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Journal, Symposium Highlight Villanova Student Research

Student presenting research

The Center for Research and Fellowships’ (CRF) annual Student Research Symposium returned in-person in November 2021. A virtual event, “Outstanding Research at Villanova” took its place in September 2020, with a mix of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty giving brief presentations.

This year, more than 125 accomplished undergraduate students who engaged in summer research—either on-campus or at other institutions—had the opportunity to share their work with the University community. A CRF-sponsored event since 2009, the Symposium is both a showcase of the students’ work and a vital professional development experience.  

The Student Research Symposium challenges students to distill and communicate complex ideas and findings in a succinct and accessible way. Such presentation skills are vitally important for researchers, and this experience helps build a robust foundation upon which our students can build. Numerous symposium participants have gone on to continue their research beyond Villanova, winning prestigious national fellowships and awards and earning admission to some of the most prestigious graduate and doctoral programs in the U.S.

This 2021 symposium featured undergraduate and graduate students—representing the colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Business, Engineering and Nursing—discussing their work through poster or oral presentations. Among the 2021 symposium’s participants are 125 undergraduates, many of whom received  a grant through one of CRF’s undergraduate research programs: the Villanova Undergraduate Research Fellows, CRF Research and Travel Grant, and CRF Summer Housing Award.

Veritas: Villanova Research Journal Volume III cover image

Research authored by Villanova undergraduate students and recent alumni was recently published in Volume III of Veritas: Villanova Research Journal (VVRJ). This open-source journal, sponsored by the University’s Center for Research and Fellowships and Falvey Memorial Library, promotes scholarly investigation and discovery; introduces student researchers to the peer review process as contributors and student editors; and highlights the work of Villanova students and their faculty mentors across all fields of study.

The journal’s third volume, which is available online and in print, contains nine submissions in disciplines including Bioethics, Biology, Chemical Engineering, Communication, Ecology, Engineering Entrepreneurship, Mechanical Enigineering, Philosophy and Psychology.

VVRJ Contributors

Allison Bajada '23 CLAS
Heading Down the Right Path: The Future of Prenatal Testing for Trisomy 21

Sarah-Vaughan Brakman, Professor, Philosophy (Mentor)


Until recently, the two primary methods by which fetuses were tested for Down Syndrome were amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling (CVS), both of which are invasive and pose a risk of miscarriage. Thanks to a novel non-invasive prenatal test (NIPT), women can discover with near certainty whether their fetus will be born with Down Syndrome easily, early on in the pregnancy, and entirely safely. When a positive test is received, women make the decision to abort approximately 50% to 60% of the time, with the remainder of mothers keeping the child or placing her up for adoption. This has sparked a tremendous debate regarding the moral permissibility of the test – we are trapped between a desire to provide women with the most information possible regarding their pregnancies and concerns regarding the rights of the fetus, as the only solution that eliminates the diagnosis in the case of a positive test is the termination of the pregnancy. The lack of treatment for Down Syndrome means that while the practice of prenatal testing is considered by many an advancement in healthcare on the one hand, there are many who fear that the practice undercuts the rights of the fetus and perpetuates ableist attitudes that suggest that only rational life is worth living. There also exists a fear of coercion – due to the power dynamic that exists between doctor and patient, there is the risk that women will feel pressured to conduct NIPT against their will, or even be pushed in the direction of aborting the fetus upon receipt of a positive test.

In this paper, I will show that the arguments in the literature positioned against prenatal testing for Down Syndrome are reducible to two main arguments, one of which is deontological and the other teleological, neither of which are morally persuasive. After examining both of these arguments and the responses to them, I will demonstrate that we are morally obligated to present this test to all pregnant women in the early stages of their pregnancies and encourage them to take it, although any woman who wishes to opt out of the procedure may do so. Not only should NIPT testing be offered to all, but I believe that it should be an aspect of prenatal care that is subsidized by the government and incorporated into our prenatal testing battery. For this process to be ethical, however, true autonomy must be maintained through complete freedom of information. This means that all women who receive positive tests must have access to subsequent nondirective counseling that thoroughly and clearly explains the reality of raising a child who has Down Syndrome. If we desire to uphold the right to liberty that each person is entitled to, we have the moral obligation to provide complete information and counseling that is non-coercive to parents of fetuses who test positive for Down Syndrome. This is conducive to the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of all children, and will ensure their best lives and proper care above all else.

Jason Mitala ’22 CLAS
Coalescent Love: A Philosophical and Psychological Exploration of the Phenomenon of Love

Paul Camacho, Associate Director, Augustinian Institute Arthur J. Ennis Post-doctoral Fellow in the Humanities (Mentor)


What do we mean by “love?” Historically, this question was answered by philosophers, poets, theologians, and laypeople, but it is only recently that we have begun exploring the question from a scientific perspective. I argue that, to understand love clearly, we must draw from a variety of academic disciplines. My research explores a variety of contemporary and historical views of love and synthesizes these sources in favor of a multidimensional approach to academic inquiry. I trace thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Josef Pieper, Anders Nygren, and Erich Fromm and put their philosophies in conversation with a modern psychological theory, “Love as Mutual Communal Responsiveness.” I propose that paradoxes that occur in both our psychological and philosophical systems (such as the “problem of unselfish altruism”) can be answered only via an interdisciplinary conversation. I conclude that concepts such as altruism and self-love can only be studied psychologically insofar as they are understood philosophically and posit that this integration provides us with a more robust understanding of love.

Lindsay Gallagher '22 VSB, CLAS
Welcome to AnxietyTok: An Empirical Review of Peer Support for Individuals Living with Mental Illness on Social Networking Site



The mobile app TikTok is different than any other platform before it, thanks to its highly sophisticated algorithm that shows users a custom feed of videos tailored to their interests and identities. The site is especially popular with young people and encourages a high level of creativity and engagement among users, which provides a space for communities to form and thrive. One of these is the mental illness community, where users tell personal stories, share accomplishments, and tell jokes about getting treated for and living with mental illness. I chose to focus specifically on videos made by people that identified as having a mental illness themselves. In this observational study, I sort TikTok videos into four categories -- informational, anecdotal, humor, and accomplishment sharing, and the resulting comments under those videos into six categories -- praise, questions, strategy sharing, experience sharing, criticism, and agreement with the creator. The proliferation of the mental illness community on TikTok allows users to feel empowered by sharing their stories and start dialogues to raise awareness and celebrate one another’s victories.

Bildge D. Kocak '24 CLAS
Closing the Gender Gap in Tech Entrepreneurship: An Analysis of Tech Entrepreneurship and Mentorship Programs in Undergraduate Education

Engineering Entrepreneurship
Lauri Olivier, Director of Engineering Entrepreneurship and Assistant Professor of the Practice (Mentor)


Currently, women-led startups receive only 2.3% of VC funding (Bittner), even though women-led tech startups have 35% greater ROI and 12% higher revenue than all-male startups (“Facts”). To change these statistics, creating unique frameworks that enable women to overcome the perceptual and social barriers that keep them from realizing their potential is essential. The purpose of this study is to evaluate how a college education can contribute to reducing the gender gap in tech entrepreneurship by giving specific suggestions to Villanova University. In the first part of this study, the tech entrepreneurship opportunities for women and the mentorship programs on entrepreneurship in other universities are analyzed to identify how other colleges address this issue. For this reason, 15 universities are selected: six of them due to their shared Catholic background, and the remaining nine due to their proximity to Villanova University. In the second part of this study, a case study on the tech entrepreneurship trends at Villanova University is conducted through an analysis of the 2011-2020 datasets on the engineering entrepreneurship minor obtained from the College of Engineering. Results show that when the impact of female-male student ratios in engineering majors are disregarded, the pure female engineer interest in this minor is only 43.5% of the total engineer interest, revealing the need for improvement. By creating more gender-specific seed funding opportunities, incubator programs, and various types of mentorship activities through a database, Villanova University can better help female students realize their potential in tech entrepreneurship.

Philip Yang '21 CLAS
Caroline Markmann '21 CLAS
Kevin Voigt '22 CLAS
Robert Braverman '21 CLAS
Passive Warming Chambers Decrease Abundance of Flying Insects

Adam Langley,  Associate Professor, Biology (Mentor)


Understanding how organisms and ecosystems will respond to higher temperatures is important for mitigating the effects of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Many ecologists employ open-top chamber warming experiments to assess temperature effects on plants and soils, but often ignore how these chambers might affect multi-trophic interactions in these ecosystems. Plant-animal interactions, or lack thereof, can influence plant responses to warming. Using sticky-traps to measure insect abundance in open-top warming chambers, we sought to understand how chambers influence the abundance of flying insects. Insect abundance was over four-fold higher in control plots than chamber plots. Soil temperatures did not differ between warmed and control plots while air temperature was 1 °C higher in chambered plots than controls. Shading effects were noticeable from temperature data. We conclude warming chambers restrict flying insect populations from interacting with primary producers in our plots. The chamber effect on insect abundance is an important artifact that other studies should consider when measuring ecosystem responses to increased temperature.

Ariana Abbrescia '21 CLAS
Dawn Chorus Male Song Patterns in Relation to Ancestry in the Black-capped Chickadee × Carolina Chickadee Hybrid Zone

Robert Curry, Professor, Biology (Mentor)


Signals used in mate choice and intermale competition can deliver important information about the genetic quality of the sender, often serving as prezygotic barriers to hybridization. Our research aims to assess the extent to which song, as an acoustic mating signal, can reliably indicate a male’s ancestry, as well as the ways in which signal learning can become muddled in hybrid zones. I analyzed data from 2016 – 2019 involving Poecile atricapillus (Black-capped Chickadee) and P. carolinensis (Carolina Chickadee) and their hybrids at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. Species-diagnostic SNP genotypes provided information about ancestry for each male, while autonomous acoustic recording units yielded samples of dawn chorus male repertoires mostly prior to incubation. The sample of males (N = 20) comprised 10% Black-capped Chickadees, 50% Carolina Chickadees, and 40% hybrids. Repertoires ranged from only Black-capped Chickadee songs to a mixture of Black-capped and Carolina chickadee songs, sometimes including new, unique hybrid songs that did not fall under either category; no observed repertoires comprised solely Carolina Chickadee songs. Song patterns did not actively reflect genetic identity in the hybrid zone: dawn song repertoire characteristics, in both song participation and repertoire composition, did not correlate with the proportion of Carolina Chickadee alleles. This supports previous studies involving acoustic signaling in this chickadee hybrid zone, which have found that the genetic introgression of Carolina Chickadee alleles in the population does not coincide with a simultaneous cultural change in song repertoires towards Carolina Chickadee songs. Instead, Black-capped Chickadee songs can dominate the acoustic culture for years, even after Carolina Chickadee alleles become predominant as the hybrid zone moves northward. These findings support the hypothesis that learning environment and neural template, more so than ancestry alone, shapes song repertoires of individual chickadees, which could affect mating patterns and hybridization dynamics.

Simon Blanchard '22 COE
Analysis of miRNA and mRNA Environment in Transfected Cell Lines

Chemical Engineering
Jacob Elmer, Associate Professor, Dicciani Endowed Professor, Assistant Chair of Graduate Studies (Mentor)


The central dogma of biology is that DNA codes for mRNA, which is then used to produce proteins. This is one of the reasons that gene therapy is such a promising field, as mutated genes and their products can be manipulated. Mutations in patient’s genetic code can lead to dysfunctional proteins and serious disorders, but gene therapy can be used to correct defective proteins that cause disease by replacing the mutated DNA, or by granting a cell new means to produce a desired protein. However, the real process is not this straightforward since mRNA are regulated by various processes, including miRNA. The goal of the project was to determine the interactions between miRNAs and the therapeutic genes (transgenes) used in gene therapy treatments. Initially, the small RNA content of several human cell lines was analyzed to identify any endogenous miRNAs that might interfere with transgene expression by binding to its 3’ UTR. An additional goal was to identify any miRNAs that were differentially expressed after transgenes were introduced into the cell, which are miRNAs that play a role in the innate immune response to foreign DNA. Sequencing data were obtained for the miRNA and mRNA present in several cell lines: human embryonic kidney cells, HEK293-T, prostate cancer cells, PC-3, and a breast cancer cell line, MCF7. Bioconda, a Python script designed for bioinformatic research was used to align and analyze the data. The number of miRNA in each cell line increased by a statistically significant margin following transfection, although the majority of the miRNA aligned with non-regulatory domains of the plasmid and thus did not likely have a regulatory effect. Of the miRNA that were found, only miRNA 6724 was found in all three cell lines and was a reverse compliment of the 3’ UTR. Additionally, miRNA 6724 has been identified in some studies as having an inhibitory effect on mRNA transcripts to which it binds. Low levels of mRNA that covered the entire plasmid were present, which are likely products of transcription or from the genome, as the backbone regions of the plasmid should not be translated. mRNA that coded for GFP was present in the highest levels, which was to be expected since that is the protein that the plasmids were designed to express. The presence of high levels of the ampicillin resistance gene relative to the baseline suggests that strong bacterial promoters may be able to function in eukaryotic cells, which raises the possibility of off target effects and reactions from transfected cells if other parts of the plasmid are transcribed to mRNA and translated to proteins.

Samuel Thomas '22 COE
Water Vapor Condensation on Bio-inspired Patterned Structures

Mechanical Engineering
Calvin Hong Li, Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering (Mentor)


This report presents combined simulation and experimental investigations of water vapors condensing on patterned surfaces. The simulation utilizes the k-epsilon model for turbulence as well as Lee model condensation in ANSYS Fluent Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) package. 3 types of patterning are utilized, including cubes (Square Bumps), semicircles (Circular Bumps), and cones (Triangular Spikes), with a non-patterned control case. The results illustrate that patterns with higher surface area result in higher liquid condensation. The simulation results show that a maximum water condensation of 1.2844e-003 grams over 10 seconds and 35  happened on the Square Bumps structure surface, and experimental results confirmed this with an average water condensation of 5.4156 grams for the same surface, which was also the highest yield for the experimental trials.

Falvey Scholars Project

Chloe Benson '21 CLAS
The (Dis)Invention of Black Women: A Rhetorical Analysis of Intersectional Oppression within Cosmetics Practices

Billie Murray, Associate Professor, Communication (Mentor)


The American beauty industry has long reproduced the dominant Eurocentric worldview which consistently excludes Black women from the ideal. Most popular brands fail to properly represent Black women within their brands if they even feature products for them at all. Even in the most extensive ranges, there is often a clear lack of consideration for the needs and desires of women of darker complexions. This failure at the inclusion of Black women within the beauty industry is indicative of the larger dominant discourse in U.S. culture which privileges whiteness as the norm. One specific way in which the dominant public works reproduce a racist discourse around beauty standards are within their foundation shade names. Many popular brands use naming systems for their shades that hypersexualize and exoticize Black women by associating their skin complexions with edible food items like espresso, hazelnut, cocoa, and mocha. This association tantalizes Black women, contributing real material harm to Black women. My research asks: How current rhetorical meaning structures within the cosmetics industry serve to reproduce racialized and gendered discourses that negatively impact black women?

Through my rhetorical analysis which has been grounded in a Black Feminist approach, I have found that non-white women, particularly women of color, are impacted differently by rhetorical naming practices in the cosmetics space. Through my coding process, I analyzed six rhetorical artifacts, finding that foundation shade naming practices illustrate how the skin complexion continuum aligns with racialized and gendered discourses that place Blackness in opposition with whiteness and relegate Black womanhood to a unique dual position of invisibility of feminine beauty and hypervisibility of race. These practices reproduce a harmful rhetoric that deems black women as tough enough to handle pain—even violence, domestic, sexual, and otherwise.