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Primary Investigators: UB Undergraduates Get Hands-on Research Experience

Published May 24, 2013

U.B. Undergraduates walking along the spine

While most students are settling into the new semester, Alanna Olear, a University at Buffalo environmental engineering major, will be in campus bathrooms measuring the amount of paper towels that were used that day.

“The research is my way of using my education to give back to UB and the environment. Improving the hand drying systems at UB is a small piece in solving a large problem. ”
Alanna Olear , student
Environmental Engineering major

The Amherst native is attempting to answer an age-old question that has frustrated most who have ventured into a loo: is it better to use a hand-dryer or paper towels?

But Olear is not concerned with which option dries one’s hands quicker.

Olear, one of many students taking advantage of UB’s undergraduate research opportunities, is studying which alternative leaves a smaller environmental footprint throughout the life of the product. To accomplish this, she will measure the amount of money and energy used through manufacturing, production and regular use to determine which is more wasteful.

“People ask me what my research is about, and I say paper towels because I like to see their reactions. They just laugh and think it’s funny,” says Olear.

“But it has a good purpose. The research is my way of using my education to give back to UB and the environment. Improving the hand drying systems at UB is a small piece in solving a large problem. A lot of small pieces can add up."

The study she is leading was accepted into the 2013 New York State Pollution Prevention Institute Student Competition, a state-wide contest that enables students to design solutions to real world environmental challenges.

Under the supervision of James N. Jensen, UB civil, structural and environmental engineering professor and faculty director of the Research Exploration Undergraduate Academy, Olear orchestrated this experiment all before the end of her junior year.

Traditionally, research at universities is carried out by graduate students, however, Timothy Tryjankowski, director of UB’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities, believes the norm is changing.

“The students entering UB as freshmen are asking from day one, really from open house and orientation, ‘Okay, I made it to UB. Now how do I get to medical school, law school or graduate school,’” says Tryjankowski.

Banuna Barinaepkee, biological sciences and psychology major, started even sooner, as she began studying Human Immunodeficiency Virus in high school. Now a college sophomore, Barinaepkee continues her research under Gene Morse, PharmD, UB pharmacy practice professor and associate director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.

After collecting data on HIV trends in the U.S., Barinaepkee presented her work at a Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program Conference over the past summer. Her presentation titled, “An Update on HIV,” highlighted that African-American males who were homosexuals were the only group with an increase in the rate of new infections. It also identified two new antiretroviral therapy treatments called Treatment as Prevention, or TasP, and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, which she plans to further investigate this upcoming summer.

Although Barinaepkee did not conduct hands-on research, she still found the experience rewarding.

“Even though it wasn’t me doing the research in a laboratory, people were interested in the knowledge,” says Barinaepkee. “Sometimes research is not just in the lab. It’s also sharing information with other people.”

Helping people share information is the center of Xiang Lin’s research. Lin, a senior computer science major, merged Google’s Cloud Platform with their Android operating system to create a data storage application called Contacts Cloud Book.

The app will allow users to store their contact information inside Google’s servers to avoid losing the data in the event their cell phone is lost or damaged.

Constructing a virtual phonebook is only the beginning for Lin, who with the help of Bina Ramamurthy, UB teaching associate professor in computer science and engineering, plans to utilize big data computing methods to develop the app to handle large financial and medical data.

Whether studying the latest medical treatments or creating the newest cell phone app, undergraduates at UB are making an impact on the world through their research while discovering what their passions are.

“By doing what we do best, imagining, creating and educating, we are raising the bar higher every day in every field of study at UB,” says Tryjankowski.