ASSIP’s student researchers continue to contribute despite the pandemic

ASSIP intern Timothy Stocker took samples from the plants he grew and tested them for beef proteins as part of his experiment. Photo by Stocker.

While many summer internship programs were cancelled this summer, the 137 student researchers in George Mason University’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) have been busy preparing their virtual presentations for their required poster symposium held on Aug. 6.

Since 2007, ASSIP has offered hands-on laboratory research experiences to more than 900 high school and undergraduate students mainly from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Because the program is virtual this summer, its reach has expanded to include students participating in California, Massachusetts and New York, among other states, said Andrea Cobb, ASSIP’s director. There is even a student in Singapore.

Cobb said they were already conducting interviews for the 2020 session when the coronavirus pandemic caused everything to shut down. She and other ASSIP mentors discussed the feasibility of going online with program founder and Mason researcher Lance Liotta.

“Scientists takes risks,” said Cobb, who is in her third year with ASSIP and is also director of student research and internships in the College of Science. “We were excited to be able to provide that transformational experience for students, even if it is remotely.”

Almost 50 faculty members from across the university are participating as mentors along with 33 staff co-mentors, which include graduate students, postdocs and research staff members.

But moving online did require some adjustments.

For long-time ASSIP mentor Nathalia Peixoto, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, it involved breaking the project down into smaller tasks that could be completed by individuals remotely.

Peixoto is collaborating with Mason mathematics professor Padmanabhan Seshaiyer and College of Health and Human Services professor Holly Matto on measuring the effect of triggers on those troubled by addiction.

“We are doing this for Holly Matto’s research on substance abuse disorder,” Peixoto said. “We are designing all the engineering behind it. We have some new ideas that haven’t been used in social work before, which is the point of adding engineering to a community problem.”

A screen shot from one of ASSIP intern Noah Egan's early virtual reality tests.

Their ASSIP intern, Noah Egan, spent the summer working on a virtual reality (VR) environment to be used for addiction therapy. The 2020 Brentsville District High School graduate taught himself how to use the game engine Unity in order to create what is very similar to a 3D video game in which a person would use VR goggles to interact with an addiction trigger or cue.

“It is a little bit more than game design, a little bit more than computer science, because we want to measure physiological variables,” said Peixoto.

“[Peixoto] told me the general idea behind the project, but I was given the freedom to personalize aspects of it,” said Egan.

Egan said that the biggest challenge of working remotely for him has been that are so many more distractions.

“It was sometimes difficult to separate work from non-work,” said Egan about working from his Bristow, Virginia, home. “But the training sessions and meetings with mentors made me feel more connected.”

The experience was a bit of a game changer for him, too.

“This was my first time working with game development, and I found I really liked it,” said Egan, who is headed to Georgia Tech this fall where he is planning to major in aerospace engineering. “I hope to find a way to work game development into my college coursework.”

Virginia Espina, a research professor at the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, is one of the founders of the ASSIP program and has mentored about 12 ASSIP interns over the years. This summer she had three interns working on different projects.

A close up of one of the drug tests. Photo provided

For one of her projects, she had Mason medical laboratory science major Valerie Cruz Ortiz and ASSIP alumna Sydney Andes, who is now attending the College of William and Mary, trying to hack drugs tests. Espina had the students working with a drug testing kit that involves collecting a subject’s saliva—safely and working at a distance—and then subjecting the tests to heat and cold to see if it alters the results.

“If these tests were left in a police car, could the temperature alter the results?” Espina said.

“It was super fun,” said Cruz Ortiz, who was conducting the testing from her home in Sanford, North Carolina. “I was also really happy to be doing a research internship. So many internship opportunities were cancelled this summer.”

Espina also had them testing “urban legend” hacks, such as if a person eats or drinks a certain item, they will test negative for drugs.

After collection, the students sent the drug test kits to Espina at the Science and Technology Campus for confirmatory testing.

“I got to video chat with the people in the lab while they running the tests, so it was almost like being there,” said Cruz Ortiz, who is a member of the Honors College. A rising junior, she is using internships like this one to help her figure out which area of research she is most interested in pursuing as a career.

Espina also has an intern working on an experiment connected with the Department of Forensic Science. The idea behind this one, she said, is to get an idea of what a cadaver dog is reacting to in the air when they sense decomposition.

Small pot of cosmos from the control group. Photo by Timothy Stocker.

For this project, she had Northern Virginia Community College student Timothy Stocker planting black-eyed Susans and cosmos in pots at his Ashburn, Virginia, home. Standing in for the cadaver was ground beef, buried beneath the plants.

“We are trying to find out if the plants would absorb the proteins from the beef,” said Stocker, who is majoring in biology and planning to transfer to a four-year university next year.

Stocker then took samples from different parts of the plants—leaves, stems, roots—which were analyzed for beef proteins, carbohydrates, and fats using thin-layer chromatography and mass spectrometry.

This was Stocker’s first laboratory experience outside of a class, and it ties in with his career goals.

“This was a very interesting project,” said Stocker. “I would love to do biomedical lab research.”

Will he choose to complete his bachelor’s at Mason? “I’m still looking at schools,” he said, “but I’ve definitely been won over.”

Espina said she chose Stocker as one of her interns because he had commented in the interview on how much he enjoyed reading, an online database from the National Library of Medicine that contains more than 30 million citations for biomedical literature.

“I try to pick the students who are really interested in the research and not looking to pad their resume,” said Espina. “I love being able to get them hooked on science.”

The ASSIP students presented their research posters virtually.