Bright Minds of the Future

The 36th Annual CSU Student Research Competition showcased t​he CSU’s innovative scholars.

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On April 29-30, 2022, student researchers from across the CSU presented their work at the 36th Annual CSU Student Research Competition, hosted virtually by San Francisco State University.

“Many of our students work closely with faculty mentors to explore topics ranging the arts, humanities, behavioral sciences, and science and engineering,” says Ganesh Raman, Ph.D., assistant vice chancellor of Research at the CSU Office of the Chancellor. “The event, which showcased both undergraduate and graduate research, scholarship and creative activity, was truly a delight to watch and exemplified the CSU’s 'learn by doing' approach to learning.”

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

Madison Stewart

​Madison Stewart

Campus: CSU San Marcos
Major/Program: Biotechnology, Senior
Project: Defining the Relationship Between the Soil Microbiome and Crop Nutritional Content

Working with Biological Sciences Professor Matthew Escobar, Ph.D., and research partner Sheyenne Black, Madison Stewart studied if a soil’s microbiome—its ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and other organisms—affects nutritional content in crops, specifically tomatoes.

“The larger goal of this project is to figure out if there is a relationship where we can alter the nutritional content of these tomatoes using a process called biofortification—which is biotechnology, agricultural practices or selective breeding to increase crop nutrition—because a lot of people are nutrient-deficient in the U.S.,” Stewart says.

For the project, Dr. Escobar gathered five soil samples from across Southern and Central California, which were then split in half. The first half kept its live microbiome, while the other half was steam-sterilized to kill the microbiome. The team then grew micro tomato plants in each, as well as in a steam-sterilized potting mix. The resulting tomatoes were then freeze dried, ground into a powder and analyzed for nutrient content.

The study confirmed the team’s hypothesis that a relationship exists between the soil microbiome and the crops’ nutritional content—and earned Stewart first place in the Biological and Agricultural Sciences (Undergraduate #1) category. Since then, the team has conducted further analysis and found high levels of ectoine—a compound plants do not produce, but may increase their drought resilience—in tomatoes grown in soil with live microbiomes. Future research would investigate how the microbiome changes the tomatoes’ nutritional content.

“This ectoine content might be beneficial in times of drought, and if we knew [the relationship], we could pass on [the knowledge to] farmers,” Stewart says. “As for human consumption, it's a little bit further in the future, but if we can figure out which specific bacteria cause specific nutrient changes, you might be able to engineer a soil microbiome to get a desired crop.”

Following graduation, she’ll begin a Ph.D. program at University of California, Davis to study stem cells and regenerative medicine.

Madison Stewart watering the micro tomato plants.

Nikita Mishra

Nikita Mishra

Campus: Cal State Los Angeles
Major/Program: Biochemistry, Computation Biology and Bioinformatics minor, Senior
Project: Computational Characterizations of Binding Affinity in SARS‐CoV‐2 Variants to the Human ACE2 Receptor

Nikita Mishra earned the top spot in the Engineering and Computer Science (Mixed) category for her research with Assistant Professor of Computer Science Negin Forouzesh, Ph.D., modeling mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

“In the past year, we've been hearing a lot about [COVID-19] mutations—Omicron, Delta, Gamma—but what we are struggling with right now is that the variants are hard to predict,” Mishra says. “My research is trying to build a tool that can analyze these different mutations of the virus to see how damaging a given mutation will be should it occur in the virus and then infect the human body.”

Using a computer model of the virus protein, Mishra manipulates the amino acids (protein’s component parts) that bind to the human ACE2 receptor. The strength of this binding affects how quickly the virus spreads between people and how severe it is. These models help predict the effects of potential variants and how to defend against them.

“The virus continues to evolve as time goes on; it's not stopping and it's not going away for the foreseeable future,” Mishra says. “Having this tool to understand what mutations could be next should help scientists in terms of vaccine development and booster development.”

Mishra will continue working with Dr. Forouzesh during the summer to automate the mutation prediction tool before beginning her master’s in bioengineering at Stanford University.

Diagram of the SARS-CoV-2 virus binding with the human ACE2 receptor

Justise Wattree

Justise Wattree

Campus: San José State
Major/Program: Humanities, African American Studies and Public Health minors, Senior
Project: The Two‐Front War: Self‐Help, and Black Health Activism during The Spanish Flu, HIV/AIDS, and COVID‐19

“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed health disparities or health inequities [by race and ethnicity] a lot more than what we've seen before,” Wattree says. “I saw the attempts to counter these disparities in the Black community within the Black church and within activist groups … and I was wondering if the community mobilized itself the same way during past pandemics—during HIV/AIDS and during the Spanish flu.”

For this project that won Wattree first place in the Humanities, Arts and Letters (Undergraduate #1) category, he compared the Black health activism carried out during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, the HIV/AIDS epidemic beginning in the 1980s and the COVID-19 pandemic. The research involved archival work, reviewing Black newspapers from 1918 and newspapers and photographs from the 1980s and 1990s. He then conducted an interview with a public health official and obtained resources from local activist groups in the Bay Area about the current pandemic.

One interesting finding included a fashion campaign in the Black community during the 1918 pandemic to encourage women to wear masks, in hopes they’d influence their families. In addition, Wattree found that the Black church—while usually a strong agent of public health activism—did not respond as quickly to the HIV/AIDs epidemic due to the taboos associated with its transmission. The latter leads into his next research project on how the Black church’s connection to local activist groups impacts its response to pandemics, namely the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“It's important to investigate health activism as an avenue for addressing health disparities because health activists may have access to resources or connections with the people that the public health infrastructure wouldn’t have,” Wattree says. “Some of it has been in community groups, but it’s also Black churches. I think Black churches or religious organizations in the Black community should be mobilized to the fullest capacity to counter health disparities.”

Mauricio Gomez Lopez

Mauricio Gomez Lopez

Campus: Cal State Fullerton
Major/Program: Physics, Mathematics, Senior
Project: Studying the Material Properties of an Active Suspension of Swimming Bacteria

There is a phenomenon known as a starling swarm, or starling murmuration, when a flock of hundreds to millions of these birds form changing shapes and patterns as they fly. Scientists have noticed such motion patterns reflected at the microscopic level.

“You see those same dynamics, that same kind of motion from the microscopic scale with E. coli all the way up through birds,” says Mauricio Gomez Lopez. “So that makes us think that there might be some physical laws determining these sorts of motions.”

Taking first place in the Physical and Mathematical Sciences (Undergraduate) category, Gomez Lopez studied how E. coli particles move in response to force, seeing if and how they follow these movement patterns. Working in the SLAM Lab with Assistant Professor of Physics Wylie Ahmed, Ph.D., Gomez Lopez programmed an infrared laser, called optical tweezers, to direct force on the particles, documenting the resulting motion. In the videos taken under the microscope, “it almost looks like this dense crowd, and someone trying to get through.”

The hope is understanding the particles’ reaction will help scientists figure out how to harness the energy generated by the moving particles to produce power.

“When we think about renewable sources of energy, we can see bacteria and E. coli being a possible new energy source,” Gomez Lopez says. “We were able to show that there is this transfer of energy, so the idea now is how can we engineer something to extract that energy and use it to power stuff we use on a daily basis.”

Gomez Lopez will continue his research as he works towards his master’s in physics at Cal State Fullerton.

Mauricio Gomez Lopez looks through a microscope in the lab.​​​

See the complete list of this year’s CSU Student Research Competition winners, and view more coverage from CSU campuses.