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MCPHS Center for Undergraduate Research Hosts Second Annual Conference

  • On April 19, 2021, the Center for Undergraduate Research (CUR) hosted its second annual undergraduate research conference to highlight some of the fascinating work being undertaken by undergraduate students here at MCPHS University. This year’s event, with a theme of “Sustaining Substance-Free Spaces,” was held virtually and began with Vice President for Academic Affairs/Provost Dr. Caroline Zeind, PharmD, RPh, congratulating the participating students on their research and thanking all those involved in putting the conference together. Dr. Zeind also thanked Associate Professor, Dr. Keri Griffin, PhD, MPH, MPA, MCHES, the Founding Director of the CUR, and emphasized the importance of the Center’s work:

    “The purpose and goals of the Center for Undergraduate Research are so important to the academic mission of our University. Through the Center, students have had the opportunity to attend special networking events, career fairs, and affinity groups—all events to support students who are underrepresented in the sciences.” In just over two years, Dr. Zeind, said, the CUR has helped students submit 140 applications for funding of mentored projects and 328 abstracts for presentation. She added, “And I also want to emphasize the importance of the Center’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

    After some remarks from Dr. Delia Anderson, PhD, Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, Professor of Biology, and Associate Provost of Undergraduate Education, the event’s student leaders held a moment of silence for victims of hate-motivated violence, followed by a reading of the poem “I Dream a World” by Langston Hughes.

    The next remarks came from the event’s keynote speaker: Dr. Shivani Gaiha, PhD, of Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Gaiha gave a presentation detailing her post-doctoral research scholarship work entitled “The Vaping Epidemic.” Dr. Gaiha is an Indian native whose scholarship has taken her from Hyderabad and Delhi to London, Ithaca, and Palo Alto. Her research focuses on three key areas: adolescent and young adult patterns of use and perceptions about new tobacco products such as electronic cigarettes, evaluating effects of school-based e-cigarette prevention education, and the relationship between mental health and e-cigarette use.

    Among the many interesting findings in Dr. Gaiha’s report was the wide variety of e-cigarette flavors she counted: 15,500. E-cigarettes also tend to have more nicotine than a pack of cigarettes, and they cause brain changes, increased heart rate, and acid reflux. The takeaway: Vaping devices are not an effective cigarette replacement tool because they are addictive, a gateway back to cigarettes, and their use is independently damaging. Solutions to the problem, some of which we are already beginning to see, include tracking, conversations, co-development of strategies, advocacy and education, and institutional commitment. In fact, Dr. Griffin, Dr. Ashwini Ranade, Dr. Devan Hawkins, and Dr. Anthony Lacina, from the School of Arts and Sciences, were recently awarded grant funding from the American Cancer Society to study the use of tobacco products on our campuses and examine the possibility of updating our institutional policies to be inclusive of e-cigarettes and vaping devices.

    Dr. Gaiha’s presentation was followed by the selected student plenary presenter, Sahith Kaki, who is enrolled in the BS, Premedical Health Studies (Osteopathic Med) program. Supported by funding from the CUR, Sahith has been working with Instructor of Public Health Dr. Devan Hawkins, conducting research on “deaths of despair” in the United States. “Deaths of despair,” which include fatalities due to poison, suicide, alcohol, and opioids, have increased sharply among white Americans and relate to occupation, education level, and stress. The problem has been thus far unique to the United States. Hawkins and Kaki, whose study “Deaths of Despair Among Healthcare Workers, Massachusetts, 2011-2015" was published in January 2021 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, will next research links between drug class and occupation.

    After Sahith’s presentation, the event split into five breakout rooms, based on topics, as students delivered oral presentations of their research. The topics covered were COVID-19 pandemic response activities, health education and health promotion, natural sciences, healthcare humanities, and clinical and healthcare delivery. After the breakout sessions, the conference reconvened for an alumni panel for career insights and advice. The alumni participants were Ashley Njiru, BS MMB '18; Regina Dello Russo, BS Premedical and Health Studies '15; Hayel Abdul Ghani, BS Premedical and Health Studies '19; Dhara Desai BS MMB '18; Jewel Evans BS PH'14; Vida Rompas BS PH'19; and Kelly Gaynor BS PH'14. Members from the alumni panel discussed lessons learned from their current work and current academic programs (including conducting laboratory research, work in public health policy and government operations, as well as graduate and dental school). Among their insights were the importance of serving at-risk populations and how tapping into MCPHS professors’ professional networks can be a huge help as students begin their careers.

    The penultimate portion of the event saw 20 different breakout rooms, where a total of 55 student posters were presented. The poster presentations covered a wide range of research and were grouped into subject areas including climate change and disease, antibacterial resistance and vaccine development, nutrition and diets, behavioral science considerations for children, and infectious diseases and public health. Each breakout room included a panel of MCPHS faculty members who served as judges to evaluate and provide feedback on the students’ work.

    Wrapping up the event was 30 minutes of student-only time, where students across disciplines could decompress, network, and chat about their research. Though the event was held virtually this year and welcomed over 180 registrants and nearly 100 student presenters, the CUR team looks eagerly forward to next year’s event where students will (hopefully) be able to attend and present their work in person.

    To learn more about the CUR, or identify a mentor, sign in using your MCPHS log-in, and click here. For other questions, or to volunteer with the CUR, please email CUR@mcphs.edu.