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How three U.Va. undergraduates pursue independent research

Undergraduates find fulfillment in research spanning environmental science, physics and public policy

More than half of undergraduate students participate in research in various fields during their four years at the University. Three such College students — third-year Ephrata Yohannes, third-year Kai Vylet and fourth-year Leona Gaither — conduct research concerning nitrogen dioxide and ozone, alternate theories of gravity and teacher working conditions, respectively. 

While their subject matters are different, the three shared similar challenges and feelings of fulfillment from their work. 

Many students become involved in research by emailing a professor whose work they find interesting. Some students are involved in the Undergraduate Student Opportunities in Academic Research Program, which offers paid research positions to first and second-year students, as well as transfers who qualify for Federal Work Study. Other students find research positions advertised on listservs for majors or student organizations. The Office of Undergraduate Research website also contains a database of fellowships and other funding sources to which students can apply. 

Ephrata Yohannes — the relationship between ozone and nitrogen dioxide

Yohannes studies the relationship between ozone and nitrogen dioxide in major U.S. cities. And receives credit for her research through the environmental science department. Yohannes said she knew from her first year that she was interested in using satellite data from NASA and developed this interest into a research objective with Asst. Environmental Sciences Prof. Sally Pusede. Yohannes said she wants the work she does to be impactful and possibly lead to environmental regulations. 

Ozone is a reactive gas composed of three oxygen atoms. Nitrogen dioxide — an oxide of nitrogen composed of two oxygen atoms and a nitrogen atom — is a precursor to ozone, meaning that it is involved in the chemical reaction that creates ozone. Volatile organic compounds, a set of pollutants dissolved in the air and water and derived from many human activities, including pumping gas and dry-cleaning clothes, are also involved in the ozone-producing chemical reaction, along with sunlight.

“NO2 plus VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, plus sunlight — those three things combined lead to high ozone,” Yohannes said. “Obviously, it’s more sunny in the summertime — so typically we see higher ozone rates in the summertime — so those are the months that I’m studying.”

Ozone is beneficial in the stratosphere, but dangerous in the troposphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas and causes detrimental human health effects, including difficulty breathing. Yohannes’ research looks at times that tropospheric ozone exceeds the level set by the Environmental Protection Agency —  0.070 parts per million averaged over an 8-hour period — and compares those instances to nitrogen dioxide levels in the same time and place. 

“My job is to see — when NO2 is high, does that also mean ozone is high?” Yohannes said. “[Pusede and I] are just trying to establish whether there’s that proportional relationship.” 

Yohannes hopes to combine data about ozone and NO2 with census-tract data from major U.S. cities to evaluate levels of environmental inequality in terms of air pollution.

Kai Vylet — alternative theories of gravity

Vylet works with Asst. Physics Prof. Kent Yagi to study alternative theories of gravity and also receives class credit for the research he conducts.

“In physics, the theory of gravity is GR — or general relativity — but people think that’s not a complete theory,” Vylet said. “So people are interested in testing alternative theories that other people have come up with.” 

General relativity is Einstein’s theory of gravity and space-time, which states that massive objects warp the space and time surrounding them, causing other less massive objects to orbit around them. Vylet uses neutron star observations to test the Einstein-Aether theory — an alternate theory to general relativity. Neutron stars form from the collapse of massive stars and have a much greater mass and a much smaller volume than our sun — making them the densest objects directly observed by astronomers. 

“[Neutron stars are] very compact objects, meaning they create very strong gravitational fields,” Vylet said. “General relativity is thought to be a so-called ‘weak gravity’ approximation of another theory. So these strong gravity regimes let you test GR at that level.”

Vylet studies the Einstein-Aether theory, which is specified by certain mathematical parameters that are determined with experimentally-derived data. He focuses on a specific parameter — denoted “c-” — that has yet to be constrained.

“What I’m doing is deriving these relationships about neutron stars and trying to see how that parameter that’s been unconstrained appears in the relations,” Vylet said. “If it does appear there, we can use the relations to combine them with the observational data and kind of test the theory.”

Leona Gaither — administrative intervention and student performance

During her second and third year, Gaither did research in the Judgement and Decisions Lab under Assoc. Public Policy Prof. Eileen Chou. Gaither helped to run simulations to study topics in public policy, social decision-making and economic decision-making. 

Currently, Gaither is an education policy associate for the Virginia Policy Partnership Cooperative. With the VPPC, she investigates whether administrative interventions in schools have an impact on student performance. Students involved in the education policy associate program co-enroll in a Policy Lab course, where they address policy debates in Virginia’s education system. 

“As with any job, the working conditions that you find yourself in can have an impact on the work that you ultimately do,” Gathier said. “We’re trying to see what the link is between school environments, the teachers’ perception of those school environments and then ultimately, the outcomes for students either before or after an innovative intervention is taking place.”

Gaither has primarily been working on compiling a literature review on the topic, but will soon begin to interview teachers.

“I’m not actively running participants through trials, but it is hands-on in the sense that I’m about to start interviewing teachers,” Gaither said. “I think it kind of speaks to how what research looks like is different depending on your field and the project you’re working on.”

The challenges and rewards of undergraduate research

For Yohannes, the main obstacles have come from learning programming languages that enable her to use data to answer the questions in which she’s interested. 

Vylet explained similar frustrations when programming and getting stuck on a problem. 

“It can sometimes be kind of frustrating to feel like you’re not making a lot of progress, and to think you’re kind of just wasting your time or wasting someone else’s time,” Vylet said.

Gaither also noted the stress of limited time. 

“It’s always difficult to balance the things you’re involved in,” Gaither said. “And so it can be difficult to feel additional pressure on top of the pressure that you feel to perform well in a full course load.”

Despite the challenges these students face, engaging in research has been an important and fulfilling aspect of their undergraduate experience. 

“I just think the ideas of space and the universe are mind-boggling,” Vylet said. “It’s made me feel a lot more fulfilled and interested … and I’ve met a lot of people that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Yohannes expressed a similar fulfillment with the research process. 

“I love it,” Yohannes said. “You’re not going to do this in a classroom. Research is so fluid. It’s so independent, but it’s also so collaborative … and it’s always evolving. You can never say you’re done with research.”