Exploring new frontiers: Arts & Science student research projects shaping tomorrow's solutions

May 27, 2024 by Sarah Khan - A&S News

How can farmers feed an increasing global population while also dealing with the effects of climate change? What drugs can help patients manage pain after surgery? And how can we help people living with Alzheimer's disease identify and recognize the faces of loved ones?

These are some of the issues that Arts & Science students explored during the Research Opportunities Program (ROP) last term. The ROP gives second- and third-year undergraduate students a chance to participate in real-world research with a faculty member.

Nina Yue and Selen Bayram standing in front of a bulletin board showing research information.
Nina Yue and Selen Bayram share their research about facial identification.

As part of the program, over 140 ROP students from 38 different academic units presented their research at the Arts & Science Undergraduate Research Poster Fair in March.

Featuring the work of undergraduate students engaged in faculty-led research projects, the research fair is always such an exciting and inspiring event,” said Colin McMahon, associate director, experiential learning in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “It showcases the students' truly remarkable contributions to advancing knowledge in diverse fields of research."

This year’s research projects included:

Effect of preoperative hydromorphone and oxycodone on post-surgical chronic pain

Each year, more than 200 million surgeries take place globally. While it’s normal for patients to experience pain after surgery, 15 per cent continue to experience pain three months afterward. This chronic pain disproportionately affects certain demographics, including children, women and Indigenous people and has a significant impact on their quality of life.

Ethan Chen, a member of Victoria College, investigated how using the opioids hydromorphone and oxycodone before surgery affects chronic post-surgical pain. Using a combination of statistical tests and data from Toronto General Hospital, Chen found that using one opioid over another did not have a significant impact on post-surgical pain. Chen is hopeful this result can help patients and doctors alike. “I believe doctors and clinicians can best optimize their patients’ care based on their individual conditions or allergies and use whichever opioid is better for the patient.”


A soilless future? How hydroponics extend the growing season and overcome the challenges of traditional farming

At a time when farmers around the world are facing challenges like climate change and the loss of arable land, fourth-year student Fizza Qasim seeks to find a solution through the use of hydroponics. This method of growing plants in water without any soil has been tested in a variety of applications, from growing medicinal plants and crops to growing cannabis.

Qasim, who is a member of University College, tested whether hydroponic crops would grow faster when fertilized with calcium and worm fertilizers. The results have been encouraging. “In hydroponics, the organic fertilizers promote more yield faster,” she said. “Crops like lettuce germinated and sprouted in one-fifth of the time compared to lettuce grown in soil.” This research has the potential to be expanded into the real world. “For further research, we want to see the long-term effects and whether this can be used at a large scale to help save the future of the agricultural industry.”


Making the invisible visible: Exploring the relationship between identity affirmation and feelings of invisibility for queer people of colour

Psychology student Marina Papachristos, a member of University College, documented feelings of invisibility experienced by queer people of colour within their ingroups. “I evaluated their identity affirmation, or their sense of belonging to their social groups, and how that sense of belonging correlates with feelings of invisibility within their ingroups,” she says.

Using the Queer People of Colour Identity Affirmation Scale, a research tool developed at U of T to study intersecting racial and sexual identities, Papachristos found a correlation between queer people of colour feeling affirmed in their identity and their feelings of invisibility to their various ingroups. “We have very little information on target experiences of invisibility. This is novel information.” Papachristos chose this research topic to help prepare her for a future career in queer-focused counselling.


The effect of horizontal bias training on facial identification

Our ability to recognize faces declines naturally with age. This decline is more severe in people who have Alzheimer's and other facial identification deficiency diseases because they have difficulties focusing on the horizontal features of the face, such as eyes and eyebrows. Nina Yue, a member of Victoria College, and Selen Bayram, a member of University College, tested whether horizontal bias training could help these people with their facial identification abilities.

Yue and Bayram devised perceptual training using horizontal stimuli. “Study participants were exposed to stimuli which helped them focus on the horizontal features of the face,” said Yue. “We repeatedly exposed them to stimuli to see if they would have any improvement in their abilities to identify familiar and unfamiliar faces, which could improve their everyday lives.” The results of this study were promising; participants, especially older adults, saw a significant improvement after going through the horizontal bias training. Not only were they able to identify faces used in their training, but they also showed improvement in identifying novel faces.

Impact of human-artificial intelligence interactions on human cognition

As artificial intelligence (AI) crosses over from computer labs into daily life, Jon Vincentius, a member of New College, explores how humans are affected by generative AI, especially when it comes to cognition and creativity. Vincentius employed Amazon Mechanical Turk, a platform that connects temporary workers with businesses to measure the divergent thinking capability of humans by giving workers alternate user tasks. “The participants were given common everyday items like a backpack,” explained Jon. “We asked them to come up with other ways of using this item besides its intended use, for example using a backpack as an umbrella.” When the data collection phase of this project is complete, Jon’s group hopes that the results will help guide responsible AI development in the future.