RISE up for research

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Allie Nicodemo, Molly Callahan, Bill Ibelle, and Jason Kornwitz contributed to this report.

Cabot Cage buzzed with excitement on Thursday, as more than 400 students showcased their work at RISE:2018, the university’s Research, Innovation, and Scholarship Expo, organized by the Center for Research Innovation.

Over 2,000 industry leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, and technology enthusiasts attended the annual event, which culminated in an awards ceremony in East Village.

Among the winners was Samantha Ernst, S’18, who won two awards—the Video Pitch Award and the undergraduate award in the Interdisciplinary category. Her project focused on using electronic health records and data linkage techniques to faster and more accurately identify children experiencing abuse and maltreatment. She found that current reports underestimate the true rate of child maltreatment, and that using electronic health record data resulted in a 12 percent increase in the number of cases identified.

Graduate students Avery Watterworth and Van Vivian Nguyen, both MA’19, were also multiple award-winners, claiming honors in the Humanities and Arts graduate category and the Innovation category. They built a prototype designed to mitigate and redistribute storm and flood water through an integrated structural system. Drawing inspiration from the biological composition of trees, the prototype consists of concrete umbrella columns designed to capture and channel rainwater into surrounding channels and marshes.

James C. Bean, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs,  congratulated the RISE participants for their outstanding work, adding that research activity at Northeastern has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

“Today is a day to celebrate our position as a leading research university, and for you, the students, to practice Northeastern’s unique brand of use-inspired research,” he said.

Here is a snapshot of RISE:2018, featuring projects from disciplines across the university.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

There’s a box for that: Personalized subscription service for dementia care

When Julia Janigian’s grandmother Miriam was diagnosed with dementia, it was her great-aunt, Miriam’s sister, who stepped in to care for her. Janigian’s great-aunt told her how much happier Miriam seemed when she had something to keep her busy throughout the day.

Enter BusyBrain, a personalized subscription-based box of activities designed for those with dementia and their caretakers—a project inspired by Janigian’s lived experience and informed by her study of experience design at Northeastern.

The service, which Janigian presented at RISE:2018 in its demo phase, is tailored to each user through an introductory survey that assesses individual needs, strengths, and weakness. The box, which can be set up to be delivered at weekly intervals, includes tactile activities, questions to spark conversation, and personalized photo puzzles.

The impact of discrimination on weight control among LGBTQ+ students

There’s plenty of research to show that college students are at higher risk for developing eating disorders, but not all students are the same, said Laura Fischer, a doctoral candidate in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. For example, LGBTQ+ students can encounter specific discrimination that may impact their propensity to develop unhealthy weight control behaviors—effects born out in Fischer and her team’s research.

In a small sample of 48 LGBTQ+-identified students, the vast majority reported having experienced discrimination due to their identity. More than 60 percent of those sampled also reported that they would skip meals or eat very little throughout the day to maintain or achieve a certain body weight. “These are not sustainable, healthy ways to control weight,” Fischer said.

According to her, the results of the pilot study indicate a greater need for prevention strategies on college campuses. “There’s a need to recognize that this population has a different experience and to adopt healthy strategies that address those different experiences.”

The research is still in its infancy, but Fischer hopes it will lead to the development and implementation of targeted interventions for unhealthy weight control behavior.

Blockchain blood donation

In the wake of a devastating 2010 earthquake, Haiti was in desperate need of blood donations. One of the problems with procuring it was the siloed, individual data systems each country uses to track and distribute blood donations, said Eric He, ME’19.

“The blood donation systems across nations don’t trust each other,” he said. “There’s no easy way to transport blood cross-nationally. It’s really a supply-chain problem.”

So, He and his colleagues created a blockchain prototype for blood donation. The transparent, secure, publicly-accessible database would track blood from the donor through the recipient and everything in between.

By utilizing the technology—the same harnessed by Bitcoin—blood donation can occur internationally through a centralized, readily-accessible system, he said.

For now, though, the researchers are still developing the process. They’ll soon work with local hospitals to better understand the blood donation supply chain in order to fine-tune their database system.


Age and the internet

Did you know that your internet search strategy depends on your age? Or that the older you are, the more likely you are to underestimate your ability to use Google, Yahoo, or DuckDuckGo?

That’s what Callie Marsalisi, S’18, found when she asked three different age-based groups to complete four search tasks followed by a self-evaluation. One prompt: “Find an instructional video about how to change a car tire.” Another: “What does DARE mean?”

Participant behavior, recorded using screen capture software, revealed that 18- to 28-year-olds favored short searches with nouns and verbs while 42- to 67-year-olds opted for more sentence-like queries. Those born before 1950 employed more prepositions and conjunctions and often tested their searches before revising them.

Marsalisi, a fifth-year linguistics major, didn’t find any significant differences in the time it took the various age groups to execute their searches, indicating that each strategy was equally efficient and legitimate. But she did discover that participants’ confidence in their ability to use internet search engines decreased as age increased, implying that older individuals underestimated their own ability to use the tool.

“Older people can learn to use technology and are already better at it than they think they are,” she explained. “It’s important to reduce both public and personal stigma regarding older people and computer literacy.”

Is human exceptionalism a threat to the planet?

Nicole Betz believes that it’s going to require more than engineers and scientists to build a more resilient society, which is why she’s devoted her doctoral thesis in psychology to addressing climate change.

In addition to devising solutions to climate change, we have to address the psychological barriers that stand in the way of implementing those changes. Her theory is that one of those barriers is the instinctive belief that humans stand apart from the ecological network that binds all living things.

Known as anthropocentrism—or human exceptionalism—this belief holds that we’re smarter, more adaptable, and far less connected to the chain of life than other species, so climate change isn’t going to substantially harm us.

To test her theory, she set up a string of complex experiments to test perceptions of how humans are related to other plants and animals in terms of biology, ecology, and other factors. Using a test population of 54 students, she found that there is a strong correlation showing those who instinctively believe in human exceptionalism are far less concerned about climate change.

“If we want to change public attitudes, the first step is to understand where that misunderstanding comes from,” she said.

Her next challenge will be to determine how to use this insight to devise strategies for increasing public support for policies aimed at slowing climate change.


Better cancer screening

The available tests for colon cancer are either expensive, uncomfortable, or inaccurate. Anirudh Kamath, CIS’22, believes there’s a better option. The first-year computer science major has developed a way to use machine learning to dramatically increase the accuracy of a $10 over-the-counter test.

The Fecal Immunochemical Test is quick, convenient, and inexpensive. But one-quarter of all its positive cancer tests turn out to be a false alarm. That’s a lot of unnecessary anxiety and expensive hospital tests. Short of a full colonoscopy, the only accurate alternative is the Stool DNA test, which requires a prescription, costs $640, and isn’t covered by most insurance.

Kamath had an idea: What if machine learning supplemented the $10 test with two set of readily available personal health data that predict a person’s chance of getting cancer? If you combined that data with the inexpensive test, would you get more accurate results?

Kamath used machine learning to assess cancer risk using the person’s family medical history and personal lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, and smoking. He then matched these odds with the positive cancer results from the $10 test and, voila—he raised its accuracy from 75 percent to 90 percent.

The accuracy of his results matched those of the $640 prescription test, and the user got the results in five minutes rather than two days.

How can slime mold help us build better roads?

This has to be one of the most unusual ideas to come out of RISE:2018—using slim mold to improve transportation systems in the developing world.

Freshman biology major Brian Best asserts that 21st century engineers can learn a thing or two from the evolution of the slime mold over the past 500 million years.

“The slime mold thrives on the forest floor, and when it needs food, it sends out branches of slime at random,” Best explained. “When it finds food, it sends out multiple branches, calculates which is the most efficient path, and then pulls the rest of the slime branches back into its body.”

Best noted that there are more than one hundred developing counties in the world and that an effective transportation system is essential for economic development.

So why not put the slime mold on the job? After all, it has spent millions of years learning how to find the best route.

Best created a six-inch culture medium in the shape of the Caribbean island of Grenada. He put the slime mold nearby and then put a delectable piece of slime mold cuisine (an oat) in the location of the six largest island communities.

The slime mold sent out its tentacles, groping at random for the treats. Then it retracted all the slime from the inefficient routes. What remained was, in theory at least, a map of the optimal road system between Grenada’s biggest towns.

There was, of course, one problem—Best’s agar map was flat while the island of Grenada is mountainous. So he created biological barriers to mimic the rivers, bogs, and ravines that would affect road construction. Unfortunately, the wily slime simply slid itself underneath the barriers, rather than going around them. So Best is now working on ways to embed the barrier into the agar rather than placing them on top while also developing a 3-D model to mimic the island’s topography.

Best is a realist—he concedes that the idea still needs some work. But you have to give him credit for thinking outside the box.

Sports and politics

Kyle Rossini, SSH/DMSB’20, is a “big sports fan.” It’s part of the reason why he wanted to examine how the NFL and NBA have handled the surge of star athletes who have used their celebrity status as a platform to promote social change and speak out against injustice.

What he found is that the two leagues have taken diametrically opposed views on what he calls “political athleticism.” The NBA has praised players for speaking out, he explained, while the NFL has taken a harsher stance on player protests—especially since the Trump administration began applying pressure to the league.

“The NFL is working to bring the number of players protesting to zero,” said Rossini, a third-year combined major in political science and business administration. He pointed to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as a prime example. “He’s said that those who kneel shouldn’t play.”

Rossini found a correlation between NFL and NBA viewership and the two leagues’ appetites for promoting social change. Over the past three seasons, he said, viewership of NBC’s Sunday Night Football declined from 22.5 million in 2015 to 18.2 million in 2017. During the same time period, viewership of NBA Finals games increased from 19.9 million to 20.4 million.

“The presence of politics in sports now has the power to play a crucial role in deterring and attracting viewers,” he said. “Athletes are becoming more influential figures and can singlehandedly sway ratings.”

Rossini is not done exploring the interplay between sports and politics. He plans to apply for an undergraduate research scholarship to conduct a field study at NFL and NBA games, saying “I want to see how different parts of the country feel about what’s going on.”