George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Honors College students contribute to a breadth of multidisciplinary research at OSCAR’s Fall Celebration of Student Scholarship and Impact

February 17, 2020

On December 13, 2019, the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) held its Fall Celebration of Student Scholarship and Impact at THE MIX.  The event showcased a variety of semester-long research projects conducted by 75 undergraduates at Mason, including several Honors College students who had worked on or begun their projects in the Honors 361: Multidisciplinary Practicum and Honors 360: Multi-disciplinary Topics classes. Other Honors College students participated in the exhibition through other university departments’ undergraduate research opportunities.

These research opportunities allow Honors College students and students across the University to apply what they learn in their coursework to research projects that they design with the help of faculty experts. A range of interests were represented at the exhibition – solutions to atomic physics stood alongside media projects presenting cultural statements. A handful of Honors College students at the exhibition shared their experiences of uncovering new evidence and making thoughtful connections.

Substance Abuse and Sexual Minorities in Fraternities

Honors College sophomore Cole Price began research that led him to investigate student organizations on George Mason’s campus.  His topic focused on the experiences of sexual minorities when navigating social fraternities, and opened discussion on how sexism and other social pressures shape these students’ identity, self-presentation, and other related behaviors.

“Both fraternities and sororities are found to be reinforcers of sexism and heteronormativity on college campuses,” Price explains. “I was looking at the substance abuse habits of these men since sexual minorities are more at risk for substance abuse disorders.” After interviewing a population including around ten gay and bisexual men currently in George Mason fraternities, Price will analyze and code his interview transcriptions to find common themes. 

Price had originally found inspiration to pursue his research with Dr. Blake Silver. “[Dr. Silver] really encouraged me to go after this project and I definitely wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t pushed me into it in his Honors 131 [Culture and Social Inequality] class… He taught me everything I needed to know about how to dig the research out, how to navigate the bureaucracy of getting money, conducting the interviews— we had a phone call over the summer about the steps I needed to take before the semester started.”

In the spring, Price plans to continue coding the interviews and will write a research paper detailing his results.

Pope John Paul II Against Communism

Donnelle Bodnarchuk, a senior History and Art History major in the Honors College, presented her research on the power struggle between church and state in Poland after 1979. The current pope of the time, John Paul II, had embarked on an eight-day tour of Poland, and Bodnarchuk’s research captured how his influence validated “the Church had moral authority [over] the communist regime”. Using economics as a research framework, Bodnarchuk concluded Pope John Paul II used his power to affect other church officials, who spoke against communism and promoted the church’s beliefs and authority.

Bodnarchuk found evidence for her research by seeking out and critically exploring conversations other scholars had begun. Brian Porter, Krzystof Kowalczyk, Andrezej Packowski, and Malcolm Byme, alongside other sources, offered Bodnarchuk multiple perspectives that helped her piece together her research question.

The OSCAR URSP program “gives you liberty to explore any topic you want with the support of the university,” Bodnarchuk says, explaining how the opportunity offered her the practice to become a better historian. She thanks Dr. Mills Kelly, professor and director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM), “for being my mentor who encouraged me to push this topic and ask tough questions —[he] guided me and supported me throughout the entirety of this project.”

Bodnarchuk will graduate in the fall of 2020 and is looking into programs on medieval history at the University of Cambridge, University of Michigan, and Yale to pursue her PhD.

Predicting Storms with Hurricane Models

Math and music major Sam Thomas first began to explore hands-on research through George Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP). The program places students in an environment where they can pursue questions using resources and technologies not readily available in other settings. Through ASSIP, Thomas was introduced to Dr. Natalie Burls who would become his mentor during his OSCAR research project.

Over the course of the 2019 fall semester, Thomas analyzed different hurricane models to see how effectively these models could predict tropical storms. “We looked at one of the bigger hurricanes that’s hit the U.S.: Hurricane Katrina. We prepared what [the model] would’ve been forecasting in the past to what really happened,” Thomas said, referencing the SubX multi-model atmospheric forecasting project. “I looked at two different variables that come into play when it comes to hurricanes: … sea level pressure and winds.” Thomas concluded the models were effective, though more reliable at predicting pressure.

The next step in his research would be to expand what the models are predicting. “We’ve started looking into Hurricane Isabel, which hit Virginia in 2003,” continues Thomas. “We’re considering a couple different events… similar to this but more pertinent to the Chesapeake Bay area, to see whether it could be effective for multiple different events.”

Eye-tracking in Toxic Advertising

Santiago Jauregui presented research investigating how product packaging of alcohol determines its appeal to youth. Jauregui teamed up with colleagues Freddy Lopez, Erica Harp, Jessica McDonough, Katherine Tran, Natalia Gutierrez, Zimako Chuks, and Noor Elgamal to use eye-tracking technology to gather results on which products draw the attention of each of the two tested demographics of teens and young adults.

During the summer of 2019, Jauregui and his team took pictures of various alcoholic products from different stores. “We wanted to get a good variety of colors, of different package types,” Jauregui describes. “We constructed a slide show that would track the movement of the pupils of the participants and see what they’re being attracted to on the page.” The focus on a younger demographic comes from a public health concern standpoint, where teens are often more perceptive to outside influences. “That’s where you have the importance of national institutes of health… that really do investigate health risks [and] factors that lead to people making wise decisions… — this study is part of that. Our lead researcher, Dr. Matthew Rossheim, had his work cited by Health Canada, and part of the legislation they made related to [what] we were looking at here.”

Jauregui was researching alongside a large group of students, many of whom were in different fields of study. Jauregui recalls his experience as a history major, “Everyone brought their own unique talents and disciplinary strengths to this project and we all did work together… This was a multidisciplinary team and the progress we made was multidisciplinary progress in practice.”

After collecting more data, Jauregui and his team hope their findings can raise awareness of toxic advertising and inspire solutions to properly educate teens about the consequences of alcohol.

Providing Equal Opportunities for all Students

“I went to school in Fairfax County — it’s one of the richest counties in the country,” Honors College student Melissa Ann Alberto explains as she presents her poster. “I was in the higher-achieving classes, but I noticed that I started tutoring other kids and… they didn’t necessarily know less than I did, they just weren’t afforded the same opportunity that I was afforded while I was in school.”

Alberto began looking into the inequalities that affect high school students during her freshman year at George Mason. In her Honors 110: Principles of Research and Inquiry class, Alberto read and synthesized scholarship about the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act on 2002 on minority students’ performance, and she ended the year with a research proposal on the subject. Now in her senior year, Alberto shifted the focus to school finance – more specifically, how funding determines students’ opportunities for success.

Describing one of the challenges she faced when undertaking a review of the scholarship, Alberto comments “I felt like I was reading the same article [over and over again],” This hard work paid off, however: “There were six to ten articles that said even just a thousand dollars more for a minority district, low-income student increased their chances of finishing their post-secondary education… Obviously funding is very important to the success of students.” From there, Alberto searched for trends in the relationships of revenue and expenditures, discovering minorities were receivers of far less funding than their majority/white counterparts. “[There needs to be a way to] actually implement policies or try to have a conversation of what policies need to be implemented — [that’s] where this project goes next,” continues Alberto.

Adding another perspective, Alberto had a very special mentor for her project: Interim President of the university, Anne Holton. “Working with Anne Holton,” says Alberto. “[who was] a former Secretary of Education of Virginia, [provided] a very deep understanding of how schools function, how school finance works in Virginia. She brought a lot of insight, a lot of knowledge, a different perspective that… you can’t gain from reading journals or reading articles all day.”

Alberto’s research works to establish if Virginia is providing the right amount of money to successfully educate its students. By discovering better policy or correcting the formula states use to determine funding, Alberto will further contribute toward finding a practical, long-term solution to the finance gap.

What's Next?

Entering the spring semester, students will be completing data collection, writing conclusions, and submitting their proposals — all leaving an impact on their research disciplines and feeling prepared to continue their journey as scholars in the Honors College and beyond.

By Honors College Communications Interns Audrey Butler and Sophia Chapin