On Wednesday August 15, the Office of the Vice-Principal, Research, in collaboration with the Office of the Dean and UTMAGS, held their third annual Smarti Gras, an event celebrating undergraduate summer research. Undergrads from various departments including English and drama, geography, biology, and language studies showcased their findings through oral or poster presentations.

The Medium spoke to several researchers to find out more about their projects and their experience with Smarti Gras.

 

Project: “Recombinant protein expression of wild type Apelin receptor in Pichia Pastoris

For Reizel Pejana, a fourth-year student pursuing a double major in chemistry and biology for health sciences, exploring research in the field of biochemistry allowed her to combine her passion for chemistry and biology with her interest in studying proteins. After a memorable Research Opportunity Program (ROP) based in Professor Scott Prosser’s lab, Pejana decided to continue her research with G protein-coupled receptors (GCPRs) this summer and presented her findings at this year’s Smarti Gras event.

“I got introduced to GCPRs through my ROP, and from then on I just started to love the field itself. I was able to study the topic in my classes and apply what I learned to my lab,” Pejana explains. “About 40% of the drugs that are in the market right now actually target GCPRs, so it’s a really good field to study.”

Pejana explains that “recombinant protein expression” attempts to produce proteins in a lab-based environment. Instead of extracting a protein from its natural source, Pejana works towards producing the protein she needs. As researchers manufacture proteins in their labs, they produce higher yields, or high amounts, of the proteins they need to study. Pejana concentrates her research on apelin receptor, a type of G protein-coupled receptor, which helps with signalling in the human body.

“We manipulate the DNA that encodes the protein we want and use yeast cells as a factory to produce the proteins in excess so we can use it in experiments,” Pejana says in reference to her work in the lab.

Over the summer, Pejana accomplished her goal and made cells produce the protein she desired. During her poster presentation, Pejana presented evidence of her success through “blots,” a technique that helps researchers detect proteins using a probe specific for their target, allowing them to visualize the proteins.

“When we blot the sample that we have, we basically use an antibody to detect the specific proteins we want, then we can determine whether we have expressed the specific protein or not,” Pejana says.

Throughout the year, Pejana will continue to work with GPCRs during her undergraduate thesis project. Now that she has accurately expressed the protein, Pejana can move forward with her research. She plans to investigate the protein’s functionality, study its structure, and determine when the protein becomes active.

Reflecting on her experience at the summer research celebration, Pejana emphasizes the importance of educating the community on scientific research.

“It’s a really good event because you are able to present what you’ve done in front of people from different departments, and you can explain to them ‘Hey, this is what I’ve been doing and this is why it’s important,’” Pejana says. “A lot of people don’t really know how important research is to the entire process. There’s a lot of work behind the drugs that we use today, so it’s good for everyone to appreciate the hard work. Researching also made me appreciate what I was being taught in lecture.”

For students new to research, Pejana’s advice is simple: reach out to a professor and ask to volunteer in their lab. “Look for professors who are studying what you’re interested in and ask if they have space in their lab for you to volunteer,” she explains. “ROPs are graded which can be scary and intimidating for some people, but volunteering allows you to get the same experience. People don’t realize how fun research is.”

 

Project: “How do adults and children recognize voices?”

Grace Adele Wang, a third-year psychology specialist, spent her summer ROP conducting research on how voice recognition differs in adults and children and how it changes as we age. Located in the Child Language and Speech Studies Lab under the supervision of Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, Wang tested children and adults’ ability to recognize voices in both familiar and unfamiliar languages.

To begin the study, Wang collected three groups of monolingual English speakers: six-year-olds, eight-year-olds, and adults. She planned to analyze how different factors, such as voice pitch, speaking rate, and speech sounds impact an individual’s ability to recognize voices. She then gathered recordings of bilingual females speaking basic sentences such as, “There were no flowers left at the supermarket” first in English, and then in Polish.

The study was divided into four trials. The first trial focused on a “familiar within language” condition and exposed children and adults to three sentences in English. First, the participants would hear one voice, and then they would hear two more. The participants had to decide which of the following two voices matched the first one. The second trial focused on an “unfamiliar within language” condition and exposed children and adults to three sentences in Polish. The participants heard one voice, and then two more. Similar to the first trial, participants had to match the first voice with one of the following two.

The third and fourth trials, called “cross language” conditions, forced participants to distinguish between Polish and English at the same time. For example, if the first sentence was in English, the subsequent two sentences were in Polish. The participants then had to decide which of the second voices matched the original.

“We found that adults had a higher pattern of recognition with the within language conditions, so when all the sentences were heard in the same language, either all in English or all in Polish,” Wang explains. “But they had a lower pattern of performance in the cross language conditions. This was also found in the eight-year-olds. [The six-year-olds] performed pretty badly in the task overall.”

When asked about her experience presenting her poster at Smarti Gras, Wang remarked, “Being able to create something out of the research I’ve been working on all summer was such a rewarding and positive feeling. It was really cool to get to work with so many people in my lab who are passionate. I thought it was really great having that support system, it made me less nervous.”

 

Project: “Bods & Bots: comparing the rhetoric of people with disabilities and robots”

As part of the Jackman Humanities Institute’s Scholars-in-Residence summer research program, Alexia Vassos, a fourth-year student specializing in theatre and drama studies with a minor in English, conducted a study examining artificial intelligence, human disabilities, and theatre to investigate their interconnection.

Under the supervision of Professor Lawrence Switzky, Vassos initially aimed to conduct original research and preliminary readings to investigate the following research question: “If an artist (an actor or designer) is making robotics or artificial intelligence, are they the creative ones or is the AI creative because it is the one performing the tasks?”

After Professor Switzky provided her with “free reign” and flexibility to explore discourses surrounding artificial intelligence and relate them to her life, Vassos branched off from the original research question to focus on how the discourses and rhetoric surrounding robots and people with disabilities coincide.

In a six-minute oral presentation at Smarti Gras, Vassos discussed the three overlapping areas in discourses that discuss people with disabilities and robotics.

Vassos states that the first overlap involves realness and the need to prove the realness of both disabilities and robotics.

“For people with disabilities, there is a very big notion that [they] need to prove their disability. How real is their disability and how much of it is performance or put on?” She explains.

“Documentation and proof [is a very prominent aspect of the realness notion]. [People with disabilities] need to go to Service Ontario […] to be registered to get a parking permit that says you need to be a little bit closer because you have mobility issues

Vassos argues that this is very similar to discourses surrounding robotics.

“[Robots] are not enough like people, but they’re very smart so they’re very similar to humans. So there is [this idea] that some sort of proof is needed to [show] that they’re not too close to how we are because that’s too scary for us since they are this ‘other’ [figure],” she explains.

Given the “otherness” of robotics and people with disabilities, Vassos was particularly interested in how ethics, the second area of overlap in discourse relating, relates to these two entities.

“The rights and privileges being denied to people with disabilities because of their mental or physical impairment and how we go about approaching that as a society and in the discourse [bears similarity to the implications surrounding] robotics.”

“So how do we ethically treat a robot? Is it ethical to let them work 24 hours nonstop?” she asks.

She continues to claim that while people with disabilities are minorities in society, robots, are similarly marginalized in technology. They are both seen as the “other.”

To conclude her research, Vassos notes that the third area of overlap in rhetoric between people with disabilities and robotics revolves around sexual agency.

In literature surrounding people with disabilities, sex is discussed in medical terms, where emphasis is often placed on the functioning of seemingly mechanical genitals.

Relating this to her program of study, Theatre & Drama studies, Vassos finds that the “media [often] portrays a character who is disabled as asexual. [This portrayal] is harmful because it deprives them of their sexual agency,” she says.

Upon reading “Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications notion that “sex robots [are] imperative for providing the sexual needs of the ‘severely mentally and physically disabled.’” She adds that “he viewed able-bodied people as [too superior] to have sex with [robots].”

The deliberate separation of able-bodied individuals, once again, demonstrates the marginalization of both robots and people with disabilities.

Project: “Children’s emotional responses, inhibitory control, and aggression”

Over the summer, Kelsey Mooney, a psychology specialist and recent graduate, investigated the influence of inhibitory control and “happy-victimizing” on aggression in children aged four and six. She worked in the Laboratory for Social-Emotional Development and Intervention, under the supervision of Professor Tina Malti and Ph.D. student Sebastian Dys.

To conduct her study, Mooney presented children with two hypothetical stories that consisted of everyday ethical transgressions, such as stealing and pushing, and then asked the children how they would feel if they had performed the violation. Mooney focused her work on the children who reported feeling “happy.” The parents of the children, located in a separate room, answered questions about their children to measure inhibitory control and aggression. Mooney explains that inhibitory control refers to an individual’s ability to withhold acting out in their desired manner.

One story recounted an incident of a child stealing a chocolate bar from another child’s backpack when no one was watching. If the child listening to the story felt a positive emotional response to the stealing, Mooney and her colleagues referred to this as “happy-victimizing.”

Based on her research, Mooney found that the four-year-olds responded with more happy-victimizing than the six-year-olds, and the four-year-olds experienced less inhibitory control. She explains that this finding may allude to a relationship between inhibitory control and aggression.

“I can conclude from this that children with low inhibitory control in early childhood may be predisposed to behave more aggressively than children who have typical levels of inhibitory control,” she says.

According to Mooney, it is important to investigate and understand the development of aggression in children because it can influence how aggressive they become later in life.

“It was nice to have people interested in what I studied and I really enjoyed telling people about my research,” Mooney stated about her experience with Smarti Gras.