Carnegie Mellon University
May 03, 2019

Meeting of the Minds Offers Panoramic View of Undergraduate Research

By Heidi Opdyke

Julie Mattera
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To get a sense of the research landscape at Carnegie Mellon University, the annual Meeting of the Minds undergraduate research symposium provides a bird's-eye view.

More than 700 students will present more than 475 posters, artwork, demonstrations and live performances from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on May 8 in the Cohon University Center. The day ends with an awards ceremony from 5 to 6 p.m. in McConomy Auditorium. Awards will be presented in more than a dozen categories.

Some of the projects this year include robots that hug, inflatable sculptures, a look at Argentinian folk music, block chain applications and research related to artificial lungs.

"This is one particular moment when you are getting and capturing the range of things happening at Carnegie Mellon University that is basically impossible to capture at any other time," said Stephanie Wallach, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education. "It's such a singular event because it gets you a panoramic view of our campus and the academic contributions and groundbreaking research that's taking place in every discipline."

Senior Leslie Chen's Meeting of the Minds presentation relates to work in Keith Cook's lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Cook's research areas include artificial lung fabrication and treatments for those with chronic respiratory diseases such as COPD or cystic fibrosis.

"The current project that I am a part of, under the advising of Ph.D. candidate Erica Comber, is the development of a biofabricated lung, which eliminates artificial material from the gas exchange interface and is able to closely mimic native lung physiology," said Chen, who graduating with majors in biological sciences and psychology and an additional minor in biomedical engineering.

To assist her with her research, the Undergraduate Research Office has provided funding to purchase equipment for her projects. Chen, who started working in Cook's lab her first year, said the work has taught her no only about lung physiology and the benefits of artificial lung devices, but also about working in a lab.

"Doing research has been a big part of my experience here at CMU," Chen said. "Through being a part of their research projects, I've also been able to learn about what it means to work as a part of a team and how to present scientific work. I have my mentors, Dr. Diane Nelson and Erica Comber, to thank for taking the time to teach me all of this and take me under their wing."

Rebecca Enright, a junior in creative writing with minors in animation and film, is part of a team that created a 10-foot-wide "Raindrop" sculpture, which visitors will be able to walk into. The piece, which was created in the Inflatables and Soft Sculpture IDeATe course, was part of IDeATe's "Pushing Air" experience on May 4. The team also includes Stephanie Schmid, a master's degree student in architecture, and Molly Boerner, a senior in mechanical engineering.

"Our inflatable is inspired by the water cycle, and we want to give people an immersive water experience," Enright said.

Siddarth Annaldasula, a senior computational biology major with a minor in neuroscience, studied vocal learning behavior in the Neurogenomics Laboratory as part of the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition, a joint partnership between CMU and the University of Pittsburgh. He said the work includes drawing parallels between bird's song and human's speech production through computational techniques.

"Results from this could be helpful in identifying the overall evolution of complex behavior," Annaldasula said. "Currently, I am investigating the convergent evolution of this vocal learning in mammals, identifying regulatory and non-coding factors that are enriched for this behavior."

Theresa Abalos's project is titled "Who are the 'folk' in música folclórica? Indigeneity and the Performance of Belonging in Argentina." She spent last summer in Argentina conducting research and fieldwork and interviewing musicians. Her experience was supported in part by the Jennings Family Brave Companion Award. The scholarship transformed her abroad experience.

"I found myself looking at everything more curiously," she said. [Read more about Abalos.]

Jen Weidenhof, program coordinator for the Undergraduate Research Office, said interest in undergraduate research and Meeting of the Minds continues to rise. Many of the students who participate in Meeting of the Minds have received a Small Undergraduate Research Grant (SURG) and/or a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) to pursue their interests. Support for grants and fellowships comes from the generosity of individuals, foundations, corporations, departments and schools, as well as the Provost's Office.

"We've had more inquiries in the Undergraduate Research Office this year for opportunities, and we could feel the drumroll building," Weidenhof said. "Applications for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships are up as well for this summer."

Wallach said while Carnegie Mellon has historically provided opportunities for undergraduate research, other institutions also are seeing value in involving students earlier in research related to their studies.

"Not only does it speak to the campus but it speaks to the importance of undergraduate research as a pillar of undergraduate education," Wallach said. "We have students coming primed with a plan to participate in research."

Visit the Meeting of the Minds website for a full schedule and a downloadable app for the event.