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2011 Honors Summer Research Projects

2012 Honors Summer Research Projects

2013 Summer Research Projects

Riana Brown, Senior, Psychology and International Studies

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Debra Lieberman, Psychology

Less well studied is the information laughter conveys about the social environment. Given that ancestrally elder males would have been tasked with keeping watch for possible threats from out-groups, when elder males are engaging in laughter it may carry better information regarding the safety level of the social world than when elder females or young individuals are laughing. We predicted that male laughter will produce greater feelings of safety and be rated as more pleasant than female laughter, hearing older individuals laugh will produce greater feeling of safety and be rated as more pleasant than laughter of younger individuals, and laughter from older males will produce the greatest sense of safety. We had 30 University of Miami students listen to a selection of laughter recordings recorded from University of Miami students and faculty. After listening to each track (4 tracks: young men, young women, older women, older men) participants completed an experimental survey including questions about how threatening, safe, pleasant, and irritating the laughter tracks were perceived to be. We found that the laughter from younger individuals was perceived to be more pleasant than laughter from older individuals, opposite of our predictions. In addition, we found that there was no difference between the ratings of male and female laughter on safety or pleasantness.

Philip Corrado, Junior, Biomedical Engineering

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Chun-Yuh “Charles” Huang, Biomedical Engineering

I studied stem cells in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. I cultured human dental stem cells in flasks for a few weeks. I changed media so these cells would grow and divide. In my experiment, I treated these cells with chemicals (ATP and TGF-beta3) and kept them in a 3-d pellet culture for two weeks. Then I tested them for chondrogenic differentiation, to see if they had turned into cartilage cells. I did this by using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology. I spent most of my time doing the following three things: cell culturing, extracting RNA, and using the PCR machine. Cartilage has a very limited ability to repair itself so many people are looking at stem cells as a way to treat cartilage injuries and arthritis. My research led to some interesting findings. First, I was able to differentiate gingival tissue derived stem cells into chondrocytes (cartilage). These cells were discovered pretty recently and only in the past five years have they been used for research. Showing their chondrogenic potential is important and has not been firmly established by previous researchers. I also discovered that ATP might induce chondrogenesis. Unlike TGF-beta, ATP is not a known chondrogenic agent, so to show that it does turn stem cells into cartilage is a new finding.

Kathryn Doering, Senior, Marine Science Biology

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Susan Sponaugle, Marine Biology and Fisheries

My research project was about the invertebrate zooplankton assemblages collected with light traps at Pulley Ridge, a mesophotic reef, in August 2012. I identified invertebrates in these samples to basic ecological groups in order to determine differences in the samples between depth (surface, middepth, and bottom) and location (North and South Pulley Ridge) of the traps. In addition to lab work, I spent time in the field. I collected additional light trap samples on deep (25 m) and shallow (10 m) reefs from the lower Florida Keys during the summer that I will later analyze for comparison to the Pulley Ridge samples. The continuation of this project will be my senior thesis. I also spent time on fieldwork that a graduate student was conducting. My duties included both boat tending and scuba diving. As a diver, I assisted with reproductive and behavioral studies on damselfish and I collected data on type of bottom cover and relief on the deep and shallow reef habitats of the damselfish studied.

Alexander Gonzalez, Senior, English and French

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Joel Nickels, English
My research assignment was to look for examples of spontaneous, political self-organization in three texts that take place in early 20th century Argentina and Spain. In the case of Argentina and Spain, self-organization becomes evident in conflicts involving laborers and workers strikes. The inspirations for these discussions about labor occur in the backdrop of turning points in Latin American and Spanish history such as the Patagonia crisis and the Spanish Civil War. Images of these workers strikes represent moments when self-organization becomes apparent. The goal of this research was ultimately to begin finding instances that relate to my mentor Professor Nickels’ thesis that suggests the idea of dissident internationalism. Dissident internationalism refers to authors who imagine local communities as agents of a transnational network of self-governing people. Early 20th century Argentina and Spain provide a point of departure from which to consider the presence of non-state nations.

Brooke Homovec, Junior, International Studies and Psychology

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Terri Scandura, Management

For this research endeavor, I worked under the supervision of two University of Miami Department of Management faculty: Dr. Terri Scandura and Dr. Chei Hwee Chua. The objective of the research was to conduct a questionnaire survey across international cultures to garner a better understanding of the relationships between leaders and their directly-reporting subordinates as well as the advantages and disadvantages of different leadership styles. The goal was to find ways to enhance employees’ job satisfaction and job performance. To begin, I completed literature reviews in several phases, acquiring past research on paternalistic leadership from conference proceedings, journals and books, and coding this information into a large spreadsheet to be used later when the paper is written. Afterwards, I created tables that isolated various characteristics of the studies (such as grouping together studies that included paternalistic leadership as an independent variable) for further analysis. Simultaneously, my research advisors and I used our preexisting networks to reach out to companies that we thought would be appropriate candidates for the study. Once companies agree to participate, we send two separate questionnaires to the company: one for subordinates and one for their direct bosses. After data is collected, the results will be coded and analyzed using computer software. Unfortunately, we are still in the process of gathering enough participants to make the study viable and therefore do not have any results to present. Though the fact that some companies have declined to participate is disappointing, remaining appreciative of their time and consideration is a great life skill – they may be perfect, consenting participants in a future study. 

Dima Jaraki, Junior, Biology

Faculty Mentor:  Professor Sung Yong Eum, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and
Dr. Michal Toborek, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology


N-acyl-homoserine lactone (AHL) quorum sensing molecules, commonly produced by a wide variety of Gram-negative bacteria, are known to modulate homeostasis of host cells and induction of inflammatory responses. Intestinal epithelial cells form a selective barrier separating the luminal content from underlying tissues, which is maintained via a complex of proteins composing the tight junctions that are located on the lateral membranes. Little is known about the mechanisms of homoserine lactones (HSL) on intestinal epithelial integrity. The present study aimed to evaluate the impacts of N-(3-oxodecanoyl)-homoserine lactone (3O-C12-HSL), a pathogenic long chain AHL on intestinal barrier integrity with in vitro human intestinal epithelial Caco-2 cell cultures. Using reverse transcription real-time polymerase chain reaction technique, we found that 3O-C12-HSL upregulated mRNA expression of inflammatory molecules including CCL2, IL-8 and TNF-alpha. Pre-treatment of pharmacological specific inhibitors against matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), at least partially, prohibited these effects of 3O-C12-HSL on intestinal epithelial cells. These findings suggest that MMP-mediated molecular mechanisms underlie AHL-induced intestinal epithelial integrity disruption.

Ali Jessani, Junior, Communication Studies and Political Science

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Joseph Uscinski, Political Science
I spent my summer researching conspiracy theories, specifically the reasons why people believe in them and what factors play a role in leading people to have a conspiratorial predisposition. Dr. Uscinski and I began our research by conducting a content analysis of survey questions handed to people after they voted in the 2012 Presidential Election. The questions identified which people had the strongest predisposition towards conspiratorial thinking, and separated these people based on partisanship, race, gender, and a variety of other factors. The results of the study showed that people on the Left and the Right believe in conspiracy theories at an equal rate, and often accuse each other of conspiring. Dr. Uscinski and I also conducted additional conspiracy theory research in the form of content-analyzing over 2,000 Google searches related to conspiracy theories. We found that most conspiracy theories tend to be political and that most websites tend to view conspiracy theories in a negative light. Our research this summer has important implications on future conspiracy theory research, as we have shown that conspiracy theories affect people on both sides of the political spectrum, and that some people, more than others, have a natural disposition to believe conspiracy theories.

Nora Kandler, Senior, Marine Science Biology

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. James Klaus, Geological Sciences

As part of my summer project, I assisted with the drilling, collection, and recording of a series of seven cores throughout the terraces along the southern coast of the Dominican Republic.  The depths of these cores extended down to 150 meters, containing various corals and sediments within a vast time period.  I also had the chance to explore quarries within the surrounding area.  Within the quarries, I assisted in collecting coral samples and recording transect observations, learning to identify the species in both cases.  Once the samples arrived at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, I assisted in preparing the cores for analysis.  Plugs were drilled from the core and their ends sawed off to create 1.0- and 1.5-inch tall cylinders.  The core was then cut vertically in half and imaged to save a record of the core.  One half of the core was used for isotope and XRD analysis.  A drill was used to collect powder, which was then turned into a paste for the XRD/carbonates analysis done by a machine.  Further analyses have yet to be completed.  I look forward to expanding my geological knowledge and continuing to learn as I work on this project under the direction of Dr. James Klaus this coming year.

Michael Kaplan, Senior, Microbiology and Immunology

Faculty Mentors:  Dr. John Bethea, Neurological Surgery and Professor Anna Dellarole, Miami Project to Cure Paralysis

The goal of this study has been to investigate the role of Schwann cells TNF signaling in the development of neuropathic pain that occurs in response to peripheral nerve injury. To this purpose we used conditional transgenic mice that selectively do not express TNFR2 in Schwann cells, and performed the chronic constriction injury (CCI) of the sciatic nerve, a common model of neuropathic pain in rodents.  Mice were sacrificed three weeks after surgery, at the peak of pain symptoms, and their sciatic nerves were collected for immunohistochemical analysis of myelin and axonal markers (MPZ and NF200, respectively). Our data show that our transgenic mice, did not developed allodynia, one of the main symptoms of neuropathic pain, when compared to wild-type mice at any time point after injury, suggesting that TNF signaling through TNFR2 in Schwann cells might have a role in this process. Moreover immunohistochemical analysis showed normal levels of MPZ and of NF200 in the injured nerves of the transgenic mice, compared to the contralateral sides, or to the WT injured nerves. This data indicates a decrease in both myelin loss, and in axonal degeneration, in mice that lack TNFR2 in Schwann cells compared to WT.  Specifically, I processed the sciatic nerves, performed the immunohistochemical experiments, and analyzed the fluorescence microscopy results.

Yishen Li, Junior, Marine Science Biology

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Kathleen Sullivan-Sealey, Biology and Ecosystem Science & Policy

My research project, supervised by Dr. Kathleen Sullivan-Sealey from the Department of Biology/Ecosystem Science and Policy, is focused on coastal ecologic disturbance and dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) loading on the Great Exuma Island, The Bahamas. Excess input of DIN into coastal waters has been proven to trigger eutrophication, hypoxia, and degraded ecologic functions. The ultimate goal of the project is to calculate the qualities of DIN discharged into coastal waters through different types of shorelines (sandy beach, rocky shore, mangroves, and human-altered shoreline), and link those quantities to coastal ecologic rankings to formulate a relationship of DIN input—Ecologic Disturbance Level that would provide suggestions for environmental regulation. I spent the first four weeks of study preparing for the trip to The Bahamas: used Google Earth and historical images to categorize the shoreline into segments, trained how to use different types of equipment to measure water quality, created datasheets and tide cycle table for measurements in the field, and started literature review on this subject. During our two-week stay in Great Exuma, I was in charge of water quality sampling and measurements at 17 sites along the island daily, conducted detailed landscape surveys at five locations while recording disturbance data with a GPS receiver, and participated in biodiversity surveys in various types of ecosystems. In the next two weeks, I organized all data we collected, and worked on the field log, metadata, attribute tables, and trip report necessary for further analysis.

Courtney Magnus, Senior, Marine Science Biology

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Diego Lirman, Marine Biology and Fisheries

Surveys from 2005-2012 show an established harmful algal bloom (HAB) in Biscayne Bay made up of two species of a green macroalgae, Anadyomene. HABs are often associated with the anthropogenic input of nutrients and can have many long-lasting ecological and economic impacts, as they are capable of persisting for multiple years.  The Anadyomene bloom in Biscayne Bay is typically found in shallow water, 2-4 m deep, in the central inshore section of the bay.  It can be seen forming a thick algal mat covering the bottom of the bay and has been associated with a decrease in the presence of Thalassia testudinum and other seagrass species.  The loss of foundation species, like seagrass, as a result of macroalgal blooms can result in the loss of the ecological services provided by seagrass.  This can greatly impact the local ecology and economy as many fisheries species use seagrass habitats as nurseries.  Macroalgal growth can be affected by many factors such as light, salinity, and nutrient availability.  Over the course of my internship I conducted a series of experiments in which the blooming Anadyomene, collected in Biscayne Bay was subjected to a number of different treatments.  The average daily productivity of the algae subjected to each treatment was then calculated in order to assess how light, salinity, and water-column nutrients impact algal growth and aid the bloom in persisting.  A better understanding of the physical drivers for the observed bloom will contribute to the containment, management, and future prevention of such blooms. 

Joshua Moorman, Junior, Finance and Mathematics

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Alexander Dvorsky, Mathematics

Dr. Alexander Dvorsky of the Mathematics Department and I researched the potential profitability of an option trading strategy known as dispersion trading. Dispersion trading utilizes options to make bets on the volatility of individual stocks within different business sectors and their indices. In short, dispersion trading is a bet that the stocks within an index are either more or less correlated than the market believes them to be and is done by selling short index options while buying options on the individual stocks composing the index or vice versa. In order to test this, we first determined the prices of individual stock options and index options. To do this, I coded a Monte-Carlo option pricing strategy as well as the mathematically accurate Black-Scholes option pricing model. The Monte-Carlo method tracks how a stock or index performs over a specified time, determines the option’s payoff, and finally, determines that payoff’s present value. This simulation is run one million times and the average present value payoff is the option price. While the Black-Scholes method is more accurate, for low interest rates, such as those currently present in the United States, the two methods provided nearly identical prices for the same option. Once it was determined that the Monte-Carlo method could be used, I combined the code with another piece of code that represented a simplified stock market, tracking stock and index prices based off individual stock volatilities, beta values, and total market performance. Therefore, for each simulation, I began with a control test in which I would determine the original stock and index option prices, subsequently weighting the individual stock options so that we were spending the same amount buying the individual stock options as we were making from selling the index options (or vice versa). I then changed the individual volatilities of the stock as well as the time to expiration, representing a real life change in volatilities over time. Using the weights determined in the control test and the new prices based off the updated volatilities, I concluded whether a profit or loss was made. In the end, it was deduced that dispersion trading could be a profitable trading strategy. In the upcoming semester I plan to include transaction costs, add put options, and adjust for the costs of hedging all to make the model less theoretical and more realistic.

Syed Hamad Sagheer, Sophomore, Microbiology and Immunology

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Zhibin Chen, Microbiology and Immunology

I completed research under the supervision of Dr. Zhibin Chen in the Microbiology and Immunology Department at the Medical Campus. Autoimmunity can play a powerful force in antitumor immunity and possibly bring society one step closer to fighting cancer. My research involved using splenocytes from a diabetic mouse that were efficient at clearing an islet derived tumor (NIT-1). By looking at a CD4+ restricted T-cell receptor, specific for beta-cells, we see that they are alone capable of destroying the tumor. CTLA4 is a protein receptor that modulates this antitumor response, which is correlated with specific changes in cellular motility. By reducing the presence of CLTA4 on T-cells through a knockdown in gene expression, there is an increase in the response time against the tumor mass. CTLA4 is commonly found on regulatory T-cells to “push the brakes” on a response against a tumor to prevent killing normal cells, but may also hamper the body’s ability of quick killing. My portion of the independent research primarily dealt with analyzing and imaging the movies between the interactions between the T-cells and tumors. During my free time after working on my project, I helped with various tasks around the lab, such as with real-time polymerase chain reactions, grinding mice organs, and counting cells under a microscope.

Heidi Savabi, Senior, International Studies and Latin American Studies

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Justin Stoler, Geography and Regional Studies

Historical Mapping of the Lebanese in Accra (HMLA) aims to enumerate Lebanese commercial activity in Accra, thus laying the groundwork for a future community-led economic census of Lebanese business interests, as well as generate the first historical map of these businesses. The project employs a geographic framework to collect, map, and track key business metrics with the overarching goal of creating aggregate measures of the Lebanese economic legacy and helping put this business community “on the map.” Information gathered will be used to establish basic aggregate economic indicators for these activities by sector. To assist with the specific aims of HMLA, I helped maintain a project blog as a reference tool for anyone interested in the project, particularly participants who want to track our progress online. The page features contact information for project leadership, summary documents, progress updates, and links to other similar projects that have helped put under-represented communities “on the map.” I also collected data for specific businesses including the year founded and broad industry code that are mapped to the business location. Ultimately we will create a Google Maps mash-up with a slider bar that controls the animation of business locations over time for a particular industrial sector, or in total. To contribute to the project’s map, I drew polygon shapes to display the location, shape, and size of each Lebanese business.

Harrison Seeman, Junior, Finance

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Andrea Heuson, Finance
Houses in Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) regions with more limited supply due to regulatory restrictiveness and/or geographical constraints feature higher returns than houses in less restrictive MSA regions.  The objective of this research is to understand the relationship and predictive value between a region’s return and its regulatory restrictiveness and geographical constraints for commercial real estate.  Specifically, the research establishes a numerical relationship between a region’s return and its regulatory restrictiveness and geographical constraint for commercial real estate land uses.  To find this relationship, commercial real estate return data from NCREIF (National Council of Real Estate Fiduciaries) was combined by MSA region with data from a study by Wharton School of Business on regulatory restrictiveness and another study by Albert Saiz on geographical constraints.  After combining the different sources’ data sets, the information was separated by returns in 2003, 2005, and 2009 to represent a normal market, boom market, and a bust market respectively.  Multiple regressions were used to understand the relationship between commercial real estate return, regulatory restrictiveness, and geographic constraint by MSA.  The primary application of the research is to provide new investing and valuation tools for commercial real estate.

Teresa Vargas, Junior, Psychology and English

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Ruben Rabinsky, Philosophy

Our research project originates and is based on Dr. Rabinsky’s development of and teaching a new course on Business Ethics for the College of Arts and Sciences. We interviewed a series of successful Hispanic Entrepreneurs (mostly in person, but some also through Skype) using a set of questions to explore the philosophical dimension of the project, and a separate set of questions (and a personality inventory) to explore certain personality traits we hypothesized the entrepreneurs would have in common. From the philosophical aspect of the interviews, all of our hypotheses were supported. We found that, without exception; (1) our sample of Hispanic entrepreneurs is highly individualistic; (2) they believe in wealth creation as a noble and worthy human endeavor; (3) all of the Hispanic entrepreneurs rejected and criticized socialism and all varieties of collectivism or government control of the economy; and (4) all of the Hispanic entrepreneurs favor some variety of capitalism and free market economy. The psychological aspect of the project yielded the following results: Although we did not find the entrepreneurs to have significantly lower levels of introversion or higher levels of openness to experience as was hypothesized, the majority of them reported to have experienced flow states, as we hypothesized. We also found the entrepreneurs to have lower than average levels of emotionality, and higher than average positive emotion.

Anneliese Vitha, Junior, Biology

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Dorraya El-Ashry, Internal Medicine
This summer I was given the opportunity to work at Sylvester Cancer Research Center doing breast cancer research. In the specific laboratory I was assigned, I worked with Dorraya El-Ashry, Ph.D. and Amy Plotkin, an M.D. Ph.D. student at Miller School of Medicine. In this lab, we worked with estrogen receptor (-) breast cancers. ER (-) breast cancers are generally more aggressive and have a worse prognosis for treatment than ER (+) breast cancers.  The re-expression of ER receptor would allow ER (-) breast cancers to be treated with endocrine therapies and therefore, have a better prognosis. The loss of ER receptors is due to different epigenetic means that block the expression of the receptor. This lab researches different means to overcome the epigenetic blockers. I worked with four different breast cancer cell lines, SUM-149, SUM-159, MDA 231 and MCF-7s. I used these cell lines in tissue culture, DNA and RNA extraction, luciferase assays, centrifugation, and in the Nano-Drop machine throughout different experiments. Also, I used different cancer treatment drugs, such as tamoxifen, ICI (antioestrogen), and Scriptaid to treat the cells. I am very grateful to both the Sylvester Cancer Research Center and the Honors Summer Program for giving me the opportunity to have hands-on experience working with all of these breast cancer cell lines, experiment techniques, and breast cancer drugs. Through this experience I also learned a good amount of information about tissue culture and different research techniques that will be useful to me in my future career.

Brooke Zarouri, Senior, Biochemistry

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Priyamvada Rai, Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are produced naturally as byproducts of aerobic respiration in the mitochondria. DNA damage repair proteins are essential for a cell’s survival because ROS may cause base alterations, mutations, and DNA strand breaks. Cancer cells produce higher levels of metabolic ROS than normal cells, and accordingly they have higher levels of DNA repair proteins. This marked difference makes the DNA damage response pathway a logical target for inducing death or growth arrest in cancer cells. Loss of function methods such as small hairpin RNAs (shRNAs) can be used to suppress specific proteins in the damage repair pathway and subsequently investigate how each protein individually affects cell survival.  A shRNA clone library was obtained comprising of OGG1, NTHL1, APEX1, MUTYH, and FEN1, five proteins playing important functional roles in base excision repair, a DNA damage response pathway. The objective of the research project was to isolate the DNA and confirm the successful incorporation of the shRNA plasmid. To achieve this, DNA was isolated and concentrated from bacteria that incorporated the shRNA plasmid effectively, and the validity of the plasmid was confirmed through gel electrophoresis and sequencing of the DNA. Once a sample is validated through both methods, it can be introduced into lung cancer cells to investigate how the target protein affects cell survival and tumor growth.