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WVU student researchers and lawmakers come together at Capitol

A student with short, curly dark hair stands in the rotunda of the State Capitol wearing a dark suit. To his left side is a research poster. A person with long brown hair stands with a back to the camera and listens.

Ethan Harner, a WVU geography major, explains his research on using creative placemaking in the Mountain State during Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol, Feb. 10, 2023. (WVU Photo)

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Undergraduate researchers from West Virginia University connected with policymakers at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston Friday (Feb. 10), providing an overview of the important work being done in dental care, mental health and substance use, and children’s health care.

Those are just a few of the topics covered by 72 WVU students during Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol. Nearly 120 participants total from nine institutions presented in the areas of creative arts, education, health sciences, the humanities, STEM and social and behavioral sciences.

“As an R1 institution and a land-grant university, WVU is a leader in high-impact research projects that benefit the state of West Virginia,” Amy Hessl, director of the WVU Office of Undergraduate Research, said. “Undergraduate student researchers are integral in the research process and this event is a great opportunity for them to share their findings and experiences with lawmakers, to learn about the legislative process and see how research can affect policy decisions.”

This year, students were mentored by faculty from the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, College of Creative Arts, College of Applied Human SciencesDavis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and DesignEberly College of Arts and Sciences, School of Dentistry and School of Medicine.

Recognizing West Virginia continuously ranks among the top three states in tobacco and electronic cigarette usages, dental hygiene students Savannah Lahey and Megan Merritt set out to better understand the effect of sweeteners in electronic cigarette vaping liquid on the growth of Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria responsible for cavities.

The pair looked at four common sweeteners — erythritol, ethyl maltol, sucralose and vegetable glycerin propylene glycol.

“West Virginia has a higher percentage of individuals with total tooth loss compared to the national average,” Lahey, a native of Charleston, said. “When thinking about vaping or smoking, the most talked about issue is how it affects the lungs and pulmonary system. There is limited information on how vaping affects other parts of the human body, specifically on the teeth within the oral cavity.”

To provide a more accurate representation of vaping and its effects, the student researchers utilized an e-cigarette diffuser to mimic the mechanism of vaping, something prior research did not use.

“Unlike the other three common sweeteners, which increased the amount of Streptococcus mutans over time, we found that sucralose did not,” Merritt, a Monaca, Pennsylvania, native, said. “In a way, our findings are a good thing, as Streptococcus mutans did not increase. However, we strongly oppose vaping even with these results.”

In a state where the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated already high rates of substance use, addiction and mental health illnesses, it was important for Isabella Crouch, a psychology major from Hurricane, to understand how the pandemic affected her peers.

She investigated the associations between future time perspective — or how a person thinks about their future — the perceptions of COVID-19 and the coping strategies college students used to combat depression and anxiety symptoms during the pandemic.

“This research shines a light on the dangers of college students coping by using substances,” Crouch explained. “West Virginia is a state that struggles heavily with addiction, so it is important to tackle this issue head on and prevent the state’s youth from partaking in unhealthy coping mechanisms for their mental health.”

Recommendations for coping through healthy behaviors include meditation, relaxation, exercise and socialization with others.

“All of these coping strategies are related to lower levels of depression and anxiety symptoms as well as creating a more positive outlook for the future,” she said.

WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital is a leader in advanced technologies and techniques used for pediatric surgeries such as those for children diagnosed with craniosynostosis, a birth defect in which the bones in a baby's skull join too early and often leads to surgery around six to nine months of age.

According to Anushka Pathak, a Morgantown native and biology major with a minor in addiction studies, teams at WVU Medicine perform these complicated surgeries with favorable outcomes including minimal complications and very low blood transfusions from optimal medical and surgery management.

She and Antonio Perez, a biochemistry major from Morgantown, sought to provide a descriptive analysis of how those results are achieved.

“Optimizing these patients before surgery, during surgery and after surgery with advanced surgical techniques makes this possible,” she said. “We also compared our outcomes with the national average. Ours match closely the top five centers in the country for blood loss prevention, length of stay, transfusion needs and complications.”

See the complete list of WVU undergraduate researchers presenting at Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol



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