Unlocking Doors to Exciting New Ideas

The 37th annual CSU Student Research Competition showcased student-centered 

research, scholarship and creative pursuits.

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On April 29-30, 2023, student researchers from across the CSU presented their work at the 37th Annual CSU Student Research Competition, hosted by San Diego State University.

“At the CSU, research, scholarship and creative activity connects directly with distinctive education and career readiness for students," says​ Ganesh Raman, assistant vice chancellor of research at the CSU Office of the Chancellor. "After a gap of four years, it was great to experience the vibrancy of an in-person systemwide student research competition and enjoy excellent student presentations across all disciplines and from all 23 campuses."

Meet a few of the competition's first-place winners.

Julian Hernandez

Julian Hernandez

Campus: Sacramento State
Major/Program: Engineering and Computer Science, Senior
Project: Searching for Litter with Computer Vision

Americans have greater access to ways to recycle than ever before, but it can be confusing when there are multiple bins to choose from. Sacramento State senior Julian Hernandez is on a mission to reduce litter by educating the public on the different types of materials trash items are made of and in which bin they belong.

"Our program uses computer vision artificial intelligence technology on a smartphone to take a picture of the trash and tell you whether it's meant for the landfill, recycling or compost," Hernandez says.​ "I'm hopeful it will help people understand the problems behind not sorting their recyclables and help them make an actionable difference."

Hernandez helped create a mobile app with fellow computer science majors Christopher Allen, Santiago Bermudez, Bryan Burch, Travis Hammond, Jeffrey de Jesus, Kenta Miyahara and Daniel Smugly under the direction of faculty mentor Clark Fitzgerald, an assistant professor in Sacramento State's department of mathematics and statistics.

He and his team worked with the city of Sacramento's Public Works department to educate themselves on the possible items people may dispose of and build a database for the program. The team's aha moment came when one member, ​Hammond, discovered they could use zero-shot object detection, which requires no visual training data, to avoid having to collect 10,000-plus photos for the app to work.

The app is currently live at Sacramento State and Fitzgerald and his students will begin work in the fall to develop a similar identification tool that will affix to a trash can, using funding from the university's Office of Sustainability.

Hernandez credits Fitzgerald and the McNair Scholars program​ for giving him a platform to not only perform research but to practice presenting his findings, and to educate people on sustainability.

“A lot of my research is focused on how to build technology that helps clean up the amount of litter that's spread in the environment and increase the amount that's recycled," Hernandez says. “The project I did before this was all about creating maps of where litter is so we can install trash cans in the highest-need areas."

Hernandez graduated from Sacramento State in May with a bachelor's degree in engineering and computer science and will begin a master's program at UC Berkeley in the fall to study sustainable transportation engineering. 

Jaedyn Rollins

Jaedyn Rollins

Campus: San José State
Major/Program: Systems Physiology, First-Year Graduate
Project: Utilization of the RhD Locus as a Safe Harbor for Gene Editing Applications

San José State student Jaedyn Rollins' prize-winning project focused on evaluating a DNA location that could be safe for therapeutic gene insertion for monogenic diseases, like hemophilia A and B, which are bleeding disorders. In these disorders, the patient is missing a single gene, such as FVIII or FIX, that produces a protein that helps with forming the blood clots.

Rollins started her educational journey with an interest in forensic science, but when looking for a lab on campus to help her hone her laboratory techniques she came across the Johnston Lab, a genome editing lab of Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Jennifer Johnston, who is also Rollins' faculty mentor.

"Dr. Johnston was extremely welcoming and encouraging, and she was so patient in showing me the techniques," Rollins says. "The idea for this project was actually Dr. Johnston'​s when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. She's had graduate students work on the hypothesis over the years and we made some significant breakthroughs this year."

Rollins' interest in helping people overcome diseases and disorders was amplified when her grandmother was diagnosed with a blood disorder​. She has since recovered, but Rollins says the news inspired her passion for this project.

In the lab, students utilize the CRISPR-Cas9 system, which Rollins explains is a molecular scissor that can cut at a precise location in the genome or in DNA so that they can insert a gene for therapeutic purposes. With this strategy, Johnston's undergraduate and graduate researchers hope to change the prognosis of numerous individuals across the globe. 

Rollins says they're evaluating a safe spot to insert a gene that won't cause an unintended mutation, which can often lead to cancer or the loss-of-function of an important gene. By inserting a missing or deficient gene, scientists could reverse the effects of monogenic diseases and allow patients to be able to produce that gene's expression on their own rather through injections of the protein that's missing.

“We were able to show that a proof-of-principle fluorescent gene could be expressed at this location," Rollins says. "That gives us really high hopes that this can work with a therapeutic​ gene like FVIII or FIX for hemophilia, and even other genes for several different monogenic disorders."

Rollins will continue her work with the Johnston Lab this summer and plans to finish her master's degree in spring 2024.

video still image of college student and DNA strand

Aysa-Monae Collins

Aysa-Monae Collins

Campus: CSU Dominguez Hills
Major/Program: Health Science, Public Administration and Women's Studies, Senior
Project: The Impact of Maternal Pregnancy Complications and Prenatal Care on Infant Mortality

CSU Dominguez Hills​ senior Aysa-Monae Collins earned the top spot in the health, nutrition and clinical sciences category for her research with College of Health, Human Services and Nursing Associate​ Dean Enrique Ortega. Her research focused on analyzing the impact prenatal care and conditions has on infant mortality rate, especially for non-Hispanic Black women.

“Women of color, and especially non-Hispanic Black women, are at the highest risk of experiencing poor maternal outcomes, whether it be from maternal mortality, pre-term birth, fetal mortality, or infant mortality—even if they have early and adequate prenatal care," Collins says. 

Collins hopes to combine her interests in public administration, health care and social justice to make a difference in communities of color, adding that “I want my research to change the narrative and improve the experience that people of color and indigenous people have with the health care system."

Using the CDC WONDER database, a system for disseminating public health data and information, among other sources, Collins analyzed the data to identify possible reasons for the high infant mortality rate among women of color, draw conclusions and make recommendations for improvement across the field.

"There are many contributing factors including social determinants of health like structural racism, how an expectant mother perceives their care, language​ and health literacy and even the community in which they live," Collins says.

Collins says she was surprised and disappointed to discover these statistics had not changed much since previous research was done in the 90s but hopes that with a larger focus on the disparity, and a more diverse health care workforce, change will occur.

In addition to winning first place in her category at the systemwide conference, Collins won three first-place honors at CSU Dominguez Hills' 18th annual Student Research Competition ​in February. She will continue her work with Ortega this summer and plans to graduate in spring 2024.

José Maldonado

José Maldonado

Campus: Fresno State
Major/Program: Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, Graduate
Project: Fostering Familismo: Creating Community to Support Transfer Students

Working with Liberal Arts Assistant Professor Selena Van Horn, José Maldonado studied how universities can improve support for students transferring from community colleges, focusing on strategies that build community at the university level for first-generation Latinx transfer students.

“Seventy-five percent of students coming into a community college say they plan to transfer to a four-year university, but only 20% of them actually do," Maldonado says. “There are clearly barriers we must address."

A professor in the Department of English at Oxnard College, Maldonado says he sees first-hand how difficult it can be for community college students to transfer and, if they do reach a four-year university, to find a sense of belonging.

Maldonado performed qualitative research with Latinx students and alumni who had successfully transferred to a four-year university to find out what worked for them. The theme, he says, was that they built familismo, or a community, by forming informal peer groups.

“The Latinx culture is a collectivist culture, rather than individualistic," Maldonado says. “Those who formed community—by joining a club or sorority or getting a job on campus, for examplewere much more successful and more likely to persist to graduation because they had a network of support."

One of Maldonado's key recommendations is to launch community college alumni networks on four-year university campuses, groups that would serve to welcome transfer students and help them navigate the higher education system. He also recommends hiring more diverse faculty members and counselors who engage more with students as well as bringing Latinx students' families into their higher education experience.

“This is a social justice issue as so many folks from marginalized communities use community college as a launch pad to their dreams," Maldonado says. “It's about improving quality of life, boosting lifetime career earnings and determining whether or not someone has health insurance and can afford to live in a safe neighborhood and to eat healthy food."

Maldonado graduated from Fresno State in May​​​ with a doctoral degree in educational leadership, earning the university's 2023 Most Outstanding Dissertation Award for the Kremen School of Education and Human Development​. He also holds a master's degree in fine arts from Cal State Long Beach​.

Hana Foo

Hana Foo

Campus: San Diego State
Major/Program: Applied Design – Jewelry and Metals, Third Year
Project: Gemstone Apothecary

Hana Foo, a jewelry major in San Diego State's School of Art and Design, participated in a practice-based research project creating a series of art jewelry titled "The Gemstone Apothecary." Foo helped develop the series while participating in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program​ (SURP) as part of an internship with Professor of Jewelry and Metalsmithing Sondra Sherman.

Foo and Sherman's research examined the stronghold gemstones and adornment have had across cultures and generations through their attributed meanings, which was particularly interesting to Foo who says healing stones have deep significance in her own Asian culture.

The works featured layered or engraved elements inspired by​ the chemical diagrams of conventional medicines, embellished with gemstones like rose quartz and amethyst, which have long been associated with healing or medicinal properties.

The pair conducted informational research on the psychology of superstitions and the history of healing stones as well as visual research of both popular culture and historical examples of gemstone healing in jewelry. 

"We utilized mind maps to guide the research that inspired the designs," Foo says. "Once designs were formed, we worked on skill building like learning lapidary [engraving, cutting or polishing] and, eventually, working on the metalwork structures."

Foo says the entire process showed her how to take a concept and turn it into a physical series. As Sherman's assistant, she gained knowledge and practice that built on what she learned in the classroom and which influenced her own work​ as a designer and artist.

"Jewelry is inherently a performance art which tells a story, and the messages behind these pieces resonate with many," Foo says. "My mentor, Sondra, imagined the pieces to not only represent the ideas of inspiration, but also to validate the feelings of people who use jewelry for healing."

​After earning her bachelor's degree, Foo plans to travel abroad to Southeast Asia to research her heritage and culture through creating her own jewelry series.

Take a look at the complete list of the 2​023 CSU Student Research Competition winners, and view more cove​rage​ from CSU campuses.