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Engineering Students Win Undergraduate Research Recognition

Each year, undergraduate students from across the university gather to present their research as well as their creative and innovative projects to their peers, faculty members, and the community at the University of Miami’s Research, Creativity, and Innovation Forum (RCIF). This year, 84 undergraduate students presented their research projects.

Students from all disciplines shared their knowledge and passion for learning. Students were judged by two faculty members, post-doctoral and/or senior graduate students . First, second, and third place winners in the Arts, Biological Sciences, Business, Engineering, Humanities, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences categories were selected, and presented with an award certificate at the Award Ceremony.

This year, Bryan Ibarra, BSBE ’18, Sofia Vignolo, BSBE ’18, Nicholas De Angelis, BSBE ’18, Sebastian Gallo, BSBE ’19, and Ashley Zulueta, BSBE ’18, were recognized for their research during the RCIF’s award ceremony.

Ibarra was recognized for his research on a liquid reward system that facilitates the recording of neural signals of marmosets. “Currently, marmosets are manually fed during conditioning training, which requires a lot of time and introduces noise to the data collected,” explains Ibarra. “The liquid reward system will not only resolve these issues, but it will also do so at a much lower cost than the current alternatives in the market.”

Vignolo’s research focuses on type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease characterized by the immune attack on the insulin-producing β-cells of the pancreas. After β-cell loss, the production of insulin decreases significantly and so glucose metabolism cannot be properly regulated. “β-cell replacement therapies may cure diabetes but refinement of current procedures is needed to improve their safety and efficacy,” Vignolo says. The impediment for further refinement studies lies in the limited availability and poor cell culture proliferation of human islets. As an alternative for research, the mouse-derived pancreatic β-cell line, MIN6, can be utilized as a model of primary islets. Vignolo is optimizing the culture conditions of the MIN6 cell line in order to better model their morphology and functionality.

Much like Vignolo, De Angelis’s research also focuses on type 1 diabetes. He is working on analyzing the body’s mechanisms of preventing a T-cells – cells responsible for carrying out immune responses – from destroying the pancreatic cells in charge of producing insulin.

“In healthy subjects it has been shown that T-cells are removed before they can damage the pancreas.” Says De Angelis. “Fibroblastic reticular cells form a network that creates a pathway to remove the T-cells, expanding and contracting as needed. We performed studies to test the contraction and expansions of these networks, and ultimately outline how they function.”

Gallo’s research project, titled, “EEG-Controlled Functional Electrical Stimulation through MATLAB-Simulink BCI”, centers on improving a brain-to-computer interface that allows people living with a spinal cord injury to regain some motor function in their hands and arms.

“The study not only addresses the development of the innovative direct neural interface technology,” explains Gallo, “but also concentrates on making the program more user-friendly while allowing any compatible application to be interfaced with the software.”

Zulueta presented her research on presbyopia, the loss of accommodation – the ability to focus on near objects – with age. “Presbyopia is thought to result from changes in the elasticity of the eyes’ lens,” explains Zulueta. “To study lens changes, research involves imaging the lens’ response during accommodation.”

In such studies, a fixed target is used to stimulate accommodation and the eyes’ response is recorded. However, older subjects often have difficulty fixating on targets, leading to a lack of response from the eye.

“Our work focuses on quantifying the effect of the target’s design on the accommodative response and ultimately determining which design works best,” she says.

Winners were invited to submit their posters for display during the school year at the Richter Library’s First Floor Visioning Studio for the Future Learning Commons.

Sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research and Community Outreach, the forum is designed to motivate students to engage in peer-reviewed research. Top winners were given awards, and all participants received certificates of participation. The research posters were on display for all students to admire.

The competition is open to University of Miami students from all disciplines and school years who have completed or are currently exploring topics of interest. Students are required to create an abstract of 250 words and a presentation poster detailing their studies. They also must give a 10-minute presentation to a panel of judges and answer questions about their research. Students are evaluated based on presentation style, significance, originality, methodology and presentation quality. Critiques from the judges offer students both insight on how to improve as well as inspiration to continue conducting research.

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