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W&M students’ research continued with summer Honors Fellowships

Summer 2020 looked and felt different because of COVID-19 restrictions, but William & Mary students doing research projects using Honors Fellowships thrived amidst change.

W&M Honors Fellowships, funded by donors and administered by the Charles Center, financially support students conducting research for department honors projects. Students may receive up to $5,000 through the program, which includes a $4,000 summer grant to enable the student to conduct 10 weeks of pre-honors research.

Each student works closely with a faculty advisor on an individual project, with 80-plus projects spanning 29 departments this summer. Some of this summer’s work had to be modified due to travel restrictions or physical distancing required by pandemic conditions, but students persevered.

Working in biology, Julia Urban ’20 changed her research topic completely to pursue a COVID-19 related project.

“The virus not only motivated the project, but also determined the research methods available to me,” Urban said. “I could not access the lab this summer, so I pivoted my focus to an intensive literature review and to math modeling.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need for broad-spectrum antiviral therapies, since vaccines can take months to develop and distribute, according to Urban.

“This year, I aim to design a probiotic that secretes polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), a type of fatty acid that has various antiviral effects,” Urban said. “PUFAs can be pro- or anti-inflammatory, meaning the probiotic must sense the stage of inflammation in the human body to determine the suitable PUFA to secrete. My project will consist of modeling the probiotic and consulting experts to determine its feasibility.”

Over the past few months, Urban has conducted an extensive literature review to identify genetic parts suitable for the probiotic. She has found genes that encode the biosynthetic pathways for various PUFAs, as well as genes that encode proteins to export these PUFAs.

“I have transitioned to mathematically modeling the probiotic, which will help me determine if it is feasible, and, if so, how I can optimize it,” Urban said.

Receiving an Honors Fellowship allowed her to devote her summer to a research project that she has designed from the very start, according to Urban. She has worked with her faculty advisor, Chancellor Professor of Biology Margaret Saha, since her freshman year.

“Dr. Saha's freshman honors biology lab introduced me to the field of synthetic biology and to undergraduate research at William & Mary,” Urban said. “I have worked with Dr. Saha on various projects ever since, and I am so glad that I have the opportunity to complete an honors thesis with her.”

The two worked closely on this latest part.

“Dr. Saha's expertise in synthetic and molecular biology has guided my project at every step,” Urban said. “She helped me to define my research topic, and later to redefine it in light of the pandemic. Unable to access the lab on campus, I began to review literature on viral infection and the antiviral properties of certain lipids.

“Dr. Saha guided my search for and analysis of countless articles, helping me to identify genetic parts that I could use to design an antiviral probiotic bacteria. She has always encouraged me to think like an engineer and to see biological systems as programmable machines.”

Daisy Garner ’21 studied the intersection of political and soccer culture in Germany, specifically looking at how free speech laws in Germany shape the current political discourse in German soccer and how they have shaped it in the past. She made adjustments to her thesis so that she no longer had to travel to complete it.

“I have gained experience working independently as a researcher and holding myself accountable,” Garner said. “It has also been a valuable experience to practice being flexible as both a researcher and a student.”

Garner stayed in close contact with her advisor, Assistant Professor of German Studies Robin Ellis, through Zoom meetings and sending weekly updates.

“We have talked about how I am conducting my research, ways I can improve my research such as by moving on from sources when they are not worth spending so much time on in regards to my topic,” Garner said. “She has helped me find sources, and she has encouraged me to attend the undergraduate research mini-courses.”

At the start of the fellowship, Leslie Davis ’21 began studying when and how gender becomes a salient political identity for voters with Associate Professor of Government Jaime Settle as her advisor. Davis was interested in looking at American female voters and understanding why and how they act politically in the way that they do, she said.

“Luckily, the pandemic did not impact my project,” Davis said. “My plan going into the summer was to narrow down my topic, work on my literature review and develop the design portion of my experiment — all of which I could do remotely. Despite working from home, Swem has been great about providing access to sources that the library did not own before or have electronically.

“I’m so grateful for the librarians at Swem because of how dedicated they are to helping student researchers.”

This summer, Davis decided to narrow down her topic to one of the sub-questions included in her original proposal. She is now focusing on how partisan polarization may be shaping gender animus in American politics, rather than broadly examining gender as a salient political identity, she said.

“This fellowship has been incredibly valuable,” Davis said. “It has provided me the opportunity to dive deeply into an area of study that I am passionate about. Additionally, getting the chance to examine key concepts and craft ideas with the help of an expert in American political behavior has been such a rewarding learning opportunity.

“I’m beyond excited to continue working on the project, learning from my advisor and growing as a researcher this academic year.”