At undergraduate research conference, students show their work

Mason students were on the bus early on April 10 and on their way to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at Kennesaw State University. Photo by Bethany Usher.

Jasmyne Rogers is looking forward to this year’s National Conference on Undergraduate Research with both excitement and just a smidge of anxiety.

The 33rd annual conference, which takes place April 10 to 13 at Kennesaw State University, north of Atlanta, is regarded as the nation’s most prestigious undergraduate research event. But that 11-hour bus ride that will bring George Mason University’s 47 attending students home at about 2 a.m. on April 14 will be a challenge.

“It’s going to be a rough weekend,” said a laughing Rogers, an undergraduate education support specialist in Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR), “but a lot of fun.”

About 4,000 students covering multiple disciplines will present their research in front of peers and, most important, Rogers said, graduate program recruiters. When applying to the program, students submitted abstracts of their research that a committee reviewed.

“One of the things I wish the most is the students have the opportunity to see they can present on a national level,” Rogers said. “Their research is important. It qualifies them to keep going, and that’s special.”

OSCAR is paying the way for Mason’s attendees, including their transportation, lodging and a pizza party.

“I’m really excited,” said communication major Claire Underwood, a junior whose research looks at how media framing impacts perceptions of and intentions regarding plastic pollution. “I’m hoping to meet more professional people who can share my viewpoint and have suggestions for me to improve my work.”

Here are some Mason students who will be joining her (photos by Lathan Goumas):


Jay Lee

Jay Lee, Anthropology, Sophomore

Arab representation in post-9/11 Hollywood media

Jay Lee has always been curious about how the media portrays different minority groups and how that portrayal affects public perception.

His curiosity led him to research how Hollywood portrayals shape Americans’ perception of Arab people and how it affects their lives in the United States. Lee said his research showed that, especially after 9/11, negative portrayals of Arab stereotypes increased in movies and television shows that came out of Hollywood.

Lee’s research began in his ANTH 308 Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East class. He said assistant professor Yasemin Ipek encouraged him to go more in depth with his research. Lee said he spent the next 10 weeks analyzing movies and television shows and writing analysis reports with Ipek’s assistance.

Lee found that while there have been efforts toward proper Arab portrayals, the majority of Arab portrayals in the media generally focus on terrorism, counterterrorism and Orientalism.

“The findings did surprise me because the media representation of the Arab community was deeply tied to history and politics,” said Lee. “I learned that in order to properly understand and address the issue of representation, we must first be properly educated with accurate historical and political context of our subject group.”

— Mary Lee Clark



Cady Balde and Taylor Whittington

Cady Balde, Criminology, Law and Society, Senior

Taylor Whittington, Criminology, Law and Society ’18

Looking to be whole in the hole: Impact of restrictive housing units on inmates’ self-esteem

Cady Balde and Taylor Whittington were looking to fill a gap.

“The self-esteem literature regarding prisons is so vague,” Whittington said, “so we felt that we contributed to that [literature with this project].”

Both students traveled to prisons in Pennsylvania to interview inmates in solitary confinement during several week-long intervals from the summer to winter of 2018.

“We found that in the general [prison] population, inmates would use writing, mentoring, reading, exercising, tattooing or expression of self,” said Balde, a member of Mason's Honors College. “And in solitary confinement, inmates relied on others by talking to their cellmates through the vent or talking to correctional officers.”

The different options reflected a significant change in self-image.

The research showed that 80.6 percent of inmates surveyed reported having positive self-esteem when in the general prison population. When they switched to solitary confinement, that percentage decreased to only 22.9 percent.

The Mason team hopes their findings can be useful in helping correctional facilities be more aware of inmate needs and more successful as a result.

“Self-esteem can be related to inmates’ behavior, so if they don’t have good self-esteem there’s a potential for them to act out negatively,” Whittington said. “We want to show that if inmates are given more yard time or ways to express themselves while they’re in solitary confinement, it could in turn affect their behaviors.” 

— Mariam Aburdeineh



Mera Shabti

Mera Shabti, Civil and Infrastructure Engineering, Senior

Evaluating wetlands as a natural defense against storm surge

Mera Shabti developed a methodology to quantify the effectiveness of wetlands as a means of coastal protection against erosion during storms. 

Ther Honors College member has worked on this interdisciplinary research project for nearly two years under the supervision of Burak Tanyu, an associate professor of civil, environmental and infrastructure engineering in the Volgenau School of Engineering.

“The goal of the project was to evaluate how effective building a wetland along a coastal shoreline could mitigate the effects of storm surges compared to traditional, more costly, methods,” Shabti said.

Shabti was among six students and three professors working to compare the natural approach to other measures such as densifying coastal soil or building a seawall. They built both wetland-simulating and density-varying samples to lab test and compare the effects on erosion.

“We found that a wetland is almost twice as effective,” Shabti said, adding that wetlands also proved much better at slowing and filtering runoff from contaminants.

The United States has lost roughly half of its natural wetlands since 1990, Shabti said.

— John Hollis



Claire Underwood

Claire Underwood, Communication, Junior

How different types of media framing impact perceptions of and intentions regarding plastic pollution

Underwood thought her topic would be a perfect way to intersect her communication major and her environmental science minor. What she found, in addition, was a lesson in writing and reading.

“It took time to develop the questions to make sure people could understand them,” Underwood said. “I had to make sure it was worded correctly so people would understand what they were being asked.”

Underwood, who did the research as part of her COMM 491 Honors Research Project in Communication class, asked about people’s awareness of plastic pollution and its consequences. She did this with a survey distributed through her Facebook page and Instagram account and sent directly to classmates, family and friends.

Respondents were also shown various forms of media explaining the dangers of plastic in nature: a New York Times article, the same article accompanied by a picture of an autopsied turtle with plastic in its stomach, the photo by itself and a video of a diver seeing plastic in the water.

People responded most to the Times article with the picture, and 111 of the 160 respondents said they were now likely to decrease their plastics usage.

“The results showed that people were more responsive to messages if they include a visual representation,” Underwood said. “I want to continue doing science communication. This will help me to know how to communicate difficult issues.”

— Damian Cristodero



Sheryne Zeitoun

Sheryne Zeitoun, Community Health, Senior

Influences of livestock and wildlife on tick density in Kenya Savanna

Sheryne Zeitoun became interested in infectious diseases while growing up in her home country of the Gambia in West Africa. Diseases that are spread by mosquitoes and ticks—including yellow fever, malaria and African tick-bite fever, among others—affect thousands of people every year, she said.

Her interest became an academic pursuit last year when she began fieldwork in Virginia with Mason professor Michael von Fricken and the National Park Service, collecting and identifying ticks from local parks. That served as preliminary training for field surveillance of mosquitoes and ticks in Kenya with von Fricken’s class last summer.

Zeitoun’s research explored the effects of wildlife and of pesticide-treated cattle on host-seeking tick populations. During a two week period, Zeitoun and her class sampled nymph and adult ticks on exclusion experiment plots, which controlled for the presence of cattle and wildlife.

“Our results showed that the presence of [pesticide]-treated cattle greatly reduced the number of host-seeking adult ticks in the plot but did not affect the number of host-seeking nymphs,” Zeitoun said. “The continued monitoring of ticks and the pathogens they transmit, within the scope of epidemiological surveillance, is vital to continuing prevention and control of tick-borne diseases.”

— Mary Lee Clark