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2017 University Honors Scholars

In spring 2017, the Honors Committee selected five remarkable students as NIU’s sixth annual University Honors Scholars. The Honors Scholars’ profiles listed below not only introduce our distinguished Honors Scholars, but also allows us to showcase the impressive work and passion they have for their research.  

Make sure to follow the University Honors Scholars’ research on their blogs!


Alaiyha Bryant

Alaiyha Bryant

Title of Project: Critical Race Theory in Art Education

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Kryssi Staikidis

Abstract: Critical Race Theory, a topic rarely discussed in schools, focuses on the relationship between racism and power. This topic is quite prominent in our society and there are many benefits of discussing this topic with students, which will be the focus of my Capstone project in the Fall. This summer research project will allow me to create a series of works in response to scholarly African American art educators’ publications, which primarily focuses on Multicultural Education and Critical Race Theory in the art education field. My artwork will be used as an example for future lessons surrounding race and social issues in my future art classroom. Once the works are completed, they will be shared with the scholars and dialogue in response to my works will be exchanged.

Program of Study: Art and Design Education

Year of Graduation: Spring 2018

Future Plans: I would love to teach art in a K-8 school and eventually own and create a community fine arts facility in the city of Chicago. This will allow students that are artistically gifted in Chicago to come and express themselves with little to no cost.

Hometown: Chicago, IL 

Fun Fact: I don’t like to drink milk plain; even in cereal I pour out the milk when I’ve eaten all the cereal.


Jessica Cox

Jessica Cox

Title of Project: Targeting Stem Cell Metabolism in Human Brain Cancer

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Linda Yasui, Biology Department

Abstract: Glioblastoma (GBM) is one of the most lethal and commonly diagnosed forms of human brain cancer with the projected survival of a patient beyond one year unlikely due to tumor recurrence. GBM is believed to recur due to the existence of cancer stem cells (CSC), a radiation resistant subpopulation of cells in the GBM tumor. Sensitizing CSCs to radiation therapy may suppress tumor recurrence. We propose that CSC can be sensitized by altering the level of autophagy. Autophagy is a highly regulated cell degradation and response process that is activating following stress on the cell. Autophagy is commonly a survival mechanism and the cell can benefit greatly from the recycling process but too little or too much autophagy results in cellular death. New evidence suggests autophagy is the main pathway used by CSC to survive treatment and accelerate renewal. Some scientists claim autophagy is the Achilles heel of GBM. Glioma stem cells are considered the most radiation resistant cell population in GBM tumors so targeting autophagy may assist in the sensitization of CSC populations in GBM tumors. Killing the resistant cells should greatly enhance patient survival and could potentially provide a cure for GBM. It is necessary to assess the level of autophagy in CSC relative to the cells making up the bulk of GBM tumor to establish how autophagy affects CSC life.

Program of Study: Biological Sciences, Chemistry Minor

Year of Graduation: Spring 2018

Future Plans: After earning my degree in biological sciences from NIU, I will be attending graduate school to study cancer biology.

Hometown: Foxlake, IL

Fun Fact: I enjoy long naps on the couch with my cat, Greyson.


Katie Denius

Katie (Kathryn) Denius

Title of Project: Exploring Drug Delivery Mechanisms for Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Elizabeth Gaillard

Abstract: The goal of this experiment was to assess a sustained release liposomal drug delivery system used to treat ocular disorders including wet Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) and Diabetic Retinopathy (DR). Both fore mentioned diseases cause a decrease in the affected individuals central field of vision, and are the leading cause of blindness in developed countries. Angiogenesis is the creation of new blood vessels, in an unaffected individual this mechanism is highly regulated throughout the body, while in an affected individual the balance which maintains the proper amount of angiogenesis is disrupted which induces the negative symptoms of wet AMD and DR. The angiogenesis of these two diseases is caused by vascular endothelial growth factors (VEGF). Medications which are designed to target the VEGF are known as anti-VEGF antibody drugs (Avastin and Lucentis). Both medications have a short half-life [around 8-10 days] therefore they require monthly intra-vitreous injections, which are costly and cause patient distress. In attempts to improve patient experience, a surgical implant for the eye was developed that is designed to release anti-VEGF antibody drugs over an elongated period of time. To accomplish this the anti-VEGF medication is enclosed within liposomes. These liposomes are then suspended in a hydrogel, which is later inserted into the surgical implant. The surgical implant is a biodegradable polymer which is designed to model a balloon. Over time the balloon slowly releases liposomes containing the medication. Dutch belted rabbits are used in the in vivo study of this drug delivery system as their eyes are almost anatomically identical to the human eye. The in vivo study involves inserting the surgical implant into the intravenous area of the eye and tracking the movement and release rate of the medication. The fluorescent tagged antibodies are then tracked using a Fluorotron. The hope is that the medication will be released over a period of months, therefore decreasing the amount of injections necessary.

Program of Study: Biological Sciences with minors in Chemistry and Psychology

Year of Graduation: Spring 2018

Future Plans: After I graduate with my undergraduate degree from Northern, I plan on applying to Optometry school. The research I am completing as an Honors Scholar this summer involves modifying treatment methods for one of the most common ocular diseases in the elderly population of developed countries, Age-Related Macular Degeneration.

Hometown: Sycamore, IL

Fun Fact: I have visited seven countries since starting school as a freshman at NIU!


Corinne Gahan

Corinne Gahan

Title of Project: Nihility to Vitality; an artistry research project through the development of theatre and creating an original work.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Heather Corwin

Abstract: In the summer of 2016, I had the chance to internship at Primary Stages Theatre in New York to assist in interviewing Off and Off Off- Broadway professionals. At the end of each interview the candidate was asked “Where do you think theatre is going?” Many were concerned with the continuation of theatre and some even exclaimed that “theatre was dying.” Ever since then I have been intrigued with talking with theatre industry professionals to see if they too thought the theatre was reaching an impending doom.

I then took this interview process with me to Moscow, Russia where I interviewed my teachers who worked at the MXAT (Moscow Art Theatre School) and also worked as professional actors. I asked them if they too thought theatre was dying. All were more optimistic and stated similarly that “theatre is changing,” it changes as we change, but it will not die because it is one of the only art forms that shows us the human experience in real time.

I am now taking this interview project to Chicago, Illinois to see what our industry professionals think about the continuation of theatre through an internship with Oak Park Festival Theatre. There I will ask them what it takes to put on a successful company and a successful production. I will then write a play of my own and put up a production, using what I have learned from my internship, at NIU to showcase that theatre is not dying.

Program of Study: Bachelor of Fine Arts- Emphasis in Acting

Year of Graduation: Spring 2018

Future Plans: I would love to work in Chicago’s vast theatre scene or continue my education to receive my Drama Therapy certification.

Hometown: Three Rivers, MI

Fun Fact: I have never ridden a bike before.


Emma Harvey

Emma Harvey

Title of Project: The Other Side of the Stage

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Heather Corwin

Abstract: When it comes to categorizing theatre, the rule-of-three certainly applies. Professional positions may be categorized in three aspects: talent/cast (performers, directors, etc.), technical/crew (technicians, dramaturgs, etc.), and management (producers, house managers, etc.). While there are often learning opportunities for talent and technical positions, management functions are typically handled by seasoned professionals. The main method of learning this vital part of the industry is through an internship.

Casting and production internships are essential for young professionals to learn about their industry outside of their discipline. These specific internships are encompassed within the term “theatre management”, which covers a diverse range of roles which span to include everything from financial management to event coordination and a myriad of topics in between. Given the scope of such a position, these internships are crucial opportunities for young theatre practitioners, and such an internship at the prestigious American Players Theatre (APT) would be incredibly beneficial. Currently, APT does not offer any such internship program, and thus it is my intention to formulate an internship opportunity for university students for the American Players Theatre. As there is no existing internship format, I’ll have the flexibility to build an internship to support management to specifically meet the needs of APT.  It’s a unique opportunity to create an internship program that will seamlessly suit the American Players Theatre, as well as the educational needs of potential future interns.

Program of Study: Bachelors of Fine Arts in Acting

Year of Graduation: Spring 2018

Future Plans: Post-graduation I plan to seek professional employment in my field, and hope to start a theatre mentorship program for children and youth in my community. Eventually, I plan to seek a Master’s degree to help further my education and future goals.

Hometown: Portage, WI 

Fun Fact: When I was ten years old, my twin sister—who was not interested in theatre at the time—ended up auditioning with me and was cast in the part I was auditioning for! We’ve both been hooked on theatre ever since, and continue to challenge each other at every opportunity.