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Undergraduates Unveil New Research, Art

The ninth Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work highlights student scholars and artists.

Undergraduates Unveil New Research, Art

On a windy day untroubled by clouds, more than 100 of USC’s brightest undergraduates took their turn to shine, assembling in the heart of the University Park campus to display their original works of art and research.

Up and down Trousdale Parkway, drawings, photographs, research posters and laptops adorned tables where participants on April 11 shared their projects with faculty, students, staff and visitors, as well as judges for the symposium’s competitions.

It was the ninth annual Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work, sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the university’s Office of Undergraduate Programs.

By day’s end, 16 winners had been selected from among 82 projects submitted by 117 students working as individuals or in groups, sponsored by more than 80 faculty members.

Lawford Anderson, professor of earth sciences in USC College, described the overall quality of presentations as excellent.

“I’ve been involved with the symposium from the very beginning,” Anderson said, “and this year I walked away at the end so proud. I just said, ‘It’s happened again. It’s a huge success.’ “

Over and over, student contributors to the symposium spoke of the benefits that came from doing research: the chance to work closely with faculty, achieving a deeper understanding of what they’d learned in class, the satisfaction of working hard and bringing a project to fruition.

For some, the projects had even deeper personal meaning.

Nancy Quach, a senior health promotion and disease prevention studies major from Alhambra, collaborated with Taylr Takagi and Joanna Woo on a project exploring how mutations affect the development of colorectal cancer.

Said Quach, “Because [our project] is about cancer and my mom’s a cancer patient, it hits me pretty personally .... Some people volunteer at the hospital, some people do the marathon. This is the way I contribute.”

Others found personal development through their research and creative work.

“To be honest, when I first came into the lab, I was really shy,” said junior Eric Hu, a Covina native majoring in biological sciences and biomedical engineering.

Hu’s project examined how the hormone 17-ß-estradiol protects neurons from biochemical insults, which could have important implications for understanding the progress and treatment of neurodegenerative disease. But the process of collaborating with faculty and graduate students on his research taught him about more than brain function.

“The lab also taught me that I have to communicate with people,” he said. “I have to tell them what’s on my mind, what I’m doing .... In a way, it helped me be able to open up and talk with other people.”

When asked if presenting his research to all comers at the symposium was still tough, Hu offered a wry smile, saying, “I’m getting used to it.”

Through the College’s Team Research Communities program, another group of students performed two weeks of field research in the Sierra Nevada, followed by months of analysis, to investigate the unlikely presence of sedimentary rocks atop the granite mountains. In the end, they didn’t find the answer, but were able to eliminate some possibilities and now know what questions they need to ask next.

Glenn Fischer, a sophomore geological sciences major from Baton Rouge, La., who worked with Elizabeth Ball, Bradford Foley and Jeffrey Thompson on this project, got an answer to an even more basic question.

“Before, when I would tell people I study geology, they’d ask me, ‘What can you do with that?’ And I never really had a definite answer for why I’m even doing it, other than, ‘Oh, I like science.’ ” said Fischer.

He found that the hard work involved with research yields its own answer.

“Since it’s your own research … you have to push yourself to do it, which I thought was going to be a challenge at first, but really ended up being pretty easy. Now I feel like I can tell people why I study geology. It’s because I love it.”

The symposium was followed on Wednesday evening by a dinner where competition winners were announced, with physicist Gene Bickers, associate vice provost for undergraduate programs, acting as host.

Bickers, who has been involved with the symposium since its inception, sees this forum as filling a need: “For undergraduates preparing to go on to professional school or graduate school, performing research is becoming an expected part of their training.”

In a keynote address at the dinner, USC Provost C.L. Max Nikias told symposium participants, “The role of USC’s faculty is not merely to pass on to you the learning of past generations. Our role is to prepare you to go out into the world as discoverers of new knowledge.”

The event represents the culmination of many months, and in some cases years, of work by some of USC’s very best students, said David Glasgow, the university’s director of undergraduate programs, who coordinates the symposium.

Almost 80 percent of symposium projects involved the participation of a student or professor from USC College.

“Enriching educational experiences often happen outside the classroom, in situations that empower students to formulate their own questions and seek their own answers,” said USC College Dean Peter Starr. “We are in the midst of creating, here at USC, a full-blown research college — to give more and more of our undergraduates the chance to learn independently and to create new knowledge.”

Award Winners

The judges named first and second place winners in six categories, as well as a set of honorable mentions and special awards for interdisciplinary work. Cash awards were $1,000 for first place and $500 for second.

This year, the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation inaugurated prizes for most innovative project with $1,000 awarded for first place and $500 for second place, and all awardees received a USC Stevens skateboard.


Music composition major Roger Zare took top honors in the arts category for his orchestral piece “Green Flash” (faculty sponsor: Morten Lauridsen of the USC Thornton School of Music) as performed by the Thornton Symphony. The composition was inspired by Zare’s witnessing a green flash, a rare optical phenomenon that produces a ray of green light at the tail end of sunset.

Second prize in the arts went to fine arts major Eugenia Sangiovanni for “Complicating Oversimplification” (faculty sponsor: Ann Page, USC Roski School of Fine Arts). In this series of drawings, she critiqued stereotypes by portraying famous pop culture villains as innocuous, and historical heroes as menacing.

Honorable mentions for the arts were awarded to Ari Levinson for “The Red Earth” (faculty sponsors: Joanna Demers of the Thornton School and Amanda Pope of the USC School of Cinematic Arts), a photo exhibit documenting life in East Africa, and to cinematic arts major Mariana Evans for “Sunrise” (faculty sponsors: Robert Ballo, Kenny Hall and Duke Underwood of cinematic arts), a short film set in a postapocalyptic world. Levinson also received honorable mention in USC Stevens’ competition for most innovative project.


First place in humanities went to a group of College students for their project, “Re-examining the Past” (faculty sponsors: Karen Stern, Lynn Swartz Dodd and Bruce Zuckerman of the College’s School of Religion). Kristin Butler (majoring in religion and archaeology), Carly Dykes (art history), Hannah Marcuson (archaeology), Elizabeth Martin del Campo (anthropology and international relations), Georgiana Nikias (creative writing and archaeology) and Ashley Sands (religion and classics) unlocked the secrets of ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals using state-of-the-art imaging technology.

Tina Huynh, a biological sciences and comparative literature student, won second place for “More Than Pretty Women” (faculty sponsor: Margaret Rosenthal of comparative literature and of French and Italian in the College). The project compared representations of geisha and courtesans in their own writings with recent cinematic representations.

Life Sciences

College senior Maggie Cass earned honorable mention in the life sciences. A project by biological sciences major Martin Wainstein (faculty sponsor: Kenneth Nealson of the College’s earth sciences and biological sciences departments), “Ultrabasic Geomicrobiology for the Cedars Peridotite,” received the top award in the life sciences category. Wainstein studied microbes in rocks found in alkaline waters of Northern California springs, an extreme environment that may share important similarities with the planet Mars and with the Earth billions of years ago.

Second place in the life sciences, as well as an interdisciplinary award, went to Brad Johnson, a biological sciences and political science major, for “Anammox in Catalina Island Sediments” (faculty sponsor: John Heidelberg of the College’s biological sciences department). He discovered what may be the first evidence in and around Catalina of rare microbes that convert fixed nitrogen into nitrogen gas and play an important role in the global nitrogen cycle.

Honorable mentions were given to “Molecular Strategies to Identify Sites of Alcohol Action in LGICs” (faculty sponsor: Daryl Davies, USC School of Pharmacy) by biological sciences major Anuj Aggarwal, “Novel repellant activity of motoneurons in the guidance of commissural axons” (faculty sponsor: Samantha Butler, biological sciences in the College) by biological sciences major Margaret Cass, and “Sites of Ethanol Action in Purinergic P2X3 Receptors” (faculty sponsor: Daryl Davies, pharmacy) by biomedical engineering major Nihal Patel.

Physical Sciences and Engineering

Chemistry major Andrew Horning won first honors in the physical sciences and engineering category for “Around the Ring” (faculty sponsor: Stephen Bradforth of the College’s chemistry department). In this project, Horning modeled the natural process of photosynthesis using synthetic polymers.


Second place went to sociology major Elizabeth Ball and geological sciences students Glen Fischer, Bradford Foley and Jeffery Thompson. They collaborated on “Magmatic and Volcanic Plumbing Systems, Crustal Evolution, and the Search for the Mysterious Mojave-Snow Lake Fault” (faculty sponsors: Lawford Anderson, Valbone Memeti, Scott Paterson and Geoffrey Pignotta of earth sciences in USC College), field research examining the geological enigma of rocks from the Mojave Desert found in the Sierra Nevada.

Both USC Stevens’ first and second prize for most innovative project were awarded to teams in the physical sciences and engineering category. Mechanical engineering majors Joel Linke and Kristin Swihart took the top honor with “Wave Generation for a Surfing Environment by Bottom Moving Bumps” (faculty sponsor: Adam Fincham, USC Viterbi School of Engineering). Pavitra Krishnaswamy (majoring in electrical engineering and physics), Israel Morales (biomedical engineering) and Jeanie Paik (biological sciences and international relations) won second prize, as well as a competition interdisciplinary award, for “An Interdisciplinary Study of Apoptotic Effects Induced by Nanoelectropulses on Cancer Cells” (faculty sponsors: Martin Gunderson of the Viterbi School).

Two projects were recognized with honorable mention in physical sciences and engineering. Biomedical engineering major Mario Bialostozky was honored for “A Non-Invasive Method for Evaluating Cardiovascular Health” (faculty sponsor: David D’Argenio, Viterbi School), and geological sciences student Becky Gallagher was honored for “The Efficiency of Biogenic Silica Burial in Cascadia Basin Sediments” (faculty sponsor: Douglas Hammond of earth sciences in the College).

Social Sciences I

As in past years, social sciences was split into two sections due to the large number of entries.

A trio of health promotion and disease prevention studies students won the top award in the first social sciences section for “Religiosity and Perceived Stress among College Students” (faculty sponsor: Juliana Fuqua, Keck School of Medicine of USC). Janelle Colangelo, Hannah Brice Keltner and David Press found that students who identified themselves as more religiously active reported experiencing less stress when compared to their peers.

Psychology major Camille Boudreau took second prize for “Finding an Effective Way to Question Children Using ‘Before’ and ‘After’ ” (faculty sponsor: Thomas Lyon, USC Gould School of Law), which looked at how the phrasing of questions can confuse preschoolers. The research is applicable to court cases, such as sexual abuse trials, that hinge upon the testimony of a minor.

Two projects from psychology students were recognized with honorable mentions: Nicholas Scurich’s “Applying Value to Decisions in Actuarial Predictions of Violence” (faculty sponsor: Richard John of psychology) and Nicole Schneider’s “The relation between self-esteem and eating behavior among sorority and non-sorority women” (faculty sponsor: Carol Koprowski, Keck School). Ashley Sands received an interdisciplinary award for “Rewriting the History of Technology” (faculty sponsor: Lynn Swartz Dodd of the College’s School of Religion).

Social Sciences II

The top prize in social sciences II went to Celeste DeFreitas, a linguistics and journalism student, and Ashlee Welday, majoring in history and in linguistics and psychology, for “Baby Linguistics” (faculty sponsors: College professors Toben Mintz of psychology and linguistics, and Rachel Walker of linguistics). Their project investigated how prelingual infants use cues from vowel sounds to decode when spoken words begin and end.


Hala Mohammad, a sociology major, took second place in with “Media Portrayal and Middle Eastern Women” (faculty sponsor: Ellen Seiter of cinematic arts), a project comparing the portrayal of Middle Eastern women in New York Times and Los Angeles Times photos with colonial pictures and postcards from the 19th century.

Honorable mentions were awarded to two projects, psychology major Kimberly White’s “Manipulating Skin Tone” (faculty sponsor: Brian Lickel of the College’s psychology department) and “Sources of Linguistic Knowledge in Second Language English Article Acquisition” (faculty sponsors: Tania Ionin and María Luisa Zubizarreta of linguistics in the College) by Anna Bokarius, a linguistics and neuroscience major, and linguistics student Matt Wallace. Interdisciplinary honors went to psychology student Melanie Billow for “Young Maltreated Children’s Ability to Answer and Understand Oath-Taking Competency Questions” (faculty sponsor: Thomas Lyon, Gould School).