This image of a brain appeared in a Research Day presentation on traumatic brain injuries.
The 19 Research Day winners had to communicate their work for a general audience

Nineteen projects completed by students and postdocs won awards at Princeton Research Day on May 11. The event showcased some of the research happening across campus throughout the disciplines, from ideas for tackling climate change to various medical interventions. Judges considered both in-person presentations and three-minute video submissions and based their decisions on how effectively the research was communicated for a general audience. Winners received cash prizes ranging from $750 to $1,500.  

Learn more about a few of the winning projects:

Understanding Brain Injuries

Nicole Katchur ’17’s choice to focus on head injuries stems from a personal place — her sister suffered from a brain injury as a child. As an undergraduate she majored in neuroscience and now as a third-year graduate student focuses on the long-term impacts of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) to understand what leads to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The latter has been recently found with greater frequency in athletes who play contact sports and military members and is believed to be linked to repeated blows to the head. 

“What I hope to accomplish is to understand that transition period, so we can identify a protein or a protein network that we can target for therapeutics,” Katchur said. “I don’t know if that will happen in my time here … but that would be the ultimate goal.”

For her research, Katchur repeatedly injured the heads of fruit flies using a device that administered powerful bursts of carbon dioxide through a tube, then she studied the changes over time. After screening more than 700 proteins, she found support for the theory that repeated injuries eventually lead to CTE. 

Katchur won the Graduate Student Impact Award for her video presentation, given for clearly communicating the positive impact of research “on enriching or improving our culture, community, or society,” the award’s description states. 

Katchur was glad to see others found value in her work. “I realized that this is something that’s applicable to a lot of people especially because it is a silent epidemic. Everybody knows somebody with a brain injury and people are always worried about what’s the long-term outcome,” she said. “We don’t know if somebody gets hurt now, what’s going to happen to them in 20 years.”

Developing Clean Air Solutions

After the Princeton University Energy Association’s (PUEA) fall conference in December, Vinay Konuru ’24 and Kelvin Green ’24 began discussing projects they were working on. Konuru, an electrical and computer engineering major, was working on a direct air capture device to extract carbon dioxide from the air, while Green, a civil and environmental engineering major, was building a microbial electrosynthesis reactor to convert carbon dioxide into acetic acid and other valuable products. “From the beginning we noticed a little bit of a natural synergy there,” Konuru said, so the pair decided to team up. 

Both were inspired by the class Negative Emission Technologies, taught by mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Kelsey Hatzell, and they asked her and Zhiyong Jason Ren, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, to be their advisers. By bringing their designs together, the duo believes they can design a product that will offer cheaper negative emissions technology and a valuable renewable product from the acetic acid produced. Acetic acid is used to make various items including vinegar, paints, and adhesives, making it a valuable foundational element of many products.   

The video Konuru and Green submitted for Research Day explains the process of each of their designs and how they can work together to tackle climate change. As of May, the direct air capture device was about 65% done and the microbial electrosynthesis reactor was about 50% operational. Once complete they will also need to work through the best way to transfer the carbon dioxide and are considering mimicking a setup similar to a seltzer stream. 

“While early in development, we’re excited to be working in this critical and rapidly evolving space that we believe will be essential in mitigating the worst ramifications of climate change,” Green said. 

The pair’s project was one of the five awarded the Outstanding Presentation Award given to video submissions that received the highest scores. This year there were 128 submissions. Both plan to continue this work for their senior thesis, and hope to one day make this product scalable. 

“We can really be on the forefront of getting both these technologies … in some sort of commercial viability, but right now it’s just not there, which is why we see so few companies in this space,” Konuru said. He added that he’s excited for the possibilities as the duo is still learning from Princeton researchers who bring so much expertise to the table. 

Encouraging Transparency in Diving

When Lauren Okamoto ’24 was younger, she would play a game where she’d guess diving scores before the judges revealed them. A competitive diver for about a decade who was recruited to join Princeton’s team, Okamoto found her guesses usually didn’t line up with the judges and wondered exactly how they came up with their scores. The computer science major decided to try and address this question for her junior independent work.  

Dives are evaluated based on four phases — the start, takeoff, flight, and entry — and given a 1-10 score by each judge (the Olympics has seven judges.) The highest and lowest scores are removed, and then the middle scores are added and multiplied by another number representing the degree of difficulty to come up with the final score. Going into the project, Okamoto expected to find bias in the entry phase where the splash occurs. 

To test this theory, Okamoto collected videos of dives and split each into the four phases. She then applied machine learning to analyze the videos that mimicked a human judge’s scoring style to measure how much each phase is weighted. She ultimately found that the start and entry were weighted higher, meaning the middle phases are undervalued. “I thought that if judges are supposed to be looking at these four phases, they should hopefully be looking at them relatively equally,” Okamoto said. 

She added, “I struggled a little bit to interpret those results.” Okamoto speculated that cognitive biases like the natural human tendency to pay attention at the beginning and end of things and whether a judge is familiar with a diver may explain these findings. She won the Outstanding Presentation Award given to the five video submissions that received the highest scores. 

She hopes this research helps bring awareness to the issue and encourages more transparency in the judging process. “Based on these results we may need to rethink how we should be scoring dives in a way that can more fairly account for all phases of the dive and also for all types of divers whose strengths may lie in different phases of the dive,” said Okamoto, who hopes to continue this research for her senior thesis.