Student Spotlights 2022

  • 2022 Student Research Days Spotlights: Monday

    This is a series highlighting undergraduate and graduate students who are participating in the Student Research Days poster sessions April 11-12.  

    Undergraduate: Johnathon Cerny 

    Major: junior in mechanical engineering with a minor in robotics and mathematics 
    Project: alternative rover locomotion 

    Johnathon Cerny got hooked on robotics in high school and now is majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in robotics and mathematics. 

    The junior’s project, Alternative Rover Locomotion, was an entry in NASA’s Big Idea Challenge, which encouraged students to come up with different ways other than wheels to mobilize lunar vehicles. His team came up with the idea of rover that moved via a set of spider-like legs that could traverse caves or tunnels. 

    Their design, which they dubbed David and Goliath, included a platform that would serve as the mothership for the tether-attached rover. The legs would be capable of rotating in multiple configurations, allowing the rover to move in many ways, including even walking on its “elbows” like a seal.  

    “It was amazing to get to practice engineering skills that I developed in classes,” said Cerny, who hopes for a career in space robotics.  

    He and his team even went above and beyond the NASA contest’s requirements and built a prototype of one of the rover’s legs. 

    Although their design didn’t win NASA’s contest, he and a team did win a design challenge sponsored by Honeybee Robotics last year.  

    Graduate: Lisbeth Vallecilla Yepez 

    Major: doctoral student in biological engineering 
    Project: producing succinic acid with microbial fermentation of corn fiber 

    Succinic acid is a key chemical used in the food, agricultural, pharmaceutical and polymer industries. Most current methods to produce the acid use petroleum, which can be harmful to the environment. Lisbeth Vallecilla Yepez seeks to produce it through microbial fermentation of corn fiber. 

    Yepez has come up with a biofilm reactor to product succinic acid with corn fiber. 

    “This process could promote sustainability of corn ethanol plants, the agricultural corn industry and rural economy,” she said. “My process is desirable because of its focus on production alternatives that utilize renewable resources such as corn fiber and mitigate harmful greenhouse gas such as carbon dioxide which is consumed during succinic acid fermentation.” 

    Yepez received her bachelor’s in chemical engineering in her native Colombia and followed with a master’s in food science and technology, now seeking a doctorate in biological engineering. 

    “I would like to continue working in this area. This area is growing and I want to be part of sustainability, the green technology,” she said. “My biggest passion is that technologies can be clean and safe; generate less waste and use less water and energy.” 

  • 2022 Student Research Days Spotlights: Tuesday

    This is a series highlighting undergraduate and graduate students who are participating in the Student Research Days poster sessions April 11-12.  

    Undergraduate: Aline Abayo

    Major: senior in integrated science with a concentration in agricultural economics and statistics 
    Project: econometrics of the coffee industry for farmers 

    Aline Abayo believes one solution to lagging coffee profits for African producers may be focusing on selling more of their product within the continent. 

    Abayo, a senior majoring in integrated science with a concentration in agricultural economics and statistics, studied the econometrics of the coffee industry for farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Cameroon, Madagascar, Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania. She gathered data from coffee production for these significant suppliers from 1990 to 2019. 

    “Some farmers reported they’re not having much profits even though the industry doing very well,” she said. “It didn’t ring well with me. I was wondering why that was happening.” 

    Among her findings: Prices paid to growers roughly track with growth of the United States’ gross national product since the U.S. is among the biggest coffee consumers in the world. However, data shows that climate change will negatively affect coffee growers, both in terms of prices and their production costs. Growers should focus on varieties that are less susceptible to climate change, she suggested 

    Abayo believes African policy makers should focus on regional trade agreements that would allow the continent’s growers to grab more of the coffee market there. “In addition, RTAs would allow African coffee producers to share technology, invest in regional research enhancement, gain a competitive advantage and also have a significant collective impact in the global coffee market.  

    “Moreover, we recommend policy makers facilitate and inspire quality enhancement and differentiation in the coffee industry. This would allow African coffee farmers to meet the current need for specialty coffee in United States and European Union.”  

    Graduate: Beth Dotan

    Major: doctoral student in Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education  
    Project: Nebraska Stories of Humanity: Holocaust Survivors and WWII Veterans 

    The first phase of the digital humanities archive, “Nebraska Stories of Humanity: Holocaust Survivors and WWII Veterans,” is scheduled to go online later this month, but that’s just a beginning, says its coordinator, Beth Dotan. 

    Dotan, a doctoral student in Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education, has worked in the Holocaust education field for many years, including at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Israel and as founding director of the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha.  

    The UNL project aims to highlight survivors and liberators as part of the fabric of Nebraska’s communities and the state’s story. As members of that generation disappear, their families are eager to share their stories, said Dotan, who is presenting this work with Aila Ganić, a UCARE student. 

    “I began to contemplate how can we tell these stories in an active way that provides critical thinking skills?” she said.  

    The initial iteration of the project includes five Nebraskans and their stories – close to 1,000 individual items, including some 250 letters from a vet who was a liberator at Dachau. It will be a trove for the public, including educators looking for a way to teach this history to their students. 

    From this beginning, “we can seek additional funding and more stories from Nebraskans,” Dotan said. And more Nebraskans will discover their own connections to the Holocaust. 

    “That’s the beauty of using these digital tools. Suddenly, you can search for these things that connect to you personally.” 

  • 2022 Research Days Spotlights: Wednesday

    This is a series highlighting undergraduate and graduate students who are participating in the Student Research Days poster sessions April 11-12.  

    Undergraduate: Andrew Havens

    Major: senior environmental studies and natural resources and environmental economics 
    Project: carbon credits for farming 

    Andrew Havens wants to be part of the climate-change solution, coming up with ways to transition to a carbon-free future. 

    His project, Carbon Credits for Farming: How Could They Work?, looks at how farmers might participate in the carbon-credit market. Carbon credits are based on carbon dioxide farmers draw down into their soil and the greenhouse-gas emissions they reduce above the soil. The concept has been seen as a new revenue stream for agriculture that would help reduce GHG. 

    Havens’ focus was on systems that would allow farmers to continue to grow crops, as opposed to converting cropland to native grasslands or planting trees.  

    The future of voluntary carbon offset markets and soil carbon sequestration is still uncertain, Havens found. Regional differences, political atmospheres and market systems all are factors. 

    Havens is eager to continue to pursue potential solutions. The environmental studies and natural resources and environmental economics major, who’s a senior, hopes to work as a renewable energy economist. “It’s a growing field,” he said.  

    “The world has very limited supplies in generating energy,” Havens said. He wants to help figure out how to use those resources more efficiently. 

    Graduate: Anthony Juritsch

    Major: doctoral student in food science and technology  
    Project: preventing inflammatory bowel disease  

    About 3.1 million Americans suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, and treatment costs exceed $14.9 billion in direct costs and lost productivity a year. Treatment of IBD or, even better, prevention is a key goal of gastrointestinal health research. 

    Anthony Juritsch, pursuing a doctorate in food science and technology, has conducted research in UNL’s Gnotobiotic Mouse Facility, where scientists experiment with the intestinal tracts of germ-free mice to look for preventions and cures for human disease.  

    Juritsch said it’s taken years for scientists to hone in on the impact of diet on IBD prevention, and research is now focused on developing nutritional recommendations that incorporate what’s known as resistant starches, such as those found in whole grains, for those living with or at risk of IBD.  

    “I’m interested in how whole grain foods and fiber can prevent and treat inflammatory bowel disease,” he said. “By colonizing germ-free mice with human microbiomes, we have designed a more translatable model of inflammatory bowel disease in mice.” 

    Mice induced to have colitis, a type of IBD, were fed diets that contained 30% sorghum flour and compared to mice fed a fiber-free diet. 

    Findings so far are encouraging as the sorghum-flour-fed mice appeared to show improvement compared to the control group. Ultimately, resistant starches could play the same role in the human gut.  

  • 2022 Research Days Spotlights: Thursday

    This is a series highlighting undergraduate and graduate students who are participating in the Student Research Days poster sessions April 11-12.  

    Undergraduate: Regis Yizerwe

    Major: junior majoring in integrated science 
    Project: reducing salmonella in poultry 

    Regis Yizerwe’s family’s poultry operation is medium-sized by Rwandan standards – 1,000 to 2,000 chickens – if small by American. But the threat of disease is significant in poultry is significant in both countries. 

    That’s why the junior majoring in integrated science has an interest in finding solutions. He’s working on a method for reducing salmonella in poultry. 

    Salmonellosis is a bacterial disease of the intestinal tract that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, dehydration, abdominal cramps and other clinical symptoms in animals and people. Raw or undercooked meat (such as poultry products) and eggs are frequent sources of foodborne salmonellosis.  

    Salmonella can be countered with appropriate food handling and proper cooking. Chemical disinfectants can be effective but their use is restricted by regulators and not popular among consumers.  

    The UNL lab Yizerwe is working in is studying the use of naturally occurring saponin, an extract from the bark of Quillaja saponaria – soapbark — trees that’s already widely used in the food and cosmetic industries. It also appears to be very effective in killing salmonella under certain conditions of heat and exposure time, Yizerwe said.  

    “Nobody has ever used it” for this purpose, he said. “These results are very promising.”  

    As for his future, Yizerwe said that, although it can become a bit overwhelming thinking about the rest of one’s career, working alongside UNL’s faculty has allowed him to explore the best opportunities. He’s thinking of graduate school after this “amazing opportunity.” 

    Graduate: Dalhia Lloyd

    Major: doctoral student in human sciences with a specialization in child development/early childhood education 
    Project: socializing children regarding race and skin tone 

    Dalhia Lloyd is examining whether there is a relationship between skin tone and how Black parents of children ages 5-8 racially socialize their kids. 

    Lloyd, who is the Buffett Early Childhood Institute’s associate director of professional learning, will defend her doctorate in human sciences with a specialization in child development/early childhood education later this month.  

    Racial socialization is the various ways parents convey and transmit messages about the meaning of race and how to navigate and cope with racial discrimination. 

    She had parents take a racial socialization survey that measured the frequency in which they engaged in racial socialization. “What I found for young children is that parents frequently engaged in racial socialization such as talking to their children about race or instilling cultural pride by making sure they’re surrounded with books or taking them to events that honor their culture and heritage,” Lloyd said.  

    She also had parents complete a skin tone survey that indicated their description of their and their children’s skin tones. She interviewed parents and children and observed a parent-child task that included parent having a conversation about skin tone with their children. “That way, I could capture some live racial socialization happening.” 

    Lloyd discovered there are differences in how parents addressed racial socialization based on their perceptions of their skin tones.   

    “The interesting piece to me was those parents who perceived their kids as having lighter skin tone were more likely to talk more about racial identity and pride but also more likely to take a color-blind approach. It’s an interesting dynamic – parents in this group reported that they were silent about race with their children, but at the same time they expressed they had to balance that with knowing the world was going to view their child as a Black child and wanted to prepare them for that.” 

  • 2022 Research Days Spotlights: Friday

    This is a series highlighting undergraduate and graduate students who are participating in the Student Research Days poster sessions April 11-12.  

    Undergraduate: Jacob Essink 

    Major: senior majoring in landscape architecture 
    Project: Omaha lead pollution 

    Jacob Essink is looking to develop landscapes that are more equitable and inclusive.  

    Essink’s project, Omaha Lead Pollution: Proactive and Restorative Strategies for Environmental Justice in Landscape Architecture, is a jumping off point for Essink’s dream of helping to design parks and other urban-landscape features that take a variety of factors into account. 

    His research studied the effect of lead pollution in Omaha, comparing it to other sites in the United States, as an issue of “environmental injustice.”  

     “It’s not as simple as just clearing out a space and planting some trees,” said Essink, a senior majoring in landscape architecture. It’s important to take into account how landscapes address equity and health issues. 

    “You have to think about equitable designs and sustainable designs and being inclusive,” he said. 

    Irresponsible planning policies and actions have disproportionately affected marginalized communities, Essink said. Landscape architects can improve conditions “by understanding their role to consider the relationships between people and the environment and recognize potential risks.” 

    Graduate: Soyeon Kim

    Major: doctoral student in educational psychology 
    Project: Asian-Americans’ work experience during the pandemic 

    Many examples abound of Asian Americans experiencing hate crimes and discrimination because of people’s perception the coronavirus originated in China, and Kim, a first-year doctoral student in educational psychology, has been studying Asian-Americans’ work experience during the pandemic. 

    Kim and her collaborators recruited study participants and explored their employment experience the last two years. Some reported being unemployed or furloughed during that period. 

    The study tested relationships of economic constraints, marginalization, work volition, career adaptability and decent work.  

    “The results indicated that Asian Americans who reported greater lifetime economic constraints were likely to have lower work volition and, in turn, less access to decent work,” she said. “Furthermore, Asian Americans who reported discrimination experiences during COVID-19 were more likely to have lower work volition and, in turn, less access to decent work.” 

    Kim, a South Korea native, hopes to do more research in her career. “My goal is to help people – especially those who are marginalized in the society, to increase their well-being through work and career development.”  

    Graduate: Md Shadman Ridwan Abid

    Major: doctoral student in chemistry  
    Project: peptidomics approach to identify potential biomarkers for interstitial cystitis 

    Md Shadman Ridwan Abid is using a peptidomics approach to identify potential biomarkers for interstitial cystitis, also known as bladder pain syndrome, a disease diagnosed predominantly in women. 

    Currently, the methods available for identifying the condition are mostly invasive. Using mass spectrometry to analyze small peptides offers hope for diagnosing the disease via urinary analysis, said Abid, who’s seeking a doctorate in chemistry. 

    Symptoms of IC can resemble those of other urological conditions, so successful treatment depends on correct diagnosis. 

    “Antiproliferative factor peptide,” a short, glycosylated peptide, previously has been considered as a potential biomarker for the disease. Abid said the research he’s conducted with colleagues found there was a general increase in the abundance of identified urinary peptides in IC/BPS patients compared to a control group. That’s consistent with an increase in inflammation and protease activity characteristic of the disorder. 

    Although the APF peptide was found in moderately higher abundance in IC/BPS relative to the control group’s urine, the APF peptide was inconsistently detected in urine, suggesting that its utility as a sole biomarker of IC/BPS may be limited. 

    “Overall, our results revealed new insights into the profile of urinary peptides in IC/BPS that will aid in future biomarker discovery and validation efforts,” he said.