Student Spotlight: McKenna Lux

McKenna Lux ’15
Political Science

McKenna Lux, a fourth year political science major, explains that the most rewarding part of her research experience has been contributing and building upon areas of research that need to be further explored according to other scholars in her field.

“I started to see that [my research] is something that has value,” McKenna describes. “When I’m reading up on a specific country and see little hints of what I’m hoping to find, I realize that this isn’t all for nothing.”

Under the guidance of political science professors Dr. Lorraine McDonnell and Dr. Neil Narang, McKenna is currently studying the effects of border policy on the frequency of human trafficking in the Eastern European Union for her senior honors thesis project.

“I’m looking at this region in Europe and extending into Eastern Europe called the Schengan area. That’s the area where they’ve lifted big border checkpoints, the customs controls for their internal borders,” McKenna explains. “So anyone who has passports for any of those countries [within that area] can travel freely through another country that is within [the Schengan] area, and I’m looking at how that affects human trafficking.”

McKenna conducts her research by looking at several variables, such as the year a country joined the Schengan area, as well as how many external and internal border in each country. McKenna also created her own variable, the “McKenna” variable, which gives each country a value. Each value represents its country’s rank on a scale that explains reciprocity between human trafficking and border management policies. She then studies how these independent variables affect the dependent ones, including the number of victims identified, the number of criminals apprehended at the borders, and the number of counterfeit documents found.

McKenna explains that in current counter trafficking policy, countries where victims are taken and destination countries where victims are transported to and exploited are the most targeted, while the transit points are neglected.

“There’s definitely some research that I’m hoping to build off of,” McKenna explains. “I found just from my initial research that a lot of the trafficking criminals are able to circumvent the laws at the transit points and go under the radar and adapt to the rules. So I’m trying to get inside the mind of the criminal and see exactly what makes a border vulnerable to human trafficking, what makes it permeable and able to let trafficking thrive through those borders.”

McKenna explains that though her experience conducting research has been rewarding, it has not been easy. With the help of her mentors however, she has been able to overcome her obstacles.

“I’ve definitely hit some road blocks where I’d have a freak out and I’d think I found something that’s too similar to what I’m doing or something that goes against everything I’m trying to do,” McKenna describes. “But then I’d go to Professor Narang and have my little melt down and then he would tell me that even if something has the exact same intentions as what I’m doing, there are still ways to study it and put a new twist on things. So he has been really helpful in helping me deal with those meltdowns.”

McKenna suggests that students who are new to research to start small and try a smaller-scale independent research project prior to diving into year-long projects.

“I think the 199 course [in the political science major], most majors have and equivalent, gives you a little taste of research,” McKenna explains. “It’s a good introduction to research and you only have to commit for one quarter so I would say incoming students should try that first before taking on a larger project.”

McKenna prepared herself for her senior honors thesis project by testing the waters in research first with the University of California Washington Program (UCDC) and the 199 course, which then motivated her to pursue her research interests.

“A year ago I had no idea what I was going to do after graduation,” McKenna admits. “But [these projects] really helped me confirm that I want to keep doing research so I’m going to grad school in the fall at Leiden University in the Netherlands.”

McKenna explains she applied Leiden University because it is located in Hague, Netherlands, where many larger organizations related to her field are headquartered. Currently she is enrolled in a graduate program in which she has the option to intern at an office of her choice in Hague.

Student Spotlight: Vishaal Varahamurthy

Vishaal Varahamurthy ’16
Electrical and Computer Engineering

“Getting into research is probably the best thing that’s happened to me at UCSB,” said Vishaal Varahamurthy, a third year electrical and computer engineering major.

After learning new material that he never learned in class, forming genuine friendships with his research associates, changing his major to better suit his interests and even traveling to another country to research abroad, Vishaal’s undergraduate research experience has proven to be eye-opening for him, solidifying his aspirations to pursue research as a career.

Vishaal involved himself in research early, participating in the Summer Institute of Mathematics and Science (SIMS) the summer before his freshman year, and then EUREKA, a program dedicated to introducing first year students to a broader science community and providing exposure to academic research.

EUREKA placed Vishaal in the Palmstrøm Lab, where he worked with Professor Christopher Palmstrøm and Graduate Student Ryan Need, researching sustainable ways to utilize the conversion of a temperature difference to an electric voltage.

“Half of the Energy that the United States generates gets wasted as heat, and a lot of it is through electronic devices,” Vishaal explains. “For instance, your phone gets hot or your laptop gets hot after you use it for a long time; what we’re trying to do is recover that energy. If you have a temperature difference across a material, through a process called the thermoelectric effect, it can actually generate a voltage, which means you can turn heat into electrical energy you can use. So when your laptop gets hot, it could use that heat to help power itself if you had a thermoelectric device inside of it.”

Though the results of the study were inconclusive, Vishaal still considers EUREKA to be his most impactful research experience so far as it made him realize he wanted to pursue graduate school once he receives his Bachelor of Science degree.

“I learned what it meant to do research, what it means to be in graduate school, what it’s like working with other researchers,” Vishaal describes. “[EUREKA] opened up doors for me; I wouldn’t have gotten into [the research abroad program] or the lab I’m in now if it weren’t for EUREKA.”

After EUREKA, Vishaal switched his major from chemical engineering to electrical and computer engineering and applied to Cooperative International Science and Engineering Internships (CISEI) in China. There he aided researchers who worked on engineering nanoparticles that would be capable of attaching to specific cells and emitting visible light so that researchers could see what is happening inside the body real time.

After his experiences CSEP and CISEI, Vishaal realized that he wanted spread his enthusiasm for science to other people. When he learned his EUREKA mentor Ryan Need was starting a national organization called Ask a Scientist, Vishaal was eager to get involved.

“Ask a Scientist has chapters at a small number of universities and they push out into their own local communities where they set up tables for the general public to ask questions about science,” Vishaal said. “That’s one of the things I’m most passionate about: getting people interested in science and showing them how important it is as a member of society and as a voter.”

Currently, Vishaal is Co-President of Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Vice President of Ask a Scientist, and working on optimizing metal contact for gallium nitride lasers in the DenBaars group in the Solid State Lighting and Energy Electronics Center. Vishaal describes undergraduate research as the springboard that got him to where he is now.

“I was one of those people who didn’t really know what they wanted to do after college, and I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to do if I hadn’t gotten into research,” Vishaal explains. “If there’s something you’re interested in, just ask about it! Professors love it, graduate students love it, it’s a win- win for everyone.”

Student Spotlight: Shane Stringfellow

Shane Stringfellow was admitted to UCSB as a Psychology major, but after taking a Feminist Studies course, found a passion for LGBTQ studies. Now, as a double major in Psychology and Feminist Studies, Shane performs research and work that he thoroughly enjoys. “Next thing I know, it’s my senior year and I’m applying for an URCA grant and conducting my own research,” Shane said.

With the help of an URCA grant and his grad student mentor Carly Thomsen, Shane undertook a research project on redefining the concept masculinity. “The best part about my research was being able to conduct all of the interviews that I did…it really allowed me to centralize the voices of my participants as people who are actively producing knowledge in their everyday lives.”

By pursuing his interests in psychology and LGBTQ Shane honed valuable researcher skills he’ll take with him to graduate school, including the logistics of researching, drafting proposals for grants, navigating the human subjects process, and so much more. “I’ve learned how engaging and fun conducting interviews can be, but also how draining the subsequent transcribing process can be as well,” he explained. “I’ve had to navigate my own mental health as a researcher with a topic that is very personal to myself and I’ve learned from my mentor how to show up on days to work/write even when I feel like I can’t.”

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Student Spotlight: Dilpreet Kaur

Dilpreet Kaur, 2016
Chemical Engineering a
UC Santa Barbara has many opportunities to get involved in research, as chemical engineering major Dilpreet Kaur found out before she even stepped foot onto campus. She joined CNSI’s Summer Institute in Mathematics and Science (SIMS), a two-week residential program that informs newly admitted students about academic preparation, professional development, educational presentations, and research projects. At the conclusion of SIMS, Dilpreet joined EUREKA, a program that introduces students in their first year to the broader science community on campus and provides exposure to research through academic year internships. Needless to say, Dilpreet was able to get a running start in research at UC Santa Barbara.

Participating in these programs gave Dilpreet the opportunity to network early on and land her a position in the Mitragotri Lab. “I got into the Mitragotri lab by communicating with others and being persistent. This is what prospective research students should do,” Dilpreet explained. In the lab, she helps research engineering nanoparticle shape for drug delivery specifically targeting breast cancer cells. “Many times experiments do not always work out the way you want them to, but in the end it is really rewarding when you get it right. It was thrilling to see the different nanoparticle shapes I made for the first time,” Dilpreet said.

As she gains experience with research here at UC Santa Barbara, Dilpreet intends to pursue different research programs at other universities. Ultimately, she hopes to get her PhD in Bioengineering or her MBA. Dilpreet added, “I’ve learned what it takes to be a researcher, and by working with grad students, I’ve got to see what grad school is all about.”

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Student Spotlight: Emilio Codecido

Emilio Codecido, 2014
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Entering UCSB, Emilio Codecido always wanted to acquire hands-on experience as an undergraduate researcher. Once he discovered the research programs available to him, Emilio wasted no time and applied for a Center for Energy Efficient Materials (CEEM) Internship, a program where students train under CEEM researchers to develop solutions for critical energy challenges. For this internship Emilio persisted in reaching out to Professor John E. Bowers, whom he still works with today. “I didn’t want to give up so I knew I had to show him [Bowers] that I really wanted to do research,” says Emilio.

Working in Bowers’ lab, Emilio studies thermoelectrics–devices that convert temperature differences to electricity–which is useful for recovering wasted energy. “We started from scratch, and we had to develop measurements. But the moment everything was working the way it was meant to be, I was excited to see that my work can help improve thermoelectric efficiency,” states Emilio.

Emilio has received research funding from both CEEM and UC LEADS, which allowed him to attend several conferences and present his research. He won 3rd place with his poster presentation at the Ivy Plus Symposium, where judges from IVY league schools and students from all over the country attended. One of his greatest achievements yet!

Emilio recommends that students get involved as early as possible and develop a professional relationship and network with their mentors. “While I don’t always work with Dr. Bowers, I became close with other members of the lab” says Emilio. “I still keep in touch with them about my research.” Emilio plans to do a Bridge to PhD program and continue his research as he moves on to the next step of his academic career.

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