Undergraduate Research Fellowships


GEO awards Undergraduate Research Fellowships

By Nicol Tinsley
VCU Global Education Office
(804) 828-6463

Richmond, VA (May 27, 2016) — While some students use the summer to take a well-deserved break from academic pursuits, many spend this time delving further into subjects that they’ve studied throughout the semester. Such is the case for undergraduates Elyse Duani, Hannah Foster and Caitlin Lange who will be conducting summer research projects through the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

The three students received Undergraduate Research Fellowships, funded by the Global Education Office and Office of Research and Innovation, to research global issues ranging from language acquisition to immigration and refugee communities to maternal health around the world. The research projects will be conducted under the supervision of their VCU faculty mentor.

“Through this program, we have been able to increase the level of institutional opportunities available to undergraduate researchers and their faculty mentors,” said Herbert Hill, director of undergraduate research opportunities in the Office of Research and Innovation. “These are undergraduates doing professional research, presenting their work, publishing their findings and collaborating with their peers.”

The fellows will present their research at the Annual Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity next spring. The awards include $1,500 in funding for each student to complete the research, as well as $500 awarded to each faculty mentor. 

Hannah Foster

Undergraduate Researcher: Hannah Foster
Mentor: Lionel Mathieu, Ph.D., School of World Studies
Research Topic:
 World Language French Curation

Tutoring students in French and Arabic has given Hannah Foster, a senior majoring in French and international studies in the School of World Studies, an inside look at how people learn foreign languages. From her personal interactions, she has observed that students often have difficulty learning and retaining foreign languages at the introductory level, especially when only using textbooks. She is interested in helping to enhance the process by which languages are taught, and in her estimation, a new method of teaching is necessary to help eliminate the struggle often present with learning new languages.

“Basically, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with textbooks used in foreign language classrooms,” Foster said. “Students don’t really like them and teachers feel they aren’t effective. So the question we’re trying to answer is: What is a more effective tool that can help students learn a foreign language?”

Foster’s research will allow her to gather information and review online tools currently required for class assignments. “Right now, students are writing online blogs to help them practice their writing skills and get them thinking about things. We’re going to curate the blogs, look at  their entries and use that to develop online resources,” she said.

Professor Lionel Mathieu, instructor of French in the School of World Studies, will serve as Foster’s mentor. “Language learning today should look nothing like its ancestors, given open educational resources and technology,” he said.

“This research is centered around a student-generated project designed to achieve new literacies and competencies in a second/foreign language,” he said. “Using the media students frequent, connecting it to course thematics, and then engaging learners through social media in sharing findings and opinions, this project aims to renew interest in languages through discovery learning.”

Foster also looks forward to developing her own conversational French as she works with Mathieu, a native speaker.

“Working with Dr. Mathieu will definitely help me improve my French because he’s a native speaker, and just being able to talk with him weekly will help me a lot with my conversation skills,” she said. “Looking at language acquisition will help me better understand the language, as well as getting so much exposure to French.” 


Caitlin Lange and Dr. Im

Undergraduate Researcher: Caitlin Lange
Mentor: Hyojin Im, Ph.D., School of Social Work
Research Topic: Multifaceted Health Analysis of Effects of Acculturation on Elderly Immigrants and Refugees in the Richmond Area

Caitlin Lange, a junior majoring in social work in the School of Social Work, will build upon her passion for the elderly and immigrant communities as she dives into researching the health problems elderly immigrants and refugees may endure resulting from acculturation difficulties they experience. Lange’s interest in this area stems from her desire to determine the factors influencing the immigrant populations as they settle in the Richmond area.

“I wanted to assess a reliance on one's own culture when integrating into a new one, and to talk about how isolation affects one's willingness to acculturate,” Lange said.  “In addition, I hope to focus on depression and anxiety caused by different cultural norms and expectations.”

Lange will begin her research by surveying a population of local immigrants and refugees, and then conducting follow up interviews with those who would like to further engage in the study. 

Hyojin Im, Ph.D., professor in the VCU School of Social Work, will be Lange’s mentor on this project, and is excited to work with her.  “Caitlin has real passion for working with older adults and that's why she chose social work as a major,” she said. “I think this is a really nice collaboration because she already has a lot of great information and her project will be mostly connecting dots. When she brought up ideas about the elderly, I just thought it would create a really great synergy.”  

Lange’s passion shows through as she explains what she hopes to gain from this experience. “I would like to eventually work with Adult Protective Services, so I'd really like to be able to understand how to work with older adults,” she said. “But it’s also important to work with their families and those who surround them, to make the elderly feel comfortable and to understand what they're going through. I’d like to be able to talk about it with them so that we can find a means to an end and find a solution. I think that this will really help me be able to find that balance.”


 Elyse Duani and Joanne Richardson

Undergraduate Researcher: Elyse Duani
Mentor: Joann T. Richardson, Ph.D., College of Humanities and Sciences 
Research Topic: Impacting knowledge, attitudes and behaviors for the prevention and control of hypertension and diabetes among rural, medically underserved Jamaican women of childbearing age.

As a double sociology and health sciences major, senior Elyse Duani has a passion for holistic care and helping others learn about preventative measures that aid in sustaining good health. She saw an opportunity to act on this passion when her mentor, Joann T. Richardson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences announced that she would be taking a group of students to Negril, Jamaica during the summer to study health disparities. The fellowship awarded to Duani will assist with the funding allowing her to enhance her personal involvement in impacting health disparities in Jamaica.

Duani conducted a literature review in order to narrow down the vast possible issues in existence regarding poor health in developing, low- and middle-income countries like Jamaica. In addition, she discussed observations and reviewed findings from a 2015 study abroad trip to Jamaica led by Richardson.

The literature review revealed a disparity between women and men in Jamaica who are afflicted with hypertension and diabetes, with women bearing the greatest burden of the diseases. One study even reported the disparity beginning as early as the age of 12.

The results from the blood pressure and blood glucose screenings conducted during the previous study abroad trip showed elevated blood pressure and glucose levels of which the participants were generally unaware. “Jamaicans define health as the absence of disease," Duani said. "The main factor in deciding whether they seek out care for their health or not is based on the severity of their symptoms or health condition. This is problematic with diseases like diabetes and hypertension that have been referred to as the 'silent killer' because they often have no alerting or noticeable signs or symptoms."

“We saw in the literature that the number one cause of maternal mortality in Jamaica is gestational hypertension,” she said. “And while gestational diabetes was not rated number one, it was also among the top causes of maternal mortality. So, various contributing factors led me to focus on women of childbearing age and specifically those in a rural area like Negril, Jamaica.”

Duani decided that she wanted to help increase the awareness of both hypertension and diabetes and provide the knowledge to facilitate behavior changes that could prevent the detrimental health outcomes that often befall women in particular. She hopes to see these same changes in the women’s family members due to the influence and traditional family role women play in Jamaican households.

The execution of this research will involve Duani and Richardson traveling to Negril, Jamaica in June with Richardson's Community Health Promotion class. While there, they will meet with a group of 15 women of childbearing age. During the two weeks of the study, Duani and Richardson will administer an initial survey, conduct three educational sessions, and complete the study with a follow-up survey.

“The initial survey will ask a number of questions about demographics, family history, women's health, their knowledge, attitudes and health behaviors in relation to the diseases, their level of physical activity and dietary habits,” Duani said. “We will then offer an 'educational intervention' comprised of general information about the diseases, risk factors that contribute to the diseases, recommended behavior changes to prevent or better manage the diseases, and information about gestational hypertension and diabetes. The scheduled follow-up surveys that will be administered post-intervention at three months, eight months and 12 months will reveal whether or not knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors have changed or been affected."

Richardson is confident that Duani’s involvement with this project will contribute to her overall success in the field she chooses. “She has a sociology focus as well as a health science focus, so I think the two are actually informing each other,” Richardson said. “It's almost like a synergistic outcome that's happening, because the sociology gives her that people orientation, and then she layers that with the health side of things.”

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