Undergraduate Research Excellence: Students and Mentors

Quick Summary

  • Honored faculty members: Alexander Aue (statistics) and Nicolas Zwyns (anthropology)
  • Emily Kappenman recognized for her mentorship as a graduate student and postdoc
  • Plus, a listing of student prize-winners and honorable mentions

Acting Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ken Burtis recently presented this year’s Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, honoring mentors as well as students.

Graduate Council Awards

New awards go to Vicki Smith, professor and chair of sociology, for her mentoring of graduate students; and Jean VanderGheynst, professor of biological and agricultural engineering, for her mentoring of postdoctoral scholars. See story.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the outstanding research opportunities that our students enjoy would not be possible without the extraordinary commitment and efforts of our exceptional faculty,” Burtis said at the awards ceremony, held June 3 at the Student Community Center.

He gave three Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring Research, to two faculty members and a project scientist, telling them: “Thank you for your vision, your patience, your stewardship of these fine young minds.”

The honorees:

Alexander Aue, associate professor of statistics, nominated by former students Maggie Gau, Danielle Rosenberg, YuanYuan Shen and Jonathan Yeo.

 Alexander Aue

Since he came to UC Davis in 2007, Aue has guided nearly 60 undergraduates in statistics research activities as diverse as predicting home prices, monitoring pesticide concentrations in California water, modeling of treasury bonds, reducing childhood obesity rates in rural Latino children, and using Google Trends to “nowcast” employment rates, car sales and flu epidemics.

His former students are working for such industry leaders as Apple, Facebook and Accenture, or doing graduate study at universities such as Harvard, Stanford and USC.

His students say of him: “Professor Aue has a remarkable ability to translate complex statistics into relatable concepts for undergraduates, and he is exceptionally good at fostering growth … through his patience and approachability. Through (his) hands-on approach to mentorship, we built the skills to succeed on teams in research and the work force. 

“He is especially aware of the difficulties (that) female students face in STEM fields and … was almost relentless in the idea that we keep learning and aiming higher than we could even imagine.  No one had ever had so much confidence in us, or made us feel so brilliant and valued.”

Nicolas Zwyns, assistant professor of anthropology, nominated by 17 undergraduate interns.

Mugshot: Nicolas Zwyns

Zwyns, a paleoanthropologist whose research focus is the earliest dispersal of modern humans into central Asia, teaches a popular introductory course on scientific analysis of stone tools.

Teresa Steele, associate professor of anthropology, said many students ask to intern with Zwyns after the course ends. “Dr. Zwyns always says, ‘Yes,’ and finds a place for the students in his lab.”

This year, Zwyns mentored 17 undergraduates, with 10 of them presenting their work in April at the UC Davis Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities Conference. That same month, Zwyns included undergraduates in a research group that traveled to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to collect data on stone tools in a museum.

“It would be simpler to only teach. ... It takes something more to be a mentor, and whatever that is, Dr. Zwyns has it 17 times over,” Aurora Allshouse wrote on behalf of all the student nominators. “He is working tirelessly to cultivate the next generation of researchers, thinkers and problem solvers, and is the best example of what makes UC Davis the outstanding university that it is.”

Emily Kappenman, recognized for her mentorship as a graduate student and postdoc. She has since moved on to be a project scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, working with Professor Steve Luck in his Laboratory for Basic and Translational Cognitive Neuroscience.

 Emily Kappenman

Kappenman started mentoring as a grad student, and, as a postdoc, helped create ASPIRE (Accelerating Success by Providing Intensive Research Experience) in 2014. The program gives top students the chance to begin working with leading faculty in hands-on research in their freshman and sophomore years.

Professor Luck nominated Kappenman for the award, and student Raphael Geddert added his support: “My experiences in this lab have completely changed what I see myself doing in the future. Emily’s mentorship opened doors I never foresaw.”

Kappenman and Luck were unable to attend the awards presentation, given that they were attending the annual ASPIRE Research Symposium. So, Professor Luck surprised Kappenman by presenting her Chancellor’s Award for Excellence during that program.

Undergraduate honorees

Each student who receives a Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research also receives a Dean Keith Simonton Prize ($500), named after the UC Davis distinguished professor of psychology. Simonton established the prize fund with the money he received as the recipient of UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement in 1994.

Here are this recipients of the Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Research (with the students’ majors in parentheses):

  • Nathan Daniel Jayne (biotechnology), for research on key steps in cell division during plant cell growth. Sponsored by Georgia Drakakaki, assistant professor, Department of Plant Sciences.
  • Zion Ariana Mengesha (linguistics and philosophy), for research on linguistic profiling, or the impacts of attitudes toward African American Vernacular English. Sponsored by Robert Bayley, professor, Department of Linguistics.
  • Jessica West (biochemistry and molecular biology), for research in support of the development of sustainable management approaches to spotted wing Drosophila, a fly that feeds on fresh fruits, and is fast becoming a serious economic pest. Sponsored by Joanna Chiu, assistant professor, Department of Entomology and Nematology.

Honorable mention

  • Mark Jaradeh (neurobiology, physiology and behavior), for research on the mechanisms behind cardiac arrhythmia. Sponsored by Ye Chen-Izu, associate professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering.
  • Timothy Kai Stapleton (behavioral design, an individual major bridging design and psychology), for research on biomotion visibility aids, to make bicyclists more conspicuous at night. Sponsored by Helen Koo, assistant professor, Department of Design.
  • Roy Wang Qu (genetics and genomics), for research that expands the range of therapies that could be explored in the field of nonhealing bone fractures. Sponsored by Damian Genetos, assistant professor, Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Cell Biology, School of Veterinary Medicine.

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