Competition Spotlights Top Undergrad Research
Winning Project Holds Promise in Early Detection of Lung Cancer

After nearly two semesters of effort, 10 students from across the UT Dallas campus recently faced off in the fifth annual Undergraduate Research Poster Presentation.

The students competed for cash prizes, with topics ranging from assessing the needs of the Dallas homeless and evaluating perceptions of inequality to research aimed at developing high-capacity energy storage devices. Medical research focused on genetics, cancer and autism-related studies.

Katherine Bierschenk

Katherine Bierschenk’s research investigates whether certain types of peptides can be used to identify cells with mutations.

Katherine Bierschenk, a senior biochemistry major, won the $500 first-place award for her project that shows promise for detecting the presence of genetic mutations associated with lung cancer, possibly before the disease fully develops. 

“Different types of lung cancer are linked to different genetic mutations, and the disease responds to chemotherapy differently depending on the type of mutation,” Bierschenk explained. “If we can identify the type of lung cancer someone has, we could tailor their treatment. My research investigates whether certain peptides, selected using phage display screening, can selectively bind to and identify cells with these mutations.”

Her UT Dallas mentor is Dr. Bruce Gnade, vice president for research and holder of the Distinguished Chair in Microelectronics. Bierschenk conducted her research in the laboratory of Dr. Kathlynn Brown at UT Southwestern Medical Center. After graduation, Bierschenk plans to continue her studies and eventually pursue a PhD at Johns Hopkins University.

“The sophistication and level of work they are doing as undergraduates is really amazing. Every year I’m blown away by how smart and talented these students are.”

Dr. David Thomas,
executive vice president for research and development,
Dr. Pepper Snapple Group

Second place and $300 went to Kwok “Chris” Im, a sophomore in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, for his project titled “Neural responses to speech sounds in a rat model of autism.” His work could provide insight into the physiological mechanisms underlying autism.

The third-place winner was senior Elaine Chien in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics for her work titled “Electrospun Polyacrylonitrile/ZIF-8 nanofibers as supercapacitor electrode materials.” The potential applications of her work include improving batteries for electric or hybrid vehicles.

The path to the final contest began last fall, when 70 students received Undergraduate Research Scholar Awards from the Office of the Vice President for Research. The competitive awards provide funding and the opportunity to work with faculty mentors on a research project. In March, 54 of those students participated in a preliminary research poster contest, where faculty judges chose the 10 finalists.

“We are very proud of all the participants in undergraduate research and their contributions,” said Dr. Sheila Piñeres, dean of undergraduate education at UT Dallas. “This is a great opportunity for students to take their research out of the labs and into the real world. We also appreciate the support from the external community in making this event such a success and encouraging our students to push the limits of knowledge.”

A panel of eight industry judges evaluated the final 10 students and their poster presentations. The judges included senior executives and research officers from AT&T Foundry, Texas Instruments, Mary Kay, Pioneer Natural Resources, Research in Motion, Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, and PepsiCo Advanced Research. Raytheon also provided additional support for the program.

Dr. David Thomas, Executive Vice President for Research and Development at the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, has been a judge for the contest for the last four years. He said he was impressed by the breadth of the topics as well as the depth of knowledge of the students.

“The sophistication and level of work they are doing as undergraduates is really amazing,” he said. “Every year I’m blown away by how smart and talented these students are.”

Thomas added that presenting their research gives students valuable experience for their eventual entry into the workplace.

“This type of event helps students with their communication skills and poise, and gives them experience explaining complex topics for the masses,” Thomas said. “They also have to articulate how their research applies to real-world situations, which is very important.” 


From left: Dr. Robert Doering, Dr. David Thomas, David Williamson, Dr. Jim Womack, Dr. Beth Lange, Dr. Austin Kozman, Michael Berry and Lynn Mortensen.

Research Contest Judges

Dr. Robert Doering, TI Senior Fellow and Research Manager, Texas Instruments

Dr. David Thomas, Executive Vice President for Research and Development at Dr. Pepper Snapple Group

David Williamson, Barnett Asset Senior Geologist at Pioneer Natural Resources

Dr. Jim Womack, Senior Director of Advanced Technology at Research in Motion Corp.

Dr. Beth Lange, Chief Scientific Officer for Mary Kay

Dr. Austin Kozman, Senior Principal Engineer at PepsiCo Advanced Research

Michael Berry, Director of Operations at AT&T Foundry

Lynn Mortensen, Vice President of Engineering of Intelligence and Information Systems at Raytheon

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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