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Presenting the Future

Undergraduates shine at major academic conferences


Yangheng (Janice) Jizhe’s heart rate started to climb. 

The Case Western Reserve senior was at a national scientific conference last spring, standing beside the detailed poster she had created to explain her research. She was girding herself for the presentations to come as career researchers and graduate students entered the exhibit hall. 

“At first I was really nervous—what if the audience asked a lot of tricky questions and I didn’t have an answer?” recalled Jizhe (CWR ’23). “But when I was actually presenting and talking to people, I realized that if there was a [future research problem] that I wasn’t able to solve on my own, I could ask any of these people, and we could solve it together. That was a fantastic feeling.” 

At the College of Arts and Sciences, a large and growing number of undergraduates like Jizhe are doing sophisticated hands-on research. Working with faculty mentors, they’re producing original graduate-level studies that are accepted at major academic gatherings. 

Faculty mentors are also cultivating the future careers of undergraduates, said Sheila Pedigo, PhD, director of Case Western Reserve’s Undergraduate Research Office. That office has helped support hundreds of student-faculty mentorships and provided funding for undergraduates to attend and present at dozens of prestigious conferences. 

“We have undergraduates who have won awards at many of these gatherings,” Pedigo said. “Some are even competing with graduate students for that recognition. Students gain confidence as well as confirmation about their graduate school plans by not only presenting their work but also taking part in the many informal discussions and conversations that happen.” 

The scholarly mentorships and conferences have involved fields as varied as quantum physics and poetry, and this past academic year was no different. 

Read on to learn how presenting research to audiences of career scientists influenced four college undergraduates.

Photo of a professor watching a student working in a biology lab.

Melissa Phung-Rojas (right) joined Professor Radhika Atit’s biology lab during her first year on campus and continued working on research projects until she graduated in the spring. | Photo by Matt Shiffler

Studying Why Some Skulls Don’t Form Properly

When Melissa Phung-Rojas (CWR ’23) arrived as a first-year student, she quickly joined the lab of Department of Biology Professor Radhika Atit, PhD. 

Atit studies birth defects that undermine craniofacial development and receives funding from the National Institutes of Health. She mentored Phung-Rojas for three years as the student studied the genetic and cellular basis for cleidocranial dysplasia. It is a disease that prevents bones in some infants’ skulls from meshing together, leaving large holes on top of their heads. 

Last fall, the work of Phung-Rojas and her lab mate, Helen Molteni (CWR ’23), was accepted for presentation at the Society for Developmental Biology’s Structural Birth Defects meeting in Washington, D.C. The pair obtained university Undergraduate Research Office travel grants to attend. 

“It was kind of jumping headfirst into the deep end,” said Phung-Rojas. “But Dr. Atit helped us practice and hone our presentation so we were ready.” 

Phung-Rojas and Molteni each gave 12-minute presentations at the conference podium. Each received a best- presentation award. Atit credited this success to her mentees’ deep experience in the lab and her lab’s interdisciplinary team approach to science. 

“I want them to read as a scientist, to speak as a scientist, to write as a scientist,” Atit said. “I want them to be part of the scientific enterprise, to experience it for real.” 

Phung-Rojas appreciated the approach. “It puts you in a new headspace and a new way of thought,” she said. 

These experiences have helped alter Phung-Rojas’ plans. Instead of pursuing only a medical degree, she applied to MD/PhD programs that allow her to combine clinical and research experiences. She’s now a post-baccalaureate research scholar at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Washington.

Picture of a professor and a student talking near stacks in a university library

Student Cason Willman and Timothy Wutrich, a senior instructor in classics, discussing Greek and Roman philology. | Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Revisiting the Aeneid

For Cason Willman, a project that started as a class paper ended in a featured presentation at the 100th anniversary of the Ohio Classical Conference (OCC) when he was a sophomore—an experience that left him feeling ecstatic. 

“It was a chance for me to be a rhetorician, you might say, taking my cue from [the ancient Roman orator] Cicero,” the classics major said.

Willman had already spent years immersed in classics. But it wasn’t until a class on Vergil, the famed Roman poet, that he considered submitting his paper on a character in the Aeneid to an academic conference. 

“Cason came back with a beautiful and incredibly well- written paper on Juno, queen of the gods—a character study coupled with an analysis of the role of fate in the poem,” said Timothy Wutrich, PhD, a senior instructor in classics, who became Willman’s faculty mentor. “It was extraordinary work, so I encouraged him to send it in.” 

Willman was one of only four undergraduates selected to present their work; the Department of Classics helped pay his expenses. 

“It was an incredible experience,” Willman said. “It instilled in me a sense of confidence that perhaps I can move forward in the field and put my mark on the undergraduate scholastic community.” 

The presentation is also shaping his thoughts on the future. Willman plans to become a physician and is pondering the lessons his research can bring to that career. 

“There’s a theme in classical works of being drawn toward a higher ideal, or toward the greater good,” he said. “That’s a philosophy shared by the field of medicine as a whole. One area of study enriches the other and vice versa.”

Photo of a student and professor talking in a university library lobby.

Weeks before his spring graduation, Nihal Manjila met with his mentor, history professor Jonathan Sadowsky, at Kelvin Smith Library. | Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Tracing the History of Serotonin

As a dual-degree undergraduate in history and biology, Nihal Manjila (CWR ’23) was eager to take on research that bridged both interests. After a conversation with his faculty mentor, Jonathan Sadowsky, PhD, chair of the Department of History and the Theodore J. Castele Professor, he found an amazing topic right here in Cleveland. 

“Dr. Sadowsky mentioned to me that serotonin [a molecule that allows neurons to send signals to one another], was discovered at Cleveland Clinic,” Manjila said. “That was really fascinating, so I got in touch with the clinic’s archivist to see if I could do research there.” 

Their email exchange led to an entire summer in Cleveland Clinic’s archives. The research eventually became the basis for his honors thesis, which received a prize from the Phi Alpha Theta national history honor society. Manjila also turned the work into a poster presentation he did in January at the American Historical Association conference in Philadelphia—a rich opportunity to engage with historians. He also received a travel grant from the university. 

“I attended tons of panels and was able to talk to two to three of the panelists after each one,” Manjila said. “They gave me really valuable advice about general research techniques, narrowing down paper ideas. … What I learned made it so much easier for me to refine my own work.” 

He recently began working as a research technician at Harvard Medical School and plans to apply to MD/PhD programs in medicine and history.

Picture of a professor and a student in front of a computer.

In the spring, physics professor Guiseppe Strangi and then-senior Yangheng (Janice) Jizhe reviewed a meta-lens model she developed on a computer prior to 3D printing. | Photo by Roger Mastroianni

3D-Printing Ultra-thin Lenses

Starting in her sophomore year, Yangheng (Janice) Jizhe became immersed in a campus lab, working with a highly advanced and sophisticated “two photon polarization” 3D printer. Such devices, known to be incredibly temperamental, can create structures only a few nanometers wide—a size too small to even see. 

Under the mentorship of Department of Physics Professor Giuseppe Strangi, PhD, Jizhe spent three years working with graduate students to print meta-lenses—super-thin materials that have tiny patterns of blocks or pillars covering their surface. 

Depending on the shape and size of those structures, they can bend light in different ways, doing the job of traditional lenses, like those found in endoscopes or smartphone cameras, in a fraction of the space. 

By Jizhe’s senior year, Strangi encouraged her to apply to do a poster presentation about her work at an American Physical Society conference in Las Vegas. Jizhe received funding from both the Undergraduate Research Office and the Department of Physics to attend. 

Her presentation—and her experience in Strangi’s lab—have since turbocharged her passion for photonics research. In the spring, she co-authored a paper with Strangi in the journal Nanophotonics, and she’s started a PhD program in nanoscience at Harvard University. 

“The experience was really valuable,” she said. “It taught me that the skill of communicating science is just as important as doing it in the lab.”

Page last modified: January 16, 2024