George Mason University

News at Mason

Celebrating research, opening minds

April 7, 2017   /   by Damian Cristodero

Senior biology major Lynn Bonomo is researching environmental factors taking their toll on Northern Virginia's bee population. She is one of 45 Mason students attending the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

At its root, the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research is a learning experience. At least that’s how Samira Lloyd sees it.

Students gain an understanding of how to present research to a large question-asking audience and benefit from being immersed in a world of new ideas in which peers display and explain interesting facts and fieldwork.

“It opens their minds to so many things,” said Lloyd, program manager in George Mason University’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR).

“To be able to expand the reach of your work is thrilling,” said Desmond Moffitt, a George Mason senior, who will be presenting this year at his first academic conference. “You step into a world outside Mason.”

Moffitt will join 44 other Mason students who will travel 16 hours by bus to the 31st annual conference, April 6-8, in Memphis, Tenn.

About 3,300 students covering multiple disciplines will present their research to their peers and graduate program recruiters. Students applied to the conference with abstracts of their research, which were evaluate by faculty reviewers.

OSCAR is paying for Mason’s attendees, who will stay four-to-a-room at a local hotel.

“This is one of the biggest undergraduate research events organized every year,” Lloyd said. “There is a variety of students from all walks of life.”

Here are just a few:

Selena Batchily grew up in Ivory Coast. So when the senior global affairs major decided to study the impacts of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), she had a vested interest.

Batchily examined the organization’s most powerful member, Nigeria, to determine the extent to which it integrated its economy with other member countries, including Ivory Coast, or if it still mainly focused on its oil reserves.

“We all have this will to make sure Africa grows and becomes an important major player in the globalized world,” Batchily said. “It’s important to see that when countries have worked individually, nothing has come of it. Countries were still where they were 50 years ago.”

Batchily said her perception was that Nigeria was a solo economic player, but she discovered the country’s economic ties to its neighbors have broadened.

Nigeria has taken the lead in implementing reforms and laws agreed to by ECOWAS, Batchily said. Not that there haven’t been bumps in the road.

“It’s had so many problems in terms of political power and military coups and whatnot,” Batchily said. “Depending on who is in charge, there are always ups and downs.”

Batchily came to Mason, and the United States, on the recommendation of her mother, Hafsa, who from 1987 to 1990 attended Georgetown University.

Niklas Hultin, an assistant professor of global affairs at Mason who taught Batchily in several classes, called his student’s work “clear-headed.”

“Regional integration is essential for African countries,” Batchily said. “We should all continue to promote regional integration, not only in Africa but in other places in the world. It’s the next step.”

***

When Jasmine Dang and her family moved to Northern Virginia from their native Vietnam, she was 13 years old and spoke little English. It took determination and concentration to learn a new language while starting the seventh grade.

Dang’s participation in the National Conference for Undergraduate Research is the continuation of that learning experience.

“Especially with all the writing,” the senior psychology major said, “I had to get out of my comfort zone a little bit.”

Dang’s research is about vigilance and why some people fail at sustaining their attention. That is important, Dang said, because of real-world jobs that require intense concentration, such as being an air traffic controller. Even driving a car takes vigilance.

“It’s a very big field because it applies to a lot of our daily tasks,” she said. “To know more about vigilance and attention, we might be able to help improve training or develop tasks to prescreen individuals who are good at sustaining their attention.”

How do you test if someone is good at vigilance? One way is to measure cognitive flexibility—that is, one’s ability to be mentally flexible to maintain attention.

Dang’s research participants first completed a puzzle task while following multiple rules. In another test, participants were shown a series of numbers and told to press a key for every number that flashed before them, except No. 3.

As it turned out, the tests did not show a positive correlation between cognitive flexibility and vigilance, which means more research is needed to identify other predictors of vigilant performance, Dang said.

“I still learned a lot,” she said of her research, which was funded by a $1,000 OSCAR grant.

“Jasmine is a great student,” said Ivonne Figueroa, a fifth-year PhD candidate in human factors and applied cognition, and Dang’s research mentor. “Her ability to maintain focus and deliver what she says is a valuable skill.”

In other words, she’d probably do well on a vigilance test.

***

Desmond Moffitt portrait

Desmond Moffitt. Photo by Ron Aira.

While researching George Mason, the man, Desmond Moffitt believed it best to focus on the gray areas.

Yes, Mason was a slave owner. But he also authored Virginia’s Declaration of Rights that began by saying “all men are by nature equally free and independent.”

That document provided much of the language for the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

“Mason was complex,” said Moffitt, a senior European history major and member of the Honors College. “His economic ventures were sustained by his slaves, but there seems to be a level of trust and agreement between slave and owner.”

For example, Moffitt said, while Mason did not free his slaves upon his death, some lived in what were called Log Town houses that were some distance from Mason’s mansion, Gunston Hall, and provided a level of privacy and privilege.

“This is by no means an apology for George Mason,” Moffitt said. “He took advantage of the power that was invested in the plantation economy. Yes, he had the option to release his slaves, but if the slaves are the livelihood of my family, then I’m going to put my family first.”

So is there a judgment to be made about Mason?

“We shouldn’t mix up today’s judgments with what happened then. That’s where we have to caution ourselves,” Moffitt said. “I can’t make a statement about whether he was good, bad or moral. Those things change. His comments were in the right place but his actions were not.”

“He was,” Moffitt concluded, “a product of his time.”

***

When Lynn Bonomo was in high school, she recycled and wanted to learn about climate change and marine biology.

“It evolved into, I just want to save the ecosystem and the environment,” she said.

As a senior biology major, Bonomo is now doing her best to save an important piece of it, as she tries to determine the environmental factors contributing to the spread of Nosema, the fungal gut pathogen taking a toll on Northern Virginia’s bumblebees.

It’s a difficult endeavor, said Mason associate professor of biology Rebecca Forkner, who is mentoring the research.

“You have to chase down every bumblebee and discover where it went,” Forkner said. “It’s so complex in terms of controlling all the different environmental factors.”

Forkner said the research was made for Bonomo, who received a $1,000 OSCAR grant.

“I could brag about her all day,” Forkner said. “She’s my most reliable student. She excels in fieldwork, and she never misses a beat as far as her coursework.”

From last spring into September, Bonomo was out once or twice a week collecting hundreds of worker bees from the five different bumblebee species most common in Northern Virginia.

Most alarming was the lack of yellow and Rusty-patched bumblebees that had previously been present.

“Either we didn’t manage to get to the sites when they were out or they are in decline enough from Nosema and other problems,” Bonomo said. “It’s really concerning.”

The research is ongoing, and there are so many factors that could contribute to the spread of Nosema and the declining bee populations—from environmental to the DNA signatures of the pollen and bees—answers might not be fast in coming.

“If you understand why they are declining you have a chance to fix it,” Bonomo said. “The whole problem with conservation is finding out why.”