28th annual Graduate Exhibition shines a spotlight on student research

28th annual Graduate Exhibition shines a spotlight on student research

More than 300 graduate students showcased a unique blend of cutting-edge research, musical performances, and art at this year’s annual Graduate Exhibition at Penn State.

The 28th annual Graduate Exhibition was held March 22 to 24 as Penn State celebrated 150 years of graduate education. The three-day event featured a blend of musical and theater performances, a visual arts display, and research exhibition—while exploring the diverse academic pursuits of more than 300 of the University’s graduate students.

A record number of students participated in this year’s exhibition, representing nearly every area of graduate study offered by the University. On the last day of the program, exhibitors gathered in the HUB to reveal research findings to more than 150 judges, presenting theories on a range of topics—from astronomy and information technology to nutrition and linguistics.

Despite the varied interests and disciplines featured throughout the exhibition, the participants shared a common goal—putting their knowledge to use in both the classroom and real world to help people, improve communities, and inspire change.

We spoke with several students about their research, while perusing the exhibition on March 24. The following is a snapshot of what we learned:

Prakash Arumugasamy: Astronomy

What happens to stars when they die? They turn into neutron stars, or “pulsars,” and astronomy student Prakash Arumugasamy is trying to learn more about their behavior.

In his studies, Arumugasamy used space telescopes orbiting the earth to observe the x-rays of two pulsars: a very old one of 166 million years and a younger one of 9,000 years. As he observed this phenomena, he noted that although the total energy available to a pulsar decreases with its age, the efficiency with which they convert this energy to x-rays increases. Arumugasamy said there is no explanation for this behavior.

He explains a major goal of his research is to get a better understanding of the physical characteristics of pulsars and what kind of evolutionary path they’re going to take.

“These are very exotic systems. The energetics are very distinct and extreme, with high gravity and magnetic fields. They form the perfect test beds,” he said. “That’s what the bigger scientific community is probably going to gain from this.”

Dunja Antunovic: Mass Communications

For hundreds of years, the Metropolitan Opera has used media technology to delight and inspire audiences. In 2006, the Met launched a new initiative to broadcast live opera performances in high definition (HD) in movie theaters around the world.

Will the Met’s 15 yearly “Live in HD” transmissions help rejuvenate public interest in the art and help attract a new, younger audience to the genre?

It’s worth further investigation, according to Dunja Antunovic, a graduate student in the College of Communications. Antunovic’s study on audience perceptions of the Live in HD performances revealed that local audience members responded positively to the new digital experience. In fact, the HD opera transmissions offered unique benefits to the audience by enabling them to watch interviews with performers, explore backstage, and experience the intimacy of opera remotely. For a relatively low ticket price, the technology also enables performances to reach audiences in areas that are geographically isolated from larger opera houses.

“The Met’s Live in HD cinematic experience challenges opera's reputation as a high culture art form, yet opens up a space where a wider range of audiences can engage with the genre,” said Antunovic. “Enabled by technology, this popularization could ultimately lead to a shift in opera's place in society.”

Molly Oliver: Landscape Architecture

The Chesapeake Bay watershed suffers from storm water issues which are increasingly costly to manage via traditional technological methods. New regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now require changes to be made to the current infrastructure—and though “green" infrastructure is widely believed to be more economical and socially friendly—it is minimally implemented.

Molly Oliver, a graduate student studying landscape architecture, is attempting to sort out why people are resistant to transitioning away from our country’s current system to an alternative green infrastructure system. Oliver is participating in a project funded by the EPA focusing on the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the role of stakeholder uncertainty in decision making. Her goal is to open a dialogue about these issues and help implement environmentally-friendly watershed strategies.

Oliver’s data will be used by the EPA to help inform community outreach initiatives, including an upcoming series of public meetings, surveys, and information sessions. “There are a lot of unknowns because green infrastructure technology is so new,” said Oliver. “People are questioning how do we maintain this new infrastructure, how do we pay for it, and how long will it last?”

Katelyn Scoular: Nutritional Science

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends two to three servings of dairy per day for a healthy lifestyle. Nutritional sciences student Katelyn Scoular wants to know if getting the recommended servings can also help people with obesity-related illnesses.

In her study-in-progress, Scoular examines whether three daily servings of dairy will help reduce obesity-related conditions like low-grade systemic inflammation and oxidative stress, while also increasing metabolic health.

“This could be a way to help overweight people without just telling them to lose weight,” Scoular explained. “If incorporating dairy products produces the effects that we’re hoping for, it would prolong life and provide a richer quality of life for these individuals.”

Julieta Fernandez: Applied Linguistics

Are we providing students with language resources that will help them successfully study abroad? ...Maybe not, according to Julieta Fernandez’s study, which examined students’ language use while studying abroad in Argentina.

An examination of language use during Facebook chats, classroom interactions, and discussions with conversation partners and home stay families, revealed that even though studying abroad is generally associated with intense language immersion—these programs may not always turn out to be successful. Fernandez explained that students had much less contact with native speakers than expected and often had difficulty establishing peer social networks and making friends. In fact, the majority of students spent more time speaking English than Spanish during their time abroad.

“I studied the use of pragmatics—what participants say to whom, and when during social interactions—and found that students were not exposed to (and did not frequently use) colloquial language, such as slang and lingo. This matters because using colloquial language denotes in-group membership and represents belonging to a group of peers,” she explained. “These terms are neglected in textbooks and we tend not to teach them in language classes.”

Fernandez is using the information she’s compiled to create online language materials that are available to students both before and during their time abroad.

Janelle Applequist: Health Communications

Social media website Pinterest has become the go-to site for sharing recipes, wedding plans, home decor projects, and almost anything else you could imagine. Health communications student Janelle Applequist decided to use the site as a vehicle to explore the current notions of what it means to be a girl or a boy.

Applequist looked at “pins” that revolved around “gender reveal parties” (parties held by expectant parents to announce the gender of their infant). She learned that while perceptions of what it means to be a girl or a boy have remained fairly traditional, gender reveal parties (as opposed to the traditional baby shower) are allowing men to have a bigger role in the pregnancy process.

“You also see a lot of sports rhetoric when it comes to these parties,” Applequist said. “It’s about whose team you’re on, girl or boy, and maybe wearing a jersey to support that. It’s letting men get more involved in the process, which is great for couples.”

Ana Aguilera Hermida: Adult Education

International students face many challenges when they arrive in a new country to attend a foreign university. Not only are they required to navigate through an unfamiliar education system, but they also experience social and language difficulties, culture shock, homesickness, and a change in role and social status. In fact, one in three international students drop out.

This topic is very personal to Ana Aguilera Hermida, a doctoral student studying adult education. When Hermida arrived at Penn State Harrisburg from Mexico City, she was alone and experienced a difficult transition during her first semester. Based on her research, Hermida has developed a comprehensive education model and an intervention program to help both international and American students successfully transition to Penn State Harrisburg and other higher education institutions. Hermida began to work in the international students’ office at her campus and created an orientation workshop and mentoring program that kicked off this spring.

“My intention is to help others, not keep this experience to myself,” explained Hermida. “So far, the number of both mentors and mentees in the program is growing, and it’s been useful for both groups to have a hand to hold when they need it.”

Carla Ellen Rosenfeld: Soil Science

Throughout the United States there are 22 million acres of contaminated soils—an area roughly the size of the state of Maine. Soil science student Carla Ellen Rosenfeld is hoping her research on the interactions between certain plants and polluted soil could help teach strategies for getting rid of these contaminates.

Throughout her research, Rosenfeld saw that while many plants died when planted in soils polluted with heavy metals, such as zinc and cadmium, some plants didn’t.

“In particular, there are two plants that not only survive in these soils but also take a lot of those metals up and out of the soil,” she explained. “It would be great if we could find a way to use these plants to clean up these areas and take them from being completely unusable to making them available for agricultural or residential use.”

Perdeta Bush: Adult Education

Adult education student Perdeta Bush went in a different direction than many of the other graduate students in the exhibition. She conducted a literature review where she examined articles from scholarly and trade journals as well as a dissertation to explore how forgiveness is related to religious beliefs and how it leads to personal development and growth.

Bush found that while people with religious leanings were not more likely to forgive than non-religious people, the process of forgiveness can be transformative and healing for everyone. She said she’d eventually like to go into the prison system to work with women and teach them the process of forgiveness as a catalyst towards transformation and healing.

“Learning is about change,” Bush observed. “If we can begin to critically reflect on the process of forgiveness and see it as a transformation that changes us forever, that’s powerful because we can contribute to the overall well-being of society.”

Alexandria Lockett: English

In the last two years, society has created more information than in all the previous years of human history combined—more information than we even have the mathematical standards for keeping up with. According to IT experts, in this time of “big data,” the responsibility of reporting and information-sharing is on everyday people, often within the realm of online social networks.

As the power to distribute information becomes increasingly democratized, English student Alexandria Lockett wonders how this data should be regulated. Lockett is studying how “big data” and “big brother” converge in a world where normal people have the ability and power to conduct their own surveillance. Lockett studied how information leaks impact privacy, and recently developed a history of information leaks—from Watergate to Wiki Leaks—that takes into account the evolution of digital technologies.

“Watergate is when the leak entered into the everyday language of people,” explained Lockett. “The origin of the leak corresponded with what had traditionally been exclusive control of information by the government and the democratization of technology—when citizens gained access to technologies like recording devices and cameras. Under this model, she adds, “Watergate would never have happened without this shifting of technology.”