Research in Social Psychology

Researching the Psychosocial Well-Being of Siblings of Children with Disabilities

By Catrina Combis


Through UMass Dartmouth Honors Program and thanks to a research grant from the OUR, I launched a research study titled “The Relationship Between Having a Sibling with a Developmental Disability and Indicators of the Typically Developing Sibling’s Psychosocial Well-Being.” While brainstorming ideas in an introductory Psychology class at the beginning of my research process, I immediately thought of my own sibling. My sibling was diagnosed with anxiety and depression while we were both in high school, and the consequent unusual behaviors greatly impacted all of our lives. As a Psychology major I strove to learn more about my sibling’s diagnoses, and decided to dedicate my professional life to children with developmental disabilities.



Left to right: Ramzy Rajeh, Kimberly Schoener, Dr. Christina Cipriano, and Catrina Combis. Rajeh and Schoener help code Combis’s interviews and Dr. Cipriano is Combis’s supervisor.


The purpose of my OUR-funded research is to determine how having a sibling with a developmental disability impacts a typically developing sibling (TDS). Once concluded, this research will hopefully fill the gap in the current knowledge about the TDS’s psychosocial well-being as well as other factors, including the relationship they have with their parents. It is essential to understand the relationship between both siblings in order to comprehend how that relationship affects the development and life of the TDS. The research will also highlight the indicators of the TDS’s psychosocial well-being.


When a member of a family receives a medical diagnosis, it can have layers of impact on the larger family unit. Siblings of children with developmental disabilities are a classically understudied population. Only recently has there been a rise in studies on siblings of children with developmental disabilities (Stoneman, 2005). Sibling relationships are one of the most significant relationships that humans develop and are strongly related to psychosocial adjustment (Pollard, Barry, Freedman, & Kotchick, 2013). Although much is known about the impact and trajectory of the child with a developmental disability, less is known about their siblings.

Developmental disability is operationalized in this research as they are described in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA federally mandates that schools serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities and ensures students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). It includes a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Intellectual Disability, Multiple Handicap, Emotional-Behavioral Disorder, and Learning Disability. Typical development is operationalized as the absence of an IDEA designation. Under the direction of Dr. Christina Cipriano, Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department, I submitted and received IRB approval to compile a list of psycho-educational batteries alongside my own developed questionnaire, to assess TDS mental health and well-being in the community. Using the Qualtrics platform, I recruited and surveyed participants, and then randomly selected a proportion of participants to take part in an information gathering interview. I am currently analyzing the Qualtrics and interview data using a mixed-methods approach. These include descriptive and inferential analyses, and open coding for themes. I will be presenting my findings at the Annual Meeting of the Council for Excepional Children (CEC) in Boston this Spring and will be writing up my findings for publication in a peer-reviewed psychology journal.



I have always enjoyed spending my time with children since my teenage years and this interest has been furthered by the professional connections I have developed during my undergraduate education: While a student at UMass Dartmouth, I have worked for and interned for various organizations involving children. I worked for the America Reads Program through UMass Dartmouth’s Leduc Center for Civic Engagement where I tutored and mentored students in schools and after school programs in Fall River and New Bedford. I also interned with the South Coast Autism Center where I modeled social skills for young boys with Autism and learned a lot more about Autism through observing and interacting with many children. I am currently interning with Horizons for Homeless Children where I play and interact with homeless children in homeless shelters that have established therapeutic play spaces. As an undergraduate student, I have also worked for two professors, Dr. Christina Cipriano and Dr. Meredith Dove, on their respective research studies. Dr. Cipriano’s research is on the Recognizing Excellence in Learning and Teaching (RELATE) tool for special education classroom observation. Dr. Dove’s research is on nutrition and physical activity in childcare settings.  My experiences with children along with the research opportunities at UMass Dartmouth, have formed my professional trajectory. Right now I am in the process of preparing my applications for graduate school and I look forward to pursuing a career in supporting children and their families.



Pollard, C. A., Barry, C. M., Freedman, B. H., and Kotchick, B. A. (2013). Relationship quality as a moderator of anxiety in siblings of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders or down syndrome. Journal of Child and Family Studies 22 (5), 647-657. doi:10.1007/s10826-012-9618-9

Stoneman, Z. (2005). Siblings of children with disabilities: Research themes. Mental Retardation 43 (5), 339-350.

Research in Mathematics

Strong Stability Preserving Sixth Order Two-Derivative Runge–Kutta Methods

By Gustavo Franco Reynoso


This past summer I joined Professor Sigal Gottlieb and PhD student Zachary Grant in their Computational Mathematics research on “Strong Stability Preserving Sixth Order Two-Derivative Runge-Kutta Methods.”  It was a great experience that has helped me understand my abilities and my interests. Before I explain the project, I would like to go back in time to provide some background information about my research.

When I first started taking Computational Mathematics curriculum courses back in 2012, I never thought research is what I wanted to do. In 2012 I joined a class called CSUMS that was centered on independent undergraduate research.  Even though I enjoyed the class, research was not on my mind.  Eventually, I started taking higher level classes and realized that research was the base of everything I did, whether it be in my Civil Engineering classes or in my Math classes.  Subsequently, I decided to do research independent of classwork.

Left: Portrait of Reynoso at work; right:The first page of a study conducted by Reynoso, Gottlieb, and Grant.


This past summer I approached Dr. Gottlieb to see if she would let me join her research group. She warmly accepted and started to instruct me in the topics I needed to learn. This was just the start. Shortly thereafter an OUR summer grant enabled me to work with Dr. Gottlieb on a research titled “Strong Stability Preserving Sixth Order Two-Derivative Runge-Kutta Methods.” Hyperbolic partial differential equations (PDEs) describe a wide-range of physical phenomena in a variety of fields, such as aeronautics, oceanography, and astrophysics. These equations describe solutions that have wave-like behavior, such as fluid flows and gravitational waves. In many cases, the physical behavior of this phenomenon and the related solutions to the hyperbolic PDE develop sharp gradients or discontinuities. In such cases, the numerical methods used to approximate the solutions in space and evolve them forward in time need to be very carefully designed so they can handle the discontinuities and remain stable and accurate.

The design of high order Strong Stability Preserving (SSP) time-stepping methods that are advantageous for use with spatial discretizations and that have nonlinear stability properties needed for the solution of hyperbolic PDEs with shocks, has been an active area of research over the last two decades. In particular, the focus has been to design high order methods with large allowable time-step. SSP methods in the multistep and Runge-Kutta families have been developed. However, these methods have order barriers and time-step restrictions. The focus of this project was to develop new SSP time discretizations by further exploring the class of multi-derivative Runge-Kutta methods.

My main job at the beginning was to derive the order conditions needed to design higher order multi-derivative methods. I derived the two derivative Runge-Kutta order conditions up to 6th order using what is known as Butcher trees.  Just the one derivative derivation had 37 trees, after including the second derivative, it increased tremendously. Some trees had around 15 sub-derivations; this was a tedious job that taught me a lot on how to be efficient and optimal. After deriving all the order conditions, they had to be included into a code that finds numerically optimal multi-derivative Runge-Kutta methods and tests these methods for accuracy and for the sharpness of the SSP condition on test problems used previously in the SSP field. We were able to find methods that gave us sixth order accurate, and after doing so we found that there are 7th order methods that work as well.


This experience led me to realize how I want to further my education. Thanks to a summer grant from the OUR as well as help from Dr. Gottlieb and Zack Grant, I have decided to pursue a PhD at UMD in Engineering and Applied Science. This will be an amazing experience and I very much look forward to it. To all students out there who have yet to find the beauty hidden in the intricate curiosity that some call research, I recommend that you get involved in research as soon as possible. If you find that you don’t like it, it is easy to get out; but, if you find it luring and attractive, you will feel like you have lost time not doing it earlier. Research is not boring, as many students might think. It is challenging and never definitive or monotonous. You’re always learning something new. Even if you try it once and don’t like it, you could still try it again, because there are so many topics unexplored that you are bound to find something you find interesting.

I’d like to leave you with this quote by the American biochemist and peace activist, Linus Carl Pauling:

“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”


Research in Biochemistry

Studying the Potential Applications of Dipeptide Nanomaterials

By Lisa Perreault


I am a senior biochemistry major at UMass Dartmouth, pursuing the 4+1 BS/MS program degree path. In addition to being a full time chemistry student, I am a chemistry teaching assistant and an undergraduate student researcher. Since the spring semester of 2015, I have been involved with the Mayes Research Group, which focuses on computational and theoretical chemistry. During my time in the group, I have been working on a dipeptide nanotube modeling project, which is centered on the self-assembly of this innovative nanomaterial. This research was partially funded through a grant from the OUR. All of our calculations run on the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (GHPCC), a state wide computing cluster with high computing capabilities. Using the GHPCC allows my calculations to be carried out quickly and efficiently, while teaching me a unique set of computing skills that not many undergraduates get to learn. After graduation, I hope to take what I have learned at UMass Dartmouth as a student researcher and apply it to a career in pharmaceutical drug development.


Left: Portrait of Perreault; right:The molecular structures of (a.) linear YY, (b.) cyclic YY, (c.) linear WY, and (d.) cyclic WY


Dipeptide nanomaterials are a relatively new and unique biomaterial with many potential applications. Their organic nature, rigidity and flexibility make them safe, yet strong, lending them to biological applications, such as biosensing, tissue engineering, and biological scaffolds.  Their semiconductor properties make them potential alternatives for electrical materials, such as solar cells. During the past several years, these dipeptide nanomaterials have risen in scientific interest and their properties have been investigated on a both a macro and micro scale. However, much is still unknown about the self-assembly of these dipeptide nanostructures. The aim of my research is to investigate the self-assembly of aromatic dipeptide nanotubes, using a variety of quantum computational methods. Four dipeptides are considered in my research: linear dityrosine (YY), cyclic YY, linear tryptophan-tyrosine (WY), and cyclic WY.

The basic theorized mechanism of nanotube self-assembly is that monomers form small aggregates, which then form rings, which stack to form tubes. So far, a bottom-up approach has been used to model the initial steps of nanotube self-assembly in order to study the fundamentals of the process. Progress so far can be broken down into three basic stages: a study of each of the four dipeptides, a study of their dimers, and a study of hexamer rings made from these dipeptides.

In the first stage of the study, the exact structure and energetics of linear YY, cyclic YY, linear WY, and cyclic WY were determined. Spartan software was used to determine all of the geometrically and energetically favorable conformations of each dipeptide. From there, the fifteen lowest energy conformers were analyzed further using GAMESS (General Atomic Molecular and Electronic Structure) to determine more accurately the lowest-energy conformer of each dipeptide, representing their most stable form. Geometric, molecular orbital, and IR spectra calculations were also performed to analyze the molecular trends present in low-energy conformers. The most important similarity between the most stable conformers of the four dipeptides is their stabilizing interactions. Each dipeptide has a relatively high dipole moment, implying that there are important polar interactions involved in their stabilization. Additionally, each dipeptide is characterized by highest occupied molecular orbital (HOMO) and lowest unoccupied molecular orbital (LUMO) consisting of mainly π and π* orbitals, respectively, suggesting that π-π* stacking interactions are also important. Finally, the addition of acetone solvation lowered the energy of each conformer, suggesting the solution stabilized the dipeptides and stimulates self-assembly experiments.

wwLeft: Examples of the (a.) side by side, (b.) stacking, (and c.) T orientations studied, using the cyclic YY dipeptide; right: An example of the hexamer ring, using the linear YY dipeptide


In the second stage of the study, dimers of each of the four dipeptides were studied. The lowest energy conformers from stage one were dimerize in three orientations: a linear “side by side” interaction, a parallel “stacking” interaction, and a perpendicular “T” interaction. GAMESS was used to optimize and analyze the dimers. Again, the geometries, energetic properties, molecular orbitals, and IR spectra of each system were investigated. Analysis of these properties showed that the stacking interactions have the overall lowest energy, the greatest binding energy, the most hydrogen bonding between dipeptides, and the tightest packing of the dipeptides. This suggests that dipeptides have a tendency to stack above one another in the early steps of their self-assembly.

To investigate the interaction between the dimers even further, an energy decomposition calculation was carried out in GAMESS on each dimer.  This calculation computes the types and amounts of interactive forces present between two molecules. It showed that the dominant interacting force in each of the dimers was electrostatic energy (accounting for ~50% of the total interaction energy) and polarization energy (accounting for ~30% of the total interaction energy). This implies that the dipole-dipole interaction between peptide bonds and the non-covalent interactions of the peptide termini play an important role in the interactions between multiple dipeptides.

In the third stage of the study, hexamer rings of each of the dipeptides were studied. The lowest-energy conformers from stage one were arranged into six-membered rings and optimized using GAMESS. Again, the geometric, energetic, orbital, and IR properties were analyzed. The binding energies were calculated to be moderately large, suggesting that the dipeptides have high affinity for each other in this ring arrangement. Linear YY and linear WY have binding energies nearly twice as large as those of their cyclic counterparts, suggesting that they will self-assemble more readily than cyclic YY and cyclic WY. The inner and outer diameters of each ring were calculated and compared against experimental data for the highly studied diphenylalanine nanotube, revealing that these four nanotubes will be slightly larger, due to large side chains and higher polarity.


I hope to continue working on this project for the rest of the academic year at UMass Dartmouth. The project can take several directions from here. This includes combining the rings into stacks to model complete nanotubes and performing molecular mechanics calculations on the large system to determine if any new molecular interactions arise in the nanotube system. It will also shows the interactions that occur between a field of nanotubes. Another possible trajectory is to model and study the mechanical properties of the nanotubes to reveal their strength and flexibility, which would be important for applications. The path that I will choose to study first is the interaction of these dipeptides with surface materials. This also has implications for the application of dipeptide nanotubes; it shows if the nanotubes will be compatible with the surfaces. Above all, it demonstrate the ways in which the nanotubes interact with these surfaces.

Research in Political Science

Voter Decision-Making in Low Information Elections

By David Borges


An astonishing number of elections in the United States occur at the local level. Because of various factors, these elections are low-turnout and low-information affairs. Frequently, regarding these local elections, the general electorate is woefully uninformed, and certain variables available to voters in more high-profile elections are unavailable to voters. Regardless, voters still head to the polls to cast their votes for candidates running for various positions in their local municipality.


While much research has been dedicated to evaluating voting determinants in higher profile elections, like those concerning presidential, senatorial and congressional contests, little has been dedicated to studying the more local level. Considering the magnitude and frequency at which local elections occur, Professors Shannon Jenkins and Doug Roscoe saw it fit to dedicate time to study how voters in low-information, local elections make their decisions. Thus, I was asked to spend time over summer break to help in this study and sought OUR funding to do so.


The poster of the 2016 New England Political Science Association Conference, where Borges presented the final results of his research in conjunction with his supervisors.

As a result I, alongside Professors Jenkins and Roscoe, was involved in multiple aspects of conducting a research, including data collection, imputing data into SPSS, conducting a literature review, formulating hypotheses, looking for patterns in the data and finally obtaining results and reaching conclusions. The work was originally prepared for and presented at the 2016 New England Political Science Association Conference and was just recently published in the New England Political Science Association Journal.

Screenshot of Borges’s publication in The New England Political Science Association Journal.



Participating in this OUR funded project was a worthwhile endeavor. I have been able to use what I learned from this research both professionally and personally. Living in a small town with a similar form of government as in the one we studied, I can apply findings from our research to my own community. Being interested in politics, I have and will continue to become involved in local politics in my hometown. As such, I can use what I learned to help impact my community in a meaningful way. Understanding who votes and how they decide whom to vote for in these local, low-information elections is a significant advantage.



Sample data analysis from Borges’s OUR funded research


Finally, by participating in this project I was able to work with two seasoned and distinguished researchers, thus learning the process of developing and implementing research much more thoroughly. Learning about the process in class is one thing, but it is a whole new experience carrying out the process from a different perspective. This experience has been extremely valuable to me, thanks to the OUR. Partaking in research provides undergraduate students with so many ways to explore their interests and bring their educational experience to a whole new level.

Research in Photojournalism

A Photo-journalistic Journey into Okinawa

By Lizzy Santoro


I am a dual major in Photography and Political Science. My passion for social and political issues always compliments my artistic side. In summer 2016 I received an OUR summer grant to study the culture of the American military community of Okinawa, Japan. My decision to do a photo-journalistic research in Okinawa was motivated by a personal experience. My journey began when I joined an Okinawan martial arts dojo, Kodokai, seven years ago. My Sensei is a Marine Corps veteran who was stationed in Okinawa during the seventies and learned martial arts during his time there. He truly immersed himself in the culture and became versed in the conflict between the Okinawans and American military. By going to the dojo five days a week, three/four hours a day, for seven years I, too, learned about the culture and the relationship between the American military and Okinawa.


Left: Portrait of Santoro at UMass Dartmouth quad; right: Santoro’s photograph of two Okinawans taking a selfie with an American at Gate Two street in Okinawa, 2016.


There are 5 times as more American bases in Japan than in Afghanistan and 75% of those bases are located in just 0.6% of Japan’s landmass, on the island of Okinawa. This over-saturation of American military on a very small landmass has affected the area in a large number of tangible ways- both positive and negative. Okinawa’s economy, culture, and history have been strongly influenced by America; conversely, thousands of Americans have been shaped by the Okinawan culture and society.



Left: American soldier shares rations with Okinawan children in 1945; right: Santoro’s photograph of the Osprey helicopters on Futenma Air Base, 2016.


In my recent travel, I did my best to tell the story of the American military presence in Okinawa through both texts and images. I took notes as I explored different places. I interviewed both Americans and Okinawans. I did research on my own and I captured the culture, utilizing the elegance of the frozen moment that only photographs can provide. It is important to note that my photographs are not just representations of reality; they are mediated images with deep meanings. Indeed, I did my best to capture important moments and locations and I “framed” these moments and locations in meaningful ways. Even though the final product–an illustrated book–ended up being not too long, it definitely proved to be very challenging. The recent history of Okinawa is incredibly complicated. It includes 70 years of injustice and Okinawan bitterness at both the Japanese and the American central governments. At the macro level, there are fierce political debates about how necessary the bases are in Okinawa, whether the Okinawan people have been subjugated by American and Japanese superpowers, and whether the bases do more harm than good. But there is also a less polarized micro reality. Most Americans are just doing their jobs. They were given relatively no choice to be stationed in Okinawa and are just fulfilling their duty as honorably as possible. Simultaneously, most Okinawans are just living their daily lives as best as they can, and as harmoniously as possible with their American neighbors.



Santoro’s photograph of a neighborhood near the American base, 2016. American iconography and English Signage are fairly common throughout Okinawa, but they are especially prevalent near the bases.


There were more challenges than just the complexity of my research topic. I struggled particularly with the writing portion of this project because my upbringing put me on both sides of this debate. I grew up in a military family, with a father who was a Naval Commander and a brother training to be a Marine Corps officer. On the other hand, I have strong personal relationships with several people who are somewhat critical of the American military presence in Okinawa. The only way I could navigate through these conflicting emotions was to tell the story as historically accurate as possible. The result of this strategy is a book that is as removed from myself as I could manage; however, the origins of this book could not have been more personal because, for me, this research project is about a place where my second home was conceived. To read my book and to see more of my photographs, please click on the book’s cover: