Biological Sciences

OU students earn five awards at annual Sigma Xi conference

Sigma Xi conference 2019

Dr. Gerard Madlambayan, Ann Fuelle, Walter Wolfsberger, President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, Laurel Levine, Erving Laryea, Naomi Haque, and Dr. Sarah Hosch.

Walter Wolfsberger

Walter Wolfsberger with OU President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz. His mentor is Professor Taras Oleksyk.

Erving Laryea

Erving Laryea with OU President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz. His mentor is Professor Colin Wu.

Naomi Haque

Naomi Haque with OU President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz. Her mentor is Professor Ken Mitton.

Laurel Levine

Laurel Levine with OU President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz. Her mentor is Professor Shailesh Lal.

Ann Fuelle

Ann Fuelle with OU President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz. Her mentor is Professor Colin Wu.

icon of a calendarDecember 17, 2019

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OU students earn five awards at annual Sigma Xi conference
Sigma Xi conference 2019
Ann Fuelle, Walter Wolfsberger, OU President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, Laurel Levine, Erving Laryea and Naomi Haque.

Oakland University students continued to demonstrate their research excellence at the 2019 Sigma Xi Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference, which took place November 14-17 in Madison, Wisconsin.

This year, five students received superior presentation awards in diverse disciplines including Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry, and Microbiology and Molecular Biology.

“This is a wonderful recognition of the hard work our students and their mentors perform every day to reach the highest levels in both research and scientific communication,” said Fabia Battistuzzi, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and president of OU’s Sigma Xi chapter.

Sigma Xi, the scientific research honor society, is the international honor society of scientists and engineers. It is one of the oldest and largest scientific organizations in the world, serving science and society for more than 125 years.

The theme for this year’s conference was “Our Changing Global Environment: Scientists and Engineers Designing Solutions for the Future.” A total of 16 OU undergraduate and graduate students presented their research at the event, which also included sessions and talks from renowned scientists, including Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google. Approximately 140 students from various institutions presented at the conference.

“All of us at Sigma Xi are very proud of our students for bringing OU’s research into the spotlight at a national conference, especially with our five gold medal winners that have made our OU chapter number one in the nation for the most awards won from a single institution,” Battistuzzi said.

Sigma Xi members, who are elected to membership because of their research accomplishments, evaluated each student’s presentation. Students were judged based on their scientific thought, method, and communication skills.

In attendance with the students were Gerard Madlambayan, Ph.D. and Sarah Hosch, Ph.D., from Oakland University’s Department of Biological Sciences.

“Our students did an excellent job presenting their work to an enthusiastic national audience,” Madlambayan said.

“They were extremely well prepared, and their presentations were both engaging and insightful,” Hosch added.

Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, M.D., a previous member of Sigma Xi, met with the award winners on Dec. 13 and praised their accomplishments.

“I’m so proud of these students who come from diverse backgrounds and all have a passionate drive to discover,” Pescovitz said. “These students represent the finest minds at OU, and I look forward to following their careers as they work to shape the next frontier of research.”

This year’s award recipients include:

• Walter Wolfsberger, a second-year Ph.D. student in biological sciences, earned a Graduate Division Award for Poster Presentations in the category of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology for his research on the genomics of Puerto Rican horses. His mentor is Taras Oleksyk.

“It’s a unique population with two breeds that were isolated geographically from the rest of the world and bred out of the horses brought to the island approximately 500 years ago,” Wolfsberger said. “While one of those breeds is a luxurious horse highly prized for its unique gait and smooth ride, the other is not considered such, often overlooked and is used for agriculture and tourism.”

Wolfsberger used genomic data to identify the relationship between the two breeds on the island, investigate their inbreeding and discover their origins.

“These results can be used to save the breed from extinction, and save their genetic variability, which we will focus on in the future,” Wolfsberger said.

Wolfsberger was born in Svlayava in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine and completed his first Master of Science degree in computer science at Uzhhorod National University before moving to Puerto Rico, where he obtained a Master of Science degree in bioengineering for his work on a geo-spatial visualization system for genomic and metadata information.

• Erving Laryea, a third-year Ph.D. student in biomedical sciences: health and environmental chemistry was awarded a Graduate Division Award for Poster Presentations in the category of Cell Biology and Biochemistry for his studies on Alzheimer’s disease, a neurological disorder and the most common cause of dementia in adults. His mentor is Colin Wu.

“To better understand Alzheimer’s disease and design effective therapy options, I study the phosphorylation patterns, aggregation properties and the morphological changes of TAU, one of the major proteins implicated in Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis,” he said.

Laryea holds a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and a Master of Philosophy degree in chemical pathology from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and the University of Ghana, respectively.

“It was an honor to have had my abstract accepted and to present my research at the Sigma Xi conference,” he said. “I am very grateful to all who made this possible.”

• Naomi Haque, a second-year M.S. student in biology, has been working on understanding the effects of different isoforms of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in human retinal endothelial cells. Her mentor is Ken Mitton.

“These cells make up the blood-retinal barrier,” Haque said. “An elevated concentration of VEGF is responsible for blood-retinal barrier disruption in diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, and retinopathy of prematurity.”

Her research earned her a Graduate Division Award for Poster Presentation in the category of Cell Biology and Biochemistry.

“My thesis project centers on plasmalemma vesicle-associated protein (PLVAP), which is positively regulated by VEGF,” she said. “We hypothesize that increased blood-retinal barrier permeability may be due to VEGF-mediated elevation of PLVAP.”

• Laurel Levine is a senior biomedical sciences major who plans to graduate in the spring of 2020. She received an Undergraduate Division Award for Poster Presentation in the category of Microbiology and Molecular Biology. Her project centered around a bioinformatics analysis of U12 introns in the version four B73 Maize genome. Levine is from Troy, Mich. and attended Athens High School. Her mentor is Shailesh Lal.

• Ann Fuelle is a senior majoring in biomedical diagnostic and therapeutic sciences with a concentration in medical laboratory sciences. She has been working in the Department of Chemistry as an undergraduate researcher for the last three years. Her mentor is Colin Wu.

Fuelle received an award for an oral presentation. She presented her honors thesis project on the effects of microgravity and the accumulation of DNA damage in human cells.

To learn more about Sigma Xi, visit


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