Penn State boasts high national rankings for its graduate programs and is known as a research hub. Each year, approximately 14,000 graduate students study at Penn State, whether in a research master’s, professional master’s, doctoral, or professional doctoral program, spread across nearly 200 areas of study, from the arts to engineering.
For those living outside the world of academia, it can be difficult to see exactly what this wealth of research and scholarship encompasses–and that’s why Penn State invites the public to The Graduate Exhibition each year.
“Our graduate students do amazing creative and research projects that are at the cutting edge of their respective disciplines,” explains Sarah Ades, associate dean for student affairs within The Graduate School. “The Graduate Exhibition provides a forum to showcase and share all the exciting work that Penn State graduate students are doing with members of the Penn State and local community.”
Presentations, Ades says, are designed for a general audience, and range from musical performances to the visual arts, and from research posters to video presentations hosted online.
“Penn State graduate students are exceptional. The exhibition is a fabulous opportunity to hear about a lot of cool research you never imagined was going on. I learn something every year that I attend,” she adds.
To learn a little more about what the community can expect at this year’s Graduate Exhibition, held March 18–April 1, we spoke with five students to learn about their research and how it might just impact your life in the future.
Creating a more transparent and equitable internet
Renkai Ma’s Graduate Exhibition presentation deals with an issue many social media users have come across: censorship that might not always be reliable.
“I’m focusing on how content creators experience creator moderation,” explains Ma, a doctoral candidate in human-computer interaction in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. “Usually when we talk about moderation, we’re referring to content moderation where you probably posted something that’s not appropriate for the platform’s policies or rules. But sometimes, when creating video content, there’s a mixture of video, image, and textual content, so it’s a little bit harder for platforms to moderate.”
In these instances, Ma says, platforms might employ artificial intelligence or machine learning to moderate content, but the process isn’t perfect. When these technologies fail, creators can suffer as content is removed from the platform. For some, that means a lack of income. At the very least, restoring the content will require an often frustrating back-and-forth process with the platform to negotiate the moderation.
“It’s my ultimate goal to improve the system’s design to help shape a better, fairer, and more transparent system for users like creators,” says Ma.
Mary Smith hopes her work leads to cost-efficient
ways for farmers to fight bacterial plant disease. (Photo by Chuck Fong)
Exploring the creative (and fun!) side of science
Mary Smith is studying plant pathology and environmental microbiology, focusing on the genome sequences of an important agricultural bacterial plant pathogen named Pseudomonas syringae, looking for genes that encode for antimicrobial proteins called s-type bacteriocins, which bacteria “use like weapons to kill other closely related bacteria for access to space and nutrients in their respective microbial environments.”
The impact? Smith hopes the knowledge gleaned from her work will benefit farmers, ultimately resulting in much-needed reliable and cost-efficient ways to deal with bacterial plant diseases.
While Smith admits her project–designing a system to label genetic information of an antimicrobial protein–“may not sound like the most exciting project to most people,” she sees it as high-impact work, even if she didn’t consider microbiology as a career focus at all until she was an undergrad at Texas A&M University. There, she discovered a love for the creative side of science, “designing experiments and answering previously unknown questions.”
That love is also informing her future goals. Her long-term plan is to work in a lab serving the public. “Ideally, I would like to work in a government, military, or nonprofit lab leading a group of scientists to answer questions involving microbe-microbe interactions,” she says. “I want to work in an environment where I have the freedom to design and execute and/or oversee the execution of those experiments. The fun part of science for me is the creative aspect of figuring out how to answer the unknown.”
Improving traditional solutions through data and machine learning
Vishnu Kumar hails from Penn State’s industrial and manufacturing engineering program, where he keeps busy exploring how data analytics and machine learning can be used to solve problems in manufacturing and supply chain networks, as well as in health care. This isn’t Kumar’s first Graduate Exhibition rodeo. He won first prize in the engineering category in the 2022 exhibition for his research on how machine learning-based models could predict suicides in U.S. counties and identify counties at high risk. This year, he’s presenting on the ways in which his research can help small and medium-sized enterprises in Pennsylvania.
“Currently,” he explains, “I am building supply chain networks for small and medium-sized manufacturers in Pennsylvania and researching applying machine-learning tools to enhance the resiliency of the supply chains against disruptions.”
He adds, “Many problems that exist in our society have solutions that have been traditionally applied. However, the question is, are they effective and efficient and, if not, can they be improved? In my research, I try to develop new approaches that can enhance the existing approaches and improve them.”
The result, Kumar says, is saved time, effort, and resources.
Making a difference for a growing, at-risk group
Similarly, Jigar Gosalia is not coming into 2023’s Graduate Exhibition as a newcomer. His 2023 presentation builds on his 2022 work, using follow-up data from his continual research on the links between vascular function and cognitive performance.
“In 2022, I focused on how your ability to process mental tasks and cognition were related to the health of your blood vessels. I saw people who were generally unhealthier, who had high blood pressure or poor cholesterol levels, and those with worse-functioning blood vessels, performed a lot poorer on cognitive tasks and mental processing tasks,” explains the doctoral candidate in exercise physiology. “I was interested, based off that result, to see what’s really happening in the brain. That’s where my current dissertation focus is. I’m looking at the brain health in people who are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and disease in general.”
The end result, Gosalia hopes, will be assisting those at risk for cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline to take measures to delay or prevent the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“Looking at different statistics that are updated every year, the rise in Alzheimer’s and dementia seems to be getting steeper. … There have been some improvements in the fields of cardiovascular disease, but it seems like Alzheimer’s and dementia and their projected rates just seem to be climbing exponentially … and the population considered ‘seniors’ or ‘older adults’ is growing exponentially [as well],” says Gosalia.
“With the studies I’m doing here, it’s really exciting to see how some of that work can directly, hopefully, have clinical relevance in this at-risk and growing population, and be able to make a difference in the lives of those people who may be at that higher risk for Alzheimer’s or dementia down the line, and be able to improve things like quality of life, financial burden, and independence.”
Finding joy and meaning in the beauty of music
Wenyi Xiong is a third-year doctoral candidate and graduate teaching assistant majoring in piano performance. However, this line of study is nothing like the piano lessons you may have taken as a child. Xiong explains that obtaining a doctoral degree in piano performance requires three areas of work: practical study (which includes recitals and teaching), theoretical study (on music theory and piano pedagogy), and historical study (on not just music history, but also piano and chamber literature). For Xiong, though, all the hard work is worth it.
“Piano performance–like art, sculpture, theater, dance, or writing–is a way of enhancing the world with beauty,” she says, noting that she chose to pursue her line of graduate studies in order to bring “the beauty of great music to people,” to communicate “emotionally in the medium of sound,” and to touch “people’s lives with the masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin,” and other classical greats.
Her overall goal, though, is to teach, and allow others to spread that beauty further than she can on her own. “Working in education fills my life with joy and meaning,” she adds. T&G
Interested in attending The Graduate Exhibition?
The public is invited to attend all activities associated with The Graduate Exhibition. If you plan to attend, Ades advises, “Come with an open mind, ready to learn and engage with the students. The students are excited about their work and love to share it with others. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Your questions might actually spur a student to think about their research from a perspective they had not considered.”
The exhibition kicks off March 18, when the visual arts exhibitions will first be on display at the HUB-Robeson Center. Then, on March 20, Penn State’s new Recital Hall will host students’ musical performances. Online video presentations will be available for viewing March 20-24 on The Graduate School’s website.
On March 24, the student artists at the HUB-Robeson Center will be available to talk to visitors about their work, share their thoughts on their processes, and answer questions. Also on March 24 at the HUB-Robeson Center, nearly 200 researchers across five categories (the arts and humanities, engineering, health and life sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, and social and behavioral sciences) will present their research posters and be on hand to answer questions.
For more information, visit gradschool.psu.edu/exhibition/.
Holly Riddle is a freelance writer for Town&Gown.