Student using VR

The Mountaintop Summer Experience project “Porting and Optimizing for VR Headsets” invited the Lehigh community to slip on virtual reality headsets and explore the Lehigh River watershed.

DNA Storage, Black Maternal Health, Safe Water Storage Among Research on Display at Summer Research Expo

Nearly 80 projects were featured Thursday from the Mountaintop Summer Experience, the STEM Summer Institute and the Marcon Institute.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Holly Fasching, Christa Neu

More than 100 students from across disciplines gathered throughout Mountaintop Campus’ Building C on Aug. 3 for the third annual Summer Research Expo, presenting nearly 80 research projects to the campus community.

The afternoon event capped 10 weeks of the students’ paid summer undergraduate research through the STEM Summer Institute (STEM-SI) (29 projects presented), the Mountaintop Summer Experience (35 projects) and the Marcon Institute (11 projects).

The expo was an opportunity for the students to showcase the breadth and depth of some of the undergraduate research that took place over the summer on campus before work on many of the projects continued during the 2023-2024 academic year. The expo also gave the students the opportunity to share ideas, practice their presentations and obtain feedback.

Professor Vassie Ware, co-director of Lehigh’s STEM-SI program with Professor Neal Simon, said the STEM-SI had evolved from Lehigh’s previously funded Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute (sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute) that highlights cross-disciplinary research from cohorts of students, the majority of whom were from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM.

Roman Mitchell ’24 presenting his project

Roman Mitchell ’24 explains his STEM-SI project.

“Research engagement among these constituencies tracks with Lehigh’s strategic diversity, inclusion and equity goals.” Ware said. “Importantly, we are providing opportunities for diverse groups of students to build research leadership skills early in their Lehigh career.”

Roman Mitchell ’24 was among the STEM-SI students showcasing their work. Mitchell’s project uses artificial intelligence (AI). in hopes of improving segmenting images for first responders after hurricanes. Currently, Mitchell said, segmentation is based on using images taken by unmanned aerial vehicles or drones that are loaded into models that color code maps based on what is shown. First responders use the images to assess damage and flooding, among other things, after the severe weather. The problem, he said, is that the current methods are not efficient enough when rapid response is necessary.

Using a new AI-powered tool from Meta, Segment Anything, Mitchell hopes to improve accuracy in segmenting for first responders so they can better gauge whether buildings or roads are flooded, the amount of damage to buildings and the number of buildings and other objects (trees, vehicles, etc.) in the images.

“The goal right now is finding a way that we can be more accurate and more efficient, especially when it comes to speed and segmented images,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been very accurate when using this in the summer. The comparison of these to what the ground is actually like is highly accurate. I’d say higher than 80%.”

Josephine Osroagbo ’25

Josephine Osroagbo ’25 presents her STEM-SI project, “Systematic Review: Safe Water Storage."

“Systematic Review: Safe Water Storage” was another STEM-SI project on display, presented by Josephine Osroagbo ’25. In addition to conducting a systematic review of peer-reviewed papers and global guidelines for safe water storage, Osroagbo said she hopes to identify evidence gaps with research studies. She said the full text screening isn’t quite complete, but soon the project will move on to data extraction, followed by quality assessment and data analysis. Once the data is all collected, the team will be able to interpret the results, understand the specific data collected and start writing a manuscript.

“Our audience is everyone, especially WHO [World Health Organization], since they already have research about safe water storage but there hasn’t been any intervention,” Osroagbo said. For example, UNICEF also has a lot of papers about housing and drinking water and hygiene, studies that have been done in the 2000s to 2017. But there hasn’t been any intervention for like, ‘OK, this is what should be done instead.”

Reflecting on the 35 projects that were part of the Mountaintop Summer Experience, Bill Whitney, assistant vice provost for experiential learning programs at Lehigh, said, “Every year, the existing summer programs are growing and new programs are being created, all to respond to the vast demand from students and faculty to work on authentic projects that matter outside the typical two-semester academic calendar. The expo is a wonderful chance to celebrate and honor their hard work and real, game-changing accomplishments.”

President Joseph J. Helble ’82 speaks with student

President Joseph J. Helble ’82 speaks with a student who was presenting their project.

Students Jonah Burd ’24 and Quan Le ’26, in presenting their Mountaintop Summer Experience project—“Porting and Optimizing for VR Headsets”—invited the Lehigh community to slip on virtual reality headsets they hope will aid in educating the public about the environment. Participants were able to explore the Lehigh River watershed and learn about the environmental impact of development in the Lehigh Valley—without leaving their seats.

Two games the team developed are “Watershed Explorers,” which takes players through locations around the Lehigh Valley watershed over the past 200 years, and “Lehigh Gap Story,” where players learn about the environmental impact through activities and completing objectives.

The duo has already developed four games, which begin as desktop versions before ported over to virtual reality headsets for easier access.

“When students go on a field trip, we can give them something like this for them to know what’s going on before they get there so that they can absorb the knowledge much better when they are actually there,” Le said.

Hashem Al-Hattab ’26 and Issac Levine ’25 presented the work they’re doing with Adrian Fernandez ’26, Maeve Diver ’25 and Nathan Edmondson ’25 on “Purple Drop—DNA Computation,” another Mountaintop Summer Experience project.

“What we’re trying to create is an alternative approach to conventional storage mediums that are present at the moment,” Al-Hattab said. “So, silicon chips or drives.”

DNA storage has been used in a very basic way for manual storage mediums, Levine said, but this team is taking a different approach.

“We’re using DNA suspended in water droplets that we can move around automatically to perform basic computer operations,” Levine said.

With silicon chips approaching their physical limits, transistors can’t be made smaller. And putting more on a surface becomes less efficient and uses more power, explained Levine.

They said this technology could currently be used for cloud storage.

The “Purple Drop—DNA Computation,” another Mountaintop Summer Experience project.

The “Purple Drop—DNA Computation” team presents their Mountaintop Summer Experience project.

“Big companies have really large warehouses just full of computers to store data from the cloud,” Levine said. “And DNA, it can make [storage] much smaller, much more efficient.”

Fellows from The Marcon Institute, established in 2021, presented at the expo for the second time.

“The Marcon Mountain Hawks lead with radical love, and the Summer Research Expo offers each cohort their first opportunity to present their projects to the community,” Holona Ochs, director of Lehigh’s Marcon Institute and associate professor of political science, said. “The expo is the perfect time to engage with the community, share ideas and get feedback on their progress. This year the Marcon Institute is focused on challenging the mainstreaming of white supremacy through public facing and peer-reviewed scholarship, healing workshops, researching and implementing solutions to health and educational inequities and building antiracist solidarity to confront the rising hatred threatening democracy.”

Marcon Institute scholars who displayed projects included Aminata Coulibaly ’25, who presented her initial work on “Black Women Deserve To Grow Old.” Addressing health gaps by focusing on Black women’s maternal health is a topic she said she has been working on since high school, but didn’t get as far as she hoped due to interruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Marcon Institute provided her an opportunity to continue her work.

Her goal is to compose a paper with her research findings to help raise awareness about the topic.

“This is a topic that people tend to just brush under the rug,” Coulibaly said. “They don't really pay attention to it, or when they hear about it, they tend to get scared, because it's a really heavy topic. No one likes to talk about how Black women are suffering in America.”

Faith Dorsey presents her project

Master's public policy student Faith Dorsey presents her Marcon Institute project, "A Place for Everyone."

Coulibaly also hopes to talk to local hospitals in the Bethlehem area about their ethics training protocols or possible unconscious bias in their ethics protocols and possibly publish an excerpt of her paper in the local media.

Another Marcon Institute project, “A Place for Everyone,” features master’s public policy student Faith Dorsey’s work with the Greater Shiloh Church in Easton, Pennsylvania. The pastor of the historically Black church, according to Dorsey, wanted to serve the homeless population with a new shower program, especially during the summer months, and Dorsey partnered with them and joined a church committee to assist.

After meeting weekly for months, they opened three showers on July 18 and provided clothes and hygiene products. They also teamed up with a local laundromat to provide vouchers to clean their clothes for free. So far, Dorsey said they have served over 50 people and plan to continue through the fall, when they’ll transition the program into their winter shelter.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Holly Fasching, Christa Neu

Related Stories

food pantry being stocked

Lehigh Opens Two New Food Pantries for Students in Need

The food pantries are located in Johnson Hall on the Asa Packer Campus and Iacocca Hall on the Mountaintop Campus.

flags behind a fence

Study: Threat of Deportation Leads to Psychological Distress Among Both Latino Citizens and Noncitizens

Amy Johnson and research collaborators find it’s not just undocumented immigrants who feel at risk.

Nicole Johnson research

New Research Highlights Link Between School Shootings and Violence Against Women

Research led by Nicole Johnson, associate professor of counseling psychology, finds that 70% of school shooters have perpetrated violence against women and can influence prevention strategies.