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Sigma Xi, Office for Research support student research projects


BLACKSBURG, Va., April 9, 2010 – Six Virginia Tech student research projects, ranging from bacteria-propelled microbots to TB in banded mongoose, have been selected by Sigma Xi for recognition and support. The awards were presented in a ceremony on April 6.

The Virginia Tech chapter of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, presented awards to five students in the form of funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research. The office provides the support to advance research opportunities for the students.

The undergraduate winner Siddharth Venkat of Herndon, Va., a junior in physics in the College of Science, is doing research on "Mobility Effects in Systems Composed of Cyclically Competing Species." Evolutionary game theory has led in the past to novel and interesting insights into the complex behavior that can emerge in a multispecies ecological system. In his study, Venkat investigates species coexistence in systems composed of cyclically competing species, such as competing bacterial strains, thereby providing a necessary and important step for the future modeling of real-world systems. His advisor is Michel Pleimling, associate professor of physics.

The master's level winner is Mahama Aziz Traore of the Ivory Coast, a major in mechanical engineering department, where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 2009. His winning project is "Propulsion and Chemotaxis Based Control of Bacteria-Propelled Microrobots." Chemotaxis is when an organisms moves in response to a chemical stimulus. Microbots can have environmental and biomedical applications. His advisor is Bahareh Behkam, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and head of the BioMicroRobotics Lab.

Doctoral level winners are Mini Bharathan of Kerala, India, a Ph.D. candidate in dairy science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Yen Liang Chou of Taipei, Taiwan, a Ph.D. candidate in physics; and Bonnie Fairbanks of Houston, Texas, a Ph.D. student in biological sciences in the College of Science.

Bharathan's research is "A novel dendritic cell based vaccine for Staphylococcus aureus.” S. aureus causes a variety of diseases ranging from boils to pneumonia. Research involves the use of dendritic cells (part of the immune system) as biological adjuvants to boost immune response to S. aureus. Isis Mullarky, assistant professor of dairy science, is Bharathan's advisor.

Chou's research is "The Evolution of Surfaces Subjected to Changes in External Conditions." He explains, "Our work studies the reaction of self-evolving surfaces to changes in the environment. This will yield new insights into and enhance our understanding of systems that are far from equilibrium." Pleimling is his advisor.

Fairbanks' research is the "Behavioral and Physiological Factors Affecting TB Infection in Banded Mongooses." The research is part of the effort to understand social structure and disease outbreaks. Her advisor is Dana Hawley, assistant professor of biological sciences.

Kristin Wahlberg of Shawsville, Va., a master of science student in human nutrition, foods and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Science, received the John Neal Memorial Award for her research on "The role of angiotensin II in skeletal muscle substrate metabolism." Angiotensin II is a hormone involved in the regulation of blood pressure. Recent evidence has shown that in addition to this function, it may play a role in the muscle’s ability to use sugars and fats from your diet. Our study aims to investigate this function. Her advisor is Matthew Hulver, assistant professor. Neal was a professor in biological sciences who left an endowment to the Sigma Xi chapter.

The support ranges from $1,000 for the undergraduate level to $2,000 for the Ph.D. level.

Sigma Xi, founded in 1886 at Cornell University, is the honor society of scientists and engineers that recognizes scientific achievement. The mission of the society is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public's understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Virginia Tech has an active chapter of Sigma Xi.

Members of the Sigma Xi awards committee were Tatsu Takeuchi, associate professor of physics; Valerie Thomas, assistant professor of forest resources and environmental conservation in the College of Natural Resources; and committee chair Thomas Ollendick, University Distinguished Professor and director of the Child Study Center in the College of Science's psychology department.