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Week 4 Abstracts

This year, all First-Year Monroe Scholars wrote an abstract describing their research project.

An abstract is a short, paragraph-long description of a research project, providing information about the research questions/objectives; the context for the work; research methods; and major findings.

Abstracts are often included on the first page of published papers or book chapters. They are usually the first thing people read when they encounter a research paper - and sometimes the only thing they read! An abstract is also often required if you apply for research grants, or to give a talk or poster at a conference. Although it can be challenging, writing a succinct and engaging abstract is a critical skill for all researchers.

Jasper Merry '24: The Number of Nonzero Patterns in Reduced Echelon forms of M-By-N Matrices with Rank R (Mathematics)

We investigated the number of distinct nonzero patterns occurring among the reduced echelon forms of m-by-n matrices (i.e., grids of numbers with some number “m” rows and some other number “n” columns) with rank r (i.e., some number “r” of the columns are not exclusively composed of zeros). This question appears as an open-ended problem in many linear algebra textbooks. We approached the problem using mathematical techniques to identify the general structure of the solution, then used computational techniques to generate specific cases in order to identify a specific solution. Upon finding a combinatorial sequence that appeared to be a closed-form solution, we reviewed any sources we could find describing this sequence to better understand why it may have been applicable here. We then proved this solution inductively. It turned out to be the Gaussian binomial coefficient [n C r]_2. However, as we learned more about Gaussian binomial coefficients and q-combinatorics in general, we realized that our result is already known as an application of Gaussian binomial coefficients, and that this finding has already been developed much more extensively. As a result, we decided that continued investigation would be redundant.

Faculty advisor: Professor Charles Johnson
Natural Sciences
Haley McAden '24: Mechanisms of Embryonic Wound Healing and Future Avenues of Research (Biology)


In order to gain new insights into both development and wound healing, significant amounts of research have been conducted into embryonic wound healing. I reviewed the current literature to find trends in what questions are — or are not yet — being studied. Many researchers have been interested in the differences between adult and embryonic wound healing, clearly seen in the lack of scarring in embryos. One of the main differences in these processes is decreased immune response in embryonic wounds compared to adult wounds. Current literature also reveals a great deal about the mechanisms which drive embryonic wound healing. Embryonic wound healing employs a two-step process involving a “purse string” mechanism in which an actin cable assembles and contracts, drastically decreasing the wound size. The remaining opening is “zippered” shut by actin protrusions, more similarly to adult wound closure. The purse string mechanism closely resembles Drosophila dorsal closure, suggesting similarities between embryonic development and wound healing. There has been significant research into the signaling cascades involved in these mechanisms, and a few papers regarding the applications of embryonic wound healing in treatments for adult wounds. What is glaringly missing from most current research is a comprehensive look into how and why affected cells are reprogrammed during the healing process. During wound healing, cells move away from the wounded area and differentiate in response, but there has not been much research into what prompts this reprogramming or what determines cell fate, which I propose as an avenue for future projects.

Faculty advisor: Professor Margaret Saha
Luke Mrini '24: Background-Independent Composite Gravity (Physics)


The two most successful frameworks for describing fundamental physics—quantum field theory and general relativity—are incompatible. The task of formulating a theory that effectively combines these two frameworks is the objective of quantum gravity research, a field of study plagued with a number of conceptual difficulties. Among these is the problem of background-independence which requires that a theory of quantum gravity does not impose a preferred set of coordinates or structure for spacetime. Previous work demonstrated that an approach called composite gravity can describe a quantum theory of gravity without background-independence when spacetime lacks curvature. In this research, we addressed this issue by developing a background-independent model of composite gravity using analytic techniques from quantum field theory in curved spacetimes. Instead of introducing gravitation as a fundamental interaction in the model, we introduced only a simpler interaction between particles and demonstrated that at long length scales particle dynamics are identical to that of a system with a gravitational interaction. A particle encapsulating the effects of gravity—the graviton—is effectively “composed” of more fundamental particles and we say that gravity emerges at long length scales in this way. Our model of background-independent composite gravity demonstrates a strategy that can be generalized to more complex systems of particles and may be able to formulate a complete theory of quantum gravity that is background-independent. 

Faculty advisor: Professor Joshua Erlich
Hannah Smith '24: Proposing Diyne Reactions for Usage with Proteins (Chemistry)


Chemical compounds can be linked together for increased chemical functionality. Proteins such as antibodies can be linked with other compounds, resulting in novel properties which increase therapeutic utility. For example, an antibody could be linked with a toxic drug and a tracking mechanism such as a fluorescent chemical compound to allow specific and trackable treatment of cancer cells. I analyzed several reactions linking 3 or more compounds together using a functionality known as a diyne (two conjugated triple bonds) and compiled a literature review. Diynes are electron rich and thus prone to react with many other compounds. By attaching a protein to one end of a diyne and then reacting that diyne with other compounds, a protein can be linked to multiple compounds for increased functionality. Though many successful diyne reactions have been developed, not all reaction conditions are ideal for proteins and physiological conditions. Reactions involving proteins require specific conditions such as an aqueous solvent (like water), a specific temperature range, and a specific pH range. Also, the addition of a protein to a diyne may alter how the diyne reacts. My literature review analyzed existing diyne reactions for compatibility with proteins. I found five promising reactions which occurred at lower temperatures and worked with various chemical groups attached to a diyne (indicating that the reaction could work with a protein attached to the diyne). These reactions can hopefully be explored for applications with proteins using water as a solvent.

Faculty advisor: Professor Douglass Young
Social Sciences
Alexandra Hiestand '24: The Economic Impact of Biological Disasters: A Case Study of Ecosystem Services (Government)


A loss of biodiversity can drastically change a country or region’s economy, and the benefits or losses are dependent on the government’s response. Many studies have researched how biodiversity affects ecosystem function (which in turn, affects human benefits and value of the environment), but none have compared cases of extreme, human-led loss in biodiversity. This study examined how government policy can affect the economic aftermath of a biological disaster through four key case studies: the deforestation of the Amazon, the nuclear reactor explosion in Chernobyl, the 1991 oil spill off the shore of Kuwait, and the recent bushfires in Australia. While these cases occurred all over the globe with different levels of government oversight and responses, they all shared a link between industry and biology; the disaster was tied directly to their economies. This literature review summarized and synthesized pre-existing literature about the intersection of ecosystem and industry and featured research specifically about the four aforementioned case studies. I found that cases that shared information and allowed policy regulations from outside agencies showed better economic resurgence, whereas the cases with unclear governing bodies and slow responses showed negative economic consequences to the disaster. The best mitigation response to an environmentally derived economic downturn was a swift, transparent, and multilateral effort. 

Faculty advisor: Professor Dennis Smith
Marina Pantner '24: Barriers to Correctional Mental Healthcare: A Comparison of Urban and Rural Jails (Psychology) 


Current literature reveals a disturbing and strong link between mental illness and incarceration. However, most research relating to this issue focuses on prisons and urban jails, ignoring the potentially unique challenges faced by rural jails. This study sought to fill this gap by investigating the differences in mental health resources between urban and rural jails. It also explored the potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on these resources. I collected data through ten loosely guided phone interviews. I interviewed correctional mental health care workers at five rural and five urban jails. The interview questions focused on challenges the participants felt that they faced in providing care. The data demonstrated that urban jails had a greater number of diverse programs. All urban facilities had mental health services in addition to supportive counselling and therapy while only one of the rural jails had such supplemental services. All urban jails were also able to provide more effective post-release aid. COVID-19 affected all facilities by shutting down programs and slowing down services. A majority of participants also cited that medical isolation for new arrivals was exacerbating mental health issues. The results of this study illustrate the resource disparities between urban and rural jails. The unique obstacles faced by rural facilities must be taken into consideration in future research as well as future policy making. The data on COVID-19 highlights the importance of testing and vaccination accessibility for correctional facilities. 

Faculty advisor: Professor Danielle Dallaire
Kara SantaLucia '24: High School Diversity and Implicit Bias: Does Exposure Really Matter? (Sociology)


In today’s society, it is critical to examine and recognize any unconscious biases we may possess, no matter how much we may be outwardly non-racist.  Because implicit bias may be shaped by our environment, upbringing, and exposure to other races, I decided to test whether the diversity of someone’s high school is in any way correlated to their level of implicit bias.  I did not find any previous studies on this subject, so I figured it would be an interesting original research topic.  I created a survey where respondents would take the race implicit bias test created by Harvard’s Project Implicit and then report their test results and demographics, including the racial makeup of their high school.  I sent it to as many people and groups as I could and ended up with over 100 responses.  After analyzing the data, I found that there is a slight correlation between high schools with a predominantly white/non-black POC student body and greater implicit bias against African Americans. The main takeaway follows what one might expect: the less diverse the school, the more biased the students tended to be.  Considering the sample size was relatively small, it would be interesting to replicate this study on a larger scale.  It is also important to re-emphasize that there are many factors that go into the development of implicit biases, and this study only examines one.  However, the correlation was still notable, and it certainly opens the door for future research. 

Faculty advisor: Professor Deenesh Sohoni
Kaitlyn Snyder '24: Nationality, Policy, And Trump: Asylum Denial Rates Across U.S. Immigration Courts (Sociology)


Although immigration has occurred since the founding of the U.S., discussions around refugee and asylum immigration have been much more recent. Over the past few decades, each presidential administration has dealt with the issue differently, from attempting to clear a 42,000-case backlog in the late 1990s, to expanding refugee allowances and allocations in 2016. Following his election in 2016, President Trump took a strong stance against immigration, with many of his Executive Orders focused on reforming the asylum and refugee processes. At the same time, President Trump spoke out against refugees and asylum-seekers from Latin and Central America, voicing his desires to curb immigration from those countries. This study seeks to determine whether the Trump Administration’s asylum and immigration policies disproportionately affected immigrants of certain nationalities and further, whether the geographic and political leaning of each immigration court affected asylum outcomes. Data was collected from TRAC Immigration, an online database which compiles data from immigration courts throughout the U.S. The asylum denial rates for the nine most common nationalities across nine immigration courts were compared from fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2019 to analyze the effects of the Trump Administration’s policies. This analysis shows that while all nationalities faced increased denial rates, applicants from China, Ethiopia, and India – countries not targeted by President Trump’s rhetoric - faced the most significant increases in asylum denial rates. Furthermore, courts located in Republican and swing states experienced higher increases in asylum denial rates than courts located in Democratic states. 

Faculty advisor: Professor Deenesh Sohoni
Emma Williams '24: The Reception of China’S Global Media: China Radio International in Niger (Government)

China’s foreign policy has focused on improving relations with other countries. Media has been a particular focus of this strategy. Since the turn of the century, China has invested in establishing and expanding government media agencies on an international scale. China’s media has two main goals in its presentation to the international community. Firstly, it seeks to better China’s general reputation. Secondly, Chinese media promotes South-South relations between China and developing countries, presenting China as an alternative force to Western powers such as the United States and Europe. This study assesses the effectiveness of China’s media expansion in achieving these goals. While previous studies of Chinese media effectiveness have relied on examining chronological data to assess changes in attitude towards China in recipient countries, this is a more focused case study, using geocoded data from the Afrobarometer political survey to assess the influence of China Radio International (CRI) stations in Niger. I evaluated survey respondents’ location in relation to the 40 mile radio broadcast ranges of the four CRI FM radio stations in Niger. Respondents within the broadcast ranges were considered the treatment group receiving CRI broadcasting, while those outside the range served as a control. The results of this study indicated that access to CRI broadcasting correlates with positive trends in Nigerien citizens’ views of China when compared to Western powers, especially France, who colonized Niger until the 1950’s. Meanwhile, views of China when not compared to Western powers remained generally positive with no significant changes across broadcasting zones.

Faculty advisor: Professor Michael Tierney
Bilen Zerie '24: National Unity and Justice for Victims: Learning from South Africa’S Truth and Reconciliation Commission (International Relations)

For many scholars and policymakers, the post-apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is the poster child for transitional justice mechanisms. Its dramatic, widely broadcasted truth-seeking process brought unprecedented international attention and acclaim. However, voices within South Africa maintain that the TRC failed at truly empowering victims. This study explores several questions to examine the unexplained discrepancy in perceptions. First, what was the commission’s framework and guiding principles, and why was this path chosen? Then, do victims feel that the TRC and its workings were in their best interest, and if not, what has disappointed them?  To answer these questions, this study draws on primary commission documents, scholarly literature, and studies. In particular, it provides a comprehensive evaluation of every accessible survey on victim-satisfaction towards the South African TRC. This analysis reveals that the commission’s focus on restorative justice and amnesties was established in order to benefit powerful parties as opposed to groups disenfranchised by apartheid. Victims remain disappointed and feel as though their demands for reparations, prosecutions, and structural economic reform were dismissed. This knowledge is critical because transitional justice is intended to prioritize victims by acknowledging and atoning for the abuses committed against them. If South Africa—the reigning example of truth commissions in the public eye—failed to uphold this core tenet, then that issue must be recognized and rectified. 7

Faculty advisor: Professor Kelebogile Zvobgo