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Research Pays Off

Undergraduate students are working as paid research assistants on faculty projects ranging from developing rapid screening for designer opioids to studying child labor practices in South Asia as part of a new initiative from Hofstra University Honors College.

The Honors College Research Assistants Program promotes faculty-student research collaborations in disciplines such as biology, engineering, fine arts, marketing, film, and political science, and allows students to gain valuable practical skills while providing much needed staffing for ongoing faculty projects.  Current research teams are working on projects as diverse as assessing cancer biomarkers, analyzing government and community interactions during the Flint water crisis, and studying entrepreneurship trends among immigrants.

“The greatest benefit of this exchange is that it builds mentoring relationships between students and their faculty that change lives and make careers,” said Honors College Dean Warren Frisina, PhD, who created and oversees the program with Associate Dean Vimala Pasupathi, PhD. “Research assistants work side by side with cutting-edge scholars, taking the information discussed in the classroom and applying it to solving problems, discovering new ideas, or thinking deeply about fundamental human questions. Students get to discover what it feels like to be a contributor of new knowledge, to be one of the persons pushing forward a conversation in their field.”

The pilot program began in the spring 2017 semester with 13 undergraduate research assistants hired from 41 applicants, and continues now in the fall with support for 20 assistants, thanks to a generous gift from Hofstra trustee and alumnus Steven Witkoff JD’83.

The research assistants are Honors College students who are expected to work about 10 hours a week for 14 weeks during the semester for a $2000 stipend.  Faculty members requesting a research assistant must show how a project’s tasks will allow the student to use current skills or learn new ones, as well as explain how the student will contribute directly to the scholarly work.

“We created this program to provide faculty with material support to make progress on the projects that animate their scholarly lives and to give our students a window into how exciting such work can be,” said Dean Frisina.

Collaborations include:

Laraib Humayun and Martine Hackett

Martine Hackett, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of health professions, and Laraib Humayun, May 2017 BS graduate in community health, worked together last spring on a project that studied the use of digital stories to educate students about how health outcomes varied in neighboring communities.

Dr. Hackett had been working on her study for more than two years and was thrilled that she could hire Humayun, who helped her analyze the data and prepare a research article.

“It was the first time I was putting together a manuscript to submit for peer review, so I’ve gained a whole new skill set,” said Humayun, who plans to pursue a graduate degree in public health.

“Opportunities like the Honors College research assistant funding is invaluable to professors,” said Dr. Hackett. “The fact that this funding was available and accessible to allow me to not only finish my research but to continue working with Laraib and help her develop professionally was a lifesaver.”   Their co-authored study was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Pedagogy in Health Promotion.   Watch the video above to learn more about their work.

Zach Zimmerman and Michael Dores

Zachary Zimmerman’18 is working in the lab of Assistant Professor of Biology Michael Dores, PhD, on a project examining whether certain proteins released from the endothelial cells that line our blood vessels contribute to the growth of glioblastomas, or brain cancers.  Identifying such factors can potentially lead to lifesaving treatments for the devastating disease, which accounts for more than half of all primary brain tumors.

Biology majors must complete two semesters of research as part of their degree requirements, and Zimmerman had already completed one semester when Dr. Dores heard about the Honors College program and recruited him again this fall – this time as a paid assistant.

“With having to teach classes and manage the rest of the lab, I wouldn’t have been able to do this work without Zach,” said Dr. Dores. “It’s nice to have someone who is independent and capable working on this project.”

Zimmerman, who is currently applying to medical schools, said the lab experience gives him a “killer resume.”  He is learning new techniques in cell culture and cancer cell migration, using different instruments and tools such as ultracentrifuges and plate readers, and developing new skills in image analysis.

“I hope one day to work in oncology, treating cancer,” said Zimmerman. “So this work is right up my alley and gives me advantages over someone who hasn’t done this type of research.”

Dr. Dores and Zimmerman hope to submit a paper on their work in the next year or so.

Patricia Welch and Julian Donahue

Julian Donahue’19, a political science and dance double major, is assisting Patricia Welch, PhD, professor of Japanese and comparative literature and director of the Asian Studies program, and Professors Timothy Daniels, PhD, and Patricia Hardwick, PhD, of the Dept. of Anthropology with digitizing a collection of about 110 Wayang Gedek shadow puppets that were recently gifted to the University.

The puppets, which represent a Southeast Asian folk storytelling tradition that dates back to the 800s and is still used today, will be catalogued in a searchable digital archive in Hofstra’s Digital Resource Center and will serve as a valuable research tool for Asian Studies students and scholars. The puppets themselves will be added to Axinn Library’s Special Collections Department.

“This summer I worked with someone who has a Balinese dance company; I’m really interested in the performing arts and aesthetics of this region, which is similar to where these puppets are from,” said Donahue. “As an American, I’m not that well versed with shadow puppetry, but as a dancer, it’s really interesting to learn about the movement qualities that are involved in this kind of storytelling.”

His responsibilities include helping the professors photograph each puppet, develop tagging information, and conduct historical and cultural research.  The archival site will also contain an introduction to the genre of Wayang Gedek and Southeast Asian puppetry, lists of stories, and photographs of performances, among other elements.

“The four of us are working together to make this archive available to researchers around the world,” said Dr. Welch, who says she had Julian in mind for the assistantship because she had admired his work ethic in her Japanese literature class.  “Julian brings a lot of creativity to his work, and as a practitioner of dance, he offers us a different perspective that is very useful.”


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