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Student Art and Research Get Their Day in the Sun

USC holds its 10th annual Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work.

Student Art and Research Get Their Day in the Sun


Divinity Barkley headed to Kenya through a study-abroad program with the plan to research traditional African naming rituals.

But the USC College student’s experiences in Africa altered the course of her work and led to a first place award in the recent 10th annual Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work.

“Within days, I saw the extent to which hip hop music has permeated the youth culture,” said Barkley, a senior majoring in political science and African American studies. “It resonated with me.” Her research looked at hip hop as global culture — and at the way one collective of Kenyan artists delivers powerful social messages by speaking the language of the country’s youth.

The undergraduate symposium was held April 9 on Trousdale Parkway near the center of campus. At this event, student artists and researchers exhibit their projects for the larger university community and compete in a faculty-judged competition.

It was sponsored by the Office of the Provost and coordinated by the Office of Undergraduate Programs. This year, it featured the largest-ever group of projects and participants.

There were more than 110 submissions by more than 180 students, all presenting works of research or art that were months — and in some cases years — in the making.

Administrators attested that quantity was matched by quality at this year’s conference.

“The symposium was a complete success,” said David Glasgow, director of undergraduate programs. “As always, the quality of the student projects was outstanding. It was definitely beyond my expectations.”

About 70 percent of the symposium’s entries — and almost 90 percent of award-winning projects — were produced with the support of USC College faculty or by students with majors in the College.

“USC students are among the brightest and most talented young people on the planet. This symposium underscores what can happen when these students work closely with our amazing faculty to explore big questions and seek out their own answers,” USC College Dean Howard Gillman said.

Awards were given in six categories, with first prize in each category receiving $1,000 and second prize, $500.

In the humanities category, Barkley took top honors for her project, “Kaya Hip-Hop in Coastal Kenya: The Urban Poetry of Ukoo Flani.” This fall she plans to return to Africa to start a program benefiting teenage girls in Kampala, Uganda.

In arts, Jonathan Ortega, a music composition major, won first prize for his orchestral piece, “Anguished Windsong Exultant,” reflecting the artist’s response to a “bipolar world.”

In life sciences, Gerald Sun, a biochemistry major in the College, placed first for his research investigating a new class of photosensitive cells linked to light-sensitive functions such as circadian rhythm.

In physical sciences and engineering, chemistry major Megan Thorson won first prize for her research, part of an ongoing project attempting to enable formerly unthinkable chemical transformations — with results crucial to synthetic organic chemistry.

As in past years, because of the great number of submissions, the social sciences projects were split into two groups.

Three students took the top prize in social sciences I for their project exploring women’s place behind the scenes and onscreen in children’s movies. The team was made up of Maya Babla, a double major in international relations and communication; communication major Sarah Erickson; and Kirstin Heinle, a double major in communication and theatre.

Candise Chen, a double major in East Asian languages and cultures and in psychology, won first prize in social sciences II for her research testing the validity of the critical period hypothesis — that the ability to acquire language drops dramatically at puberty.

In his comments at a ceremony recognizing award-winning submissions, Gene Bickers, vice provost for undergraduate programs, touted recent growth in funding for undergraduate research.

Acknowledging the work of USC Provost C.L. Max Nikias, Bickers said that such funding has tripled in the past three years, with a goal over the next five years to further double the number of students engaged in research.

“The value of being an undergraduate at a top-rank research university is the opportunity not just to study the achievements of others, but also to share with faculty in the creation of new knowledge and ways of thinking,” said Bickers, a professor of physics and astronomy in the College.

Many student participants said they grew from the experience.

“I feel like I can go in and organize anything now,” said Karoline Brandt. The senior psychology major’s project earned second prize in social sciences II. “I’m ready to do research and analyze data,” she said. ”When I start my Ph.D., I’m ready to go.”

Another winner, Noelle Stiles, said that helping people through research is her ultimate goal. The biophysics major’s entry in the physical sciences and engineering category aimed to improve the performance of a retinal implant that may restore sight to the blind.

She recalled meeting a patient whose sight had been partially restored as a result of the USC research in which she participates. “After I met him, I realized as a scientist that I just don’t want to work on problems that might find an interesting result,” she said. “I really want to work on something that will help others.”

Stiles’ project was awarded second prize by the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation, which for the second year honored projects with marketplace potential. The institute awarded $1,000 for first place and $500 for second place, and gave a USC Stevens skateboard to all winners.

Shen Soh, a junior majoring in biochemical engineering, examined the structure of a protein essential to cell replication, research undertaken with faculty in the College’s molecular biology program. Her project received honorable mention in the life sciences category. But she felt most fortunate for the opportunity to work with and learn from seasoned researchers.

“I’m in the lab all the time,” Soh said. “I’ve had really good mentors and colleagues. … I got lucky!”

Additional winners include:

History major Sarah Hawley and interdisciplinary archaeology major Jacob Bongers won second place for their project bringing to light the unpublished history of an archaeological site in Turkey.

Two projects received honorable mention. Sedaf Nejat, an English major, was recognized for his project delving into the Victorian era through literary and scientific text analysis. Melissa Shimizu, majoring in economics and history, was honored for research looking at marital disruption as a potential cause for the decline in fertility during the 19th century.

Second prize was awarded to Geoffrey Pope, a music composition major, for “Chamber Concerto for Two Violins.”

An honorable mention went to Dalton Gaudin, a cinematic arts production major, for a black-and-white stop-motion video highlighting man’s destruction of nature. Other honorable mentions went to music composition major Robert Lydecker for “Rancid Roots No. 2,” which mixed classical and pop music; and to Leanne Joyce, a double major in international relations and cinematic arts, for an interactive project using film clips and T-shirts to highlight the prevalence of sweatshop labor in manufacturing clothes.

Life Sciences
Robert Saddawi-Konefka, majoring in neuroscience, received second place for his project examining the development of nerves in the spinal cord.

Honorable mention was awarded to Shen Soh, whose research used a molecular machine to unwind DNA for replication; and to Matthew Getz, a molecular biology major, for his research on DNA replication in yeast.

Sonya Hanson, a biophysics major and screenwriting minor, was honored with an interdisciplinary award for her research on myasthenia gravis, a potentially deadly muscle disease.

USC Stevens’ first prize was awarded to a team comprised of biological sciences majors Sarah Childers and Ekaterina Gee; neuroscience and sociology major Chanel Fishetti; health and humanity major Megan Miller; and neuroscience majors Tanya Nguyen and Carlos Tagabuel. Their project may have groundbreaking implications for preventing autism.

Physical Sciences and Engineering
Bradford Foley, majoring in geological sciences, took second place for his research aimed at advancing the physical understanding of plate tectonics. Marie Anne Cuevas, majoring in religion and chemistry, was awarded honorable mention for her project aiming to develop an environmentally friendly approach to the synthesis of nanocrystals.

USC Stevens’ second prize went to Stiles for her project aimed at advancing retinal implants that restore partial vision to the blind. USC Stevens’ honorable mention was given to electrical engineering major Jeannette Chang for her project attempting to improve how educational computer games react to input from children.

Social Sciences I
Two entries were awarded second place. Michael Kane, a psychology major, won for his project examining the validity of twin research. International relations majors Dawn Powell and Becky Turner won for their analysis of a development project in Ecuador in which they participated.

Honorable mentions were awarded to psychology major Maynard Hughes for a project that studied pain as an initial provocation for later displaced aggression; and to psychology major Diana Bennett for research aimed at pinpointing the types of parental conflict most distressing to children. Debi Ogbonna, a psychology major, received an interdisciplinary award for her project looking at pre-trial and trial transcripts to determine which factors affect a child’s explanation for delaying disclosure of sexual abuse.

Social Sciences II
Karoline Brandt took second place. Through studies with Asian-Americans, her research showed that changes in pronoun use from day to day are related to a decrease in physician visits, while elevated use of first person singular pronouns are linked to depression.

Honorable mention was given to psychology major Hilary Feybush for her research focusing on attorneys’ preparatory questioning of children in sexual abuse cases. Another honorable mention was given to psychology major Charlina Gozali for her work looking at how child sexual abuse victims respond to a prosecutor’s questioning style.

Psychology and philosophy major Benjamin Paul won an interdisciplinary award for his project examining whether music could be used to elicit a “mystical experience,” or feeling of deep connection with the world, in both Christians and atheists.