Marshall students excel at statewide research competition

Friday, April 27, 2012

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Two Marshall University student researchers captured prizes in an oral presentation competition held last Friday and Saturday in conjunction with the joint West Virginia Academy of Science annual meeting and the biennial STaR (Science, Technology and Research) Symposium.

Brittany M. Whited, a senior mathematics major from Hurricane, received first place in the undergraduate student category for a presentation about her project to create graphs used to simulate changes in the pattern of plant stem curvature. She received a cash prize of $750. Her project was supported by the university’s Undergraduate Mathematical Biology Research program, which is funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Irfan A. Khan, who is pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical sciences, was recognized with second place in the graduate student category for his talk about his work to develop a microfluidic cell culture system that could eventually lead to improved portable systems for testing water toxicity. Khan, who is from Huntington, received a $500 prize. His research was also funded by NSF.

Whited and Khan were among more than 120 undergraduate and graduate students from across the state who entered the competition by submitting abstracts describing their research and findings. Students could chose to either display posters or give 15-minute oral presentations at the conference, which was held on the campus of West Virginia State University in Institute.

Whited thanked Dr. Marcia Harrison-Pitaniello, professor of biological sciences, and Dr. Scott Sarra, professor of mathematics, for their support during the year-long project.

“This research has really taken me out of my mathematical comfort zone, as I've been learning all about numerical analysis methods—the crux of my research—as I go,” she said. “It probably has been the most challenging part, but was definitely rewarding. I've loved being able to apply mathematics to life sciences, a wonderful joining of two of my interests.”

Whited added that presenting research is important for a student’s professional development for a couple of reasons.

She said, “One, it forces you to try and simplify all this work you’ve been doing, making it accessible to those without prior knowledge. This helps internalize the ideas and methods you’re using.

“Second, it really brings a great sense of pride to see how far you’ve come and to show it to other people. It’s easy to lose sight of the progress you’ve made when you’re working on it every day.”

Whited also acknowledged her research partner Kate Chuchiak, a junior environmental science major from Wellsburg, as well as student researcher Don Silver for his previous work on the project.

Khan said the recognition is rewarding for him on several levels.

“I have worked so many hours and conducted so many experiments to get a single piece of data I could confidently present to an audience, it means a lot to me,” he said.

Khan added that English is a second language for him, so presenting at the conference also gave him confidence.

“I didn't want to present in this conference, but my advisor Dr. Bin Wang insisted. She is awesome!” he said. “I have learned English just by watching English movies. So, winning this award means a lot more to me than it may to someone else.

“I have always had trouble presenting my research to an audience who may not have a lot of relevant experience and this conference was a testing ground. I think every student should present their research in every conference possible.”

Khan said the most exciting thing about his research project was learning to use confocal laser scanning microscopy in the university’s Molecular and Biological Imaging Center.

He acknowledged microscopy technician David Neff for helping him learn the fine details of optical and electron microscopy, saying, “He has helped me perfect my research methods just by being critical. I am also very grateful to him for sacrificing many of his hours just to help me through the complex experiments.”

Kahn also thanked Dr. Charles Somerville, dean of the College of Science, “for supporting me from the very beginning of my days in Marshall University.”

The conference— the first time the two organizations have held a joint meeting—drew more than 350 faculty members, researchers, students, policymakers and members of the state’s high-tech business community.

The event marked the 87th annual meeting of the West Virginia Academy of Science and the fourth biennial STaR Symposium. The theme of last week’s joint conference was “Innovation:  Concept to Commercialization.” The program featured sessions about biotechnology start-ups; private and government support; research funding opportunities; and how to make the transition to the private sector.

For more information, including a complete list of student researchers and abstracts describing their projects, visit

Contact:  Ginny Painter, Communications Director, Marshall University Research Corporation, 304.746.1964