Past Undergraduate Research Symposium Speakers

Past Undergraduate Research Symposium Speakers


Dr. Verónica Montecinos

Professor of sociology and coordinator of the Teaching International Program | Penn State Greater Allegheny

"Studying Political Elites Across Nations."

The make-up of high-level political elites seems less predictable than in the past. Her talk will examine two historically novel transnational trends: the rise of economists and of women to the heights of political power. Some common factors seem apparent as both trends emerged around the turn of the twenty-first century. Lessons learned in the course of editing two books: Economists in the Americas (2010) and Women Presidents and Prime Ministers in Post-Transition Democracies (2017) will be used as a basis for discussion.


Dr. Charles Cantalupo

Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies | Penn State Schuykill

"Research and Creativity: 'Two Moments in Kongo'"

The making or performance of art can depend upon and be inspired by research. It is fundamental to artistic creativity. Literary, musical, and visual artists deeply engage in research, and their works are their discoveries. A poem to reinforce this fact, "Two Moments in Kongo," invokes art, literary, and world history in a poetic form based on classical Greek and Roman heroic or dactylic hexameter. It is rooted in everyday language and experience within a cultural construct of correspondences not polarities within European, African, and American contexts.


Dr. Cecelia J. Cavanaugh, SSJ

Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies | Chestnut Hill College

"Poetic Imagination, Aesthetic Emotion and Building Bridges between the Sciences and Humanities: Lessons from Spain’s Residencia de estudiantes"

The interdisciplinary atmosphere created and fostered in the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, Spain in the early twentieth century produced important research and scholarship across the disciplines and formed some of Spain´s most important intelligentsia. My talk will consider the principles inherent in its founding and the philosophy at work in its day-to-day operations by celebrating the genius of a Residencia faculty member, the scientist Pío del Río-Hortega and one of its most famous residentes, the poet Federico García Lorca.  I hope to show how each, in his approach to his craft and in his attitude to the disciplines of others, exemplified the “bridge building” expressed as one of the goals of the Residencia by its founders.


Dr. Shruti Gupta

Associate Professor of Marketing, Division of Social Sciences | Penn State Abington

“Despite Unethical Retail Store Practices, Consumers at the Bottom of the Pyramid Continue to be Loyal”

A growing stream of research under the labels of bottom of pyramid (BoP) and subsistence consumers has increasingly pointed out the market attractiveness of this segment to multinational companies. These poor consumers are individuals who earn approximately $2 per day. The largest BoP market in the world by size of population is in India where according to a 2011 World Bank estimate, 69% of the country’s total population (approximately 1.2billion) earns $2 per day.  In this lecture, Dr. Gupta explains the nature of widespread unethical retail practices prevalent amongst the neighborhood retail stores (or kirana as they are referred to in India) that serve the BoP consumer, types of patronage behaviors and the reasons why these consumers continue to support the kirana store. The data for this paper comes from a qualitative study conducted with urban poor consumers in India. Using an in-depth interview method, 58 urban poor individuals provided detailed accounts of their retail store experiences.

Data analysis shows that kirana stores regularly engage in the four unethical practices: selling outdated products beyond the expiration date of suggested use, counterfeit products, high price, withholding the promotional offer and only passing it to the consumer if asked for immediately following the purchase. All study participants were knowledgeable of these practices and viewed it as being “wrong” or unethical. Despite this, they continue to patronize the retailer. In this paper, we provide a detailed account of the different types of patronage behaviors and explain why BoP consumers choose to patronize the kirana store. We believe that there are four reasons why BoP consumers continue to be loyal to the kirana store keeper: revolving interest free store credit, sense of belongingness, sense of lineage and lack of fit with the organized retail store sector such as Big Bazaar, More and Reliance Fresh.


Eric Boyd

“Yellowstone National Park: A Window into the Interplay between Geological and Biological Evolution on Earth”

Life began on a young Earth 3.5-3.8 billion years ago (bya), at a time of rampant meteor impact and volcanism. Soon thereafter, oceans cooled, continents emerged and broke apart, ecosystems developed, and the genus Homo came to maturity. However, prior to the origin of multicellular life ~ 1.2 bya, single celled microbial life ruled the planet. During this greater than 2.0 bya window of geological time, both the Earth and its biology evolved significantly, often in step. This dynamic interplay between geological and biological evolution has resulting in a world that is rife with functionally diverse microbial life that is specialized for narrow ecological niches. This presentation’s focus will be on the extant volcanic terrain of the Yellowstone hot spot, its influence on geography, and its ability to bridge our understanding of the diversification of microbial life through space and time. The extreme variation in the geochemical composition of present day environments is likely to encompass those that were present on early Earth, when key metabolic processes (e.g., photosynthesis) are thought to have evolved. Yellowstone National Park (YNP), Wyoming harbors >12,000 geothermal features that vary widely in temperature and geochemical composition, both spatially and temporally. For example, temperatures in YNP geothermal features range from ambient to 93°C (boiling at elevation of YNP), pH of thermal fluid ranges from less than 1.0 (i.e., the pH of battery acid) to nearly 10 (i.e., the pH of drain cleaner), and dissolved metal concentrations vary by up to six orders of magnitude (i.e., a factor of 1,000,000). Such geochemical heterogeneity provides a field laboratory for examining the tendency for organisms to inhabit particular ecological niches and to define the range of geochemical conditions tolerated by that functional guild. Moreover, by melding evolutionary analysis of the microbial populations present in each system with detailed geochemical analysis, we can begin to bridge our understanding of the spatial variation of environments with the temporal evolution of biodiversity. We assume that since it is unlikely that a metabolic process emerged under environmental conditions that no longer support that function, such information can provide insight into the characteristics of an environment that enabled the adaptation of microbial life into new habitats.


Dr. Rachel A. Brennan

Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering | Penn State University

A Talk on Dr. Rachel A. Brennan's most recent work

Currently 2.4 billion people, over one third of the Earth’s population, are affected by water scarcity and are without sanitation. Similarly, 1.6 billion people are currently without access to modern energy, and 0.9 billion are undernourished. Meanwhile, as recycling wastewater into drinking water is becoming a critical necessity in many communities, concern is escalating over the effects of residual endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on aquatic ecosystems and human health. The focus of our work is to critically evaluate the technical and economic feasibility of using decentralized, ecological wastewater treatment systems (or eco-machines) to sustainably address these needs through the incorporation of modular subsystems of EDC-degrading fungi, nutrient-absorbing duckweed, and biodiesel-producing algae, which together will reduce environmental contaminants and convert waste products into valuable resources. Since eco-machines are decentralized, robust, and relatively simple to operate, they have the potential to solve sanitation problems in developing countries, while simultaneously providing food and energy to those who desperately need it.


Ted Daeschler, Ph.D.

Associate Curator of Vertebrate Biology | Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia

"Great Steps in the History of Life: Investigating the Origin of Limbed Vertebrates"

Research on the origin of limbed vertebrates (tetrapods) has made great advances in recent decades as a result of new paleontological discoveries. The fish-tetrapod transition, as it is traditionally called, is no longer an evolutionary leap between free-swimming lobe-finned fish and lumbering tetrapods. A series of fossil intermediates now illustrate the sequence of changes over millions of years in the transformation from finned to limbed members of the tetrapod stem lineage. The interpretation of geological data associated with the fossils has also refined the understanding of the environmental settings that were the crucible of early tetrapod evolution.

Our exploratory efforts led to the discovery and 2006 description of Tiktaalik roseae, a well-preserved intermediate species in the fish-tetrapod transition. Tiktaalik roseae has primitive features such as scales, fin rays, and a primitive palate and braincase, yet it is replete with derived features such as a neck and modified skull and fin architecture that were previously only recognized in early tetrapods, powerfully demonstrating the concept of mosaic evolution.