Symposium Highlights Student Research, Design and Innovation (2024)

Developing an eco-friendly garden bed monitoring system designed to foster optimal growth for plants. Suggesting additional ways to analyzing nutritional availability on low incomes. Implementing a classic Tetris game on a DE-10 FPGA board. Studying the effects of bullying on mental health. These are just a few examples of Johnson & Wales students’ research skills, creativity and inventiveness displayed for hundreds of attendees of the 2024 Student Research, Design & Innovation Symposium.

Enabling Safe and Cost-Effective Habitats on Mars

For his JWU capstone, Product Design major Michael Dattolo ’24 pioneered an extraterrestrial construction focused on developing safe and sustainable habitats on Mars. His highly sophisticated robot, dubbed M.A.R.T.I.A.N., is uniquely tailored for Mars' challenging environment.

“I'm a big believer in innovation,” says Michael. “My interests are robotics, 3D printing and engineering, and I want to create things that can make the world a better place, and do so sustainably.”

Michael’s project addresses how Mars lacks an atmosphere like Earth’s that naturally protects inhabitants from cosmic ray and UV solar radiation. “The idea is that many of these robots can fit compactly on a rocket ship for less money, and they can use natural material like Mars’ soil to block out radiation,” Michael explains.

His constructed robot prototype integrates multiple technologies for site assessment. “LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) produces precise 3D mapping of Martian terrain, while the Intel depth sense camera — just like our eyes — is able to perceive depth and convert it into color coding on a monitor,” Michael explains. “The robot has six legs so that it can traverse any complex terrain climb to survey its environment.”

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“I'm hoping for improvements in the future so it could be used for other purposes like research,” he adds. “I hope it could collect and gather information in addition to construction. That way we could repurpose and continue using them through innovation.”

Michael has enjoyed opportunities at JWU to innovate. In 2022, he and fellow Product Design major Mathew Hartung won second place in JWU’s Sharkfest competition for Total Ergonomics, the ergonomically friendly medical device design company they co-founded as a class project. After graduation, Michael will pursue his own mission to Mars.

“I grew up in Hackettstown, New Jersey, and I’m hoping to work at Mars there,” he says of the maker of M&Ms and other candy whose 104-acre plant is well-known for innovative research and design. “But I hope in the future that I can start my own business, whether it be Total Ergonomics or one of my other projects.”

Expanding Resources for Veterans

“I want to help veterans be set up for success on campus,” states QueenDeifilla Perry ’25, a Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management major in Charlotte, of her project, “From Boots to Books.”

QueenDeifilla is a former U.S. Air Force member, having served as a Security Forces specialist, and she would like to create a Veteran’s United club to foster a greater sense of community for veterans on JWU’s campus. “Hopefully this program can be replicated on other campuses,” she says.

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“Veteran’s United will be an added support system beyond what our campus representative provides. I’d like to create a similar setup to how it is in the military where everyone has a ‘battle buddy’ or ‘wingman’ — someone who has been through the same things and can be a support and a resource when needed.”

Notes Perry, “I was inspired to develop my idea after using the GI Bill to attend school and wanting to have more resources to help me be successful beyond the military.”

Applying Artificial Intelligence to Counseling Humans

Artificial intelligence (AI) is here to stay, and Clinical Mental Health Counseling majors Briana Seippel ’25 M.S., Shauna Bienvenue ’25 M.S. and Jaime Beers ’25 M.S. chose to study the shifts it has created in the counseling landscape through assessment tools such as Cogito and Affectiva and virtual assistants such as TheraNest, Therachat and Calendly. Their project addresses AI’s advantages and limitations, as well as ethical and multicultural concerns.

“We really looked into what can we consider as far as implementations into the ACA (American Counseling Association) code of ethics, while taking an integrative approach to ensure that we are addressing diversity and specific areas of multicultural concerns as well as confidentiality — protecting the client as well as the professional,” Briana explains.

Adds Shauna, “AI is extremely prevalent right now, but there's not enough research out there, especially on privacy and confidentiality, which are extremely important in our field. We love AI but also see the concerns about implementing it into our fields. This project helped us identify what we can do and how we can approach this so that we're making sure we’re going by ethical guidelines.”

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“The absence of regulations underscore the need for clear ethical and legal guidelines to safeguard client protection and confidentiality as well as to uphold professional excellence,” they conclude.

After she obtains her licensure, Briana plans on opening a private practice and integrating an art therapy center. Shauna plans to get her Ph.D., combining her interest in clinical research, clinical supervision and teaching.

Effecting Positive Change Through Baking

For the past six years, major Morgan Belardo ’24 has planned and coordinated an annual 12-hour bake sale where people exchange spare change for her baked goods. The raised funds go toward Alzheimer's care and research through The Deeper Window, a nonprofit her family started to offer support & programs to caretakers and people living with dementia.

“I love baking, and my dad was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s when I was 14,” shares Morgan. “This was the perfect opportunity to choose not to be a victim of this disease but rather an advocate for my dad.”

With help from volunteers, her family started baking the menu Morgan created, making over 5,000 saleable units using a commercial kitchen provided by a local church. To date, Morgan’s culinary creations and the work of her family and volunteers have raised over $110,000 for Alzheimer's, all of which has been donated to keep programming affordable for families braving dementia.

Sadly, Morgan lost her father to Alzheimer's in September 2022 — which has only increased her drive.

“I have always put so much thought and effort into this event to make my dad proud, but now I want to honor who he was and ensure he is never forgotten,” Morgan shares. “This was my first time putting a case together, and this symposium was a great experience. Dr. [College of Food Innovation and Technology Professor Frances] Burnett and Chef [CFIT Professor Cece] Krelitz were so helpful to me. It made me realize how big this event really is and what an impact it can make.”

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“What struck me the most is Morgan’s humility and the genuine impact of her community service”, notes Burnett, who served as Morgan’s faculty mentor.

Morgan brought so much passion to the JWU community that Krelitz participated in Morgan’s event in Kansas last year. In fact, Morgan’s biggest challenge has been finding enough opportunities for all the organizations and people who want to help.

“I hope my story will resonate with others and inspire them to make their own positive changes in the world,” Morgan states. “I hope it can inspire others in culinary and hospitality to leverage their passions for social good, demonstrating how small but consistent efforts can lead to substantial change.”

Interpreting Study Results for Journal Publication

Biology major Jadyn Torres ’26 summarized her research internship experience in her project, “Driving under the Influence in RI Adolescents.” She had teamed up with JWU faculty members Jonathan Noel, Samantha Rosenthal and Kelsey Gately, as well as Samantha Borden from the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, to address a gap in literature on the subject. The faculty had collected research which Torres interpreted — and ended up getting co-published with the team in an academic journal, Traffic Injury Preventions, earlier this year.

“This study examines the prevalence of driving under the influence of alcohol, cannabis and non-medical prescription drugs and examines the role of several potential risk and protective factors,” Jadyn explains. “A secondary analysis of the 2022 Rhode Island Study Survey, a cross-sectional survey of middle and high school students, showed that among lifetime users, prevalence of alcohol, cannabis and non-medical prescription drugs was 4.9%, 14.3%, and 16.9%, respectively.“

The findings suggest a need for substance-specific, heterogeneous interventions. “The one similarity for all three substances is that if your parent has a negative perception of that substance, it's actually a protective factor,” explains Jadyn. “So one of the interventions we're thinking about is teaching these parents the risk factors of the substances.”

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Jadyn is grateful that JWU faculty invited her to join their research. “I went into the topic very open-minded; I just wanted to help with the research and getting out the paper,” she says. “It turned out to be a really interesting topic! I had a great time with it. I like interpreting experiences.”

Her desired career path also depends on evidence-based research, combined with clinical expertise. “I want to be a veterinarian,” she shares. “My plan is to graduate from JWU and get accepted into med school, and from there, I would love to become a small animal veterinarian.”

Branding for a Cause

“Love Bash is a premier event that the Potter League for Animals puts on each year to raise critical funds for their animals, shelters and programming,” explains Julia Shiels ’24 of her project with fellow Graphic Design major Shea Lambert ’24. “We were responsible for designing a logo and defining brand standards for this event that aligned with Potter League’s existing brand, and we were given extensive creative freedom with limited constraints such as incorporating the logo mark and brand colors so that the brand identity was recognizable.”

“The Potter League originally gave us their icon, and I re-designed their dog and cat with tails intertwined and with a heart to represent the Love Bash,” Shea explains.

Adds Julia, “We went through so many rounds, each taking a piece of ours until it became this merge of fonts and shapes and colors that we each found and created. It was very much a team effort.”

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Once the branding was solidified and approved, Julia and Shea moved on to designing other Love Bash deliverables including physical invitations, sponsorship packages, silent auction signage, posters, slide show templates, interactive experience-themed backdrops and social media components for Facebook and Instagram. “We made it evergreen, so all that Kara [Montalbano, director of marketing & community relations] at the Potter League has to do is fill in the date for next year,” Julia explains.

As for what’s next after graduation, Julia has some leads but realizes that many talented artists are entering the field at once. “I might take some time and then come back to the application process in a few months when things quiet down,” says Julia, who is working with freelance clients in the meantime. “Branding is just so fun for me — building something from the ground up, creating all these brand elements with it and seeing it all come together,” she adds. “That's what a lot of my freelance clients want: a brand.”

Shea, who loves working on packaging and branding, also plans to take off a little time this summer, while still working in the graphic design studio. “I'm familiar with the production end of it all,” she explains. “I guess the whole reason I became a graphic designer is packaging, for all the same reasons Julia has said. It's just nice to create something handheld and real-life.”

Recognizing the Impact of Mentorship

Culinary Arts major Caleb Brown ’25 chose to highlight something important to him: the Johnson & Wales University Mentoring program, which Caleb feels has had a profound impact on both participants and the broader community.

“I always heard about mentoring but didn’t really think about what it meant,” Caleb says. Then he came to JWU. “I learned so much about mentoring,” he notes. “It’s all about personal relationships and growing your network. My mentor in the program has become my friend. It’s been a blessing as he’s helped me evaluate my career goals.”

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Caleb credits JWU’s program with allowing him to develop more productively, noting that mentees also benefit by gaining insights into career paths, setting goals and acquiring essential skills.

“I aim to contribute my time and effort to my mentor while seeking valuable life and professional knowledge from him,” Caleb resolves. “With support from the PBI grant, JWU demonstrates its commitment to student success, aiming for retention, growth and success post-graduation. JWU's dedication to personal and community development aligns with its mission to foster professional success and lifelong growth. Through alumni engagement and plans for retention and expansion, this program aims to cultivate well-rounded, community-oriented professionals, reflecting an ethos of supporting present and future students alike.”

In addition to having a faculty mentor by his side throughout his studies, Caleb appreciates his symposium project mentor, Director of Administrative and Strategic Initiatives Tim Stiles. “Tim Stiles helped me stay organized and helped me figure out what to highlight in my presentation,” says Caleb, whose biggest challenge was condensing everything into the presentation.

“Coming to JWU was the best decision for me,” Caleb shares. “Participating in the mentoring program and in events like this has allowed me to interface, interact and network. JWU has helped me to be better, push myself and pursue my career goals. I’m excited to see where my future will take me.”

Addressing Barriers to Composting

Food Innovation and Technology M.S. major Nicole VanWort ’17, ’24 M.S., is concerned about the 1.3 trillion tons of food waste sent annually to landfills, releasing 3.3 trillion tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. “Methane is the most detrimental contributor to climate change,” Nicole explains. “Composting through aerobic and anaerobic digestion is one of six potential ways the EPA identified to divert food out of the landfill.”

In 2016, Rhode Island enacted a commercial food waste ban for food producers creating over 104 tons of waste per year — but the state only had one anaerobic digestor and one aerobic digestor. “Most food waste producers are exempt from the ban simple because they are more than 20 miles from available digestors,” says Nicole. “Plus, compost is categorized as solid waste and only applies to solid waste zoning laws, so it can only go to a single landfill in Johnston, Rhode Island, or be collected by a very limited number of composters.” The state lacks support to expand composting.

“Creating a statewide composting education program, updating municipal zoning laws, establishing subsidies for low-income families and creating a transition program for food producers to understand their resources to aerobic and anaerobic digestors is crucial for Rhode Island to meet its zero food waste goals of 2040,” Nicole concludes.

She would love an opportunity to educate lawmakers on the facts. “We are overproducing food by 30% to account for the 40% we're wasting, which is silly,” she notes. “Plus, not all compost carriers can break down the same type of waste — some can only do vegetables, some vegetables and dairy, and those who can break down meats, bones and fats need expensive technology to do it. How can we subsidize the cost of composting?”

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Nicole’s undergraduate JWU degree was in Nutrition and Culinary Science, and applied it as a product development consultant, she encountered far too much manufacturing waste. “If the product didn't come out properly, that entire batch, which could be up to 1,000 pounds, would get thrown out — now multiply that by all the food plants in this country,” she states. Living in Chicago, Nicole had been struck the food disparity she witnessed in neighborhoods, with long lines at food banks contrasting with food trade shows she’d attend where leftover samples would get thrown out. “That really pushed me to figure out how we can stop wasting food,” she says.

After graduating, Nicole hopes to get into food access education in an organization such as Farm Fresh RI, the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, the Public Health Institute or Community Servings.

“I want to ensure that low-income communities, especially K-12 schools, have access to nutritious food,” she says. “How can we get smaller farmers access to grocery stores and distribution centers so their food reaches struggling neighborhoods? How do we donate more food? I'm looking to get into those issues as well as food waste and composting; they're all interconnected.”

Nicole is glad that she chose to come back to JWU and do her master’s in Rhode Island. “It's a very unique place; it’s very small,” she says. “You can see the impact you're having on the community.”

Expanding Accessibility in Tourism

As a travel lover with family members with disabilities, Adventure, Sport and Sustainable Tourism Management major Emma Akian ’26 wants to make tourism more accessible. Her project focuses on incorporating accessibility into the three pillars of sustainable tourism: environment, community and economy.

“With an estimated 1.3 billion people living with a significant disability, tourism providers are neglecting a significant demographic of travelers,” Emma notes. “Barriers to accessible tourism include a lack of comprehensive information, poor digital accessibility and both physical and social obstructions to inclusivity. It can be discouraging to seek experiences and be told your physical or cognitive or hidden disability can’t be accommodated. Anyone who is passionate about traveling should be able to travel.”

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Emma analyzed a case study and expanded upon its ideas with a potential business model promoting accessibility within Costa Rica’s tourism industry. Using principles from two businesses, Senda Monteverde and Il Viaggio Travel, she determined that the use of sensory-immersive experiences and educational influences to create tourism activities would be an inclusive way of permitting travelers with disabilities more freedom. Now she hopes the information can be available to people with disabilities and that alternative experiences are advertised and represented.

“Collaboration between sustainable and accessible tourism providers could strengthen economic and social impacts in each sector,” explains Emma. “Furthermore, it could help establish nations like Costa Rica as pioneers in ethical and nature-based accessible tourism.”

Emma’s project stems from a sustainable tourism class. “I think that JWU has so much to offer in terms of not only looking at the tourism industry but at ways we can improve it,” she says. “That's what I am hoping to do eventually; I want to figure out not only how to make sustainable tourism more accessible, but how to make tourism in general accessible.”

She hopes to work at theme parks after JWU. “To really make an impact, you have to have someone on the inside who's really hearing you and can make those changes,” says Emma. “I hope to be that person.”

Finding New Uses for Ingredients

Rachel Littlejohn ’24, and ; Micah Sullivan 24, ; Anya Glessman ’24, Culinary Nutrition, and Marshall Davis ’24, Applied Food Science, combined their culinary knowledge to find several uses for maple as a functional ingredient through product development, testing and research. Their goal was to research the market, functionality and production of maple syrup in consumer-packaged goods, highlighting maple as a functional food due to its antioxidants, minerals and anti-inflammatory properties while demonstrating how maple is much more than a sweetener for pancakes.

“The biggest challenge was the research,” reports the group, which struggled to find information about maple syrup. “Recipe testing was also another challenge – coming up with new ideas to use maple syrup using different ingredients.” Yet the students persevered.

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“It’s up to food scientists like us to help change the maple industry,” states Micah. “We worked together and individually over the course of the semester, working to develop and test different recipes such as maple BBQ sauce.”

“I learned how to go deep in my research to help me develop a new product,” he adds, while symposium attendees line up to taste maple-based sauce samples. “My research made me realize how complex one ingredient can be and how it can be incorporated into so many different recipes.”

Revealing the Effect of Discrimination on Marginalized Populations

Two Health Science students, Sarah Miller ’24 and Mackenzie O’Neill ’24, each studied discrimination effects on sexual and gender minority (SGM) populations.

Sarah (who double majors in Psychology) set out with JWU faculty members to identify factors in healthcare avoidance among SGMs. She collected data from 1,316 adult SGMs using a web-based survey, measuring whether avoidance was due to fear of discrimination, sexual and gender minority identity, partnership status, adverse childhood experiences, age, education, income or race/ethnicity, and revealed that 21.3% of SGMs reported fear of discrimination as their reason. Her findings could help guide practitioners in identifying and providing interventions for those at higher risk of avoiding healthcare.

“Being a Health Science major, I'm very into health,” Sarah explains. “I've always wanted to go into healthcare of some type, and so when I saw a void in healthcare I thought, ‘That's a major problem.’ Before JWU, I wasn't previously knowledgeable about sexual and gender minorities or what their fear of discrimination can cause. It was interesting to go outside of what I’m usually familiar with for this project.”

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Gearing up to graduate, Sarah has plans to spend a year working as an exercise specialist at a physical therapy clinic. After that, she will enter a master’s degree program. She is appreciative of getting to participate in this symposium while still at JWU.

“I attended as a guest last year, and now be on the other side of it is a really cool experience,” Sarah notes. She enjoyed her JWU education, including taking a culinary class as part of her major. “I thought that was really interesting, getting to apply the nutrition that we learned and getting our hands on food,” she says.

Mackenzie also teamed up with JWU faculty on research for her project, “SGM Workplace Discrimination and Unemployment.” She’s excited that it their paper is being published in an occupational journal.

“The study examines the association between workplace discrimination and unemployment among sexual and gender minorities,” she explains. “SGM happens almost everywhere, including in healthcare, but we wanted to go into depth with workplace discrimination because I’ve personally seen it in my workplace.”

The cross-sectional study of nearly 1,000 respondents was conducted in 2022, using multivariable logistic regression to identify predictors of unemployment among SGMs. “We concluded that a total of 28.43% were unemployed,” says Mackenzie. “With each additional point in the workplace discrimination score, there were increased odds of being unemployed, with evidence that among SGMs, workplace discrimination contributes to employment insecurity.”

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Is there a solution? “Workplace policies, interventions and education are needed to address SGM discrimination in the workplace,” she explains. “I would like to see education implemented at a younger age, because I think a lot of people don’t understand what is actually discriminatory.”

After graduation, Mackenzie is pursuing further education in occupational therapy. She hopes to work in pediatrics, preferably in either a rehabilitation facility or at Boston Children’s Hospital. She has enjoyed numerous experiences at JWU, including serving as vice president of the Health Equity Club, but she’s most grateful for her Delta Zeta Sorority community. “They're kind of like my second or third family, so I'm definitely very thankful to have them in my life, helping me have all these fun, wonderful memories,” Mackenzie says.

Student Symposium Project Winners

All students submitted excellent work, but several outstanding projects were recognized.

The Providence Campus awarded in nine categories:

EXPERIENTIAL & WORK-INTEGRATED LEARNING: Shea Lambert ’24 and Julia Shields ’24 for “Love Bash Event: Branding for Potter League”

PRESIDENT’S AWARD: Sarah Miller ’24 for “Healthcare Avoidance Among SGM Population”

ORIGINAL SCHOLARSHIP: Jadyn Torres ’26 for “Driving under the Influence in RI Adolescents”

SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: Emma Akian ’26 for “Introducing Accessibility to Sustainable Tourism”

TECHNOLOGY & INNOVATION: Michael Dattolo ‘24, “M.A.R.T.I.A.N. Construction Robot”

HEALTH AND WELL-BEING: Briana Seippel ’25 M.S., Shauna Bienvenue ’25 M.S. and Jaime Beers ‘25 M.S. for “Exploring the Integration of AI in Counseling”

PROVOST’S AWARD FOR DEI: Mackenzie O’Neill ’24 for “SGM Workplace Discrimination and Unemployment”

CREATIVITY & DESIGN : Joshua Keene ‘24, Marshall Hayduk ‘24, Michael Dattolo ’24, Keely Doyle ’24 and Mathew Hartung ‘24, “BloominBeds”

GLOBAL & COMMUNITY CITIZENSHIP: Nicole VanWort ’17, ‘24, M.S. for “RI Composting Barriers and Solutions”

The Charlotte Campus awarded in five categories:

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT: Isabella Gonzalez ’24 , Baking & Pastry Arts and Food & Beverage Industry Management; Joyiah White ’24, Health Science; Stevenson Branes ’24, Health Science and Madison Riggs ‘24, Food & Beverage Industry Management, for“Scholars for Service: Students”

EXPERIENCE & APPLIED LEARNING: Mikayla Tucker ’25, Savannah Riley ‘27, Benjamin Gill ’26 and Karen Cruz-Rangel ‘24 for “7th Annual SEEM Forum”

FOOD & BEVERAGE RELATED: Rachel Littlejohn ’24, Micah Sullivan 24, Anya Glessman ’24 and Marshall Davis ’24 for “Maple: It is Not Just for Pancakes”

JWU COMMUNITY/STUDENT CHOICE AWARD: Caleb Brown ’25 for “Empowering Futures: The Mentoring Program”

ORIGINAL RESEARCH: John Billinis ’26, “Changing the College Pricing Structure”

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Although her project, “Baking Memories,” was not one of the category winners, the work by Morgan Belardo ’24 was deemed so amazing that President Mathieu donated $125 — the same amount that JWU Charlotte’s project winners received — to her nonprofit.

Congratulations to all Wildcats on your excellent research, design and innovation!

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