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USC Undergraduates Show Breadth and Depth of Research

USC Undergraduates Show Breadth and Depth of Research

By Eva Emerson
April 2005

For the seventh year in a row, USC undergraduates wowed peers, teachers and passers-by with works showcasing imagination, meticulous scholarship and old-fashioned hard work at the 2005 Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work.

The annual symposium, held April 13 at University Park, provides undergraduates an opportunity to present their work-scientific, artistic, scholarly and applied-to the greater campus community.

"This event represents the culmination of many months, and in some cases years, of work by some of our very best students," says David Glasgow, director of undergraduate programs, who oversees the symposium. "We saw sensational projects this year. The quality of the student work was beyond expectation, and this made selecting the winners extremely difficult for the judges."

The majority of the projects are produced by close collaborations between faculty and the undergraduate students. Some originate as work done for courses or senior projects. Others emerge from the imagination of the students and the expertise of their mentors.

The event is co-sponsored by Joseph Hellige, vice provost for academic programs, and Cornelius Sullivan, vice provost for research. This year, a record 154 students entered 97 individual and group projects in the competition. Fifteen projects were selected by a panel of faculty judges for the top awards. First-place winners received $500 in cash; second-place winners received $250.

Music composition major Paul Spaeth took first place in the arts category for his composition for the cello and piano based on the form called passacaglia, which is characterized by a repeating melodic line. Spaeth's original piece incorporated both a recurring melody and bass line, which interacted harmonically.

In the humanities category, psychobiology major Marcia Ciccone won for her project on the history of a well-preserved  silver coin minted by the people of Judea during a rebellion against Roman rule in the first century A.D. Ciccone used high-resolution photography to analyze the Jewish shekel's symbols and inscriptions, which promoted a message of independence from the Roman empire.

The first-place winner in the life sciences, biology major Karen Barnard, explored the process of speciation in her project comparing different populations of copepods Tigriopus californicus, marine invertebrates that live in the tidal zone. Barnard bred copepods from two distinct populations, which normally do not reproduce, analyzed their offspring's fitness, and, using mitochondrial DNA sequencing techniques, compared the populations' evolutionary histories.

Jennifer Tsakoumakis, an aerospace engineering major, and Billy Kaplan, a mechanical engineering major, displayed a violin they built out of carbon fiber. The violin, which produces sounds that closely resemble those produced by a traditional wood instrument, earned the team first place in the physical sciences category. Such a violin could be faster, cheaper and more acoustically reproducible to manufacture than a traditional wooden violin.

Because of the number of submissions in the social sciences category, judges divided the student works into two subcategories and gave awards in each.

Business administration major Christopher Delaney received first place in social sciences I as well as a special interdisciplinary award for his senior honors project on the dynamics of group leadership. In three studies, two laboratory and one field-based, he showed that leaders, considered high-status members of the group, lost status if they show incompetence, use either too much or not enough of their authority or whose decisions are not aligned with the interests of the larger group.

Alex Aftandilians, a philosophy major, won first place in social sciences II for his creative work called "Acknowledging Sudan." The project explored the political history of Sudan, including its long-standing civil war, and its current humanitarian crisis, which Aftandilians deems the gravest facing the world today.

Another special interdisciplinary award  went to an interdisciplinary team studying how very fast and strong pulses of electricity could be used to trigger the death of cancer cells. The team was made up of biology major Suet Ying Chen, math major Pavitra Krishnaswamy, philosophy major Matthew Boatman and electrical engineering student Curtis Wong, working with mentors Martin Gundersen of electrical engineering and Laura Marcu of biomedical engineering.

The other special interdisciplinary award recognized the work of Joseph Sabat, a biomedical/electrical engineering student, who has worked with an interdisciplinary team led by mathematician Gary Rosen. Sabat's project focused on developing a mathematical model for a wristwatch-like device that would be used to detect alcohol levels from sweat.

Each year a number of faculty mentors receive funds from the provost, via the office of undergraduate programs, to support undergraduate research. In the 2004-05 academic year, the Provost budgeted $350,000 for the program. This year, a similar amount has been budgeted for faculty-proposed undergraduate projects. Glasgow led the selection of 16 proposals (out of 32 submitted) for $90,000 in funding this summer and 26 (out of 34) for $220,000 in funding during the academic year. Applications for the next academic year will be accepted in January 2006.

Additional support for undergraduate research at USC comes from programs that include Women in Science & Engineering (WiSE), the McNair Scholars Program and the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates.