Summer Research Program Inspires New Discoveries and Fruitful Collaborations

Laura Paisley Main photo by Marc Campos

The flagship program of Occidental's Undergraduate Research Center offers students an opportunity to conduct paid research in close collaboration with professors. This year’s topics run the gamut from totalitarianism in Argentina to vaccine efficacy and a recently uncovered Liszt manuscript.

Francesca Rodoni ’24 still finds it “surreal” when she is holding the original manuscripts penned by 19th-century Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. This summer, the musicology and economics major from Pacifica, California, is investigating how the two manuscripts ended up at Occidental College.

In 2018, the College’s Special Collections uncovered the manuscripts—intermediate drafts marked up with red and blue pencil—in a box of miscellaneous letters and documents. An accompanying letter from a curator at the Huntington Library, written on June 12, 1942, certified the manuscripts as authentically written by Liszt. The manuscripts have been dated to 1874-75, but their provenance is a mystery.

Rodoni and her co-investigator, Associate Professor of Music David Kasunic, are on the case.

A musical manuscript of Franz Liszt with a magnifying glass in the foreground
The Liszt manuscripts were dated to 1874-75. Photo by Marc Campos.

“We’re piecing together bits of evidence to create a path of these manuscripts from Weimar Germany, where Liszt was teaching and writing at the time, to Oxy,” Rodoni says. So far she has looked at old letters at the Huntington Library, ordered scans of manuscripts and letters from the New York Public Library, and pored over 19th-century newspapers.

The pieces, both chamber works, are quite different from what Liszt is most famous for, and part of this research is analyzing how they fit into his repertoire overall.

“The works are really cool bits of history and show his progression as a composer,” Rodoni says. “He really experiments with tonality in them.”

Rodoni and Kasunic meet twice a week to discuss progress and plot their investigations. Kasunic has been helpful in giving her content to work on, she says, but also instruction on how to do this type of research.

“This is my first time conducting research at this scale, so I’m a newbie. But he’s really making me feel like I can do this.”

Introducing undergraduates to academic research

Occidental’s Summer Research Program (SRP), an annual activity of the Undergraduate Research Center (URC), allows qualified students to pursue funded research. This year, more than 100 undergraduates are conducting research in a variety of fields, including biology, music, chemistry, psychology, history, sociology and others.

Participants undertake a 10-week research experience in June and July, during which they work closely with faculty mentors to design and carry out their projects. Students attend a weekly workshop series where they can present their research progress and receive feedback. This series and other planned events also help create a sense of community.

At the end of the program, students present their findings at the URC's Summer Research Conference, which is open to the entire community. The August 2 event gives students the chance to share their hard work with peers, faculty members and the broader community.

Oxy is such an important research institution. People see ‘liberal arts college’ and kind of forget that part. It’s nice to remind them.          –Francesca Rodoni ’24

This year’s SRP cohort also includes 19 Research Early Access Program (REAP) fellows. REAP, open to all rising sophomores interested in STEM subjects, offers a study award and subsidized on-campus housing over the summer. 

“Oxy is such an important research institution. People see ‘liberal arts college’ and kind of forget that part,” Rodoni says. “It’s nice to remind them.”

She emphasizes how special the SRP is at a small college like Oxy, where students have so much access to their professors and hands-on research opportunities.

“I wouldn’t be able to do any of this anywhere other than Oxy, really. Everything is so accessible here.”

Creating a lens to view political movements

Nate Lundstrom '25
Nate Lundstrom ’25. Photo courtesy of Lundstrom.

Nate Lundstrom ’25, a native of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, developed an interest in Latin American politics as a high school student living in Chile while his father was on sabbatical there. As a Diplomacy & World Affairs and Spanish major at Oxy, his coursework got him more specifically interested in political and cultural movements in Latin America.

This summer, Lundstrom is researching the ideological underpinnings of fascism in Argentina and Italy, working with faculty advisor and Professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs Movindri Reddy

“Both countries have had pretty rough histories of human rights abuses with [fascist dictators] Jorge Rafael Videla and Benito Mussolini,” Lundstrom says. “Now they’re in a sort of transitional modern context. In both of these countries, authoritarian tendencies and fascism are kind of a dark underbelly that doesn’t really get discussed in contemporary politics.”

His research this summer is primarily a literature review, building up to case studies and international research in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he’ll be studying abroad this fall. He hopes to do research in Italy next summer through a Young Student Grant . All of this work will inform his senior comps project.

Lundstrom and Reddy meet for an hour or two each week to discuss seminal readings like The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt and the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci. 

“Professor Reddy has been such a great adviser because she’s reading things along with me and then we discuss them together,” Lundstrom says. “It’s been really helpful to have someone who’s an expert to bounce ideas off each other after reading the same thing.”

Developing expertise in the lab

Alyssa Rodriguez '24
Alyssa Rodriguez ’24. Photo courtesy of Rodriguez.

Alyssa Rodriguez ’24, a biology major from Santa Clarita, California, who would like to become a pediatrician, knew she wanted to do research as an undergraduate. “One of the reasons I wanted to come to Oxy was to work directly with faculty,” she says.

She took an interest in the research of one of her professors, Professor of Biology Roberta Pollock, and approached her about getting involved. She started working in Pollock’s lab in the fall of her junior year, did research through the URC in the spring, and transitioned seamlessly into the Summer Research Program.

This summer, Rodriguez and her fellow student researchers—including two REAP fellows—come to the lab every day and work alongside Pollock and Resident Assistant Professor of Biology Karen Molinder. They are determining the effectiveness of a vaccine for horses against the disease pigeon fever, which is caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium Pseudotuberculosis. The researchers are using mouse models to test the effectiveness of different vaccines. 

It’s exciting to be able to do things on my own and learn new techniques that I wouldn’t have had time for with classes during the semester.          –Alyssa Rodriguez ’24

The researchers check the mice daily to monitor their overall health and response to the bacteria. Rodriguez has also been working to detect the presence of certain proteins in different blood samples from horses that have been previously infected with C. Pseudotuberculosis. She analyzes the differences in infection types and assesses antibody response. The entire group meets once a week to report on their progress.

“The best thing about the experience is feeling much more comfortable doing a lot of the lab techniques,” Rodriguez says. “It’s exciting to be able to do things on my own and learn new techniques that I wouldn’t have had time for with classes during the semester.”

“It’s also really fun to work together and share ideas with other students who have similar goals.”