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Research — It’s Not Just for Professors Anymore

Research — It’s Not Just for Professors Anymore

USC College students show off their research at the 2006 Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work.

By Wayne Lewis
April 2006

USC undergraduates from across the disciplines showed off their academic chops and artistic élan at the 2006 Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work.

The eighth installment of this annual event was held April 12 at the Davidson Conference Center, where judges and guests perused student presentations in an environment very similar to a professional conference where faculty present papers.

There were about 100 submissions from more than 150 students working as individuals and in groups with the guidance of 130 faculty members. Almost 80 percent of projects accepted for the symposium were produced with the support of faculty from USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences or by students with majors in USC College.

“The unique thing about the symposium is that it allows undergraduate students a real sense of the research endeavors of a university,” said Elizabeth Garrett, vice provost for academic affairs, who sponsored the symposium. “They learn in a hands-on way what it is to do serious, cutting-edge research. In most universities, students just hear about the research that the professors do. At USC our undergraduates actually play an active role in that research.”

“The work on display at this symposium is emblematic of our philosophy,” said USC College Dean Joseph Aoun. “At USC learning is not about rote memorization or sitting passively in the classroom. With the encouragement and support of the faculty, our undergraduates actively contribute to their education, generate new knowledge and think creatively about how to solve society's problems.”

Students worked closely with faculty mentors who sponsored their projects, whether under the aegis of honors theses for their majors or as original creative and scholarly works undertaken to scratch an academic itch. According to Raymond Jone, a double major in psychobiology and social sciences who has participated in the symposium each of his four years at USC, “Doing research gives you a closer relationship with your professor. They become someone you can really talk to.”

Students found that their research was at once more challenging and more rewarding than they could have expected. Katherine McKissick, a senior biology major, presented her work on the marine bacteria in the waters off Catalina Island. What did she learn? “Like in life, things go wrong. There are just so many variables. But you just have to keep doing it, trying things. Failure is part of the process.”

“On a personal level, I think it taught me about tenacity,” agreed Jone. “It showed the importance of even the most mundane lab work and how to focus.”

The hard work paid off. “I want to say how impressed I've been by the quality of the entries in all the categories,” said Gene Bickers, associate vice provost of undergraduate programs and a professor of physics and astronomy in the College. “I particularly like the fact that the arts and humanities are treated on the same footing as the sciences. Compared with similar programs being conducted at other research universities, I think it’s grown to be one of the best programs I’ve seen.”

A panel of judges evaluated each student presentation and awarded prizes in the categories of arts; humanities; life sciences; physical sciences, mathematics and engineering; and social sciences. First prize in each category was awarded $500, with second prize netting $250. Projects that displayed special interdisciplinary achievement were also recognized.

“This year we are extremely pleased with the turnout — not only the quantity, but the continued increase in quality of the submissions,“ said David Glasgow, director of undergraduate programs, who coordinates the symposium. “In each of the conversations I’ve had with faculty judges, they’ve said that it actually made their jobs difficult.”

Paul Dooley, a mathematics and music composition major, won in the arts category for his orchestral piece “Pomo Canyon Air” as performed by the USC Thornton Symphony. Dooley drew inspiration from his memories of the eponymous Northern California canyon. The composition is based in the acoustic scale, a Romanian folk mode typically associated with modernist composer Béla Bartók, but Dooley chose it because it’s based on harmonic elements found in nature.

Computer science major Julianne Gale received an interdisciplinary award in the arts for her documentary “Who am I? Trans Identity in Los Angeles.” In it she explores the case studies of five transgendered L.A. residents.

The top prize in humanities went to a group project delving into a Trojan mystery. Georgiana Nikias, an archaeology and English student, archaeology major Hannah Marcuson and Kristin Butler, majoring in religion and archaeology, examined the materials brought back in 1968 from a USC dig in Khirbet Mazra’a, Israel, that was, for an unknown reason, never officially documented. The team produced a Web site summarizing their findings to date (

Shaun Lea, a chemistry major, earned a humanities interdisciplinary award for his project combining chemistry and archaeology to refine techniques used to analyze the nature of dyes used in ancient textiles without doing significant damage to the artifacts.

Health promotion and disease prevention studies majors Stephanie Bughi and Jatturong Wichianson took first place in the life sciences for their project focusing on the phenomena of night eating among undergraduate students. They found that many students deal with stress by overeating at night, behavior linked to obesity and its many health risks.

The life sciences interdisciplinary prize was awarded to biology student Mahira Kakajiwala for her investigation of the diversity of marine viruses and the bacteria they target in the natural ocean environment. Her results indicated that the relationship between virus and host is much more complex than previously predicted, casting doubt upon the results of earlier lab-based experiments suggesting that viruses should increase the diversity of marine bacteria.

In the physical sciences, math and engineering category, Suet Ying Christin Chong, a biology major, and Pavitra Krishnaswamy, a physics and electrical engineering student, won first prize for their project looking at how quick, powerful electric pulses can trigger apoptosis, the controlled process of cellular suicide, in cancer cells. Last year Chong and Krishnaswamy were part of a team that won an interdisciplinary prize for similar work. This year they looked at how repeated shocks affect the malignant cells and the strength of the cell’s suicide signal over time, using a new device the team designed and developed to generate even faster electric pulses.

That category’s interdisciplinary award was given to a team of students who helped develop a prototype of software for monitoring seismic activity. Economics and English major Kristy Akullian, history and computer science major Ee Long Ooi and computer engineering and computer science students Randy Robertson, Edgar Evangelista, Joshua Garcia, Thomas Robinson, Aaron Kositsky, Justin Perez and Ifraz Haqque added to and improved Earthquake Monitoring System software as part of the UseIT internship program at the Southern California Earthquake Center, a collaborative effort involving 54 institutions worldwide that is headquartered at USC College.

Due to the large number of entries in the category, two sets of prizes were given for the social sciences.

First place in social sciences I was awarded to psychology major Daniel Goldman for his senior honors project studying the complicated interrelation between alcohol, aggression and the expectations of the one imbibing. Meredith Goldin, a Spanish and psychology major, received the top prize in social sciences II for her investigation of the black sheep effect, whereby people stigmatize unlikable members of their own group and judge their behavior more harshly than they would others within or outside the group.

Lauren Baron, a psychology student, received an interdisciplinary award in social sciences I for her work examining court transcripts of testimony by child witnesses in sexual abuse cases. Baron’s project focused in particular on children’s ability to make judgments about the number of times an event took place, as well as the way specific or misleading questions can produce answers that don’t sound credible.

Projects presented at the symposium received funding from the provost, USC’s Women in Science and Engineering initiative and other sources. Every year the provost’s office provides funding to faculty mentors for undergraduate research. A total of about $350,000 was awarded to 26 proposals in 2005-2006, including projects funded for the summer of 2006. For next year $350,000 has been budgeted, and a faculty panel drawn from across the university has selected 38 proposals (out of 61 submissions) for funding. Proposals for 2007-2008 undergraduate research funding will be accepted in March 2007.