Oxy Holds 19th Undergraduate Research Conference

More than 130 Occidental students skipped the family road trips to spend 10 weeks this summer counting starfish and examining bacteria inside beetles as part of the College’s undergraduate research program. 

August 1 saw the culmination of their efforts during the day-long Summer Research Conference, when the student scholars presented their research in the form of 20-minute talks and poster presentations on campus. Research topics ranged from cellular markers for breast cancer and growing crops on Mars to the resurgence of Catholic exorcisms in the United States.

"This is our largest conference to date," said Janet Morris '87, director of Undergraduate Research. "We are so proud of all our students and the work they accomplished over the last 10 weeks. The conference celebrates the Occidental undergraduate research experience, and we are thrilled that so many people came out to support the presenters. We're already looking ahead to next year, which will be our 20th annual conference!"

Now in its 19thyear, for the first time the Summer Research Program was able to fund limited international travel (up to two weeks) directly associated with faculty-mentored research across the curriculum, such as field work or data collection. (The majority of research still takes place on campus.) Students worked alongside 62 faculty mentors in disciplines ranging from biochemistry and politics to music and geology. 

Eclectic research topics included "Fast and Venomous: A Kinematic Study of the Cone Snail’s Prey-Hunting Mechanism" (biology); "Children’s Thinking About Gendered Robots" (cognitive science); "(anti)Blackness in Japan" (English and comparative literary studies); and "The Aesthetic Argument for Clean Comedy" (philosophy). Some of the research these undergraduates are participating in, such as the medical research, is potentially groundbreaking, with real-world applications.

Divya Moolamalla ’20 spent the summer conducting research with scientists at the Beckman Research Institute at City of Hope in Duarte. A pre-med English major from McKinney, Texas, Moolamalla used tissue cultures and microscopy to examine breast tissue to help determine how aging affects the breast and why it can become susceptible to cancer. 

"It was an experience that I never would have gotten at a regular school," she said. "You learn so much more than you ever would in a classroom. You’re just thrown into a lab and start doing work. It’s a really intense learning curve, but you come out of it with so much knowledge and understanding."  

The experience also confirmed her career goals. "I don’t think I could be a researcher for life," she said. "There’s so much trial and error, and I get frustrated. It taught me that I want to be a doctor and work with patients." 

As for her English major? "I love reading and writing and I think it’s really important for doctors to know how to read and write." 

Naomi Field ’19, an art and art history and biology major from Los Gatos, created a coloring book and large canvas mural to spread awareness of the studies being done at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. (Hannah Fishbein ’19 provided the text.) "I’m really interested in seeing how we can share science with people who aren’t scientists," Field said. "I think you learn about science by interacting with nature. Art is an amazing way to bring science to people. While not everyone can go to Costa Rica, they can look at a painting and experience La Selva the way I did." 

The objectives of the summer research program at Occidental are to sponsor faculty/student collaborative research; provide an academic alternative to nonacademic summer jobs; increase students' preparation for leadership roles in professions and/or public service; create an intellectual community with opportunities for interdisciplinary exchange; enrich the academic experience of the most capable and promising students; and encourage good students, especially students from underrepresented groups, to consider careers in the scholarly professions.

Summer research fellows, who receive a $4,000 stipend, are expected to work full time on their research and are not permitted to hold other jobs during the 10-week fellowship period. They also attend workshops, lectures and other special events on campus. Support is provided by the College and by endowments, grants and gifts from many sources. The program is highly selective, and some preference is given to students who are completing their junior year and have had no prior summer fellowship support. 

Occidental has supported undergraduate research for more than three decades in all campus disciplines — the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural and physical sciences. The summer research program has helped place the College at the forefront of national liberal arts colleges. Sponsors of this summer’s research include the American Chemical Society, the American Heart Assn., the Argonaut Creative Writing Fund, the Fletcher Jones Foundation, the Ford Foundation Research Fellows Endowment, the Mellon Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Will J. Reid Foundation and the Paul K. & Evalyn E. Cook Richter Trusts.