My Confirming Summer as an REU Student Researcher

        This summer, I worked at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in their Biomedical and Biomanufacturing Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. I worked under principal investigator Dr. Deva Chan with the help of graduate students Macaire Grobe and Matthew Getzin in the Chan Lab, a laboratory focused on the study of osteoarthritis.

        Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease impacting the mobility and quality of life of over 27 million people in the United States alone. My project was to: (1) determine the optimal uptake conditions for a newly-developed iodine solution to track cartilage breakdown; and (2) use spectral computed tomography — a medical imaging technique — to demonstrate the ability of contrast-enhancement to distinguish between calcium and iodine signals. I immersed cylindrical plugs from juvenile bovine patellas in the iodine solution for various lengths of time and imaged as well as analyzed the effects. This fall, I will present my research at the Biomedical Engineering Society’s meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

This summer’s program confirmed my interest in biomedical engineering and sparked a desire to pursue future education following the completion of my undergraduate degree. Next summer, I plan to intern in this industry or work in another research program.




— Cheri McChesney


My Experience with the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute

        This past May, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI) Undergraduate Modeling Workshop held at North Carolina State University. This all-expense-paid workshop exposed undergraduate students to the research processes involved in applying mathematics and statistics to climate science questions. In addition to this privilege, we also learned about the Earth’s climate system from professionals. Climate can be defined as the 30-year average of weather. In probability terms, if weather is the random event, climate is the distribution. The basic idea behind this workshop was simple: the global climate is changing. Local changes in climate are becoming increasingly difficult to determine, and climate models that have been used for decades are no longer accurate. For the protection of this planet, as well as the entire human race, climate research must be considered a priority.

        The 35 of us were separated into groups of six to work with throughout the week. Each of the project topics were focused on different issues in the environmental industry today. These included analyzing spatio-temporal rainfall data from the Gulf coast, predicting the motion of sea-ice in the Arctic, representing currents and temperature in the deep ocean, understanding the effects of air pollutant exposures on human health, and quantifying changes in vegetation over time. The team I was assigned to assessed the biomass of remote Alaskan forests using a variable known as Above Ground Biomass (AGB). AGB is a variable used in forestry to quantify how dense said forest is. Our goal was to create a continuous map of predicted AGB with uncertainty quantification for the Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest of Alaska.  We received data from forest inventory plots, LiDAR plane lasers, and satellite imaging. To aid us in our research throughout the week, we received a tutorial on how to use R programming software. We were taught by Dr. Douglas Nychka, one of the authors of the R package, Fields. To conclude the workshop, each group gave a 30-minute presentation on our research process and ultimate findings.

        This workshop was an eye-opening experience. To meet professionals working in the environmental industry allowed me to gain an entirely new perspective as to what is possible for someone with a mathematical background. I also received a surprising amount of technical knowledge in only one week. Overall, it was a phenomenal experience, and I highly recommend SAMSI workshops for all undergraduate students.  Lastly, I want to extend my gratitude to Dr. VanDieren, for introducing this opportunity to me and assisting me throughout the application process.

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For more specific information regarding the SAMSI Undergraduate Modeling Workshop, please feel free to email Katrina Lewis at

– Katrina Lewis

Jenna Hidinger: A Young Photographer with Some Old Wisdom

Just this Monday, I had the pleasure of meeting face to face with Jenna Hidinger, an RMU Honors Alumni now running a successful wedding and portrait photography business.  Growing up in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania and graduating from a private academy’s class of 26, Jenna enrolled in RMU to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Graphic and Web Design with a minor concentration in photography.  Possessing seven years of photography under her belt, she recalled the senior thesis she, as any other Honors student at Robert Morris to date, was required to do.  The initially-documented plan of the very business she elegantly operates now, Jenna Hidinger Photography, comprised her thesis.  This habit of organized planning has remained with her throughout her career, as she states that she has arrived at a rhythm of speaking with clients personally before their shoots, timing the entire session, and preparing for weather and location.  Her lighting is predominantly natural, as one can see viewing the impressive pictures on her website.  With her honest and ambitious qualities being very apparent, she offered advice to a busy photography student currently in the Honors Program at RMU.

Beth Barbis is wrapping up her junior year here as a Photography major and Illustration minor.  From the very beginning of her exchange with Jenna, they cordially connected on aspects of their quite similar interests.  Their fondness of certain equipment formed the foundation for a deeper conversation into the pressures and struggles Beth deals with regarding her photography practices.  As an issue that plagues most every college student, Beth confided in her habit of introversion – and in turn – not charging enough for the gigs she works so tirelessly on.  Jenna responded with reassuring words, stating that our “growth is all different” and that the central attitude we must adopt is one of getting past the introversion that arises from self-doubt.  Profoundly enjoying the career she has, she explains that her main intention in taking top-quality photos for her clients is answering the question of, “How can I make this person feel better about themselves?”  To Jenna, her clients are “awesome as it is”, so it’s simply a matter of situating her work in a way that showcases that to the highest degree.  On the more fiscal side, Mrs. Hidinger advised Beth to break down each aspect of her services within a given job, adding already-established prices for each said aspect.  With a pricing sheet, one will not be left guessing or hesitant of what to bill for their hard work.  Jenna concluded her spiel on this with a warning to not price based on emotion, as well as on comparison to other individuals in the same field.  “Find where your passion intersects with making money,” is what she summed up with.

In the fall, Beth is visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Prague on an all-expense-paid Vira Heinz scholarship to focus on youth and gender ethics through method of visual art.  As packed as her schedule is, she is learning to attain a happy median of what Jenna describes as finding “a middle ground between hustling and not having a life.”  Along with the life lessons acknowledged within this intimate conversation, the three of us discussed the beauty of trial and error, persisting after failure or rejection, and ultimately being happy and driven in the field one chooses to pursue.  This exchange brightened the day of us all, and personally, it was a privilege to speak with the both of them.

– Selene Cerankosky

Honors Spotlight: Damian Di Florio

headshot, smaller“I was four years old when my grandmother had breast cancer. I stood beside her bed as my eyes drifted along the IV tubes that fed into her arm. Wanting to help, but not knowing how, I suggested that she get some medicine. She said there was no good medicine to help her.  That day, eyes wide and naïve, I promised her I’d find a way for to get better. She passed away soon after.”

Senior, Biology major with a minor in Chemistry, Damian Di Florio told us of his experiences growing up and all the adventures he has taken to get him to where he is today.

Damian spoke of his beginning interest in the field of biology and genetics and how during high school he asked a clinician friend a question about mutations in non-coding regions of the genome and how they affected phenotypic outcomes, he later found out that he was asking questions not even medical students were asking.

When asked about his lab experiences, Damian recalled his first lab position at the age of sixteen at the Penn State College of Medicine. 

“I had just turned sixteen…the lab I worked in was no bigger than a dorm room. My boss didn’t even have enough desk space for both her keyboard and papers. That summer I worked on a project funded by the San Antonio Family Heart Study that investigated a variance in a non-coding region of the genome and its relation to blood pressure. I learned how to pipette and run a few simple experiments that allowed us to compare our samples. It was eventually found that this variable region was a biomarker for high blood pressure in this population and a conclusive study was done and will be published in the near future.

I sought out more lab experiences and was able to land a position in another lab just down the hall from the first one. The lab investigated the roles of proteins involved in DNA damage repair and the inherent pathways that lead to development and progression of cancers. The first summer in Dr. Kristin Eckert’s lab, I learned, from many failures, that science is difficult and embracing failure presents opportunities to learn.”

A recipient of the Honors Enrichment Award during the spring of his freshman year at RMU, he used the award to purchase some supplies that allowed him to pursue his first independent project in Dr. Eckert’s lab. although the research presented little usable data, he had gained the skills of experimental design and assay optimization which then allowed him to return to the Eckert lab a third summer. This time he was given another independent project that investigated the role of a DNA repair protein in correcting a mistake induced by chemotherapy. The project was a huge success and provided substantial support of the original hypothesis, the School of Engineering, Math, and Science in part with the RMU Honors program supported his travel expenses to present these results at a national conference. 

The following fall, Dr. Harold also encouraged Damian to look into applying for prestigious summer fellowship programs that would allow him to perform research at a different institution. After spending countless hours editing applications and essays, he decided to apply to the Mayo Clinic’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, and despite having the least hope for Mayo Clinic’s program, as it is highly competitive, he was accepted and preparing for my trip down to Jacksonville, Florida.  

“My summer at Mayo proved to be incredible. When I arrived, I learned that I was one of thirty students selected (from a pool of over 1,000) to participate in Mayo’s “nuSURF” program, a fellowship funded by the NIH NIDDK that supported undergraduates’ summer experiences to study inflammatory, digestive, and nephrology diseases. In addition to studying sex difference in vitamin D and urinary stones, Dr. DeLisa Fairweather’s lab also studies sex difference in vitamin and myocarditis. I learned several techniques, including how to work with mice in the lab, which is something that very few undergraduates have the opportunity to do. While in Jacksonville, I also learned about Mayo’s Graduate program in Clinical and Translational Science (CTS). Not only did Mayo Graduate School offered a guarantee of funding for the completion of a PhD, the CTS program is one of the few in the country that is supported by an NIH Training Grant. Not to mention, Mayo is one of the best research institutions in the world. As my time in Jacksonville came to a close, I added the Mayo Clinic Graduate School to my list and hoped to return as a PhD candidate the following fall semester.”

Following his summer at the Mayo Clinic, Damian decided that his area of focus for graduate school would be in Translational Biology – which is essentially research with an end goal in mind, whether it is a potential treatment or a new way to model diseases for study. He applied to several programs and was selected to interview at eight of them: University of Pittsburgh, Penn State Hershey, Mayo Clinic, Case Western, Baylor, UTSW, University of Washington Seattle, and Johns Hopkins. 

He briefly told of his interviewing experiences, “Since the second week of this semester, I’ve been away every weekend interviewing at these incredible research institutions and am happy to announce that I will be attending The Mayo Clinic Graduate School as a student in their Clinical and Translational Science program! I was also very fortunate to be selected as a Dean’s Fellow at Mayo, which is given to the top applicants and will include a stipend increase as I pursue my PhD!”

Damian credits the Honors Enrichment Award and additional support provided by the Honors program for his past experiences and successes. “Honors did make my college experience better, but better is a word that doesn’t capture it best. The Honors program and RMU have provided me with the ability to pursue my dreams of becoming a scientist and pursuing cancer research – like I promised my grandmother I would do nearly twenty years ago.”



Honors Spotlight: Kylee Schaffer

Periodically throughout the academic term, the Honors Program seeks to recognize an outstanding student member.  Senior Biomedical Engineering major, Kylee Schaefer, is very much worthy of this recognition.  Kylee was recently awarded the Euroscholar’s grant, a fund reserved for students pursuing a research-based semester in a European nation.  This privilege Kylee had earned sent her to the Netherlands, where she would garner a unique and unforgettable experience and expertise in an entirely unfamiliar place.

Kylee spent her 15-week term working for a laboratory under the name of UTRECHT where she primarily studied the finer details of cartilage repair.  She describes her work as engaging in experiments in which the focus was on printing cartilage.  She and her colleagues seeded cartilage cells onto scaffolds and analyzed how they aligned in order to develop an idea of how the bodily material healed – and how it could, perhaps, be healed faster.

During my interview with Kylee, she made a point to mention her supervisor while in the Netherlands, a student herself on her way to earning a doctorate.  So as not to undermine Kylee’s study and performance ability through an unpleasant mood, she reasoned, her supervisor encouraged her to visit other countries – six others, to be exact.  Kylee had the opportunity to experience France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, England, and Ireland. Florence, Italy was her favorite destination.  This she appreciates greatly, because chances to tour half a dozen countries do not fall into one’s lap every day.
kylee-schaffer.jpgConcerning her involvement in the Honors Program, Kylee applauds the adamant promotion of scholarships including the one she was awarded.  If not for the persistent and appealing advertising, as well as the amount of help the Honors Program provides in facilitating it, she would never have been aware of this incredible opportunity.  What’s more, she obtained an experience of profound quality all while earning credit for the Honors Seminar Course students in the program are required to enroll in, and the Final Thesis all Honors seniors must have completed.  Learning, especially within the RMU Honors Program, yields very rewarding and substantial outcomes.

Currently, Kylee is looking into an employment position with the Mayo Clinic, and is also waiting on four graduate schools’ decisions on her acceptance.  In the future, she states, she would love the chance to travel day-to-day with a professional athletic team.  Preferring softball, she looks forward to the day when she can track a team as they play, predicting injuries before they happen so she can work towards preventing them.  The Honors Program, she credits, assisted her in viewing these goals as an ecstatically possible reality.

Dr. VanDieren’s Mathematical Infinities

        “What do tinker toys, laws, and hotels have in common?” Professor VanDieren asked. As it turns out, quite a bit, if the laws and hotels are mathematical laws and hotels. The tinker toys were used as an introduction to the presentation: we had to build several different structures following various rules, such as “no red pieces can be used” or “you may only use purple and yellow pieces.” We used these laws to create models, and we were continuously subjected to more laws that forced us to adapt our structuring techniques and ultimately change the models. Once we had built enough models, Professor VanDieren explained how mathematicians also use laws to create models, just as we had done with the tinker toys—of course, mathematicians have much more complex rules and models to adhere to.

        With the hands-on part completed and understood, the presentation then moved onto the arithmetic-heavy ideas: we were presented with the idea of an infinite hotel and how laws regarding infinite models were used to create it. This led smoothly into Professor VanDieren’s explanation of her own work in the field of models and infinity. It was extremely impressive and very abstract, but her headway in the field has been significant. Not only has she worked for years on theorems concerning this concept, but she has also posited the idea of “tameness” in infinite models, setting the foundation for many other mathematicians to be able to delve into the field.

        The presentation was intriguing – but very abstract, and ended with Professor VanDieren giving us a sample of one of her ongoing models. It was neat to be able to learn about high-level mathematics, and Professor VanDieren even said she’d be willing to give an encore presentation if anyone else is interested! Anyone with the slightest interest in math should definitely hear her presentation; it’s unlike anything you will ever encounter anywhere.

– Brittany Burmester

If elevators, why not Autonomous Vehicles?

        Isn’t it scary to think about the dangers associated with elevators, despite the universal trust that the human race has in them? Why should we trust a box that, with the aid of several pulley systems, transports us from floor to floor without any reliance on human control after it’s designed? Elevators have proven themselves to be reliable pieces of technology; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, elevators contribute to an estimated 27 deaths out of the average 18 billion trips they take per year. This makes the risk of dying per trip 0.00000015%!

        If we can trust elevators, why can’t we trust autonomous vehicles (AV)? AV’s are programmed with sensors on all sides, making them aware of any anomalies on and off the road. AVs also have advanced algorithmic decision-making software to give them the artificial intelligence on when to break, drive extra cautiously, etc. We already trust the car to work on its own in some aspects. Many modern cars have automatic parking settings, as many people don’t feel comfortable parking on their own. Other settings such as “hill-assist”, built-in GPS’s, and even automatic transmission allow technology to make our lives easier in regards to driving. The closest threshold to allowing the car full control is the “cruise” mode. If we give our cars the power to maintain speed without our input, why can’t we trust it to steer and brake too?


        As Courtney Ehrlichman, cofounder of Roadbotics, stated at the roundtable, “It’s not whether AVs are going to make it onto the roads, because that has already become a reality. It is going to happen.” She also mentioned that AVs may have full control over the road by 2040. Time for us to learn to trust AVs for society’s convenience and benefit, don’t you think?

– Kyle Bellhorn