More than half of undergraduates to participate in research in various fields during their four years at the University. Three of these college students – Ephrata Yohannes in third year, Kai Vylet in third year, and Leona Gaither in fourth year – are researching nitrogen dioxide and ozone, alternative theories of gravity, and working conditions. teachers, respectively.
Although their subjects are different, the three share similar challenges and feelings of fulfillment in their work.
Many students get involved in research by emailing a professor whose work they find interesting. Some students are involved in the Opportunities for Undergraduates in the University Research Program, which offers paid research positions to first and second year students, as well as eligible transfers to the federal work-study program. Other students find research positions advertised on the mailing lists of majors or student organizations. The Office of Undergraduate Research website also contains a database scholarships and other sources of funding that students can apply to.
Ephrata Yohannes – the relationship between ozone and nitrogen dioxide
Yohannes studies the relationship between ozone and nitrogen dioxide in major American cities. And receives credit for his research through the Department of Environmental Sciences. Yohannes said she knew from her first year that she was interested in using NASA satellite data and developed that interest into a research goal with Asst. Environmental Sciences Prof. Sally Pusede. Yohannes said she wants the work she does to have an impact and eventually lead to environmental regulations.
Ozone is a reactive gas composed of three oxygen atoms. Nitrogen dioxide – a nitrogen oxide composed of two oxygen atoms and one nitrogen atom – is a precursor ozone, which means it is involved in the chemical reaction that creates ozone. Volatile organic compounds, a collection of pollutants dissolved in air and water and derived from many human activities, including pumping gas and dry cleaning clothes, are also involved in the chemical reaction to produce ozone, with the sunlight.
“The NO2 plus VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, the more sunlight – these three elements combined lead to a high concentration of ozone,” Yohannes said. “Obviously it’s sunnier in the summer – so we usually see higher ozone levels in the summer – so those are the months that I study. “
Ozone is beneficial in the stratosphere, but dangerous in the troposphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas and cause damaging human health effects, including difficulty breathing. Yohannes’ research sometimes examines that ground-level ozone exceeds the level set by the Environmental Protection Agency – 0.070 parts per million averaged over an 8-hour period – and compares these cases to nitrogen dioxide levels at the same time and place.
“My job is to see – when NO2 is high does that also mean ozone is high? Yohannes said. “[Pusede and I] are just trying to determine if there is this proportional relationship.
Yohannes hopes to combine ozone and NO2 data with data from census tracts in major U.S. cities to assess levels of environmental inequality in air pollution.
Kai Vylet – alternative theories of gravity
Vylet works with Asst. Physics professor Kent Yagi to study alternative theories of gravity and also receives class credits for the research he conducts.
“In physics, the theory of gravity is GR – or general relativity – but people think it’s not a complete theory,” Vylet said. “So people are interested in testing alternative theories that others have proposed.”
General relativity is Einstein’s theory of gravity and space-time, which states that massive objects distort the space and time around them, causing other less massive objects to orbit around them. Vylet uses observations of neutron stars to test the Einstein-Ether theory – an alternative theory to general relativity. Neutron stars form from the collapse of massive stars and have a much larger mass and a much smaller volume than our sun, making it the the densest objects directly observed by astronomers.
“[Neutron stars are] very compact objects, which means they create very strong gravitational fields, ”said Vylet. “General relativity is considered to be a so-called ‘weak gravity’ approximation of another theory. So these strong gravity regimes allow you to test GR at this level.
Vylet studies the Einstein-Ether theory, which is specified by certain mathematical parameters determined using experimentally derived data. It focuses on a specific parameter – denoted “c-” – which has not yet been constrained.
“What I’m doing is deriving these relationships on neutron stars and trying to see how this unconstrained parameter shows up in the relationships,” Vylet said. “If it does show up, we can use the relationships to combine them with the observational data and kind of test the theory.”
Leona Gaither – administrative intervention and student achievement
During his second and third years, Gaither researched the Judgment and decisions laboratory under Assoc. Public policy Prof. Eileen Chou. Gaither has helped run simulations to study topics of public policy, social decision-making, and economic decision-making.
Currently, Gaither is an Education Policy Associate for the Virginia Policy Partnership Cooperative. With the VPPC, she is studying whether administrative interventions in schools have an impact on student performance. Students involved in the Education Policy Associates program jointly enroll in a Policy Lab course, where they address policy debates in the Virginia education system.
“As with any job, the working conditions you find yourself in can impact the work you ultimately do,” Gathier said. “We are trying to see what the connection is between school environments, the perception teachers have of these school environments and, ultimately, the results for students before or after the implementation of an innovative intervention. “
Gaither has mainly worked on compiling a literature review on the subject, but will soon begin interviewing teachers.
“I’m not actively leading participants through the essays, but it’s convenient in the sense that I’m about to start interviewing teachers,” Gaither said. “I think it kind of shows what research looks like depending on your field and the project you’re working on. “
The challenges and rewards of undergraduate research
For Yohannes, the main obstacles have come from learning programming languages that allow him to use data to answer questions that interest him.
Vylet explained similar frustrations when programming and blocking an issue.
“It can be a little frustrating sometimes to feel like you’re not making a lot of progress and think that you’re just wasting your time or someone else’s time,” Vylet said.
Gaither also noted the stress of the limited time.
“It’s always difficult to balance the things you’re involved in,” Gaither said. “And so it can be hard to feel extra pressure on top of the pressure you feel to perform well in a full course load. “
Despite the challenges these students face, research has been an important and rewarding aspect of their undergraduate experience.
“I just think the ideas of space and universes are mind boggling,” said Vylet. “It made me feel a lot more fulfilled and interested… and I met a lot of people that I wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise. “
Yohannes expressed a similar accomplishment with the research process.
“I love it,” Yohannes said. “You’re not going to do this in a classroom. The research is so fluid. It’s so independent, but it’s also so collaborative… and it’s constantly evolving. You can never say you’re done with the research.