Seniors’ Research, Creativity, and Curiosity on Display
In a sign of spring as iconic as daffodils in bloom, the WPI community took time recently to share and celebrate graduating students’ achievements as every senior presented their completed thesis.
The annual Undergraduate Research Projects Showcase (previously Project Presentation Day) is not only an opportunity for students to publicly present the findings of their Major Qualifying Projects, but it also gives faculty, staff, other students, and off-campus partners a glimpse into the wide range of research topics and methodologies that seniors have tackled this year.
“It’s inspiring to see the creativity and skills that our students bring to these projects, as well as the professionalism with which they present their research,” says Arne Gericke, interim dean of undergraduate studies and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, Design & Creative Activity. “Their experience managing a major project like this—including identifying a problem and researching all of the implications and possible solutions while also managing team dynamics over an extended period of several months—sets them up well for success not only in their first jobs after graduation but throughout their careers.”
This year Gericke and others worked to change the name of the annual project showcase event to more accurately highlight the unique blend of research, design, and creative scholarship at the heart of WPI’s undergraduate education. The WPI showcase was featured on the Council on Undergraduate Research website in support of Undergraduate Research Week 2023.
Below are just a few examples of the diverse work displayed in the 556 projects from more than 1,000 seniors graduating this year.
Integrating Herbal Medicine into Modern Healthcare Systems: A Case Study on Artemisia annua in China, the US, and Kenya
School of Arts and Sciences (Interdisciplinary) | Student: Sophia Togneri | Faculty advisor: John Galante
Many students would likely struggle coming up with a senior thesis that touches on both biochemistry and international and global studies—but not Sophia Togneri. The double major found meaningful multidisciplinary ways to explore Artemisia annua, or wormwood, an herb that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for millennia. For her biochemistry project, titled “Drug-Herb Interactions between Artemisia annua Tea, Caffeine, and Acetaminophen,” Togneri and fellow biochemistry major Hannah Duncan studied Artemisia in the lab with advisors Suzanne Scarlata and Pamela Weathers. Outside of the lab, Togneri used Artemisia, which is used in many parts of the world to treat fevers, as a case study to explore the degree to which three countries—the United States, China, and Kenya—have integrated indigenous traditions and knowledge into modern medical practices.
“Combining my traditional science and tech background with global studies was helpful to me in getting a well-rounded education,” Togneri says. “This project has really made me question what is considered ‘knowledge’ and ‘expertise.’ And I’ve definitely learned that indigenous knowledge is undervalued and underutilized.” The final results of both projects thoroughly impressed John Galante, Togneri’s advisor for the international and global studies part of her project. “I have never had an MQP student connect the science side with the humanities and arts so well,” says Galante, an associate professor of teaching in the Humanities and Arts Department.
Super-Elastic Continuum Robot for Endoscopic Articulation and Manipulation (SCREAM 5.0)
School of Engineering | Students: Christopher DeMaio, Julia Farnum, Ananya Gopalan, and Jacquelyn Lopez | Faculty advisors: Loris Fichera and Yuxiang Liu
Robotics engineering majors Christopher DeMaio, Ananya Gopalan, and Jacquelyn Lopez partnered with Julia Farnum, a mechanical engineering major, to create a pair of flexible needle-thin robotic instruments that can be used to steer a camera and laser during endoscopic larynx procedures. Previous student groups developed attachments to commonly used endoscopes, but this year’s team proposed an entirely new device.
The pair of snake-like robots, coupled with the wireless control system, make up a successful prototype that “offers doctors an effective outpatient option for treating laryngeal tumors.” The robots that the team designed and fabricated allow the physician to steer the camera and laser into portions of the larynx that were previously inaccessible with minimally invasive treatment. For the control system, the team used a PlayStation 3 controller to manipulate different components of the robots; by improving upon a traditional endoscope’s control system, they enable physicians to treat tumors more safely and effectively.
Developing a Household-Level Smart Composter
School of Engineering | Students: Emily Giancola, Hayley Gray, Sola Hoffman, Rebecca Marion, and Grace Rydout | Faculty advisor: Sarah Jane Wodin-Schwartz
Mechanical engineering majors Emily Giancola, Hayley Gray, Sola Hoffman, Rebecca Marion, and Grace Rydout admit that they knew nothing about composting when they started working on a project to make home composting more appealing by removing “the ick factor.” Now the group understands how significant a role food waste plays in climate change and other environmental crises of our time. “If more people were composting, we could decrease greenhouse gases by 50 percent,” they explain.
Their efforts to produce a viable home composting system were robust: The team developed 43 unique and original design concepts to determine how to create a homogenous and well-aerated mixture of food scraps that would most effectively break down into usable compost. They built a prototype that incorporates a chamber for raw food scraps that empties into an insulated aluminum cone equipped with heaters and a mechanized auger to aerate the mixture as it breaks down. After testing their equipment using food scraps from campus dining halls, the team estimates that it would take about a week for the machine to break raw scraps into usable compost.
Utilizing Waste to Provide an Economically Viable Alternative to Roofing in Accra, Ghana
Business School | Students: Jackson Baker and Michael Morin | Faculty advisors: Debora Jackson, Walter Towner, Mustapha Fofana, and Robert Krueger | Sponsor: Academic City University
Jackson Baker was supposed to go abroad for his Interactive Qualifying Project, but Covid-19 scuttled those plans. So when the management engineering major learned that he could work on his Major Qualifying Project at WPI’s project center in Accra, Ghana, he jumped at the opportunity. Baker and his project partner, Michael Morin, arrived in Ghana with a loose plan for how to incorporate the region’s abundant discarded coconut husks into a sustainable and affordable alternative to corrugated sheet metal roofing. For several reasons, the coconut model didn’t work, but Baker says during the process, “we learned about generative justice and co-creation, meaning not intervening in the community, but working together as one unit.” The stumbling blocks that Baker and Morin encountered will provide a helpful starting point for future student teams in Accra.
And even though the project didn’t turn out as they expected, Baker says his time in Ghana made far more of an impact on him than he ever imagined it would. “I learned how important these projects are to the local communities where we work,” he says. “And the experience changed me as a person. For example, I went to Ghana with a water bottle but I didn’t use it once because you can’t drink any of the water there.” Baker says he’d never thought about access to clean water before his time in Ghana—and now he notices how much potable water we waste here in the United States. “Coming home was one of the most difficult parts of this project.”
Revised Public Housing for the Modern Family
School of Arts and Sciences | Students: Lucas Kamal, Danforth Kenerson, Talia Mamayek, and Max Wojtas | Faculty advisors: Crystal Brown, Leonard Albano, and Soroush Farzin
When federally funding housing options were first developed in the United States, as part of the New Deal in the 1930s, the units were largely created for nuclear families. The way we live has changed a lot in nearly 100 years—with far more people today living with roommates and others outside of a nuclear family—and yet public housing designs have, for the most part, stayed the same. Society, technology, and policy major Max Wojtas and his three architectural engineering teammates think it’s time public housing design caught up with our changing demographics. “We need better affordable housing in this country and we need to find ways to destigmatize public housing,” Wojtas explains.
The team generated a plan to turn the vacant Denholm Building in downtown Worcester into a mixed-use development that abandons the standard design used in almost every large-scale apartment building in the United States, with a long central corridor flanked by apartments on either side and a staircase at each end. Instead, they would use the Point Access Block Model, an architectural design concept that’s common in many parts of Europe. With a central area given over to a staircase and elevator, individual apartments of varying sizes can be carved out of the remaining space, resulting in units with more natural light and an overall reduced heating, ventilation, and air conditioning load for the building. While Wojtas and his teammates don’t have the proper credentials to submit an official redevelopment proposal with the City of Worcester, they spoke with the city’s chief development officer as part of their project and after graduation plan to remain involved in the city efforts as engaged residents.
Incidence of Female Reproductive Cancers in Correlation with Socioeconomic Status in NY State as a Marker of BPA Exposure
School of Arts and Sciences (Interdisciplinary) | Student: Hope Hutchinson | Faculty advisors: Brent Faber and Natalie Farny
Double major Hope Hutchinson knows about stress. Cell stress, that is. For the biology and biotechnology part of her senior thesis, titled “Stressed Out! Role of GPER1 in BPA-Induced Stress Granule Formation,” Hutchinson examined what happens to cells when they are exposed to toxins such as Bisphenol A (BPA). In a nutshell, she says, prolonged exposure to toxins causes cells to build up a tolerance to stressors, which in the long run causes them not to activate defenses when they need to. “BPA causes our cells to stress out, which eventually causes those cells to shut down,” she says.
Armed with what she was learning in the lab, Hutchinson turned to the professional writing part of her project. Knowing that BPA, which disrupts human endocrine systems and is believed to mimic estrogen, is commonly used to make the lining of food-grade aluminum cans, Hutchinson looked specifically at the incidence of female reproductive cancers. She hypothesized that because lower-income people tend to eat fewer fresh foods—and therefore more canned foods—than higher-income people, rates of female reproductive cancers should somewhat correspond with income and poverty rates. To test her hypothesis, Hutchinson looked at public health data and socioeconomic data from across New York state. In all but three of its 62 counties, Hutchinson’s theory proved true: High rates of poverty and eligibility for free school lunch corresponded with higher rates of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers—while wealthier areas experienced lower rates of reproductive cancers.