Undergraduates benefit from mentored research

by Mechell McCrary

Posted on Jan 04, 2022

By Latasha Ford

Twelve Fort Valley State University students enhanced their research skills this summer as the first-ever Valley Scholars.

Through the Undergraduate Research Program at FVSU, students receive support on research and creative activities in all disciplines. The program also enables students and faculty to share research achievements nationally and internationally. Students and faculty have several advantages such as participating in summer research opportunities and gaining financial support for their involvement. In addition, the program provides travel support to attend scientific, social science and humanities conferences, as well as assist students applying to graduate and professional programs.

Dr. Celia Dodd, appointed director of undergraduate research in August 2020, said the benefit of undergraduate research is to help students with problem-solving, learning the research process and conducting background research.

"It helps with decision-making and has real-world applications," she emphasized. A current and relevant example is research on the COVID-19 vaccine. The associate professor of biology added, "Undergraduate research is a high impact practice. Students who participate are more likely to be successful at getting hired and being accepted into professional schools, including graduate, medical or law schools. It is also important for and contributes to student retention and graduation."

In summer 2021, the Undergraduate Research Program supported a new opportunity for 12 rising sophomores, juniors and seniors across a variety of disciplines to complete research projects while receiving mentorship from 12 FVSU faculty members. Majors included agricultural sciences, biology, chemistry, computer science, education, mathematics, political science, theater arts and veterinary sciences. Students who participated in the eight-week program also earned a $5,000 stipend to go toward college expenses or other necessities.

Sophomore Diamond McDow, of Lancaster, South Carolina, was not expecting to be selected as a scholar but was super excited and willing to learn. The 19-year-old mathematics major conducted research on "Predicting the End of the Pandemic." She and her mentor, Dr. Patcharin Marion, associate professor of mathematics, developed a logistic growth model depicting positive COVID-19 tests for each month. They input the data into an online calculator called Mathematica to determine when the COVID-19 pandemic could potentially end.

Based on their research, McDow and Marion predicted that the pandemic could end in July 2022. "By that time, if more people get vaccinated, we predict the curve could be flat," the young scientist said, encouraging her Wildcat peers to get vaccinated to help fight COVID-19. "It will only work if we all work together."

Conducting research for the first time, McDow appreciated the constructive criticism she received from faculty to enhance her work. As a requirement, the 12 students participating in the program had to present their research virtually to faculty, staff and fellow students.

"It was a good experience not only for my research but also as a student. I was able to break out of my comfort zone and accept that they are here to help make me a better student at Fort Valley State University," said the future data scientist.

Junior Areona Little, of Union City, Georgia, conducted her research on "The Computational Study of Phenothiazine Antipsychotics as Potential Anti-Tumor Drugs."

The 20-year-old chemistry major and her mentor, Dr. Tiffani Holmes, associate professor of chemistry, studied the structural properties of phenothiazine antipsychotics that are thought to be related to their action as anti-tumor drugs. They concluded that the ligand with the best binding affinity (-8.8 kcal/mol) to AMPK (Activated Protein Kinase) was A17 with a binding site at the –NH group of the piperazine ring and a carbonyl group. The ligands with the best binding affinity (-8.4 kcal/mol) to AKT (Protein Kinase B) were A18 and A11.

"These ligands had small HOMO-LUMO gaps and a potential binding site at the carbonyl group. Other ligands interacted with AMPK via a carbonyl group or displayed no visible interactions," Little explained. "For those with no visible interactions, there can potentially be other intermolecular forces involved in the ligand-protein binding."

New to research, Little said this experience helped with enhancing her presentation skills. She appreciated the feedback from faculty and working with her mentor. The future pharmacist desires to work in pharmacology to help develop new medications for illnesses people are facing today.

She encourages other students to participate in research because it provides them valuable opportunities to present their work in other arenas. She will present her research at Rice University's Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium in mid-October.

Dr. Celia Dodd, director of undergraduate research shown with Valley Scholars Diamond McDow and Areona Little


Moreover, rising sophomore Roger Pacquette, of Midland, Georgia, conducted his research on "Union-Closed Sets Conjecture and the Hamming Metric."

The 49-year-old nontraditional student said he had never heard of the union-closed sets conjecture, but he quickly learned the process from his mentor, Dr. Ishwari Kunwar, assistant professor of mathematics.

"The union-closed sets conjecture is the mathematical theory that was developed by past mathematicians to start a relationship between set families," he explained.

The agricultural engineering technology major said this research holds prospective benefits in analyzing sets of data.

"It has potential use for the future in areas such as agriculture and computer science," Pacquette said. "The hamming metric was used to develop this new formulation to measure and compare the difference between the union-closed sets."

The aviation inspector aspires to specialize in precision agriculture by using his love for drones to contribute to the agricultural industry.

"Agriculture is so important. Without food and water, we are nothing as human beings. There are so many factors to agriculture," he said.

Offering additional opportunities for students to showcase their research, the Undergraduate Research Program hosts FVSU Research Day in the spring, but due to COVID-19, the annual event was virtual this year. To continue growing the program, Dodd plans to develop an undergraduate research academy to offer workshops throughout the fall semester to support Research Day. The mission of the academy will be to support students in presenting their research at conferences. Her aim is to help students pursue other off-campus research opportunities, including serving as ambassadors to promote the program.

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