94 NSM Students Participate in 2021 Undergraduate Research Day

Event Held Virtually for Second Time

For the second time during the pandemic, University of Houston College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics students presented their research virtually for Undergraduate Research Day 2021. On April 1, 94 NSM undergraduates shared their faculty-mentored research posters to the university community.

Varshini Vakulabharanam
Varshini Vakulabharanam said studying the fruit fly’s blood-brain barrier could help understand numerous diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Varshini Vakulabharanam, a biology sophomore, presented her work on the male-specific brain circuits that regulate mating behavior in the male Drosophila melanogaster or fruit fly. Her mentor was Brigitte Dauwalder, associate professor of biology and biochemistry.

In Dauwalder’s lab, Vakulabharanam observed and quantified male fly courtship behavior with female flies. In her research, she studied the fly’s blood-brain barrier, which is the border that prevents blood from crossing into the fluid of the central nervous system.

“Our hypothesis was that the juvenile hormone, if you decrease it, it will affect the courtship behavior of the male fly,” Vakulabharanam said.

To test her hypothesis, she video recorded courtship behaviors of male flies and calculated a courtship index. Her results showed that there is in fact a lower courtship index for flies with reduced juvenile hormone levels in the blood brain barrier.

She writes in her poster, “the study of the processes in the blood-brain barrier could help understand numerous diseases such as Alzheimer’s where our data might help in analyzing the contribution of a blood-brain barrier defect.”

Vakulabharanam said she became interested in this research because it allowed her to explore her interests in medicine and science and learn something new simultaneously.

“There is always a distinction between learning material in class versus putting it to use in the practical world. This research allowed me to do just that.”

She adds that she took Dauwalder’s genetics class and became interested in studying fruit flies, then reached out to the professor about research opportunities.

“I cannot express enough how grateful I am to Dr. Dauwalder for being my mentor,” Vakulabharanam said. “She was welcoming and helped guide me through my Provost’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship research. I learned numerous skills and built my knowledge on Drosophila melanogaster flies, and it definitely would not have been possible without Dr. Dauwalder.”

Machine Learning Application

Mathematics junior Ali Hamza Abidi Syed, is also a Provost’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship recipient who presented at Undergraduate Research Day.

Ali Hamza Abidi Syed
Ali Hamza Abidi Syed’s research of optimization and optimal control in machine learning could have effects on the medical field.

His work focused on optimization and optimal control in machine learning by designing and analyzing effective numerical methods under the mentorship of assistant professor of mathematics Andreas Mang.

Syed developed and studied computational methods for solving non-linear optimization problems.

“These problems can be applied in medical sciences,” said Syed. “For example, professor Mang has done research on brain tumors using image analysis. You can teach a computer to identify what is a brain tumor.”

Syed became interested in studying these mathematical computations after taking Mang’s linear algebra class.

“I really wanted to do research in math because I was interested in solving problems that you can investigate further.”

Overall, he said he had a positive experience participating in Undergraduate Research Day and is particularly thankful to Mang for his patience with him.

“We would meet every week, and he would spend a lot of time explaining concepts that were difficult. I would ask him a lot of questions. I’m a very curious person, so if you answer one question, I’ll ask more and probably bug you for a while until I understand it,” he said with a laugh.

Syed said he would also like to thank the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the Honors College and his mother for the constant support.

- Rebeca Trejo, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics