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Two COS students selected to participate in Texas Undergraduate Research Day

Christine Abasi, left, and Richard Schargel
Christine Abasi, left, and Richard Schargel

Two College of Science students were among 56 students from 43 institutions statewide selected to showcase their research during Texas Undergraduate Research Day 2021.

Christine Abasi, a junior double major in psychology and speech communications, and Richard Schargel, a senior double major in biology and microbiology, presented their research posters during the event, held February 23-24 in an online format due to the pandemic. Traditionally, the event is conducted in Austin during the Texas Legislative Session.

The program highlights how research conducted by undergraduate students positively impacts Texas. This year’s theme was “Transforming Texas Through Undergraduate Research.”

Schargel, whose faculty research mentor is Joseph Boll, assistant professor of biology, presented his project, titled “Outer Membrane Modifications Mediate Carbapenem Tolerance in Gram-negative Bacteria.” Abasi, whose faculty research mentor is Molly Cummins, lecturer in communication studies, presented her project, titled “The Psychology of Stuttering: Possible Causes and Treatments of Persistent Stuttering Disorder.”

Christine Abasi

For Abasi, her research topic is intensely personal. As a child she developed a stutter and attended speech therapy from ages 12-17. She selected UTA for college because UTA is one of a few universities that offers psychology as a science degree rather than a liberal arts degree, and because UTA has a strong program in neuroscience, in which she is working toward a minor.

“I have loved psychology since high school and knew that’s what I wanted to study,” she said. “I love psychology because I want to be able to help people.”

During her sophomore year at UTA, she took a communications class which required students to present different types of speeches about a topic of their choosing.

“I knew a lot about stuttering and speech disorders so I did all my speeches about that,” she said. “I realized that almost all of the research about stuttering is 60 years old or younger, and that stuttering was a very under-researched field. That is when I realized I wanted to do research regarding stuttering because it was a personal topic to me, and very much needed for other people too. That’s when I added speech communication to my degree plan.”

Last fall she began working in the research lab of Amber Schroeder, assistant professor of psychology, who studies the impact of technology use in organizational settings.

“As an undergraduate assistant I did a lot of data coding and analysis, which I really enjoy,” she said. “I worked closely with a Ph.D. student who was doing her project for her dissertation and I got a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to run a project like that. I loved every part of it.”

Abasi also started her stuttering research last fall, when she took the communications class. Her instructor, Cummins, suggested that if Abasi kept working on her paper, they could find journals and conferences that help publish undergraduate research.

“[Cummins] has been working with me ever since to help sponsor me in these symposium events and pushing me to put myself out there, which is incredibly appreciated,” Abasi said. “My research paper is basically a culmination of all of the prominent research regarding stuttering in the last 60 years. I go into possible causes and therapies for stuttering. There have been genetic mutations discovered in families of those who stutter vs. those who do not. There are also significant physical and chemical changes in the way a stutterer’s brain works vs. a non-stutterer’s brain.

“There are two primary therapies that are used, both of which I was taught during my time in speech therapy. They helped significantly, however there is minimal research on how effective they are and if there are any better treatments or not. I also discuss the stigma around stuttering, as well as the best way to help reduce the stigma around stuttering for both stutterers and non-stutterers.”

Abasi is active in the Psychology Society student organization and for the last three years has been a student staff worker in the UTA Health Promotion and Substance Use Prevention office. She works in the P.E.E.R. (Peer Educators Empowering Responsible Students) Health Education Program, providing education for fellow students about important health issues including nutrition, substance use, sexual health, and general wellness.

“I have loved working there because I have been able to use that training in my research and use my research to help educate other students,” she said. “It is a great place for students to get free resources.”

Richard Schargel

Schargel – who was recently accepted to a Ph.D. program at Cornell University – took an interest in biology from an early age. Specifically, he took an interest in any small critters that he found outside. Having a biologist for a dad probably helped, too. His father is Walter Schargel, UTA associate professor of instruction in biology.

“As a kid I was obsessed with small organisms that live in complicated eusocial communities such as ants and bees. I used to love to come to UTA and look through the microscopes in my dad’s lab,” he said. “Any bug that I could find on campus, I’d bring to my father’s microscope in his office to look at them.

“After learning about the antimicrobial resistance crisis, I became especially interested in microbiology. New classes of antibiotics have not been discovered since the 1960s! Meanwhile, pathogens are exponentially growing resistant to the available arsenal of antimicrobials. Inspired by this issue, when I got to college I decided to add microbiology as a major.”

In fall 2019, Schargel became involved in research when he joined Boll’s lab, which focuses on bacterial physiology and molecular methods of evading antibiotics.

“My experience in research has been wholly positive,” Schargel said. “I have met so many new people on this journey and have been granted so many opportunities.”

For his research project, Schargel examined antibiotic tolerance, which is an understudied phenomenon that allows bacteria to survive antibiotic exposure for long periods, he said.

“A large reason that we are studying this topic is due to recent evidence that tolerance can be a precursor to antibiotic resistance,” Schargel said. “Therefore, if we can study and understand tolerance, we may be able to prevent the evolution of resistance down the line. Specifically, I have been investigating how the bacterial outer membrane mediates tolerance. When a susceptible bacterium is exposed to antibiotics, its outer membrane falls apart, leading to cell death.

“We hypothesized that tolerant bacteria can modify their outer membrane in a fashion that prevents its destruction. We found out that tolerant bacteria rigidify their outer membrane through molecular additions of stability factors, and this causes the membrane to become a sturdy, impermeable barrier and prevents cell lysis.”

Schargel is an active member of UTA’s Undergraduate Research Assistant Program (UGRAP), the McNair Scholars Program, and the American Society for Microbiology. He has received the William L. and Martha Hughes Award for the Study of Biology, the Biology and Shimadzu Undergraduate Research Award, and the McNair Exemplary Senior Scholarship.

Learn more about Texas Undergraduate Research Day at http://www.cpupc.org/ugrd/.

 

College of Science students, are you interested in getting involved in research? Learn more at https://www.uta.edu/science/research/index.php.