MURALS Symposium winners showcase scholarly, creative work

MURALS website for 2021

Explore all of the MURALS projects at

This year’s MURALS Symposium at Colorado State University spotlighted outstanding work among students across the university, with the top award-winning project providing an examination of the health disparities among racial groups in the United States.

More than 75 undergraduates participated in MURALS — Multicultural Undergraduate Research, Art and Leadership — in a virtual showcase March 25-26. As in previous years, the signature event highlighted student work in social sciences, humanities, STEM, creative arts and service learning and leadership.

This year’s event marked the sixth time CSU has hosted the MURALS Symposium. The event is designed to celebrate the academic success of students of color and expose them to undergraduate research opportunities and other scholarly endeavors.

Janaye Matthews
Janaye Matthews

Janaye Matthews, a senior biomedical engineering and electrical engineering student in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, was the overall winner and received a $1,000 prize.

Matthews’ project spotlighted the widespread health disparities among racial groups in the U.S. amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The project allowed for personal exploration around health inequities, while also following the resurgence of the conversation around reparations for Black Americans.

“I’m really humbled by this honor,” Matthews said. “In all honesty, I was completely surprised by it. Committing to MURALS this year was a bit of a personal push, and I wasn’t really focused on the competition aspect. I’m kind of just a bit of a nerd who loves learning from others and seeing the world from my peers’ perspectives.”

Matthews added that she appreciated the collaborative environment of MURALS, which celebrated different forms of research and brought awareness to important issues.

Maya Siegel, a junior business administration student in the College of Business, was one of the five students to win a first-place honor, which included a $750 prize. For MURALS, Siegel shared information on Space to Speak, an organization she launched during her freshman year to give youth a voice in the sexual violence prevention movement.

In April 2020, Space to Speak partnered with organizations FreeFrom and The Survivor Coalition Project to help people experiencing domestic violence during the pandemic. In the span of four months, they helped raise over $118,000, which directly supported more than 470 survivors in FreeFrom’s database, providing funds for rent, groceries, medicine and other critical needs. In total, the campaign raised over $266,000.

Maya Siegel
Maya Siegel

“I’m so grateful to the MURALS staff for affirming my potential and holding space for me to grow and shine,” Siegel said. “It’s easy to feel invisible at a big school, especially as a freshman, so being invited to participate in MURALS year after year — and then seeing faculty coming to the event and supporting the participants — means so much to me.”

Christal Dominguez Vasquez, a senior fish, wildlife and conservation biology student in the Warner College of Natural Resources, was one of four second-place winners who received a $500 prize. Her project examined how the Soapstone bison have several intersectional stories through art.

“I feel validated that all the hard work, passion and creativity that I showed in my project was honored because it’s hard to feel seen,” she said. “Being a Latina in STEM is sometimes difficult because there is not enough space for people like me to be given a platform to show my work. Therefore, I am incredibly proud and grateful to have the opportunity to collaborate alongside other students of color and be celebrated for our success.”

Faculty support

In all, more than 250 faculty, staff and graduate students assisted in MURALS, serving as faculty guides, judges, nominators, evaluators and volunteers.

MURALS is chaired by Bridgette Johnson, managing director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Student Success, and Melissa Edwards, associate director of Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry.

Johnson said this year’s event included a session featuring CSU alumni who shared the impact MURALS had on their careers, graduate school applications and professional successes. She explained MURALS can help students develop their senior thesis projects as well as spark an interest in research and affirm their academic success.

With the cancellation of last year’s MURALS Symposium due to the pandemic, Johnson said she was impressed with the perseverance and commitment students displayed.

“With all of the things that are happening in the world, it was impressive to see how the students found the time to advance their academic journey,” she said. “Students shared as they picked up their participation gifts this week that it is affirming to be in community with peers who look like me.”

Matthew Yohannes, a senior neuroscience student in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, hopes to attend graduate school to study pharmacology. He said his MURALS project allowed him to learn about two different enzymes that can play an important role in regulating cellular function.

“I had a lot of fun putting together the presentation,” he said. “Initially, I had done a lot of research on this topic, so it was a challenge trying to figure how I could fit that information into a 7-  to 8-minute presentation. However, it was really rewarding, and helped me figure how to really ‘get to the point’ and explain complex topics to an audience in a very concise manner.”

Jacob Leavitt, a junior biochemistry student in the College of Natural Sciences, said MURALS gave him the opportunity to gain experience designing, implementing and presenting research to a collective of his peers.

“Little did I know I would stumble across my thesis project for the culmination of my bachelor’s degree,” he said. “Through working on my MURALS’ project, I have decided to research paid laboratory training programs that seek to cultivate success in students from historically underrepresented populations with the intent of creating and implementing one such program that centers around biochemistry laboratory techniques.”

Yohannes added that the experience allowed him to connect with professors to expand his research network.

“It was a great way for me to make connections with individuals involved in my field of study,” he said. “It also led me to make new connections with people who I would have never met otherwise.”

2021 MURALS award winners

Judges’ decisions were based on a combination of submitted abstract, poster and oral presentations. See all of the MURALS projects by visiting

Overall winner

Janaye Matthews
Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering
“America’s Responsibility to Invest in Reparations in the Form of Healthcare Initiatives for Descendants of Enslaved Africans”

First-place winners

Alexa Ware
College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
De’Von Washington
College of Liberal Arts
“A Love Story Like Queen and Slim”

Rachel Jackson
Warner College of Natural Resources
“Amphibian CTmax”

Maya Siegel
College of Business
“Space to Speak, Giving Youth a Leading Voice in the Sexual Violence Prevention Movement”

Sage Mednansky
College of Natural Sciences
“If Butter Doesn’t Kill You, Settler Colonialism Will”

Second-place winners

Cristal Dominguez-Vasquez
Warner College of Natural Resources
“Reintroducing an Icon: A Story Portrayed Through Art & Science”

Hannah Lucero
College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
“Determining Use of Alternative Genes to Increase Microbial Production of Ethylene via High-Throughput Assays”

Fernanda Alarcon-Avila
College of Natural Sciences
“Mental Health Support for Undocumented Students”

Alejandra Cuevas
College of Liberal Arts
“Addressing Mental Health Stigmatism in Active-Duty Service Members”

Rising Star winners

Marlena Giannone
College of Natural Sciences
“The Intersection of Poetry and Mathematics”

Brooke Bennett
Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering
“The Acne Reducing Face Mask”

Dom Baca
College of Liberal Arts
“Circle Forward: Using Restorative Practices to Combat Incidents of Bias”

Kira Douglas
College of Natural Sciences
“Marginalized Media: A Look at the Perceptions and Portrayal of Minorities in TV and Movies”

Social Justice winners

Maab Abdalla
Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering
Makida Worku
College of Natural Sciences
“Is Social Media Making You Antisocial?”

Emily Christine Guerra
College of Liberal Arts
“Feeding Sovereignty: Understanding Regenerative Kinship Relationships Within Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements”