My Oxy Mentor

By Samantha B. Bonar '90

Whether the topic is research or career options or life itself, meaningful interaction between students and professors is a vital component of the Oxy journey. Four graduating seniors and their faculty advisers reflect on the bonds they share—and the lessons they’ve taught each other.

After Mark Gad ’18 defended his honors biochemistry thesis on “Synthetic Neuroexcitatory Peptides From Fish-Hunting Cone Snails” in April to faculty and students, a number of faculty came up to his adviser, associate professor of biology Joseph Schulz, raving about his work. “They had nothing but glowing things to say about your thesis and presentation,” Schulz tells Gad. “Younger students have been inspired by your work already.”

Schulz feels lucky when students like Gad walk into his “path of existence,” and many other professors feel the same way about their students, many of whom become involved in their research initiatives or creative projects. These same faculty spend time in the classroom, office hours, and after hours having conversations with students to foster their understanding and growth. Whether it’s sharing data, discussing comps topics, mulling over career paths, or just offering them advice, these close interactions are rewarding to faculty as well as students, and a big reason they choose to teach at a small liberal arts college.

A recent Gallup-Purdue Index survey of 70,000 college graduates gained insights into several key undergraduate experiences that set up graduates to succeed not only in their work but in their lives after college. Chief among them were having a professor who cared about them as a person or a mentor who encouraged them to pursue goals or dreams, and working on a long-term project or research initiative. Graduates indicated that these experiences lead to a greater sense of well-being and satisfaction after college. 

Prior to Commencement, Occidental magazine spoke to four graduating seniors and their faculty mentors—including Gad and Schulz—to gain our own insights into what makes these relationships so rewarding.

Thanks, Mom

Psychology professor Andrea Hopmeyer’s research focuses on children and adolescents’ social and emotional development. Alexis Morse ’18 of Phoenix came to Oxy intending to double-major in politics and economics, but found classes in those subjects “missing the humanity.” After taking Psychology 101, she decided to change her major. 

On the advice of associate professor of writing and rhetoric Julie Prebel, Morse sat down with Hopmeyer to see if she would be interested in taking her on as her adviser. “Julie had called me in advance to say this wonderful student was going to be stopping by,” Hopmeyer recalls. “I liked Alex right from the beginning.” 

“We talked about what kinds of things I was interested in and how I really wanted to take developmental psych, which she teaches,” Morse recalls. “From there we just decided it was going to be a good advisee/advisor partnership.”

Soon after, Morse began assisting Hopmeyer with her research—and Hopmeyer, who studies loneliness in childhood and adolescence, says she couldn’t have completed her work without Morse’s help. “In college, especially in the LGBTQIA+ community, it requires students who are in the community. You can put a survey up, but this type of work really requires collaboration with students. Alex has other students working with her on the project, but she's really taken the lead.”

“I always feel like when we’re talking, especially about our research, that she’s preparing me for whichever angle I decide to go with and being very real with me,” Morse says.

“I think you’ve really just come into your own in this incredible way,” Hopmeyer tells Morse. “Alex is the growth you hope to see as a professor. Just this tremendous growth, and I just see so much potential for her beyond Oxy.” 

“You’re definitely my personal local expert on what I am doing with my life next,” Morse replies. “We talk about school and about life and about what’s coming next for me. If I went to a really big school I don’t know if I ever would have had the pleasure of that kind of interaction.”

“Oftentimes when students are graduating, I feel like a mom whose chickies are leaving the nest. That’s certainly how I feel about Alex,” Hopmeyer continues. “I’m proud of my academic daughter … and I can’t wait to see all that you accomplish. Hopefully you’ll come home occasionally.” 

“Yeah,” Morse concurs with a smile. “I intend to.”

Fulfilling the Promise

After Naomi Navarro ’18 was awarded a Young Initiative Grant from Occidental for research abroad study, she spent the summer in India exploring international development and empowerment. A diplomacy and world affairs major from Glendale, she wrote her senior comp on skateboard culture in the rural village of Janwaar, and Vogue India published her photos of female skateboarders in its May issue.

DWA associate professor Sophal Ear—an expert on Southeast Asia whose research and teaching focus on international political economy, security, and development—first met Navarro when she took his International Development course and asked him if he would be her adviser. “She’s got some great ideas and incredible potential,” Ear says, adding that helping students to fulfill the promise of an Oxy education “is what faculty really hope to do.”

“I felt very much that Naomi brought experience that your average Oxy student doesn’t have,” adds Ear, who, like Navarro, was the first in his family to attend college. She was different from most students in that she had traveled internationally after high school, spending time in Uganda and Ireland.

“You kind of went around the world and discovered things and saw things that nobody your age really has the chance to see,” Ear says to Navarro. “And then you come back to Los Angeles and add that value to your fellow Oxy students’ experience and, frankly, to my own classroom.”

Outside of the classroom, the two had many conversations during office hours—“really elaborate conversations about what’s happening next or what’s happening now, and how to connect everything,” Navarro says. “He’s helped me navigate a lot of the fluff. He’s taught me to just tell it like it is.”

Navarro was encouraged to attend Oxy by President Jonathan Veitch through the College’s tuition remission program for the children of long-term employees (her father, Rojelio, has worked here in facilities management since 2008). Even though she grew up nearby and visited campus often as a student at Renaissance Arts Academy in Northeast Los Angeles, in many ways it felt like a world apart.

“Making friends with a professor like Professor Ear has changed my narrative of what my experience at Oxy has been,” she says. “It allowed me to develop in a way that I hadn’t realized was possible.” 

“Naomi has lived through more [and] has an authentic modesty that’s enviable,” Ear says. “She’s just who she is.”

“In 10 years, I would love to be either running my own organization or foundation, or somewhere out there in the field,” Navarro says. “I like being out there.” 

“I really think she can,” Ear says. “We’ll make that happen together.”

Finding Her Place

Ever since his arrival at Occidental in 1997, physics professor Daniel Snowden-Ifft has been searching for dark matter—the stuff that universes are made of. (His current research project seeks to produce dark matter in the beam dump of an electron accelerator and detect it utilizing a negative ion time projection chamber he developed.) 

As a sophomore at Oxy, Nan Ma ’18, a physics major from Nanjing, China, began working with Snowden-Ifft in his dark-matter lab located in the basement of the Hameetman Science Center. The experience, she says, has taught her persistence. “When we’re doing a lab, there’s one problem after another. You have to keep the spirit: Don’t lose hope—it’s gonna happen.”

“I’ve told her repeatedly that she’s one of the best students I’ve ever had in the lab,” Snowden-Ifft says. “We had a very difficult year, we ran into a lot of problems, and Nan just never let anything get her down. It was never stop, never give up. I think she taught me a few things about persistence in the lab. And in the end, we had a good result.”

Ma enrolled at Occidental with the intention of majoring in psychology, but an introductory mechanics class with Snowden-Ifft —recipient of the Graham L. Sterling Memorial Award for teaching in 2013—changed all that. She loved the challenge of physics (“You can just blink your eyes, and you’re done for”) and found that Snowden-Ifft makes physics “fun”: “The way he talks to us is easy to understand. He catches you up so you don’t fall behind.”

Ma has a reputation for challenging her professors as well. “Nan is well known in the entire department, because she doesn’t say much during class,” Snowden-Ifft says. “But she’s religious about coming to office hours. Pretty much every week, she’d come at least half an hour, and we would talk over problems. She always asks really hard questions. We’re always nervous when Nan shows up at the door. We’re like, ‘Uh-oh, I’ve gotta get my game on here.’”

A recipient of the College’s Norris scholarship, which allotted her $15,000 for research and travel, Ma has presented her findings at two conferences, one in Columbus, Ohio, and one in Los Angeles. Working with Snowden-Ifft, she says, transformed her Oxy experience. “It was the first time I feel like I finally fit into this whole environment. I’m an international student, so before that, it was kind of rough for a year and a half. I really appreciate that.”

One thing Ma—who plans to attend graduate school in physics—won’t miss about Snowden-Ifft’s lab are the uninvited guests. “One thing I discovered about Nan is that she really doesn’t like spiders,” Snowden-Ifft says. “And there are a lot of spiders in my lab.”

“Spiders, snakes, all of that stuff, I’m not good at,” Ma admits.

Me and My Shadow

Mark Gad ’18 came to Oxy knowing that science was his wheelhouse, but wanting a well-rounded liberal arts education. As a sophomore, he took Vertebrate Physiology with associate professor of biology Joseph Schulz, who studies venomous cone snails. Gad “really enjoyed” the class, he recalls, and was eager to learn more about Schulz’s work: “That’s why I wanted to join his lab.”

Schulz remembers Gad from that class as well: “It really stands out when you have a student who’s engaged in the course and feeling confident and comfortable with the material, being a younger student.” 

“At the end of that year, I started shadowing in his lab and, from then, was working in his lab every single semester,” says Gad, a biochemistry major from Huntington Beach who emigrated from Egypt as a teenager. “We work with cone snails, which is a marine predatory gastropod. I took on the biochemistry aspect of it, where we were trying to synthesize venom just like the one found in the snail.”

“Mark is a quieter student, but he has this excellent momentum,” Schulz says. “He will work toward the solution to the problem. It’s been a lot of not just energy in the lab, but mental energy toward understanding the problem. That’s an important aspect of independent research, the ability to kind of see beyond what’s right in front of you and to sort of develop the project. It’s a real key to success.”

Over time, their relationship has moved beyond their shared work in the lab. “Because of how much time we spend together talking about the research work, it kind of comes naturally that he is my adviser in so many things. I’ve made sure to talk to him about every single plan that I had and every single opportunity that comes up, weighing options between grad school or pursuing a job,” Gad says. “I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity he gave me to work in his lab, to grow in his lab—to allow me to really push my own boundaries of what I thought I could do.”

As for Schulz, who has taught at the College since 2004, having a student like Gad is “incredibly gratifying.” He adds: “This is why I’m at Oxy—to be involved in directly mentoring student research. It’s what we are all about as liberal arts professors and doing sciences in a small college setting.” 

Gad now plans to go to graduate school to become a research scientist, like his mentor. “Seeing Dr. Schulz so engaged in his work, so in love with the work that he does, and how knowledgeable he is on every single part of it … this made me say, ‘I want to be that.’”

Schulz has no doubt Gad will be successful. “The sky’s the limit for Mark. He can do anything he wants to, really. You see the spark in these students and you know that they have great things ahead of them.”

Photos by Kevin Burke.  

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