (i.e., with better sound canceling, clearer audio, more controlled visuals) and run a similar study to see whether we can find the same results and set this up as Study 2.


    The Southwestern Racial History Project: A Liberal Arts Institution’s Reckoning with the Past

    The SU Racial History project began in 2020 by investigating how the founding of Southwestern’s root colleges in the 1800s relied on and reified an emerging racial hierarchy in what became Texas. In successive years, the project has explored Southwestern University itself during the 1800s and early 1900s, as well as its more recent history following de-segregation in the 1960s. In Spring 2022, Southwestern officially joined the international consortium, Universities Studying Slavery. Faculty and student findings for the successive iterations of the project have been rich; and have resulted in an online campus presentation at the height of the pandemic and two sets of national conference presentations since, including a well-received panel at the Universities Studying Slavery conference in Fall 2022. Our results are revealing the role that Southwestern and its root institutions have played in the emergence of racial formations that marginalize Black, Mexican, Indigenous and otherwise non-white members of the campus community. We have found evidence that 19th century and 20th century racial capitalism shaped the success of the institution while also disenfranchising the very populations that made that success possible. And we are revealing the often hidden history of the contributions that Black, Mexican-American, Indigenous, and other racially minoritized faculty, staff and students have made to the development of Southwestern. While our findings have been rich, we also have discovered a plethora of important and interesting stories/histories that still need to be explored. Each student will be able to choose their own project–either expanding on previous work, developing one of the many open-ended leads we found in prior years, or charting an entirely new course. Students will potentially be able to take their work beyond the summer session of SCOPE and further explore their findings in the Southwestern Racial History Project Class the following semester if they so choose. In addition students are also welcome to extend their work using their findings and writings to support their Capstone projects. I will specifically mentor each student assigned to collaborate with me in their own individual research project. Each student will be able to choose what they focus on. I will specifically focus on further exploring and critically archiving information on the Negro Fine Arts School at Southwestern. Much of what is currently known is through the work of Martha Mitten Allen, a former History Professor and Dean of Women at Southwestern University. Allen wrote the text, The Gracious Gift: The Negro Fine Arts School 1946-1966. I along with interested students will critically review Allen’s text and expand upon this work, looking at how the Negro Fine Arts School was the starting point for Southwestern’s desegregation efforts; how those initial Black students felt; how the Board of Trustees, the campus commmunity, and Georgetown received this institution at a time when educating Black students was not a priority. This will also serve, in part, as one of the curricular focal points for the Southwestern Racial History Project Course during the Fall 2023 semester.