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Learning by Doing: Summer Undergraduate Research Program

Sam Cunningham '11

Sam Cunningham '11

Ryan Wieghard '11

Ryan Wieghard '11

Sabrina Baum '11

Sabrina Baum '11

Along the oak-shaded expanse of Stover Walk, lined on a warm September day with students capsulizing weeks and perhaps months of work on squares of poster board, Russell Faucett ’66 reconnected with his alma mater—its students, their intellectual pursuits, their abilities and their aspirations. There was the junior who had studied U.S. foreign policy and the growing rift with Latin America. The theatre arts major who conducted an exploration of mime. Another student who surveyed banks and organizations in Tanzania on microfinancing.

The 23rd annual poster conference featured more than 160 such undergraduate endeavors, and Faucett drank it all in. “It was a fun way to get exposed to the current student body, their interests and what they’re doing,” he says.

And more than a dozen of these research projects had been funded by the Faucett Family Foundation. The Faucetts have donated $150,000 over three years for the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, or SURP. This past summer, the money provided stipends for 13 students to work in the social sciences and humanities; most of the program’s other projects are in the natural sciences.

Cynthia Selassie, professor of chemistry and the associate dean who helps administer SURP, acknowledges that social science and humanities projects have formerly received less interest. “But it’s really taken off in the last three or four years because we have some faculty in those departments now who actively involve students in their research projects.”

The philosophy behind SURP is that students learn by doing. The projects fall into two categories: research positions on campus or independent studies anywhere in the world. Both types are conducted under faculty supervision. Applicants must submit written proposals to a faculty research committee, and at the close of the summer be prepared to present their work to the College community at the annual poster conference.

Sam Cunningham ’11, who studied semantics and grammatical structures as a research assistant to Philosophy and Linguistics Professor Jay Atlas, expressed gratitude for the Faucetts’ sponsorship: “I think it’s wonderful not only that previous Pomona students have had such success that they can contribute back, but also that they can give students opportunities to live through the summer while working on something which a lot of people don’t even understand--what we know about human language itself.”

The SURP stipend allowed Sabrina Baum ’11 to work for Freedom House, a nonprofit advocacy group and policy institute based in New York that publishes widely read surveys such as the annual “Freedom in the World” report. “The SURP is a great opportunity for students interested in working for nonprofit organizations that might not otherwise pay summer interns,” Baum says.

Learning something entirely new drew Ryan Wieghard ’11 into his project of exploring a computer-assisted audio controller and its sonic possibilities. The computer science major and musician was freed from the constraints of traditional instruments, notes and scales. “The project really gave me a feeling of self-reliance, relying on your own imagination and your own ability to absorb a new technology, to make it your own.”

That confidence to explore is one of the greatest advantages of SURP, Selassie notes. The program allows students to pursue “whatever their passion is,” and gives them experience in the research process as well. “Most of the projects do contribute new knowledge along the way,” she adds.

Sometime the students’ work may even lead them away from their original interests, but as in all of life, the journey is everything.

Russell Faucett’s own career trajectory shows the value of such a journey. At Pomona, he majored in physics, doing undergraduate research with Professor Power Sogo, with whom he co-authored a paper on the electromagnetic resonance in plants during photosynthesis. He went on to the Ph.D.
program in molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but decided that science really wasn’t where he wanted to be. So he switched to MIT’s business program and eventually became the investment manager of a hedge fund based in Los Angeles.

After a long separation, Faucett actively sought a way to re-engage with Pomona. “It was a very nurturing place to go to school,” he says. “I feel like Pomona took good care of me, in educating me and creating opportunities afterward.”

When he learned of SURP, he thought it would be an excellent way to become familiar with the College again and see what was going on there. The September poster conference fulfilled all his expectations: “That was great fun. Really impressive, in terms of the number of students in the research program, as well as simply fun to listen to them describe their work and what they’re investigating. It was a great afternoon.”

Editor's note: The article was originally published in our Fall 2010 Pomona College Campaign Journal, which is a newsletter updating the Pomona College community on campaign progress. For more information, please visit our campaign website.