Research in Fine Arts

Picturing the Defiance of Street Vendors Against the Rise of Industrialization and Corporatization in the Philippines

By Bhen Alan


Portrait of Bhen Alan at work in the Philippines

I am a Senior Art and Design Major with a Painting concentration in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at UMass Dartmouth. My passion for painting is not just for aesthetic reasons. I want to use art to give a voice to the voiceless. I also want to address current socio-political events. Last spring I was a recipient of a (2018) summer stipend from the Office of Undergraduate Research. The goal of the research was to create a body of work about the rising tension between different classes due to rapid corporatization and industrialization in the Philippines. This topic has become a politicized issue since I moved away from the Philippines. Until I was a teenager, I lived in the Philippines and then moved to Canada before settling in the United States. I feel fortunate, because immigration has given me the opportunity to skip the economic crisis that has affected my hometown. However, the culture of the people who make a living in the Philippines is something that I have always loved and respected.

I conducted my research in Tuguegarao City, located in the province of Cagayan. The region is a 12-hour-drive from Manila. This is the city where I was born and raised by my grandmother who is a vendor. Although, Tuguegarao City is not a big municipality in terms of geographical area, the rise of industrialization, corporatization, and globalization is affecting its economy. During the administration of the former mayor, Delfin Ting in 2011, he re-built the old public market in downtown Tuguegarao. He named it the “Mall of the Valley.” This establishment was meant to organize all of Tuguegarao City’s street vendors. It was meant to provide protection and to fix the problem of traffic congestion. Unfortunately, in order for the street vendors to have access to a retail space in the building they had to pay a monthly retail space, provide a business permit, and register at the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) for business taxes. However, the street vendors who sell seafood, meat, produce, flowers, and other goods are incapable of paying these high taxes. Moreover, they cannot afford to own a retail space. For these reasons, street vendors still gather on the sidewalks of the streets of Tuguegarao City. As a result, most retail spaces in the “Mall of the Valley” are now abandoned, and street congestion still remains a big issue because of this situation.


Street vendors flock beside the Mall of the Valley building


As of 2017, large mall operators have emerged throughout the city proper. SM Supermalls and Robinsons Malls, which are the largest malls in the Philippines and Southeast Asia have also entered Tuguegarao City’s territory. The rise of corporatization, industrialization, and globalization in the city is very important for the economy because the city is becoming the center for commerce, industry and service for the Cagayanos. Globalization and industrialization is largely a good thing since it lifts both actual and imaginary boundaries. It brings us closer to each other. However, globalization also makes it hard for a culture to maintain its identity. So, how does a culture maintain its identity while keeping up with the advancement of the modern world?

Robinsons Place Mall under construction for a 60,000 sq. m. floor area making the biggest mall in Tuguegarao City


That is the question I kept asking during the course of my painting research, which involved ethnographic work. The body of work I produced focuses on the city’s lively and energetic streets because of hardworking locals who work from dusk to dawn to bring liveliness and dynamism to the city. My paintings showcase the street vendors who sell their locally grown goods, thus competing with the rise of globalization and corporatization in Tuguegarao City. The local vendors are able to maintain our tradition and practices through local marketing while the city is able to keep up with the modern advancements. The duality our city is offering is very important for the economy. Despite this idyllic description, Tuguegarao faces many multi-dimensional challenges of poverty. During my first excursion to the public market, I unexpectedly met Elsid Natividad who is a Capitol officer who gives “arkabala” or a cash ticket that serves as a market fee to the street vendors. Since a new mayor, Jefferson Soriano, is now running the city, one of his policies is allowing vendors to sell their goods and products in certain areas. They do not need to have a business permit or apply to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, they just need to clean up their spaces at the end of the day and pay “arkabala” which costs 10 pesos or .20 cents (USD). This serves as their daily tax for using a 1×1 meter space. The tax goes to the government for public funds. If they exceed a 1×1 meter retail space, their “arkabala” will be doubled or tripled. Unfortunately, since large malls and big supermarkets are  competition, some street vendors are unable to pay the market fee because of lack of customers. Their last resort is to pack up their products and leave the space before the officer gives them a ticket. But some street vendors are also successful as the informal sector of the society.

Cash Ticket or Arkabala serves as the daily taxes of street vendors. It cost 10 Philippine pesos of .20 cents U.S. dollars


Products like garments, accessories, and even appliances may not sell well in the streets, but any kind of edible material is a big hit. Filipino customers bargain their prices to get a product cheaper, which is why they prefer to buy their meat, seafood, and produce outside supermarkets according to Alice Rioja, a seafood vendor in the street of Tuguegarao. She proudly claimed that customers buy more of her seafood products and reject the supermarkets because of their fixed and expensive prices. In their street space, which is one of the biggest spaces in downtown, customers can bargain the prices even lower and  get the fish almost for free. The process may not look as clean as the supermarket’s but the quality of the product is the same. Filipinos generally gravitate to a greater quantity that fits the budget rather than buying expensive products that is packaged cleanly and safely yet have a smaller quantity.

Bhen Alan during a work in progress of 4×5 feet painting

Alice Rioja posing in front of her seafood products in Downtown Tuguegarao

Unlike Alice Rioja who is a successful seafood street vendor, Filomena Iquin, an 84-year-old produce vendor, struggles to sell her vegetables. By her own account, she harvests some of the vegetables in her backyard and brings them to the market to sell. She sometimes buy vegetables from another vendor then sells them at a higher price. Unfortunately, she is not always able to sell everything because of her competitors, and then she is unable to pay the market fee. She said if she couldn’t pay the market fee the day I interviewed her, she will be temporarily banned for three days to sell her products.

How can we maintain our cultural identity | oil on canvas| 4 feet by 5 feet

I also met a lone bamboo shoot (rabung) vendor who refused to give her identity. She struggles to sells her product. The drama of her posture and the colorful background against the greyness of the drugstore building is the reason why I chose to paint the scene. A family of mango vendor accepted my request to take their pictures amidst the busiest street in the Philippines, Edsa. By their own account, they are not allowed to place their cart in the streets but they have to do it to earn a living. This is a good contrast between conformity versus rebellion. I love how they bring color to the crowded and dullness of the street even though they know the consequences if they get raided.

Left image: Drugstore at Del Rosario Street. Right image: Fresh Harvest | oil on canvas | 3feet by 4 feet


Industrialization, globalization and modernization may be happening around the city but these street vendors bring visual vibrancy and maintain the cultural practice that the Filipino people has been practicing. The flow of traffic might be congested under the brisk bare light of Tuguegarao, but people are getting used to it. The government is still fixing the traffic problem as vendors are taking over some parts of the streets, but at least there is now a law that protects these vendors. Street Vending is legalized under the Executive Order 452 as part of the Social Reform Agenda of Government.

Three Umbrellas | oil on canvas | 2 feet by 3 feet

A cultural forum was held during my stay in the Philippines. It was a whole day program held in Tuguegarao City to talk about the preservation of the culture of Ybanag (people of Tuguegarao) while modernization is taking over. I was invited as a guest speaker to talk about how my paintings maintain the culture of Ybanags, how it touches industrialization, and how it promotes the Filipino culture in the United States. Other guest speakers talked about the roles of indigenous people, the significance of local cultural heritage, issues and concerns about tangible and intangible heritage, and promotion of local heritage. All the themes were very relevant to my research. The event gave me an opportunity to dig deeper in my culture. Sadly, my culture, Ybanag and Itawes, is slowly vanishing because of rapid industrialization. The cultural forum did not only give me resources to finish my research, but it also allowed me to use it as a platform to present my paintings and promote my heritage.

Left image: coordinators, guest speakers, teacher of Linao National High School after the cultural forum. Right image: Bhen Alan during his art talk about promoting culture through visual arts


My project was divided into two parts: the first part was to accomplish my research about the rising tension between classes due to industrialization, and the second was to visit local schools to introduce the exciting possibilities of contemporary arts. I chose schools that lack resources necessary to teach a hands-on based studio project. Also, because of poverty, most students do not have opportunities to see an art show or to listen to a local artist. A lot of students are really talented in art, they have potential, but being an artist in the province is not considered a serious profession.

Students of Linao National High School during their 2-day art workshop


Art offered me a platform to give students the experience and information about our cultural heritage. The Philippines is very rich in visual arts but not everyone can access it. People living in the barrio do not have a chance to experience visual arts or even use any artistic materials because of poverty. Food is prioritized over expensive art supplies. Given this, I provided all the materials needed – paints, brushes and hand stretched canvas – so that students would not spend any of their allowances. The first school that I visited was at Linao National High School in Tuguegarao City; it was my 2009 Alma Matter. Going back to conduct a workshop is my way of giving back to the school and the community. A 2-day workshop was held to grade 12 TVL (technical-vocational-livelihood) students. I chose this group because they specialize in hands-on based activities.  It was an all-day workshop from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm. During the first half of day one, a power point presentation about my life abroad, my purpose on going back to the Philippines, being a student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a slide-show of my portfolio and examples of contemporary artworks and artist were presented. Mr. Alejo Cambri, Art and Design Teacher, divided the class into 4 groups since there were 40 students. Each group had their own painting category to create: still life, plein air, silhouette painting, and illustration focusing on tropical designs about localization. The students started gathering their ideas, photographing, sketching and started painting on the second half of day one. The morning of the second day was intense because we only had the half day to finish the works. We even made it more intense when we decided to make it a competition to motivate students to take the workshop more seriously. I saw how they were collaborating to mix colors, they were helping each other to render shapes and forms and to finish their projects. It was challenging for them because it was their first time using acrylic paint on a canvas. It was also their first time to collaborate. I had to roam around the room and help each one with how to apply paints; some students have their own techniques and styles, but others did not know the proper use of the materials. It was challenging but rewarding when we finished the projects. A fun program was made as we concluded the workshop. I provided snacks to the kids and we set up the room as if it was a gallery. We invited teachers to judge the paintings, the principal and the head teacher were also present, and other students were also invited to observe the program and they interviewed me for their school paper. My objective for the closing program was to teach students how to critic: how to present their artworks and critic their peers in basic yet artistic and an academic way. Each group had a representative to present their artworks as the judges and other students gave their insights and opinions. I also displayed my paintings beside the students’ outputs. I had the chance to present my research and answer a few questions about it. To close the program, a certificate of participation was given to all participants, a certificate of recognition and a print of my artworks were given to the winners, and a certificate of appreciation was given to Mr. Alejo Cambri and to all judges. Their final paintings went on display throughout the campus to serve as public art.


Plein Air group and Still-Life group with their final paintings

Tropical Illustration group and Silhouette group with their final paintings


The second school that I visited is Cagayan National High School in Tuguegarao City. There were 61 art and design students who participated. Unfortunately, I ran out of funds to provide materials but the art and design department helped me. We created a simplified self-portrait using black and white acrylic paint. I was inspired by my design class projects and decided to pass the knowledge onto the students. My objective in this workshop was to teach them how to control their use of shading and gradation. Also I aimed to introduce portraiture on a simplified form where details aren’t the important part of the portrait but the general shape and plane are what  makes a portrait sophisticated. Also to show them a different approach to teaching art and to reciprocate our knowledge with each other. A certificate of appreciation was given to me by the department during the closing program.

Cagayan National High School Students during their art workshop working on a simplified self-portrait


Subsequently, I traveled a 12-hour-bus ride from Tuguegarao City to Manila, then a 2-hour-plane ride from Manila to Tagbilaran, Bohol where the third school that I visited is located. Another 4-hour-bus ride from Tagbilaran to Talibon City was needed to reach the school San Isidro Elementary School. My colleagues and I decided to visit this school because of their lack of art classes and poverty. They were very hospitable despite their poverty. We coordinated with Ms. Frozen Abedejos, a grade 4 teacher to accomplish the workshop. She gathered 20 students from kindergarten to grade 6 to participate in the program. Later on, most of the population of the school joined us to experience our watercolor lesson. I decided to teach watercolor to the students because they did not know what the material was; they had not touched a watercolor set before. My objective for this workshop was to introduce the possibilities of the medium and let students experience the watercolor itself. There weren’t any rules that they needed to follow, I just showed a few techniques and let them enjoy the workshop. Later, I learned that the schools wanted to join an art contest. So I taught the competitors the proper use of watercolor; the techniques and styles that can be used to prepare the students for the competition were employed. Because of poverty, an outreach program was also made for the kids. Since we do not have enough fund to provide school supplies, we solicited Procter and Gamble employees in Manila. We bought papers, notebooks and pencils to give to the students. They thought they had to pay for these materials, but when their teacher explained that it was a donation, they were all excited and grateful.

Students of San Isidro Elementary School during their watercolor workshop


During the process of my research, I was invited for a solo art exhibition that took place in conjunction with the celebration of Aggao Nac Cagayan, the annual province’s festival. Since there are no galleries in the Tuguegarao City, it was held in a mall; at SM Tuguegarao Downtown. It was ironic how my paintings dealt with the rise of the corporatization, and then they were exhibited at one of the largest malls in the Philippines. However, the exhibition gave me the opportunity to display and talk about my artworks to a larger audience – to show the millennial audiences how this culture is battling for its sense of identity. The show was exhibited at the center of the mall so that everyone would see it. It was displayed for a day during the festival. I used this pop-up exhibition as a platform to interact with the people and communicate with them about the issues that I am concerned about. Most people told me that industrialization and corporatization is a good thing for the city because it provides a lot of resources for the people. They are able to use transportation that is easy to access like Uber and Grab and there are also increasing business profits that are happening in the city. I also asked people how to maintain our culture since industrialization and corporatization is rising to ensure our values, practices, heritage and sense of continuity is preserved. Most answers that I received were related to the theme of keeping customs alive and helping organizational methods that protect the culture. It was heartwarming when most people appreciated the visual presentation of the street vendors in my paintings because it is a valuable asset for the city.

Bhen Alan’s Artworks in the center of the SM mall in during a pop up exhibition


My research allowed me to explore a different style of painting. Before this research I used to paint only photo-realist works. I romanticized overly detailed paintings as I meticulously rendered every single micro detail of a subject. The paintings that produced for my research is a huge leap from photo-realism. I allowed myself to be free, loose and painterly. I show my underlying structures, my brush strokes are visible and uncontrolled. I even moved my body as I painted on a large sized canvas. These paintings are very spontaneous. This research improved my skills as an artist as well as a researcher. I am grateful to the OUR and to my advisor, Professor Suzanne Schireson, for helping me throughout the course of this research.


To learn more about my work, click on the following images to see footage made during my OUR funded fieldwork in the Philippines:


Research in History

To Counterfeit is Death: Exploring Benjamin Franklin’s Methods

By Daniel W. Everton


Portrait of Dan Everton, historian and artist

My OUR project focused on Benjamin Franklin and the methods he helped develop in the creation of anti-counterfeit measures as he and his colleagues were commissioned for printing paper money. In 2012, the Delaware County Institute of Science discovered in its collections a set of metal blocks that appeared to be used for printing currency. They approached Jessica Linker, who was working on her dissertation at the time and a long-time fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia, who has been studying them since. Upon seeing the blocks, I immediately thought of 3D printing a copy. While I was initially going to venture off by myself to attempt to 3D print the blocks, I was approached by Jessica Linker and readily pulled into her team of undergrads to work on their Digital Scholarship Summer Fellows project from Bryn Mawr College. The Fellows are Umma Tanjuma Haque, Shuang Li, Linda Zhu, and Eleftheria Anagnostou. My focus was to learn photogrammetry from the students, assist in the project, as well as document the process through photography and film.


Figure 1 – Photo of the sage leaf block, Photo by Daniel W. Everton



What is photogrammetry? Specifically, it is the ability to take measurements from series of photographs. These measurements allow one to measure a surface. A non-profit named Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI) trained individuals at Bryn Mawr College, in which they trained the Digital Scholarship undergraduate students how to do the process. The sage leaf block, pictured above, has a very shallow or “low” relief. The image on top of the leaves is hard to see. This proved to be the hardest thing to photogrammetry since the photographs could not provide the software enough surface points. It wasn’t until Matthew Jameson, PhD candidate in Classical Archaeology, suggested putting the leaf block at a tilted angle with the assistance of an ingenious piece of Styrofoam. After that, our team was able to successfully capture the surface points. While there were two other blocks with the sage leaf block, the sage leaf block is fundamentally the one I am most interested in as it relates to my argument which I will explain later.

Figure 2 – The sage leaf block positioned on a Styrofoam wedge, within a lightbox. Photo by Daniel W. Everton


The software we used to compile all our images and put them on the XYZ planes is Agisoft. Within Agisoft and the work between all the students, we were able to capture up over 120,000 points within 184 pictures. Pictured below shows how the pictures are “situated” in space and reflected onto the anchor which is the ball. The Fellows taught me how to use Agisoft, take the circuits of photos, and how to follow the workflow.


Figure 3 – Screenshot of Agisoft with Leaf Block photos, totaling 184 photos and 126,586 points. Screenshot taken by Digital Scholarship Students and Jessica Linker


The result of all these, leads into a stunning 3D rendering of the blocks with a successful mesh that shows the details of the sage leaves on the block.

Figure 4 – Mesh showing the detail captured through the rendering. Screenshot taken by Digital Scholarship Fellows and Jessica Linker.


Figure 5 – Final 3D render of the sage leaf block. Screenshot taken by Digital Scholarship Fellows and Jessica Linker.



As part of Bryn Mawr College Digital Scholarship Fellowship, Jessica Linker developed a project with the Library Company of Philadelphia where they would create a digital exhibit about the blocks. Using the Unity software, the rendering made in Agisoft can be put into a digital “landscape” where individuals can visit the website and explore the blocks. The mesh for the blocks will eventually be open sourced, and a 3D print of it will be attempted later.


My Argument/Thesis

While I am a Historian, I am also an artist. I fell into printmaking and printing, which are understood currently as two separate disciplines but seem to have been very enmeshed during the time of colonial printing. I argue that Benjamin Franklin and his team used printmaking methods and other very innovative technologies that I feel should classify Benjamin Franklin as an artist. I think his prints should be taken into consideration amongst fine artists, and his subsequent bills printed by himself and those within his printing company to be examples of art. To make his bills anti-counterfeit, Franklin had to innovate on current technologies and create new ones.  The colonial bills I encountered at the Library Company have utilized monotype printing, intaglio plate processes, and of course, the nature-leaf print blocks that were custom made. I hope to explore the process further in the fall, where I try to recreate the theorized methods of how the leaf blocks were made to make my own print editions.

My documentation of the project will be within a “vlogumentary”, utilizing a YouTube and traditional documentary style methodology to discuss what I learned, some history about colonial printing, and the process of photogrammetry. I hope to release it in late Summer.


Figure 4 – Two Dollar Bill for Massachusetts-Bay, March 1780, Printed by Hall and Sellers for a “Peter Boyer”. The bill uses intaglio, monotype printmaking, unique registration, and a nature/leaf print block.



A special thanks to Bryn Mawr College and their Digital Scholarship team on campus, Jessica Linker, Umma Tanjuma Haque, Shuang Li, Linda Zhu, Eleftheria Anagnostou, Matthew Jameson, Anne McShane and Jim Green and other staff at the Library Company of Philadelphia, Dr. Amy Shapiro of UMass Dartmouth, Professor Len Travers of UMass Dartmouth and Dr. Paula Rioux for igniting my love of public history again, Professor Elena Peteva for answering all my weird questions about printmaking and teaching me printmaking, and to UMass Dartmouth’s OUR Grant program and the review committee for the opportunity and their work and allowing me to do this.

Research in Bioengineering

An Investigation into the Effects of Inverted Growing on Development and Strength of Basil

By Megan Scribner

My OUR research project was entitled ‘An Investigation into the Effects of Inverted Growing on Development and Strength of Basil’. The objective of the research is to determine if growing basil upside down influences the plant’s development and the mechanical strength of the stems. The initial plan to grow basil plants from seeds was modified for the sake of time; instead, adult plants were purchased and used for experimentation.

Portrait of Megan Scribner

Fifteen mature basil plants were purchased, numbered, and transplanted into larger pots. Plants 1-7 were planted traditionally, upright (displayed in Figure 1a), and plants 8-15 were planted in pots fashioned so that the plant would hang upside down (displayed in Figure 1b). Stalks that had a second set of true leaves, and sufficient space between the pairs to make a cut, were pruned.

Figure 1a (left): The upright basil plants
Figure 1b (right): Some of the upside down basil plants on a garment rack


After four weeks of growth, it was observed that stems of upright plants that had been pruned on Day 1 had established pairs of offshoot stems with two or three sets of leaves. Stems of upside-down plants that had been pruned on Day 1 had established pairs of offshoot stems with only one or two sets of leaves. This suggests that the upright plants experienced increased growth compared to the upside-down plants. Figures 2 and 3 display this growth difference.

Figure 2: Pruned stem of plant 6 (upright) with 3 sets of new leaves. The black circle on the left highlights the location of the pruning cut. The red circle highlights where the new offshoot stems and leaves grew from the main stem. The sets of leaves are numbered on the right.


Figure 3: Two pruned stems from plant 11 (upside-down), each with 2 pairs of new leaves.


Several obstacles were encountered in trying to maintain healthy plants. Challenges included: growing basil during the late winter/early spring months (which is not basil’s typical growing season for this region), securing an indoor location that met the environmental needs of basil, and the presence of insects.

Due to the complications with maintaining consistently healthy plants, no formal measurements with the experimental plants have been taken at this time, but there have been several practice measurements including extracting chlorophyll and measuring the wavelengths with a spectrophotometer, staining stem cross sections with toluidine blue and observing the plant vasculature under a microscope, and experimenting with different grip set ups for tensile testing. Images of the practice stained samples have been included below in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Two basil stem cross sections stained with toluidine blue and examined under a microscope



Chlorophyll wavelength measurements were taken using a spectrophotometer. I am currently reviewing published literature for additional information about the effect of a plant’s health on its chlorophyll production.

Apart from the plants being used for experimentation, an additional basil plant was purchased in order to conduct practice tensile tests and find the most effective grip set up for successful testing. Due to the available pieces of testing apparatus not having fixtures suitable for botanical samples, there were no successful practice tensile tests. In the majority of the practice tests, the stem sample slipped through the grips. Examples of this are shown in Figures 5 and 6. In Figure 5, the stem slips from the start of testing. In Figure 6, the stem starts to deform as desired, but the sample begins to slip in the middle of testing. A successful tensile testing graph would look more like Figure 7. This graph was the result of one of the practice tests; however, the sample broke right at the bottom grip (displayed in Figure 8) which is not desirable. The sample should break more towards the center of the gage length. Breaking at the grips occurs due to improper stress concentrations through the sample; the grips are exerting too much force on the sample and weakening it at the grip points. Various materials such as sand paper and rubber were used to try to create more friction between the sample and the grips without applying too much force but these attempts were not successful.

Figure 5: Load vs extension graph of a stem tensile testing sample that slips throughout testing


Figure 6: Load vs extension graph of a stem tensile testing sample that starts to deform and then begins to slip around 2mm


Figure 7: Load vs extension graph of a stem tensile testing sample. The sample deforms until breaks at about 1.9 mm


Figure 8: A stem tensile test sample that broke at the bottom grip


An alternative idea for tensile testing has been investigated but not yet tested. It involves wrapping the ends of the stem sample around hooks instead of compressing the ends in grips. This is a method commonly used for testing the tensile strength of string samples. This set up does not have all the necessary components, but the available components have been gathered as seen in Figure 9. There may be some need for manufacturing in order to complete the testing set up. This will be explored further during the fall 2018 semester.

Figure 9: Top hook for future tensile tests. A bottom hook needs to be properly fashioned for this testing set up



The current plans for the continuation of this project consist of obtaining and maintaining a new set of plants over the summer months in order to establish a healthier set of samples. Measurements from this healthier set of plants will be collected in the fall 2018 semester.
The research grant provided to me by the Office of Undergraduate Research allowed me to obtain many necessary materials including the plants and the various materials needed to care for them. While no conclusive measurements have been collected, these funds and materials provided me the opportunity to conduct valuable troubleshooting for this project. I would not have been able to pursue researching this unique application of mechanical engineering without the support of the grant. I would like to acknowledge my advisor Dr. Tracie Ferreira for her support and guidance with this project.

Research in Phychology

The Effect of Race-Related Words on Categorical Perception of Race

By Anna Sullivan


Categorical perception (CP) refers to the psychological phenomenon that occurs when we perceive a stimulus existing along a continuum as a set of discrete categories (for a review, see Fugate, 2013). One way to conceptualize CP is to think of a rainbow and the colors it produces. While we see a range of different colors, the physical composition of the rainbow is in fact a continuous range of visible wavelengths of light (Goldstone & Hendrickson, 2009). Due to the fact that we are unable perceive these wavelengths as they are, we counteract this by forming discrete categories in order to divide such objects, or in this case colors, occurring on a spectrum. From there, we can then differentiate the colors we see based on how we perceive their differences (e.g. Bornsten, Kessen, & Weiskopf, 1976). When this happens, the differences of colors in separate categories become more prominent while the differences of colors in the same category are less pronounced (Goldstone & Hendrickson, 2009).


Portrait of Anna Sullivan

Early psychological empirical research studied how speech sounds were perceived categorically (Liberman, Harris, Hoffman, & Griffith, 1957). Due to advancing technology and computer software, work on CP has also been extended to the human face. CP has been found to be present in the perception of facial expressions (Etcoff & Magee, 1992), familiar facial identities (Beale & Keil, 1995), gender information (Campanella, Chrysochoos, & Bruyer, 2001), and emotion (Fugate, Gouzoules, & Barrett, 2010). CP has also been studied in terms of race. For example, Levin and Angelone (2002) found that similar to gender, CP was stronger for different race facial morphs than for facial morphs of the same racial group.

In addition, categorical perception of social constructs, including emotion and race, are affected by a perceiver’s conceptual knowledge, including his/her language (see Barrett, 2006; Fugate, 2013). Specifically, when the meaning of a word is activated, people show more willingness to accept non-target emotional stimuli as a category member (Fugate, Gendron, Nakashima, & Barrett, 2017). Said another way, they are less “accurate” at matching images because their categories for that item have increased to include more instances. In this manner, people are becoming more “open-minded” and flexible with what constitutes a category member.  Directly related to the current project, Tskhay & Rule (2015) showed participants perceived racially ambiguous faces as belonging to different categories when they are preceded with either the words “Black” or “White”. Therefore, semantic information (i.e. top-down information) can interact with the stimulus characteristics (i.e. bottom-up information) to create differentiated judgments.

Poster of Anna Sullivan’s research project


The research question for this project was: how do different race-related words affect the categorical perception of race? This study sought to further expand what is known of CP of race as it is affected by race-related words. To date, no research has directly studied the categorical perception of race and language (for a review, see Timeo, Farroni, & Maass, 2017). This type of research is important because it can provide more knowledge of how race-related words (and language more broadly) can affect our perceptions of important social categories, such as race.

The objectives of this project were to examine the ways in which certain race-related words affect an individual’s processing in categorizing racially ambiguous faces. This study examined how these cognitive processes are influenced by top-down information, such as language, and work to establish an individual’s perception of race within individuals. This work can lead to a better understanding of how people “see” race in the world and how the words used to describe race can shift perception and ultimately change biases. We are all affected by external sources of information, and therefore need to continue to explore the ways in which they affect our categorization of others into social and racial groups.

Categorical perception was tested through a typical two-stage paradigm (reviewed by Fugate, 2013). The first paradigm, classification (or identification), defined a participant’s categorical boundary (i.e. the point at which an individual distinguishes an image as either one race or another). The second paradigm, discrimination, was used to test for the hallmark of CP which is an increase in the ability to discriminate between pictures previously assigned to different categories compared with pictures previously assigned to the same category, even though the physical difference between the pictures is always held constant.

Detail from Anna Sullivan’s study


During the classification stage of this research, participants were presented with an array of racially ambiguous face stimuli that have been created using computer software (FantaMorph). These faces were created from combining two photos of different race individuals and creating systematic blends (known as morphs) which depict iterations between the two pictures Participants were then be asked to identify each stimulus as belonging to one of two categories, anchored by the picture endpoints or race-related words in different trials. We used several different race-related words to see whether a person’s threshold changes when evoking different race-related words and from when no words are evoked (match to picture condition).

During the discrimination stage of this research, participants were presented with two sequential morphs, which either span the threshold (established in part 1) or do not span the threshold (but constitute the same structural difference between the faces). The former trials were the “between-category” trials. Participants’ increased accuracy to discriminate better the “between-category” trials from the within-category is the hallmark of CP.   We predicted that when participants match to race-related words (compared to pictured endpoints), they will show increased thresholds (steeper category transitions). Moreover, the steeper transitions translated into enhanced CP, as demonstrated by participants having increased accuracy to the “between-category” pairs compared to the “within-category” pairs.


Although similar types of studies and experiments have been performed, this project is unique in several key ways. First, no one has performed the full CP task (both identification and discrimination) on racial morphs. Second, the facial morphs are unique and were created specifically for this study from professional face sets. Third, no one has varied how (that is to what endpoint) participants match their choices. Words are almost always used as anchors. However, in a related CP study of emotion in the lab, Dr. Fugate and her students showed that matching to pictured endpoints (rather than words) increased the transition between categories but did not change CP. In addition, we will vary the type of race-related words (e.g. “African American” and “Black” and “not White” vs. “European American” and “White” vs. “Not Black”) to see if specific identifiers affect race perception differently.

Results from the identification portion of this research showed that language produces significant effects on race perception. Data analysis is still underway for the discrimination task, as well as the survey participants completed. This project was presented at both the UMass Amherst Undergraduate Research Conference and the PSI CHI Research Conference. It was also awarded second place at the 2018 OUR Undergraduate 3 Minute Thesis competition. I am grateful to my advisor Dr. Jennifer Fugate for her guidance and to the OUR for the financial support needed for this research.



Barrett, L. F. (2006a). Are emotions natural kinds? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 28-58.

Barrett, L.F. (2006b). Solving the emotion paradox: Categorization and the experience of emotion. Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 20-46.

Beale, J.M., & Keil, C.F. (1995). Categorical effects in the perception of faces. Cognition, 57, 217-239.

Bornstein, M.H., Kessen, W., & Weiskopf, S. (1976). Color vision and hue categorization in young human infants. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 2, 115-129.

Campanella, S., Chrysochoos, A., & Bruyer, R. (2001). Categorical perception of facial gender information: Behavioural evidence and the face-space metaphor. Visual Cognition, 8, 237-262. doi: 10.1080/13506280042000072

Etcoff, N.L., & Magee, J.J. (1992). Categorical perception of facial expressions. Cognition, 44, 227-240.

FantaMorph. (2017).

Fugate, J.M.B. (2013). Categorical perception for emotional faces. Emotion Review, 5, 84-89. doi: 10.117/1754073912451350

Fugate, J.M.B., Gendron, M., Nakashima, S.F., & Barrett, L.F. (2017). Emotion words: Adding face value. Emotion. doi: 10.1037/emo0000330

Fugate, J.M.B., Gouzoules, H., & Barrett, L.F. (2010). Reading chimpanzee faces: Evidence for the role of verbal labels in categorical perception of emotion. Emotion, 10, 544-554. doi: 10.1037/a0019017

Goldstone, R. L., & Hendrickson, A. T. (2010), Categorical perception. WIREs Cogni Sci, 1: 69–78. doi:10.1002/wcs.26

Levin, D. & Angelone, B. (2002). Categorical perception of race. Perception, 31, 567-578. doi: 10.1068/p3315

Liberman, A.M., Harris, K.S., Hoffman, H.S., & Griffin, B.C. (1957). The discrimination of speech sounds within and across phoneme boundaries. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54, 358-368.

Timeo, S., Farroni, T., & Maass, A. (2017). Race and color: Two sides of the same story? Development of biases in categorical perception. Child Development, 88, 83-102. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12564

Tskhay, C. & Rule, N. (2015). Semantic information influences race categorization from faces. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 769-778. doi: 10.1177/0146167215579053

Research in Fine Arts

I.D.: Research and Exhibition on African-American Students at UMass Dartmouth

By Erick Maldonado


I am a senior Fine Arts major in the Department of Art and Design.  I also minor in Art History in the Department of Art Education, Art History and Media Studies. The goal my OUR-funded project was to highlight African-American student life on campus. I used the fund to do research, purchase painting materials, and organize a solo exhibition, featuring portraits of African-American students on campus. Every portrait is accompanied by a short narrative, describing the thoughts of the student models I chose to paint. My project was supported by Professors Pamela Karimi (Art History) and Bryan McFarlane (Painting) and I am extremely grateful to both of them for their guidance.

Erick Maldonado presents his thoughts on art and issues of displacement to a large crowd of audience at the New Bedford AHA! Festival. 



As a Dominican-American on campus, I see women and men with different complexions living in complex environments. As students of color, we sometimes feel the barrier of living and communicating within our Institutions of education. At the same time, the African American culture has grown a sense of resiliency against the old racial assumptions. And this is largely thanks to the efforts of those protagonists who made America a better place for all of us. During the Harlem Renaissance, many African-American artists created works that resisted the racial oppression of their time. These artists wanted Black voices and Black stories to be heard, and by doing so they vocalized their own stories to stand up for their rights, by empowering a community and continuing to provide a dialogue, many musicians, artists, writers, and scholars gathered together to make a difference.

It is important to note that during this time there was also a demand for African-Americans to be proud of their racial heritage. In later decades many African-American artists continued to voice their perspective regarding racial oppression. For example, Betye Saar made The Liberation of Black Jemima. By creating an image of Aunt Jemima inside of a frame with a Caucasian child on her hip, Saar used iconographic imagery to state and comment on African-American women and their labor in American history. Romare Bearden, an African-American painter, developed a vocabulary with sudden burst of bright hues that at the time helped depict African-American men and women. His portraits represented black commonalities and helped address African-American living conditions. Lastly, our contemporary, Kara Walker, uses silhouettes and folklore to frame the complex social and living conditions of slaves and slave masters. These artists continue to inspire me to turn history into art and to use the beautiful language of art to address important issues in Black communities.

The ongoing political and racial issues that continue to develop mayhem in this country is what I planned to comment on through this research project that led to a solo exhibition, titled ID. In particular, I wanted to be able to give a strong voice to those UMD students who feel incapable of expressing themselves.



Erick Maldonato’s solo show, I.D., at the 224 Gallery, UMass Dartnmouth.


Facing the everyday horror of trying to communicate stories, purposes, and lives, my exhibit is a reflection of my identity. My subjects include students from campus who have succeeded in bringing awareness to blackness, continue to inspire and change the frame of blackness on campus, and who elude and conspire a tradition of black representation that also emits the beauty of the community on campus. My overall vision of my project was to unite a group of people in the common goal of embracing culture. As evident due to our country’s divide, Black students are easily more targeted. This OUR-funded exhibit allowed me to create a dialogue where students were able to use their voice to express their identity and culture. Through my paintings and the interviewed that ensued students were able to communicate who they are. Black students are now more than ever are afraid to submerse themselves in a controversial dialogue. Therefore, I wanted to create paintings that would help project their narratives.

Details of Erick Maldonato’s paintings at the 224 Gallery, UMass Dartnmouth.


It was truly an honor to be offered an OUR grant in Spring 2017. This successful experience gave me the courage and confidence to apply for external grants. And I am particularly grateful to my professors Pamela Karimi (Art History) and Suzanne Schireson (Painting), who encouraged me to apply and supported my application. The following summer, I applied and received a Mellon Summer Internship at RISD Museum.  My position at the museum was with the Contemporary Art department, where I worked closely with Richard Brown Baker, Curator of Contemporary Art, Dominic Molon and Nancy Prophet’s fellow Amber Lopez.

Some of my tasks included overseeing works and maintaining files of nearly hundreds of objects in the collection and preparing research of works for future exhibitions in the galleries. I learned so much from this program. RISD Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon summer internship program introduced me to museum work, the professional skills necessary to work in the arts, and the functionalities inside a museum. This experience shifted my perspective of how I view myself as an artist. The busy, continuous and challenging cycle of distributing art and curating work is one where it’s diligent, practice is valued, and production is a priority. One of the most exciting experiences in the museum was creating my own program for RISD’s Third Thursday. Third Thursday, is an open night where the museum audiences engage more with the collection. My program consisted of learning about color relationships and how they impact shape, form, line, symmetry, and space. It was rewarding working with such a community. I value my time in Providence and the exposure to such programs.



In conclusion, the Office of Undergraduate Research provided the special skills and tools that I needed to enhance my knowledge of painting, curation and above all African-American life experience. Learning, exploring, and sharing stories of African-Americans in my community has been an advantage; it has helped me provide other students with an opportunity to find a space to express themselves. This project enabled me to become a better curator, painter and even artist. Above all, it helped me become a critical thinker; it allowed me to appreciate the importance of art historical and anthropological research and to want to encourage others to question the world we live in and instill a sense of pride in black communities.

Research in Rhetoric and Communication

Evolution of the Princess Culture: Discourse Analysis of Film and Merchandise Reviews

By Morgan Banville


I am a senior English Literature and Criticism, and Writing, Rhetoric and Communication major.  This research was partially supported by the OUR created for my Honors Thesis at UMass Dartmouth.  My project was advised by Katherine DeLuca and Caroline Gelmi.  Their hard work and dedication is greatly appreciated.

Portrait of Morgan Banville

The purpose of this study was to describe the ways in which film and merchandise reviews for Disney princess films such as Pocahontas, The Princess and the Frog, Brave, and Moana, depict Disney’s attempts at becoming progressive in their representations of female role models for young children.  The study was conducted in response to the ongoing discussion surrounding the Disney films and their inability to represent realistic and attainable role models for viewers.  The basic design of the study was conducted through coding and discourse analysis.  The study focused on how stereotypically racial and gendered rhetoric is used to describe the princesses, as well as the reliance on a male figure and various sexual innuendos.  Despite some progress, there are a few issues that remain with how Disney princesses are portrayed.  Both film and merchandise reviews continue to use coded rhetoric, which creates unrealistic expectations for young children as well as inadequate role models.



When one hears the word “princess,” more often than not the image of a Disney Princess comes to mind.  The image of a Disney princess is usually standard throughout the line:  the women are heteronormative, accompanied most often by a prince, and oftentimes descendants of royal blood or married into royal blood.  The stereotype associated with the princess line are women who display incredible beauty, have skinny waists, sleek hair, and perfect clothing.  Although the flawless features of the princesses are a distinguishing feature, this also poses some issues for those seeking women who are not “perfect.”  In my research, I analyzed film and merchandise reviews because these mediums are primarily where the audiences are being influenced.  Both children and adults alike are highly influenced by visual rhetoric; an adult is more inclined to watch a film with their child and comment on it rather than a child going online and writing a review.  In this way, the data I gathered allows for an analysis of the perceptions parents have of the culture that is impacting their children.

Merida from Brave representations & Pocahontas Film versus Merchandise


In my research I found that Disney merchandising and films have racially charged rhetoric that impacts audiences’ perceptions of the princesses.  The film and merchandise reviews displayed terms relating to stereotypical racism in regard to expectations of that particular race, as well as terms demeaning the race.  Disney merchandising and films also perpetuate specific beauty standards.  The inclusion of demeaning physical descriptions of the princesses also serves to weaken their characters and perpetuate sexist ideals for women.  These perceptions, it seems, can lead to internal biases when examining the films and even could be a contributing factor to the disagreements regarding whether or not princesses are negative influences for young girls.



I applied the methodology of Discourse analysis and coding method to the film and merchandise reviews.  Discourse analysis examines how language is used to construct “ways of being in the world.”  Coding categorizes language to make sense of dominant trends.  Using the coding method, I categorized the rhetoric of film and merchandise reviews into categories associated with racism/racial terms, gender ambiguity, sexual innuendos, and stereotypically feminine/masculine terms.  To categorize and code the films and merchandise, for example, I documented the typical masculine traits such as athleticism, bravery, or independence, as well as the feminine rhetoric such as any action or trait relating to showing emotion, physical features (pretty, beautiful, gorgeous), or being submissive.  After studying the merchandise and film reviews of the Disney princesses, the reviews, and thus the films, I found the merchandise and reviews reinforce traditional gender roles for the princesses and the negative portrayals of Disney princesses in reviews have the potential to impact the creation of positive role models for young girls by misrepresenting the characters that children often admire and emulate.  This research on the princesses could be extended to analyze the portrayal of other female characters in Disney movies, therefore contributing to the ongoing research on gender in media and the discourse between merchandise and films.

Research in English Literature

Temporary Meddlers: Friars in Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet
By Sarah Friedman
I am an English major and a member of the Honors Program at UMass Dartmouth. My paper “Temporary Meddlers: Friars in Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet” was originally developed as my final research paper for the Shakespeare course that I took in spring 2017 with Professor Jay Zysk of the English Department at UMass Dartmouth. During the course of the spring semester, my class visited the Boston Public Library’s “Shakespeare Unauthorized” exhibit to begin developing ideas for a paper topic.
Portrait of Sarah Friedman



While I was at the Boston Public Library’s “Shakespeare Unauthorized” exhibit, I began to think about how Shakespeare portrays religion in his plays and I developed this concept into a research paper on Shakespeare’s friar characters. Last summer, Professor Catherine Gardner who is the director of the OUR informed me about the peer-reviewed Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council (UReCA) and I decided to revise and submit my paper. The paper was recently approved for publication and in what follows I provide a summary of my argument. To read the entire paper, please feel free to click on the following image.
Front page of Sarah Freedman’s publication in UReCA



During Shakespeare’s lifetime, religion was a controversial topic and the practice of Catholicism in England was illegal. I thought it was particularly interesting that Shakespeare uses Catholic friars as characters in his plays and I wanted to explore what those characters might suggest about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. Shakespeare grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and that community was at the center of Catholic resistance in England. His parents were connected with Catholicism and three of his grammar school teachers were Catholic, so that definitely had a strong presence in his early life. I focused my paper on Friar Laurence in the tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, and Duke Vincentio, who disguises himself as a friar in the comedy, Measure for Measure. In both of these plays, Shakespeare seems to be more sympathetic to friars than his contemporaries. He does not portray them as vice characters who break their vows, instead he portrays them as fallible human beings who try to help their communities. In both plays, friars keep secrets and manipulate politics. Friar Laurence performs Romeo and Juliet’s secret marriage, but he does so believing that it might end the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. Duke Vincentio takes on the identity of a friar, but he uses it to try to stop the corruption that is happening in the city of Vienna. In conclusion, Shakespeare makes it clear that religion and politics are intertwined and earthly matters cannot be easily separated from spiritual matters.

Research in Biology

Behavioral Response of Mud Crab Megalopae to Chemical Cues from Fish Species and Adult Conspecifics

By Jerelle Jesse


During the summer of 2014 OUR funded my honors research with Dr. Nancy O’Connor. This research has recently been published in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology and in what follows, I provide a summary of this research for the OUR blog readers.

Snapshot from the official website of the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, where Jesse’s research results were published

Portrait of Jerelle Jesse



In Massachusetts, Asian shore crabs have become more abundant than native mud crabs. Crab survival can be enhanced by antipredator behaviors in response to chemical cues released by predators.

Asian shore crab


The purpose of this study was to determine if and how mud crab megalopae (the last larval stage of the crab) respond to chemical cues from local fish predators and adult crabs of the same species and to understand the way local mud crab megalopae behaviorally respond to chemical cues. The study focused mainly on the importance of early life stages, the origin of the chemical cues, and their ability to respond to chemical stimuli. This could potentially shed light on how an invasive species can be more successful than a native species in this habitat.


Mud crab megalopa


Female egg-bearing mud crabs were collected from the rocky intertidal habitat during low tide periods. When the females became close to releasing larvae she was transferred to a small finger bowl, then placed in the incubator.

Egg-bearing female mud crab


Once the larvae were released they were cared for until they reached the megalopae stage when they were designated to an experiment.

Incubator with glass bowls of mud crab larvae before reaching the megalopal stage as well as females almost ready to release larvae in small glass finger bowls



Chemical cues for the experiment were made by the fish species or adult mud crabs being held in artificial seawater tanks to let their cue release into the water. The chemical cue seawater flowed through the apparatus, a glass pipe-shaped piece of equipment with an inflow opening, outflow opening, and a middle opening on top. The middle opening was to drop the individual megalopa into the apparatus with the cue flowing through.

The chemical cue flowed from the reservoir to a flow stabilizer, then a glass apparatus, and finally the sink. The megalopae were dropped into the middle funnel shaped opening in the apparatus


Once the megalopae was dropped into the apparatus it displayed 1 to 3 different behaviors then flowed out into the sink. The behaviors were categorized based on the orientation to the flow, the limb position, and the action performed. These behaviors included: control swim, random swim, perimeter swim, cyclone swim, closed roll, open roll, swim out, sideways walk run, slide, and push.

Left: Control swim; right: this megalopa happens to be on its back


The data were analyzed using generalized linear modeling. The results show no difference in behavioral responses between the two mud crab species. However, more open rolling behavior was seen for the mummichog cue, and significantly more walking on the bottom was seen for the adult cue. This indicates that megalopae can detect and respond to chemical cues in their environment. Megalopae can also tell the difference between adult conspecific cues and predator cues, and they can perform a different behavioral response depending on the cue.




My research experiences in Dr. Nancy O’Connor’s lab are some of my best memories from my time at UMass Dartmouth. I had so much fun conducting the research that summer, then rising to the challenge of analyzing the data, and ultimately getting the opportunity to present my work at multiple conferences. It was a rewarding experience that made my career at Umass Dartmouth truly special. Currently, I am working for the Division of Marine Fisheries and applying to graduate schools. I know that this research helped me become better prepared for fieldwork and graduate school. Being able to work with a master’s student, Ami Araujo, while I was an undergraduate gave me insight to the process and hard work involved with graduate school. Without OUR’s help I would not have been able to conduct this research, and help fulfill my dream of working as a marine biologist and going to graduate school.



Research in Chemistry

Developing Inexpensive Catalysts for Buchwald Carbon-Nitrogen Couplings


By Diego Javier-Jimenez

Portrait of Diego Javier-Jiminez


Catalyzed cross-coupling reactions using aryl halide reagents have found a prominent role in synthetic chemistry. The most notable are carbon-carbon coupling reactions, for which Heck, Negishi and Suzuki received the Nobel Prize in 2010. Similar carbon-nitrogen couplings, known as Buchwald-Hartwig aryl-amination reactions, have also found great utility, with applications in natural product synthesis, medicinal chemistry, organic materials chemistry, and catalysis. The catalysts in almost all cross-coupling reactions are based upon the precious metal palladium (price: $58,000/kg). Our lab is currently exploring different routes for the formation of carbon-nitrogen bonds with less expensive metals. This summer, I studied one such reaction in detail, analyzing the mechanism that the reaction follows.



My summer research involvement at UMass Dartmouth has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate career. I had the pleasure of working with knowledgeable lab mates who were always willing to help, explain, and teach any skills necessary for me to be successful in my research. I would like greatly thank Dr. David Manke, working with him has inspired me to become the best chemist that I can and more. The experience has also significantly reaffirmed my goals of going to graduate school to obtain a Ph.D. in Chemistry. I would like to thank the Office of Undergraduate Research for funding this research, without their aid, this research experience would have not been possible. We are currently preparing two manuscripts that we hope to submit to peer-reviewed journals for publication this fall. I plan on continuing this work for the remaining two years at UMass Dartmouth, and hope that my research accomplishments will make me competitive for an NSF graduate research fellowship. The OUR has given me the opportunity to follow one of my life-long goals.

Research in Biology

Identification of SIAT7 in Symbiotic Clownfish and a Closely Related Non-Symbiotic Fish


By Deborah Dele-Oni

Portrait of Dele-Oni

Clownfish live in a close symbiotic relationship with sea anemones. This relationship is often used as a teaching tool for students to learn about ecology, evolutionary mutualism, and species interactions. This mutualistic relationship may be due to a sugar the anemones detect in the mucus of the prey species. An enzyme class known as sialyltransferases has been studied because of its importance of sea anemone recognition of prey. This class of sialyltransferases adds chains of sugars to proteins found in mucus. Clownfish may lack a specific type of sialytransferases known as SIAT7, which could be a factor as to why the clownfish do not get stung. However, although SIAT7 was not initially seen does not mean it is not there; rather it could indicate inactivation. Alternatively, clownfish may have SIAT7 in their genomes but may not express it in the cells that make the external mucus. To test this, I am studying both symbiotic and closely related non-symbiotic species to determine if SIAT7 is present in these species. I hypothesize that SIAT7 will be present in both the symbiotic clownfish and non-symbiotic closely related species but is inactive in the skin of symbiotic species. My goals were to test primers on tissues of anemonefish and closely related non-symbiotic species to see where expression occurred.


To accomplish these goals, I will:

  • Use degenerate PCR to obtain partial sequences of SIAT7 from symbiotic and non-symbiotic fish species.
  • Use inverse PCR to determine the sequences of the regions surrounding the SIAT7 gene.
  • Use quantitative PCR to determine which tissues express SIAT7 in symbiotic and non-symbiotic fish species.


To approach this, I knew that SIAT7 had been identified in close relatives of clownfish. If primers were designed based from those sequences and added to DNA of symbiotic clownfish, there would be a product formed if the primers found complementary parts of the DNA. In the spring, I completed degenerate PCR to try and acquire partial sequences of SIAT7 from non-symbiotic fish species. The degenerative primers were created from the bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus; Genbank accession XP_008298796.1), and PCR was done on cDNA samples from the ocellaris clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) and the non-symbiotic Springer’s damselfish (Chrysiptera springeri) which is a close relative. The PCR yielded some products which are bright bands in the gel below (Figure 1). The brighter the bands the more concentration of DNA, showing successful replication. These samples were then cleaned up and sent off for sequencing. The sequencing results were crosschecked with the NCBI database and matches that appeared were not of SIAT7.  Instead they matched to other genes like protein FAM20A isoform X3 inform the Southern pig-tailed macaque or monkey (Macaca nemestrina) (Figure 2) or to bacterial genes like protein A2680_02525 from the bacteria, Candidatus kaiserbacteria . These sequencing results are the DNA of one of the bands from the failed attempt using degenerate PCR. These results indicate that our DNA in the degenerate PCR was not successful at producing a partial part of the SIAT7 gene.

Figure 1. Gel showing the results of degenerate PCR searching for SIAT7 in springers damselfish (chrisyptera springeri, CSP) and clarks clownfish (amphiprion clarkia, ACL) genomic (gDNA) and skin cDNA samples.




Figure 2. Sequencing results and BLASTx alignment for a sample.  The BLAST results show a match with the protein FAM20A isoform X3 with the Southern pig-tailed macque (Macaca nemestrina) which is a medium-sized monkey.


Since the degenerate PCR primer was not successful at yielding a partial sequence for SIAT7, another approach to obtaining this sequence was taken. Marian Wahl, a graduate student in Dr. Robert Drew’s lab, had recently sequenced transcriptomes from several species of anemonefish and non-symbiotic fish.  Transcriptomes are all of the RNA that is made by genes of an organism. This is of interest because it shows exactly what is made and what will potentially be translated to proteins. This was not available in the spring but became available early this summer. I redesigned primers for four species of anemonefish (list species) and non-symbiotic fish (list species) to be used in the PCR. This provided me with a better chance of getting PCR product because the primers used in the PCR were designed from the exact species they would be testing in. Also, I would be able to see right away if SIAT7 was really present in the fish species because I would be checking their transcriptomes to see if it was present or not. If SIAT7 was present, I would get a gene sequence from the transcriptomes.


To do this a reference gene was identified from the bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus; XP_008298796.1). This reference gene was used to find matching sequences from the transcriptomes of the study species using Local BLAST. I found that SIAT7 appeared in all species transcriptomes that were checked. From this, I could say that SIAT7 is found in both symbiotic and non-symbiotic species of fish. However, the specific tissue or tissues it is expressed in and to what extent was not known from this information.


Figure 3. PCR Results using primers designed for Amphirion clarkii (ACL) species and Amblyglyphidodon curacao (AmCu) species.


After going back to look at the specific gene sequences that were used to make the primers, there was evidence that SIAT7 across these species may be paralogs. Paralogs are genes that have evolved by duplication events, resulting in two copies of the gene in different locations of the genome.  After duplication, these copies evolve independently, accumulating different mutations. After a long period, these paralogs may still encode for the same protein but can have very different DNA sequences. This is interesting to note because it could be evidence that clownfish symbiosis caused this duplication event to occur. We found paralogs in the Clarks clownfish but not in the other three species we tested which were the staghorn damselfish (Amblyglyphidodon Curacao), the three spot damselfish (Dascyllus Trimaculatus) and the three stripe damselfish (Dascyllus Aruanus). We found this out by aligning the different transcript that were gotten from the Local BLAST. When aligned I found that the Clarks clownfish transcripts with similar trinity numbers (numbers that appear after the letters “DN” in Figure 4) were more closely related than the ones with dissimilar numbers. If the sequence used to make the primers were made using one paralog, other paralogs will not be accounted for in the study and the PCR will not yield consistent results.


To account for paralogs, some bioinformatics was done to identify exactly where duplication events might have occurred and in what species. To do this, transcriptomes for the species of interest were identified and aligned to each other using computer programs such as MUSCLE, TranslatorX, and the NCBI Blast Website (Figure 4). When transcriptomes are aligned, the programs will put similar sequences together and dissimilar sequences further apart from each other.  This figure highlights that species with the same sequences (samples with the same Trinity numbers) may be from the same gene. For example, the sequences DN83440 and DN182523 from A. clarkii are probably paralogs but there are two copies of DN182523 which are probably splice variants or have alternative transcription start sites.


  Figure 4. Phylogenetic tree of SIAT7 cDNA samples from Clark’s Clownfish (ACL), Three stripe domino damselfish (DAR), Three spot domino damselfish (DTR) and staghorn damselfish (AmCu).


There is still much to do so I am continuing work on this project this fall.  This figure will be updated to include some well-studied fish and re-rooted to provide more accurate results. Some cichlid fish are more well understood in the evolution of fish, and using these as references for our SIAT7 sequences, can provide me with some information on paralogs. Once paralogs are completely identified, more specific primers can be designed that will hopefully yield consistent PCR results. Another approach that will be taken is to align protein sequences. Right now, the aligning that has been done has used cDNA sequences.




From the work done this summer, I can say that SIAT7 is found in symbiotic and non-symbiotic fish that I studied, indicating that clownfish did not lose SIAT7 as part of the evolution of symbiosis with sea anemones.  However, I detected evidence of gene duplication which introduced paralogs. Going forward, I seek to understand when these duplication events occurred and if it is related to the clownfish-sea anemone symbiosis. I am looking to seeing if the evolution of paralogs in SIAT7 allowed anemonefish to live symbiotically with anemones or if it is completely unrelated to this.



This summer research experience has provided me with an opportunity to continue with a long-term research experience. I stepped out of my comfort zone and experienced new things in the lab and learned immensely from bioinformatics alone. Being able to get results from looking at gene sequences and databases on local computers, and searching national gene databases, I could answer one of my research questions without even picking up a pipette. As a biology student, I underestimated the wealth of information bioinformatics shows and how important it is to do these steps in research.  Conducting experiments in the lab is rewarding but interpreting the data, and understanding it is the main goal. This summer research experience, I learned to think about long term goals and the bigger picture. Having participated in only short-term research experiences before, I was usually just thrown into a situation where I had to think quickly on my feet and do a series of experiments and interpret my immediate results. However, being at UMass during the summer, I could continue work I had started before. This allowed me to see what a long-term project entails. Data interpretation and relating results to a goal is something that I have strongly developed this summer. I feel much more prepared to pursue more long-term projects. I have developed myself as a critical thinker and a troubleshooter in my research and found a new appreciation for the study of bioinformatics.



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