Gemstone Honors Program

Class of 2009 Teams

Answer Poverty

Individuals who do not use mainstream financial services, such as transactional bank accounts or small loans, are often subject to high transaction fees, predatory lending practices, and other impediments to long-term wealth building. In addition to the common barriers preventing the unbanked population in America from using mainstream financial services, many Latino immigrants are uniquely susceptible to the fringe banking sector. Our research sought to understand the extent to which and the reasons why some Latino immigrants in Langley Park are not using mainstream financial services. To gather this information, we coupled national and local financial data with data collected in our focus groups in Langley Park.  From this information, we made recommendations to the various banks, community organizations, and local leadership that will improve the extent to which Latino immigrants in Langley Park utilize mainstream financial institutions. Our hope is that our recommendations will lead Latino immigrants to partake in financial literacy training as well as mainstream financial services.  This, in turn, should help Latino immigrants in Langley Park make better financial decisions and accumulate long-term wealth.

CARE: Community Assessment of Resident Experiences

We conducted a comprehensive needs assessment of the Langley Park community to help CASA de Maryland design a new multicultural community center.  Langley Park, located less than three miles from the University of Maryland campus, is a community distinguished by its predominantly immigrant population. Because of language and cultural barriers, census data and previous needs assessments of the community do not provide sufficient data to determine which services need to be included in the new center.  Throughout a year and a half of research within the community, we collected information via surveys with Langley Park residents and interviews with service providers and community leaders in the area. Data was analyzed to determine the utilization and satisfaction level of services that are currently offered in the community. This study will allow CASA to tailor the multicultural center's offerings to meet the needs and demands of the community.

FASTR: Finding Aleternative Specialized Travel Routes

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has been a catalyst of  progress in creating a more accessible nation, there is still room for improvement in this area. Up-to-date information about wheelchair-accessible facilities, and how to navigate to them, has traditionally been difficult to obtain by the public. A way to overcome this problem is to have the information publicly available to be continually updated by its users. We implemented this type of community-sustainable navigation system at the University of Maryland, College Park campus.  We conducted interviews with people who use wheelchairs on campus in order to establish the need for an online interactive map that provides door-to-door routing information for the campus. After establishing a need for the system, we worked with Software Engineering at Maryland (SEAM) teams to develop a map, called TerpNav, which allows users to request to avoid stairs and steep hills, a feature specifically designed for people using wheelchairs. After making the map available online, we then surveyed registered map users to determine user satisfaction and possible improvements to the map. Using this information, we worked with another SEAM team to create a new, updated version of TerpNav. The second version of TerpNav incorporates some community-sustainable features that were not seen in the previous map. TerpNav has now been incorporated into the University of Maryland website, and we hope that it will continue to be used and updated by the community, especially people using wheelchairs

HEAT: Human Energy Acquisition Technology

Current energy generation strategies focus on large-scale renewable sources of energy such as solar and geothermal, but they overlook smaller scale sources such as people. Team HEAT has developed a strategy for Human Energy Acquisition Technology that will redefine they way we think about renewable energy. By capturing the energy that people exude during their exercise activities we can generate energy to be used for building electricity. We surveyed 600 university students to determine the interest in this kind of technology. The answer was overwhelmingly positive. The majority of students who are planning to join a gym after graduating even said they’d be willing to pay higher membership fees to join a Green Gym. We needed this information to be able to tell gym owners that people want to see this change, want to feel like they are actually doing their part to help the environment. The technology for retrofitted exercise bicycles already exists and so we decided to look into the feasibility of creating a Green Gym, using the University of Maryland’s Eppley Recreation Center as a case study. Using the ERC’s Itron software to monitor the gym’s energy usage we were able to determine how much energy they use throughout the year. Using the formulas for energy saving that retrofitted bicycles would provide we saw an annual saving in energy costs. We also created a business plan that models the positive rate of return smaller gyms would realize if they convert to our Green Gym.

iGEM: Isolating Geobactoer Electricity-Producing Mechanisms

The exploration of renewable sources of energy is becoming increasingly important in today’s society. Our team worked with microbial fuel cells which use naturally occurring bacteria to break down organic substances and produce electricity. These bacteria, Geobacter sulfurreducens, have a relatively unique ability to grow on conductive electrodes in the absence of oxygen. However they also lack the ability to grow or survive for long periods of time in oxygen atmospheres. This makes current laboratory work difficult and decreases the viability of Geobacter based fuel cells as a major power source.  Consequently Team iGem investigated the ability of G. sulfurreducens to tolerate the presence of oxygen, or its aerotolerance. Specifically we examined the role of two oxidative stress enzymes, catalase and superoxide dismutase, in protecting the cell from oxygen damage. We hypothesized that increasing the amounts of these enzymes present in a bacterium would also increase its aerotolerance. Therefore we set out to engineer strains of G. sulfurreducens that produced these enzymes at higher levels.  We did this by creating plasmids containing the genes for these enzymes with inducible promoters. Once this was done we transformed our bacteria with these enzymes and evaluated the changes in enzyme production as well as aerotolerance. We also had to ensure that this change did not negatively affect the original electrical production and so we compared the new strain to the wild type bacteria to determine whether any changes had occurred.

JUICED

We designed a project surrounding the use of protein supplements by college-age student athletes. Through survey collection, kidney function modeling, and biochemical analysis, we have addressed the potential risk of this protein-using population developing kidney disease.  We surveyed active students on campus to find the protein supplementation patterns of the athletic community at the University of Maryland and inquired about the participants' risk factors for kidney disease. On average, participants using protein supplements were consuming double the recommended daily allowance. Participants with risk factors for kidney disease did not consume any less protein than those not at risk.  Using mouse mesangial cells and gene expression studies, we investigated the molecular response of increased glutamine, a protein building block, on kidney cell function. We found a significant increase in the gene expression of a cellular lipid receptor and two sclerotic factors, suggesting a molecular pathway for kidney disease.  We also developed a chromatography protocol for isolating and quantifying glutamine in popular protein supplements to understand our participants’ supplemental intake. Three protein products were found to contain more glutamine than reported on the labeling by the manufacturer.  From a unique interdisciplinary perspective on the risks of protein supplements, Team Juiced suggests to improve awareness of the potential risks of these supplements and a possible change in our government’s current regulatory system.

No More Needles

Currently, needle-based injections are by far the most popular means of insulin delivery for diabetics. Although reliable, these injections can be inconvenient and painful to perform on a daily basis. On the other hand, flexible lipid vesicles have shown promise as a means of transdermal drug delivery, with the potential of complementing or even replacing traditional needle injection methods. Unlike needles, lipid vesicles offer the advantages of being painless and non-invasive. Vesicles are made flexible by incorporation of a chemical surfactant in moderate amounts. While the addition of surfactant increases the apparent flexibility of vesicles, it may also hinder vesicle stability. In order to assess the viability of lipid vesicle for drug delivery, we studied changes in the size and apparent flexibility of vesicles with varying surfactant concentrations over a six-week period. In addition, we studied the effects of these changes on vesicle permeation of a skin-like barrier.

Om

Despite a recent increase in research pertaining to the benefits of yoga practice, research focusing on the relationship between yoga practice and attention is limited.  This study followed a quasi-experimental pre-test, post-test design to measure whether physical activity had an immediate effect on selective attention and mental concentration in young adults, aged 18 to 25.  More specifically, this study compared yoga and aerobic exercise classes to assess whether the meditative aspects of yoga practice improved attention beyond aerobic activity. The experimental (yoga) and control (aerobic) groups completed two surveys and the d2 Test of Attention at two observation points: immediately prior to and immediately following participation in their respective classes.  A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) found a statistically significant improvement between pre- and post-test scores on attention for both groups, with a greater improvement for the aerobic group. The findings show that physical activity has an immediate effect on the attention of the sample. The study's findings do not suggest that the meditative component of yoga has a greater effect on the selective attention and mental concentration of young adults than basic aerobic exercise.  Based on the results of this study, we recommended that yoga practice has practical implications for young adults who wish to improve their attention. 

Risky Business

Our research objective was to examine the likelihood of the gateway drug theory versus the likelihood of a general risk taking personality. Using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), we examined age of first marijuana use, age of first cigarette use, age of first alcohol use, age of first sexual intercourse, times in a physical fight and how these variables related to the likelihood a person trying cocaine. Our findings lend support to the theory that people, specifically teens, demonstrate a propensity towards risk-taking rather than drug-specific behaviors. A longitudinal study would aid in clarification of the results.

Saving Testudo

Diamondback terrapin populations in the Chesapeake Bay region have declined from their historic abundance because of multiple factors, including commercial harvesting, habitat loss due to human development and erosion, drowning in crab and eel pots, and accessibility of nests to predators. In areas with high raccoon and red fox populations, predation on diamondback terrapin nests by these mammals can be significant. We studied the use of electric fences on terrapin nesting beaches to reduce mammalian predation of terrapin nests. During the summers of 2007 and 2008, we set up treatment (fenced) and control (unfenced) plots on two nesting beaches of the lower Patuxent River near Mechanicsville, Maryland. Our objective was to design and test a system that would allow access to nesting areas for female terrapins and simultaneously exclude mammalian predators. We monitored the plots daily or several times per week throughout the nesting season and recorded the number of intact and depredated nests. Over the 2-year study, the depredation rate within treatment plots was 40% (4 of 10 nests) compared to 69% (20 of 29 nests) in control plots. We believe that electric fences have potential as a conservation technique for reducing mammalian depredation on diamondback terrapin nests.

SHINE: Students Helping Implement Natural Energy

Our research goals arose from the group’s concern about the quality of life in developing nations and the astounding failure rate of solar home systems in these regions.  According to a 2004 report by Nieuwenhout and colleagues, 38% of solar home systems are either only working partly or are not functioning at all.  We chose to focus on how common problems that degrade photovoltaic systems affect the voltage output of the systems.  We found five major problems that can degrade or damage a solar home system.  Our goal became finding a method of detecting these problems quickly and accurately so that they could be addressed.  To accomplish this, we set up 18 solar home systems on the roof of the Glenn Martin Engineering Building.  We then simulated these common problems on our systems while collecting voltage data from the batteries and panels.  Using this voltage data, we were able to create computer algorithms that could detect which (if any) problem is occurring on a solar home system at any given time.  We tested multiple detection methods, and our most successful one performed with 87% accuracy.  These algorithms could be used in future research to create a device that could be attached to actual systems for a period of several days and detect which problem is affecting the system.  This device would allow such problems to be detected and addressed early, which in turn can reduce the high failure rate of solar home systems in developing countries.

VISION

The goal of Team Vision is to create a navigation system for the blind. To achieve this, our team took a multi-pronged approach, looking at both the technological and social aspects of such a system. First, through the use of general surveys, we assessed the needs of the blind community and developed our system around the survey results. Using the latest technology, we combined a global positioning system (GPS), inertial navigation unit (INU), computer vision system (CVS), and speech-based interface into one complete system. The global positioning system and inertial navigation unit work together to provide walking directions from building to building in an outdoor setting. The computer vision system enables us to identify and locate objects of interest, such as signs and landmarks, both indoors and outdoors. Finally, the speech-based interface ties the GPS, INU, and CVS together into an interactive audio-based navigation device. The resulting system provides two modes of operation: when outdoors, it guides users to the entrance of specified buildings, and when indoors, it guides users to important objects such as cellular telephones, wallets, or even restroom or exit signs.

VOTE-CP: Voice of the Electorate-Collegiate Participation

“Young people don’t care about voting” has been conventional wisdom that has stigmatized youth voters in the U.S. for decades. At the same time, historical data shows that citizens between the ages of 18 to 24 vote at a lower rate than older demographics in the United States. Gemstone team VOTE-CP wanted to find out what is behind this “conventional wisdom” and what is really going on with one segment of the youth vote: college students. We studied undergraduate students at UMD to find out why students do or do not vote and based on this information, to develop a turnout tactic to use in an experiment during the 2008 general election. We conducted focus groups in fall 2007 to gather information about students’ motivations for voting or choosing to abstain. We used the themes from the focus groups to develop a survey to distribute to the broader campus population in spring 2008. With feedback from almost 1,000 students about issues related to voting to confirm or deny trends from the focus groups, we were able to develop a turnout tactic focused on distributing candidate info and absentee ballot applications to students during the 2008 Presidential Election, with the aim of increasing voter turnout among University of Maryland students.