GCC Undergraduate Research Grants awarded to eight students for 2021-2022

November 23, 2021

This year the Global Change Center continued to support the research efforts of our undergraduate students through our Undergraduate Research Grant program. From mosquito control, to a shark identification phone app, to how landowners perceive conservation efforts and more – this year’s GCC undergraduate research grant recipients are conducting impressive work with GCC faculty. This year’s research grants, totaling ~$7,500 in funds, support projects led by eight outstanding undergraduate students spanning seven undergraduate majors.

Congratulations to the following students awarded this year’s GCC undergraduate research grants! Read more about their research projects below.

The impact of microplastics on crayfish and branchiobdellidan annelids symbiosis

Tyler Allen, Biological Sciences

Working with Drs. Austin Gray and Bryan Brown

Although an estimated 80% of coastal plastic debris comes from inland areas, work on their adverse effects on freshwater organisms lags behind those reported for marine life. Tyler will work to determine how different microplastics sizes and polymer types impact their ecosymbiotic relationship between crayfish and branchiobdellidan annelids. He hopes that the results will provide information on an aspect of microplastics pollution that remains unexplored.

Tyler Allen copy

Projecting species distribution models under different climate scenarios for conservation

Victorjose Catalan, Wildlife Conservation

Working with Drs. Meryl Mims and Traci DuBose

Shifts in temperature due to climate change will alter the distribution of species and increase global biodiversity loss, requiring predictions of climate vulnerability for sensitive species. However, the effects of climate change vary spatially and temporally, and vulnerability is not the same for all species. Victorjose will build species distribution models that predict the range of anuran species across space in relation to their environment by using occurrence and climate data to predict responses of individual species to climate change and their vulnerability.  His research will help advance ongoing efforts funded by the U.S. Geological Survey to evaluate the sensitivity of frogs and toads across the United States to climate change.


Assessing urushiol’s contribution to poison ivy evolutionary fitness

Amy Fiorellino, Environmental Science

Working with Dr. John Jelesko

Understanding the evolutionary trajectory of chemical defenses is relevant to understanding how plants adapt to the extinction of antagonistic species during the Anthropocene.  Amy’s research will examine whether urushiol levels quantitatively promote the evolutionary fitness of poison ivy.  Amy will pair fitness data (number of offspring and germination rate) from individual plants with their urushiol levels to determine whether these chemical defenses are correlated, as well as whether they are related to environmental factors such as distance to surface water.


The effects of engagement in research on landowner perspectives on science and conservation

Anna Klewicki, Environmental Conservation and Society

Working with Drs. Ashley Dayer and Bill Hopkins & IGC Fellow Rebecca O’Brien

Although most United States’ land is privately owned, these areas have continually been understudied in the field of conservation. Anna’s project will examine how landowners’ interactions with biologists impact their perceptions of research and will help inform best practices to leverage access to private lands to support conservation outcomes. Through a series of interviews with landowners who interacted with researchers, Anna aims to better understand the role these interactions played in landowners’ subsequent conservation activities and their perceptions of science and an imperiled wildlife species.

Anna Klewicki

Adverse birth outcomes associated with proximity to poultry animal feeding operation in
rural Eastern Shore, Virginia

Antonia Maria Mendrinos, Clinical Neuroscience

Working with Dr. Julia Gohlke

Animal feeding operations (AFOs) emit ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter into the air. Air pollution from animal feeding operations has been implicated as a contributor to adverse birth outcomes, such as preterm birth and low birth weight.  Using birth records through the Virginia Department of Health and poultry records from the Virginia Department of Environment Quality, Antonia aims to estimate pollution from the poultry farms on the Eastern Shore, Virginia and determine its effect on birth outcomes.

Mendrinos Photo

 Developing a shark identification app for online citizen science 

Lauren Morris, Biological Sciences

Working with Dr. Francesco Ferretti

SharkPulse, a crowdsourcing initiative that mines shark sightings from images shared on social networks, stored in online portals, and submitted through mobile and web apps, uses citizen science to gather data to monitor global shark populations. Lauren will develop an interactive taxonomic identification web app that helps users identify sharks from collected images. The App will make shark identification more accessible for users, increase global shark data for future research, and expand public engagement with the SharkPulse initiative.


Optimization of an attractive toxic sugar bait trap to control Aedes j. japonicus invasive mosquitoes

Helen Oker, Biochemistry

Working with Dr. Chloé Lahondère

Aedes j. japonicus is an invasive mosquito in the USA that is a known vector of pathogens. Helen plans to optimize Attractive Toxic Sugar Baits (ATSB) for mosquito control by determining factors influencing their attractiveness to the mosquitoes. To do this, she will use a combination of field and laboratory experiments to test the efficacy of various odorant components emitted by the ATSB. Ultimately, this project will provide an efficient alternative and sustainable control method to reduce mosquito populations.


Plant functional and morphological traits impact carbon transport to aquatic ecosystems

Aaron Price, Crop and Soil Environmental Science

Working with Dr. Brian Badgley & IGC Fellow Stephanie Duston

How specific plant traits impact the flux of carbon from soil is poorly understood. In greenhouse experiments, Aaron will test the relationship between root traits of different plants and concentrations of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) leaching from the soil system. Aaron will calculate the percentage of carbon transferred between the soil and water and how those relate to plant characteristics and soil carbon cycling. Determining how plant traits drive carbon exchange will improve carbon accounting in existing models of coupled soil and hydrologic systems.


The Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, with support from the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, is proud to sponsor undergraduate students and their research projects that align with our mission for advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches to address critical global changes impacting the environment and society. Supported projects address basic and/or applied aspects of global change science, engineering, social science and the humanities and are sponsored by a GCC Faculty mentor.

Read more about the GCC Undergraduate Research Grant program here.