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Student presenters (from left) Ingrid Havron, Temitope Idowu, Melinda Kleczynski, Abass Muhammed and Rebecca Lo Presti join Lou Rossi, dean of UD’s Graduate College and vice provost of graduate and professional education following the Spring 2023 Spark! Symposium.
Student presenters (from left) Ingrid Havron, Temitope Idowu, Melinda Kleczynski, Abass Muhammed and Rebecca Lo Presti join Lou Rossi, dean of UD’s Graduate College and vice provost of graduate and professional education following the Spring 2023 Spark! Symposium.

Spring Spark! Symposium ignites dialogue

Photo by Evan Krape

Graduate students and postdocs give glowing presentations

Anybody attending the University of Delaware Graduate College’s spring 2023 Spark! Symposium who was not aware of the format of the event might have been surprised when Ingrid Havron began her talk on “Understanding Beluga Behavior in an Altering Arctic” by asking everyone to imagine they are 11-year-old Riley from the 2015 Disney/Pixar animated film, Inside Out.

Billed as “not your typical research symposium,” the biannual Spark! Symposium is designed to ignite new conversations, ideas and collaboration among diverse researchers and professionals through short-form, engaging presentations and audience participation. So when Havron, a marine studies graduate student from the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, drew a line between beluga whale behavior and that of a fictional movie character, she was following the instructions to a T en route to winning the people’s choice Glow Award for her presentation.

“You are not ready to earn an advanced degree until you can explain to your grandma and grandpa what you do and why it is important in a way that they can comprehend it,” said Lou Rossi, dean of UD’s Graduate College and vice provost of graduate and professional education.

With a theme of “Healthy Self, Society and Planet,” Havron was joined by four other UD graduate student and postdoctoral speakers who also presented their research via relatable analogies, personal experiences and a touch of humor.

“The presenters have gone the extra mile,” said Rossi. “In the spirit of this symposium, these five students representing expertise from colleges across the University know this is not a seminar for specialists. They’ve done a lot of that already. They know they need to be able to speak to a general audience, and they’ve worked really hard to make that happen.”

Establishing a behavior baseline

Havron compared Riley’s change of behavior when she moved from Minnesota to California in the Disney/Pixar movie to abnormal behavior being displayed by Eastern Beaufort Sea (EBS) beluga whales, such as shifts in diet and location, as well as declining growth rates. Though climate change may have played a role, with limited knowledge of the feeding behavior of EBS belugas, which spend their winters in the Bering Sea and summers in the Beaufort Sea, the exact reason for the unusual observations remains unclear.

“Like I mentioned with Riley, we can use her before and after behavior to understand that something is wrong,” said Havron. “Because we know so little about belugas’ behavior, we can’t do this; we can’t use their behavior to identify a problem in the Bering and Beaufort ecosystems.”

With a research goal of identifying a baseline for EBS belugas’ dietary behavior by understanding their present-day feeding habitats in the Bering and Beaufort seas, Havron is collecting data and hypothesizes that EBS belugas are predominantly eating in the Beaufort Sea. Regardless of where the EBS belugas are feeding, Havron emphasized that having a baseline is a very powerful tool.

“It is imperative that we establish this baseline as soon as possible because the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet,” said Havron. “Establishing a baseline when the Arctic becomes unrecognizable is not going to be helpful. In relation to my analogy with Riley, this would be like establishing her baseline behavior after she moved to California, meaning that no one would expect anything out of the ordinary.”

The power of pollinators

Melinda Kleczynski, a mathematical sciences student from the College of Arts and Sciences, received the judges’ choice Ignite Award for her presentation, “Topological Data Analysis of Plant-Pollinator Interactions.” Kleczynski, whose research investigates how the mathematical shape of a plant-pollinator community is affected by the loss of species or interactions, began her talk by asking the audience, “What it’s like to be a plant?” She explained how plants “hire” delivery workers, known as pollinators that come in the forms of various animals like insects, hummingbirds and geckos. In exchange for their delivery services, the plants offer incentives such as producing nectar or extra pollen as a food source.

“Pollinators also do a great service to us,” said Kleczynski. “Every year, these animals contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. That includes a lot of agricultural products we really enjoy. The common eastern bumble bee is a major pollinator of pumpkin plants. We can thank the pollinators for bringing some pumpkin spice to our lives. Unfortunately, some of our pollinators are in trouble, and since they touch so many other aspects of the ecosystem, what is that going to do to the whole community of the particular pollinators in trouble?”

Since pollinators do not put up a going out of business sign when they leave an area, she has turned to mathematical analysis to assess the situation. By using the wealth of data available, mathematics allows her to have large datasets that generate high-dimensional structure to be analyzed. Kleczynski performed some of her early analysis using a small dataset collected at UD and is continuing her work by analyzing data collected at Oregon State University. Because pollinators are critical for a healthy planet, Kleczynski is calling on the research community to study them. She is making her algorithms and documentation openly available, so that any interested researchers and citizen scientists may utilize them. Kleczynski humorously reported that the pollinators have respected her work and left her alone while conducting research.

“I have never been stung doing this [research],” said Kleczynski. “I just get stung when I am minding my business. Maybe they feel like, ‘she is researching us so we get more resources; we’ll leave her alone.’’’

Predictors of community safety perceptions

Growing up in a low-income, marginalized community in Nigeria, Abass Muhammed observed street crimes and police misconduct that influenced his desire to better comprehend how structural inequality is interwoven with crime and harmful policing practices. In his quest to understand his childhood experience, his undergraduate research at Federal University in Nigeria, focused on causes and cases of election violence in his native country in 2015.

While searching for a model that would help him better understand his mind-boggling childhood experiences and undergraduate research findings, he found the works of Yasser Arafat Payne, professor of sociology and Africana studies at UD. Utilizing data from Payne’s Street Participatory Action Research (PAR) project in Wilmington, Delaware, Muhammed, a criminology student in UD’s College of Arts and Sciences, presented “Understanding Collective Efficacy and Community Safety in The Streets.” Street PAR incorporates the inclusion of members of the population being studied serving as researchers providing data collection and analysis.

“By collective efficacy, I mean the ability of a community to organize themselves to address issues of crime and violence,” said Muhammed.”

Focusing on data collected on the perception of community safety, collective efficacy, violent crime victimization and perception of police, Muhammed said his findings show that collective efficacy significantly predicts the perception of community safety among street-identified Black American men and women. His findings also show that perceptions of police significantly predict the perception of community safety, and violent crime victimization significantly predicts the perception of community safety as well.

Muhammed’s study recommends continuous efforts to encourage group efforts to address issues of crime and violence in Black American communities. He said it cannot be achieved unless social ties and trust among residents in these neighborhoods are encouraged. Muhammed provided the audience with several take-home points, beginning by saying community safety is associated with structural inequality. 

“Based on my comparison of my observations from my undergraduate research on election violence to my current study in the United States, there seems to be a persistent, consistent, pattern of relationship between structural inequality and crime,” said Muhammed. “Wherever you find structural inequality, the next thing you’ll likely see is crime. Residents in low-income Black American communities, and indeed the street-identified Black men and women in these low-income communities, they care about their community, and they are only handicapped by structural factors that undermine or block them from equal access to opportunity.”

Keeping coastlines safe 

Temitope Idowu, a civil and environmental engineering student in the College of Engineering, gained the audience’s attention by asking them to imagine being on a trip to the beach with friends that was disrupted by an explosion. While he was fortunately only presenting a possible scenario — and not a situation that he has been faced with — his presentation, “Engineering Solutions for Protecting U.S. Shorelines from the Consequences of Past Human Activities,” addressed the growing risk of defective or abandoned explosives from past wars and conflict zones known as munitions.

“Ultimately, the whole idea of this study is we want a world where we are not scared of visiting the coastline or having fun with your family, or deciding you want to go to a place and you are scared,” said Idowu. “We are trying to create healthier and safer coastlines for everyone.”

After drawing some oohs and aahs by showing everyone a dangerous-looking surrogate munition, Idowu assured the participants they are safe, and explained that from the late 1800s to the 1970s, munitions were in fact being discarded and dumped in our oceans. In the U.S. alone, there are over 400 munitions disposal sites, some of which are close to the coastline.

“Here is the challenge: What we are beginning to experience is some of these munitions are finding their ways on our coastlines,” said Idowu. 

Citing examples of munitions being discovered after Hurricane Maria in North Carolina and Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, Idowu said the likelihood that more munitions will migrate and appear onshore is growing because of the possible increase in the frequency of storm events due to climate change effects. If the munitions find their way onshore, there is still a risk of explosion. For his research, Idowu and others deployed surrogate missions on an artificial beach and conducted tests by generating storm-like waves and obtaining quantifications on the migration and burial behavior of the munitions. The quantifications will be used to improve the accuracy of analytical frameworks and numerical models for predicting the possible reappearance of these munitions on our coastlines under different storm conditions.

“The idea behind this is that we can use the empirical models to give us an idea if a munition was dumped let’s say 50 years ago, about one kilometer offshore, what is the likelihood that this munition ends up onshore in a particular wave event or if a hurricane happens,” said Idowu.

The story of the lancet

In her presentation, “From Smallpox to COVID: The Material Culture of Health in Pandemics of the Past and Present,” Rebecca Lo Presti asked the attendees to think back to when they received their first COVID-19 vaccine and what evidence they had of the experience. The only keepsakes Lo Presti has of any of her COVID-19 vaccinations are an email notification for a booster shot and her vaccine card.

Jumping back about 250 years ago, when smallpox was spreading rapidly through the U.S., she said people were inoculated in a procedure that could best be understood as a sort of a predecessor to vaccination. Lo Presti, a Winterthur Program in American Material Culture student in the College of Arts and Sciences, said material culture is the study of things, things that people have created, made, destroyed, used, broken, discarded and so on. 

“I’m really interested in studying the evidence of diseases, but evidence from smallpox, especially from this early on, can be hard to find, especially for people who have been historically discriminated against in the archives,” said Lo Presti. “How can we understand what the inoculation process is like for someone who lived 250 to 300 years ago? For me, this is where material culture comes in. In material culture studies, objects like teapots or houses, rugs or even my vaccine card contain a whole variety of stories that we can read if we know what questions to ask and where to look.”

In her talk, Lo Presti focused on one piece of material evidence from the smallpox inoculations of early America, the lancet: a small portable blade carried by doctors to facilitate the deeply intimate inoculation process in which pus from a sick patient was inserted into an open cut on the body of a healthy person. By researching the history of that small blade, Lo Presti learned about the 1% fatality rate of people undergoing smallpox inoculation.

She also discovered stories of exploitation, from the overharvesting of hawksbill sea turtles needed for the lancets’ tortoise shell handles to the enslaved Onesimus, who introduced Cotton Mather to the principle of inoculation by relaying his personal experience. While Mather became one of the first and foremost fervent advocates for inoculation in 18th century America, Onesimus was not permitted to record any firsthand accounts and was only mentioned twice in Mather’s diaries.

“I conclude by asking us to consider what objects do you think are going to come to define this pandemic in the future,” said Lo Presti. “As I’ve established, we all probably did not document our COVID vaccination process and then send it off to historical societies to then save for the next future generations of historians to look back to. So what do you think is going to define this 250 years from now when historians like me are looking back to the past? Simply put, what object do you think is going to be the next lancet?”

R1 institution

As one of just 146 institutions in the country awarded R1 status by the Carnegie Foundation, UD is in select company for its emphasis on research. Just 3% of the nation’s universities and colleges have been recognized for having the very high research activity required to receive the prestigious designation.

“The University of Delaware has worked extremely hard to establish its reputation as an R1 institution,” said Rossi, “Our graduate students and postdocs play a crucial role in enabling us to achieve that high level of distinction. Working side-by-side with faculty, almost all of the research that is done at UD involves graduate students or postdocs.”

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