UTA Magazine
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Celebrating student excellence
ACES program recognizes outstanding research and creative activity

Maham Rahimi

Graduate student Maham Rahimi's research uses magnetic nanoparticles to deliver drugs to cancerous cells.
Social workers and child psychologists agree that children experience separation pangs when they leave their foster parents. But the situation can be rough on the foster parents, too.

Doctoral student Ebony Hall wondered: How rough? And what can be done to help?

She wanted to examine the loss experienced by foster parents and understand the extent to which attachment affects the perception of loss.

“The results support the need for foster parent training curriculum to include awareness of grief validation,” she said. “Foster care providers need to develop appropriate resources for foster parents along with a follow-up system once the child has left the foster home.”

Hall presented her findings in March at the UT Arlington Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students (ACES). She won the President’s Award, the highest graduate student honor.

“When they called my name, it was surreal,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘They must be kidding.’ I wish my mom and dad could have been here.”

ACES recognizes undergraduate and graduate research as students present their projects through papers, poster displays and oral presentations before judges and peers. This year’s event, which concluded a weeklong emphasis on academic excellence, featured a lecture on “Texas as the Information Frontier” by UT System Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Teresa Sullivan.

“This event really is a celebration of the excellent research that our students undertake in conjunction with their faculty mentors,” said Graduate Studies Dean Philip Cohen, who chairs the ACES committee. “Involvement in research is a form of active learning that helps students understand how that research can help solve real-world problems.”

Real-world experiences influenced Hall’s decision to become a social worker. Before her adoptive father came into their lives, her mother struggled to make ends meet for herself and her two daughters in Virginia Beach, Va.

“He adopted us. How many black men do that?” Hall said of the man she calls Dad. “I look back and I’m blessed. I don’t take anything for granted.”

As an undergraduate student, Hall studied psychology because she wanted to counsel people. But she soon discovered that social work offered broader opportunities to help people solve life problems.

“It’s the best decision I could have possibly made,” she said. “Social work has everything … it’s a perfect fit for me.”

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Baylor University. While working with the city of Waco, the question of how foster parents handle separation from foster children turned into her master’s thesis.

She chose to pursue her Ph.D. at UT Arlington because of the School of Social Work’s reputation for research and publication opportunities. She credits social work Professor Maria Scannapieco for helping her learn how to present herself and her project in understandable terms.

While Hall’s project studied how foster parents deal with the pain of separation from foster children, other ACES winners focused on understanding physical pain in hopes of treating or preventing it.

Biology undergraduate Lara Kachlic studied the role of sympathetic nervous stress response. Kachlic, who won first place in the ACES Undergraduate Research Poster competition, explains it as the “fight or flight” response.

“People with chronic pain usually are on some kind of physical or chemical therapy, but they still have pain,” she said. “Many are addicted to the drugs, and I want to find out what’s happening in the physiology so therapies can be developed to actually treat the pain.”

Kachlic transferred to UT Arlington from Tyler Junior College in 2003. UT Arlington’s biology and psychology programs ranked high on her list.

“My sister was attending UTA, and when I starting asking questions about studying in the Biology and Psychology departments, they answered all my questions and were great to work with,” she said. “It seemed like a fun place to be and do research.”

Psychology Associate Professor Perry Fuchs has served as Kachlic’s research mentor for two years. He inspires her to continue her research, she says, by instilling high standards and encouraging her to be the best.

Faculty play a crucial role in student research success. Bioengineering Assistant Professor Kytai Nguyen mentors 13 graduate students. One, Maham Rahimi, received the second highest graduate student honor, the Provost’s Award, for research that focuses on drug delivery.

Rahimi’s interest began at age 6 as he watched his best friend suffer severe pain from brain cancer. As Rahimi witnessed his friend’s struggle and eventual death, it inspired him to find effective treatment free from side effects.

“When cancer patients go through chemotherapy, many lose hair and their immune systems go down. Some side effects cause death,” Rahimi said. “The drugs are spread through all organs instead of just the cancer cells. Right now, we inject the drug in the body and hope it reaches the right places.”

Rahimi’s research shows that a better drug delivery method can place the medicine only in the affected area without causing side effects. This method involves magnetic nanoparticles encapsulated in a biocompatible polymer. The cancer-fighting drug is embedded inside this core-shell drug delivery system.

When the system is injected into the body, a physician controls it externally through magnets. Using MRI technology, doctors monitor the nanoparticles as they deliver the drug only to the cancerous cells. Rahimi conducts his research in collaboration with UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Other winning entries include work on nonadherence to prescribed drugs in the elderly, hyperbaric oxygen treatment and information privacy. Such projects illustrate the broad scope of student excellence, said chemistry Professor Dennis Marynick, who coordinated the ACES judging. Organizers plan to expand participation next year.

“I am impressed with the breadth and quality of the research and creative activities in progress at both the undergraduate and graduate level,” Dr. Marynick said. “They get better and better each year.”

— Kim Pewitt-Jones

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