Great Minds, Big Ideas

As the CSU shapes the bright minds of our future, those minds are already working to lead California, the nation and the world to a better tomorrow. The 35th Annual CSU Student Research Competition, hosted by California State Polytechnic University, Pomona April 30-May 1, 2021, showcased student researchers from across the university who are finding solutions to the world’s challenges. Here are just a few of the competition’s winners.

Name: Alyssa McCulloch Campus: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Major/Program: Biomedical Engineering, Junior Project: Endothelialized Silicone Aneurysm Model for In Vitro Evaluation of Neurovascular Devices

Since joining the team under Kristen O’Halloran Cardinal, Ph.D., at Cal Poly’s Tissue Engineering Lab as a freshman, Alyssa McCulloch has helped develop cardiovascular and neurovascular models for testing medical devices. These are anatomically relevant models of human blood vessels that mimic the physiological environment and allow the researchers to see how blood vessels would respond to new devices.

McCulloch’s research, which won first place in the Health, Nutrition, and Clinical Sciences; Interdisciplinary (Mixed) category, looked at building model blood vessels that have an aneurysm (a bulging that can lead to rupture, resulting in strokes) using silicone. She then tested how the vessels responded to flow diverters, a device that closes off the aneurysm and prevents rupture.

“The main goal was to be able to develop this in vitro device testing model that can be used as a precursor to more traditional animal studies and clinical studies in a way that is more cost effective and scalable,” McCulloch says. “The main advantage of what we’re working on is you can test more configurations and/or types of devices to help make future decisions on what’s going to be best for treating patients with these types of vascular conditions.”

Currently, the team is working with straight aneurysm blood vessel models, but is planning to build models that more closely resemble the winding blood vessels in the brain.

“We use a more simplified version of it now to be able to show what this model can do,” McCulloch explains. “Moving forward, we can modify the model to replicate clinical scans. The idea is we will be able to utilize this model to better understand the effect [of devices on] human cells and … without being in an animal setting.”

Name: Shenaya Yazdani Campus: Cal State Long Beach Major/Program: Pre-Industrial Design, Freshman Project: ‘Coming Home’ Refugee Shelter Design

“I think it is very important designers put their minds toward helping humanity and making an improvement in society by using their knowledge, especially in the more underprivileged areas,” Shenaya Yazdani says.

In that spirit, Yazdani developed a design for a six-person refugee shelter, which took second place in the Creative Arts and Design (Mixed) category. The shelter includes insulated walls that trap warmth, window screens that keep out insects, high ceilings that prevent the accumulation of dust and mold, solar panels that provide power and cushions that can be laid on the floor or attached to the wall.

“Refugees usually use tents or canvases that rot, decay and aren’t stable,” Yazdani says. “But by offering this refugee shelter, it gives them a sense of comfort and helps them know there’s hope in the future, and they’re able to focus more on taking care of their families.”

The project grew out of an assignment for her design course with CSULB lecturer Michael LaForte to develop a solution to one of the world’s problems with a particular focus on the UN’s sustainability goals. Her design, which could range from 21 to 30 square meters, meets the United Nations Refugee Agency’s shelter requirements and addresses the UN’s sustainability goals around homelessness and renewable energy.

“There are about 80 million forcibly displaced people [worldwide], with 26 million of them being refugees,” Yazdani says. “And all these families are left in search of a shelter and roof over their heads. Inspired by my own family, as many of my family members have been refugees in the past themselves, I wanted to take action in a possible way to contribute to their having a safe shelter without having to worry about being displaced.” 

Name: Alex Dewey, Jonathan Calderon Chavez Campus: Sonoma State Major/Program: Computer Science, Senior; Computer Science, Junior Project: Using Machine Learning to Measure Biodiversity from Sound Recordings

“Computer science is very much a tool, but that tool needs to be applied to whatever data set you’re working on, whether that be in the realm of economics, finance, biology, geology or whatever specialty,” Alex Dewey says.

Earning them first place in the Engineering and Computer Science (Mixed) category, Dewey and Jonathan Calderon Chavez’s machine learning work contributed to Northern Arizona University Ph.D. candidate Colin Quinn’s thesis at the intersection of ecology and information sciences. Dewey and Calderon Chavez, along with student team members Antone Silveria and Vincent Valenzuela, fed labeled visualizations of sounds that Quinn created, called mel spectrograms, through an artificial intelligence to train it to recognize patterns.

The algorithm that utilizes machine learning can now recognize and categorize new recordings—including human sounds, animal sounds and nature sounds like rain and wind—helping biologists monitor biodiversity in an area over time.

“The purpose of this work is specifically for biologists to have a way of measuring the environment,” Dewey says. “People will be able to use this information to better analyze the effects that certain builds have on an environment, how the ecosystem is changing and where animals are located.”

This work is also part of a larger project and partnership called Soundscapes to Landscapes, which includes Sonoma State and provided the sound recordings. The two computer science students got involved through a computer vision course with Assistant Professor of Computer Science Gurman Gill, Ph.D., and completed the work under SSU Geography, Environment & Planning Department Professor and Soundscapes to Landscapes team member Matthew Clark, Ph.D.

“I wanted to take part in this research project and learn about how we can address certain issues like climate change that we face in Sonoma County,” Calderon Chavez says. 

Name: Claudia Rocha Campus: CSU Monterey Bay Major/Program: Psychology, Senior Project: “WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS!”: Using Youth Participatory Action Research as a Tool to Advocate for Latinx Youth During the COVID- 19 Pandemic

Claudia Rocha took first place in the Behavioral, Social Sciences, and Public Administration (Undergraduate) category with her project aimed at helping the Gonzales Youth Council (GYC) understand how COVID-19 impacted youth mental health and schooling. The GYC is an elected group of sixth through 12th graders who give youth a voice in Gonzales, California, city government.

“When COVID hit, the youth decided they wanted to understand how to best support their peers, especially because they had known there was a history of mental health problems in their community like suicides or attempted suicides,” Rocha says.

Rocha’s research mentor and CSUMB Assistant Professor of Psychology Jennifer Lovell, Ph.D., developed a relationship with the GYC in February 2020 through a community-based research initiative called Gonzales CoLab. She then brought on Rocha and another undergraduate researcher, Selina Espinoza, to support the GYC’s research efforts.

The team worked with the GYC to develop the group’s survey, determine factors to measure mental health and train the students in analyzing the data. Rocha specifically conducted workshops to teach council members how to analyze data from open-ended responses. Armed with the data, the GYC was able to present their findings to stakeholders and advocate for more mental health resources for local youth—ultimately resulting in the city hiring an additional clinical social worker to support students.

“It was about giving youth a platform to see what other youth needed and to actually use the data to make a community level change,” Rocha says. “It gave the GYC the chance to be leaders and have their own expertise to bring to the table because they have their own unique insight into what it is to be a middle and high school student during COVID.” 

Take a look at the complete list of this year’s CSU Student Research Competition winners and more coverage from CSU campuses.