2020 LASER Training Cohort

In August of 2020, the Graduate School welcomed the start of another cohort of Leaders Advancing Socially Engaged Research (LASER). This program is aimed at Notre Dame doctoral students in their third or fourth years of study, and is intended to complement students’ individual research pursuits in their various fields. This year’s cohort consists of sixteen students completing individual LASER projects and hailing from each of the Graduate School’s four academic divisions (engineering, humanities, social sciences, and science). 

The cohort kicked off the year by celebrating the previous cohort's successes at the LASER Symposium. LASER is led by John Lubker, the Graduate School’s associate dean for academic affairs. LASER meetings, which take place every three weeks on campus, will feature topics such as self-awareness, values clarification, crucial conversations, and design thinking as well as bringing in guest speakers from the community.

Below, the 2020-2021 LASER participants describe their projects in their own words (edited for clarity): 

Ariel Aguero – Psychology

Ariel Aguero

My project aims to spread awareness of autism-related resources in collaboration with local non-profit programs within the greater St Joseph community. As is, many individuals are unaware of the resources currently available in the community to individuals with autism, including recreational activities and clinical services alike. Arguably, the barrier to entry for access to this information has only worsened given the necessary social distancing guidelines called forth by covid-19. Nonetheless, these services remain in place both within and without the university or have otherwise shifted to virtual platforms, providing much needed support to individuals and caregivers working with autism. During my time in LASER I will therefore work on an informational campaign aimed at spreading awareness of autism-related services within the community, collaborating with university and non-profit programs in the area as much as possible.


Fernando Alamos - Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

Fernando Alamos

I propose to study and analyze the social and ethical implications of additive manufacturing of concrete. It would be very interesting to evaluate the ethical and social impacts that 3D printing of buildings could have on society in the future. The fabrication of buildings by 3D printing could have an important impact on society, mainly because this technology allows to build very quickly, reducing considerably the building cost. This can allow us to build inexpensive and thermal efficient houses for low-income families in areas with severe cold or hot climates. My research in this project will be focused on modeling the thermal efficiency of novel 3D printed walls for building to improve the structural and thermal efficiency. Therefore, I can estimate the building cost and the cost reduction in heating or cooling of novel designed walls to evaluate if this technology will be viable for the low social income sectors.

Tee Chuanromanee - Computer Science and Engineering

Tee Chuanromanee

My proposed leadership project is to organize a workshop in CHI, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The workshop I will lead will specifically focus on transgender research in the field of human-computer interaction. This subfield, while new, has been growing consistently for a few years and there are multiple cisgender and transgender researchers who are active in the CHI community.  Bringing these diverse researchers and their perspectives will allow for a fruitful discussion on the state of the field as well as uncover new and relevant areas of research. This new experience will be a success in part because I will be using my professional network and my previous experience as a member of both the trans and HCI community to help inform the structure and execution of this workshop.

Sam Hall - History and Philosophy of Science

Sam Hall

For my project, I will organize an academic conference on the relationship between the history and philosophy of science and science education, guided by two central questions: (1) How can history and philosophy of science material be effectively incorporated into science education curriculum to the benefit of scientists, engineers, and physicians in training? (2) To what extent should scholars of HPS engage with the history, theory, and practice of teaching science, especially for the purposes of improving their pedagogical aptitude as scientifically literate educators? The event will seek to bring together external speakers and local science educators with members of the Notre Dame community, culminating in a graduate student professional development workshop focused on providing tools to help foster involvement in, and planning of, future public outreach projects. Additionally, in the year leading up to the event, I will organize a reading group for faculty and students affiliated with the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values, to serve as a primer to research in the field of science education.


Kayla Hurd - Anthropology

Kayla Hurd

My dissertation research examines the health and cultural implications of eating insects in Mexico. In the state of Oaxaca, grasshoppers are a cultural symbol and are commonly eaten as a crunchy and satisfying snack. My proposed project for the LASER program is to bring some of these insects to the South Bend community and encourage people to try this sustainable and nutritious food. I would like to be a liaison between the South Bend Cubs baseball team, the community, and an edible insect vendor (such as Detroit Ento or Merci Mercado) in order to help set up this program for opening day 2021. Both the Seattle Mariners and the West Michigan Whitecaps stadiums have sold edible insects and have done so successfully. In their first three home games offering grasshoppers (the same insects that I study in Mexico), the Mariners’ fans ate roughly 900 orders or 18,000 grasshoppers. So much so, that they completely sold out and had to limit their sales at the next home games (check out some news coverage, here). Understanding the health effects of consuming insects will help scientists weigh in on the possible risks of this relatively ‘new’ food to Western communities. The main ethical and social concern that insects pose to society is the disgust and aversion people have to them as a source of food; overcoming this barrier, while challenging, can provide a sustainable alternative to the current food production model, and is ultimately the reason why my research matters.

Ryan Karl - Computer Science and Engineering

Ryan Karl

I plan to incorporate my current leadership roles at Notre Dame as part of my leadership project.  In 2018, I personally completed research, provided data, and attended meetings in order to create the Society of Notebaert Fellows, and while serving as its President for the past two years, I have strived to expand membership and gather information from current fellows pertaining to how the society and ND could provide support and activities that would be of the greatest value and interest to them.  As a result, I am planning a number of social and professional development events for the upcoming months.  It is my hope that by participating in this program, I may develop as a leader and expand the resources and institutional knowledge of the club so that future leaders will have a blueprint for success, and be equipped to help young scholars achieve their highest potential. 

Also, I am currently the President of the Notre Dame Graduate Student Union, and I expect to utilize this position to further improve the quality of life for graduate students.  In particular, I plan to direct my efforts toward developing a sustainable model of financial support for graduate student clubs, and advocating for more family friendly programming that would be of more interest to the spouses and families of graduate students.  Also, I would like to create a program that would assist international students to connect with other students from their own country.  The ultimate goal of this program would be to have the more senior of these students pass down their knowledge to newer students about the ways of adapting to life as a grad student and the cultural differences between the United States and their home country, so that new students experience less stress during their early years.  I would like to leverage the training I receive as a LASER Fellow to apply the skills of ethics-based leadership and acquire knowledge that can help me to accomplish these goals.

Joseph Liberko - Chemistry and Biochemistry

Joseph Liberko

I joined the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) at Notre Dame to show my support for women in our department. Through my involvement with this community, I strive to change the academic environment on campus to allow women to have fair treatment in the sciences and in life. For my leadership project, I would like to take my involvement in AWIS to the next step. In the upcoming election, I will run to become the treasurer of AWIS to further my involvement within the organization. As treasurer, an important cabinet position within the organization, I will be responsible for handling the groups’ donations, spending, and student reimbursements. Further, I will participate in the bi-weekly executive board meetings with the other AWIS cabinet members. This is where I will be able to support other members of the board, relay concerns from other graduate students, and offer ideas for possible outreach events.


Connor Mullen - Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences

Connor Mullen

My project involves working with the McWell Center on campus to create a certificate program for wellness much like the Kaneb Center has for teaching. In essence I want to create a culture where students deeply understand themselves and empower and champion others wellbeing and mental wellness as much as their research ideas. It is these environments where we feel completely safe to be free and fully ourselves and in turn grow and take risks. My hope is that this helps in rounding out the typical technical graduate education to equip students to have the emotional experience, understanding and capacity to lead others effectively and develop global citizens.  

My vision is to develop a set of small interactive seminars where students would learn about emotional intelligence, Enneagram types, listening skills, empathy and mentoring. The certificate program would have three tiers, the first starts with attending a set number of seminars and taking the enneagram test (discuss with a staff member at Mcwell), the second tier would involve the individual acting as a discussion lead for five seminars, mentoring tier one students, along with creating a wellness project in your home department. The third tier expects the student to create and lead seminars as well as continuing the mentoring experience with tier two students. The students in tier two and three would have a dedicated mentor within McWell that they would meet with to discuss their projects and have dedicated life coaching sessions. Tier one would have the opportunity to have one life coaching session. Each semester will have a set of core seminars so that a tier one certificate is completable in a single semester. 

In all of this my role would be facilitating working with McWell to create the structure, both online and in person, needed for the program as well as representing on behalf of the graduate student experience and interceding as the students advocate I imagine the first year we will have tier one and two and then the second year will see the roll out of tier three. Additionally, I would likely teach a seminar similar to one I have taught in the past about boundaries, relationships and remaining positive and open to growth even when faced with negativity from others and life’s curveballs..

Sam Potier - Physics

Sam Potier

My proposed project is to lead a team of graduate and undergraduate students to perform exciting “science demonstration” shows at South Bend area elementary schools. The goal of these interactive events is to show the students how exciting science can be, while also helping them to envision themselves as future scientists. This work will challenge my leadership skills in multiple ways. First, I will gather and organize a team of Notre Dame students looking for an opportunity to generate excitement for science within the South Bend community. I will then have to coordinate with administrators at South Bend area elementary schools to schedule our demonstration shows. Lastly, I will be responsible for making sure the shows run smoothly, our supplies are properly maintained, and the proper safety precautions are taken.

Lindy Sherman - Chemistry and Biochemistry

Lindy Sherman

Largely, I would like to focus my project on an area which can allow for the development of effective teamwork strategies and professional mentoring. Therefore, I propose to intentionally develop these skills through management of full-time undergraduate students during the summer term. Undergraduate students have unique opportunities to apply for summer financial support through the College of Science at the University of Notre Dame. As an undergraduate, performing authentic research presents many professional development opportunities. For the first time, many students are asked to perform extensive literature searches, gain instrumentation skills, learn independence, and grapple with the non-linearity of the research process. For the graduate mentor, recognizing a student’s strengths and weaknesses is a challenge that can stifle efficient progress. In addition, scientific training is time-consuming and constructively managing a student’s research project requires patience. Most undergraduates work in research labs throughout the semester with a limited time commitment. Guiding a student working full-time in the lab presents unique challenges for a graduate mentor with their own time-sensitive responsibilities.

Sr. Kim Tran – Theology

Sister Kim Tran

My project involves the study of historical and theological analysis of the story of Our Lady of La Vang (hereafter OLLV).  The historical part includes the time or the original apparition (in 1798) and the time when the Shrine of OLLV became a National Marian Pilgrimage Center, and a church, built next to the Shrine, was elevated to the Basilica of OLLV (in 1961).  From that time, too, the Church in Vietnam gradually engaged the Vietnamese people and culture so that she could truly be, as she claims, the Church that practices the Gospel in the heart of the nation and in a Christian way of life, the Church that expresses her faith in a way consistent with national tradition (after 1975). Furthermore, the subsequent development of national popular devotion to Our Lady of La Vang was impacted by many factors, such as the local devotees, the Vietnam War, the canonization of 117 Martyrs in Vietnam, the attention of Pope John Paul II, and the interest of Vietnamese who had migrated in diaspora.  I, therefore, will engage the resources and dialogue with scholars, the majority of whom are clergy and church leaders.  Likewise, I conduct ethnographic studies of popular devotion to OLLV and engage with the pilgrims.

Nazli Turan – Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

Nazli Turan

Today’s science and engineering applications require a prior step involving philosophical attempts, which help to define processes, mechanisms, and their potential outcomes. On the other hand, my experience in mentoring implied that we are having trouble in setting goals enriched with multifaceted aspects, such as: Who will benefit from our task? Is our project still good for everyone 5 years after we achieved our goal? Can we identify adverse effects of our study? Those are not yes/no questions in practice. We need value judgement to assess the effects of our studies on us, future generations, and Earth. What we prioritize is how we live our life. To that end, I propose to work with undergrads closely to guide them through their research with their self-developed values. I anticipate establishing a transparent bridge between the mentor and mentee where no one can impose their values, but both can use the bridge to share knowledge, experience, and insight. I expect my mentees to build their own values during our studies that focus on developing plasma systems consuming less energy while cleaning air and water. I believe I can try to get their perspective and adapt research based on our shared interests.

Luiz Vilaça - Sociology

Luis Vilaça

For my project, I plan to organize a problem-solving workshop for graduate students in the Sociology department. I plan to focus my project on the Sociology department for operational purposes — I am a Sociology student —  but I envision this is an initiative that could be replicated across other departments. This project is inspired by a dissertation-proposal workshop I participated at Northwestern University in 2019. This workshop opened my eyes to the importance of taking into consideration a problem-solving lens when crafting research proposals, and I think a lot of students could benefit from discussing their research ideas through a problem-solving approach.
Briefly, I plan to do a call-for-proposals to have a sense of how many students would be interested in attending the workshop. Students will then circulate their proposals — whether a dissertation proposal, an idea for a paper or something similar — in advance. During the workshop, we will first debate what is problem-solving research and how it could help scholars develop their work in ways that can concretely help their communities or society more broadly. We will then debate each proposal and think through collectively about 1) which problems each proposal seeks to solve; 2) how the student aims to help solve this problem; and 3) which audiences would be particularly interested in those solutions (e.g. non-profit organizations, policy-makers, think tanks etc). I also plan to invite faculty members in the social sciences who have done problem-solving research to be discussants in the workshop.

Bethany Wentz - Psychology

Bethany Wentz

I have proposed a two-pronged professional development program to be implemented in my research lab. First, I will serve as a mentor to undergraduate students interested in pursuing their own independent or small-group research projects. I currently work primarily with a longitudinal dataset from the Northern Ireland project, a completed survey project which compiled responses to numerous measures from mothers and adolescents impacted by community violence in Northern Ireland. Students will develop research projects and analyze data from this dataset. Second, I will create a professional development workshop series to be presented at our weekly undergraduate lab meetings. Workshop topics will include applying for graduate school, communicating effectively about your research experience to potential employers, CV vs. resume writing, and others.

Hannah Wesselman – Biological Sciences

Hannah Wesselman

As I’ve transitioned from clinical kidney transplant research to the benchtop science studying the genetic network of kidney development, I’ve realized the deep connection between patients and researchers. Patients provide inspiration and motivation for researchers, while scientists contribute to developing treatments and provide hope for patients and their families. As a LASER participant, I hope to bring this connection to light by organizing a team for the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) Kidney Walk. This project will accomplish three major goals: 1.) Fundraise for kidney research and education via the NKF 2.) Build up the research community within Notre Dame by sharing the motivation behind kidney research 3.) Connect researchers (faculty, graduate and undergraduate students) with local community members that are impacted by their research. This event will provide researchers the opportunity to hear directly from individuals experiencing kidney failure and share educational materials regarding the current state of kidney research. As benchtop scientists, we can easily get tunnel vision as we study the intricate processes involved in development and disease progression, and events like the Kidney Walk provide an opportunity to broaden our perspective, thus shortening the distance between the benchtop and proverbial bedside while encouraging intentional advocacy efforts.

Morgan Widhalm - Psychology

Morgan Widhalm

For my project, I am planning on pursuing two prongs in the overarching goal of science communication. First, I will serve as committee chair for the Michiana Science Cafe (an event series run through the Science Policy Initiative at ND) and have the opportunity to lead a great team as we take this event series to the next level. As the head of the team, it will be my job to stay on top of the high-level planning such as ensuring that we’re always booked with speakers two months in advance (so we have time for proper advertisement), pursuing networking for new advertising channels, and coordinating with the guest speakers and our venue on any and all logistics. I also will organize monthly planning meetings with the rest of my committee to brainstorm future speakers, take input on ways to improve the flow of events, and follow up on any new leads. The goal is to continue to build this event in organic ways that serve the community members in attendance: potential ideas include collaborations with local libraries to have a curated list of additional readings available for each month’s topic, providing opportunities for attendees to get involved in citizen science and other community organizing groups, and collaborations with other local institutions to bring a more diverse group of speakers to the event series and foster leadership among community members. The other prong for my science communication project involves acting as a guest writer on the ScIU Blog, where I will write about topics of public interest related to my research and classes. This will not only help me improve the clarity of my own writing, but will also disseminate knowledge that is too often kept within the “ivory tower” of academia.