A partnership between Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center and Hollins University will continue to blossom into its third year, pairing distinguished undergraduate students with Virginia Tech professors for a summer of unique research opportunities.

Hollins University is a private, women’s liberal arts college in Roanoke, Virginia, and students who are contemplating graduate studies and environmental research careers are currently applying for the summer 2020 installment of the program on the Blacksburg campus.

Over the summer of 2019, the Global Change Center housed under the Fralin Life Sciences Institute hosted Udipta Bohara, a junior majoring in biology with minors in mathematics and chemistry, and Grishma Bhattarai, a senior double-majoring in economics and mathematics. Both aspire to complete advanced degrees after graduating from Hollins. By working at Virginia Tech with professors Dana Hawley, Kendra Sewall, and Kelly Cobourn, they gained understanding about what it’s like to work closely with research faculty on complex projects.

In Hawley’s biology lab, Bohara worked on a project seeking to understand the differences in how long the bacterial pathogen Mycoplasma gallisepticum stays active in different environments. This bacterium can cause severe eye infections in songbirds, and researchers are currently trying to discern just how virulent the disease is and how long it can remain active on a birdfeeder, where it is most commonly spread. Bohara’s work involved taking blood samples from birds and swabbing bird feeders, as well as setting up and running DNA and RNA-based assays.

Udipta pipetting samples collected by swabbing a bird feeder in order to quantify how much bacterial pathogen was present on the feeder port.
Bohara pipetting samples collected by swabbing a bird feeder in order to quantify how much bacterial pathogen was present on the feeder port. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

When first experiments didn’t go as expected, she also learned valuable skills that all successful scientists practice: how to develop alternative questions, adjust protocols, and change the scope of experiments when things don’t go exactly as planned. Kendra Sewall, an associate professor in the School of Neuroscience, noted that this kind of adjustment “is a way of coming back with another question that might be better … science is an iterative process. You’re never done.”

Bohara felt that the positive mentorship of her professors and lab team and successfully shifting her project for the second half of the summer were some of the most inspirational and exciting parts of her summer at Virginia Tech. She described it as “a life-changing opportunity.”

Chava Weitzman, a postdoc in the Hawley lab who worked closely with Udipta during her project, said, “It’s been really fun to watch Udipta’s confidence in the lab and feeling of ownership in the experiments grow over the summer.” Hawley added, “Udi’s project helped us start a whole new line of techniques in our lab. It was wonderful to have her here as an enthusiastic stimulus for trying something new, and we’ll definitely be using Udi’s assays to try for a new NSF grant in the fall.”

Bhattarai’s experiences with Associate Professor Kelly Cobourn in the Department of Forest Resources and Conservation were equally positive. Bhattarai focused on investigating food insecurity as a function of assistance programs and gender. She wondered, is food assistance more effective for male- or female-headed households? How exactly are people being helped (if at all) and does assistance improve their access to food? Bhattarai’s interest in economics and gender combined perfectly with Cobourn’s own interests in creating models to predict food insecurity in regions like South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Grishma in the Center for Environmental Analytics and Remote Sensing (CEARS) lab analyzing large datasets to explore the interaction between assistance, gender, and food security. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.
Bhattarai in the Center for Environmental Analytics and Remote Sensing lab analyzing large datasets to explore the interaction between assistance, gender, and food security. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Cobourn explained that “the difficult challenge as an economist is that you can’t usually design experiments. You have to work with what you’re given.” Mining the massive amounts of data from the World Bank to find the right data set became Bhattarai’s biggest challenge. “If you ask the wrong questions,” she said, “you’ll get the wrong information. You have to be sure your own biases aren’t reflected.” 

Bhattarai recently presented her research at an international applied agriculture and economics conference in Atlanta. “It was the experience of a lifetime for me personally, to be surrounded by people in academia driven to solve the world’s problems with their research. It was an amazing opportunity.”

“Bhattarai has been wonderful to work with,” said Cobourn. “She’s very intrinsically motivated, energetic, and self-directed. She had a clear idea of what she wanted to do, and all I had to do was steer her toward the right questions. It’s important to recognize that being able to do all this research in two months is phenomenal.”

Bhattarai and Bohara agree that the opportunity to participate in intensive research at Virginia Tech has helped them better understand what graduate school might look like, laying a solid foundation for these students’ future careers in research. Collaborative work, positive mentorship, and exciting research made for a rewarding summer for both students. 

The Global Change Center’s mission is to advance interdisciplinary scholarship and education to address critical global changes impacting the environment and society. For more information about the Hollins-GCC partnership, visit the GCC website.

“It is extremely exciting to see the positive impact that this program is having on young women who plan to pursue graduate training after finishing their studies at Hollins. I continue to be impressed by the talented and motivated students from Hollins and am grateful that they regard Virginia Tech as a place where they can obtain high caliber research training under the mentorship of our outstanding faculty. I am hopeful that this partnership will continue long into the future,” said William Hopkins, director of the Global Change Center and professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

Related News: Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center and Hollins University partner to increase student careers in life science research

~Written by Jessica Nicholson and Tiffany Trent