Summer Undergraduate Research: Finding a Passion, Making a Difference
Emelia Pinamang Asiedu ’11 returned to her native Ghana for a SURP working with primary school theatre club members on dramatic productions.
Vivek Charu ’09, a molecular biology major who completed a SURP that involved helping a public-health initiative in India
During their years at Pomona College, students can learn in all the traditional settings—in the labyrinthine stacks of Honnold-Mudd Library, in one of the classrooms facing Lebus Court, in the modern, well-appointed Rose Hills Theatre. But thanks to the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, students can also learn in some unconventional settings as well—perhaps thousands of miles away, in a primary school in Ghana, or millions of levels below the visible world, on the surface of an enzyme.
Now entering its 24th year, the summer program supports students as they conduct research under the guidance of faculty mentors in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Such research includes work on Pomona’s campus, done in close collaboration with faculty guides, as well as far-ranging field work, done semi-independently around the globe.
“It gives you some flexibility in designing your own project, if you would like to get some experience you couldn’t get on campus,” says Vivek Charu ’09, a molecular biology major who completed a SURP that involved helping a public-health initiative in India. “There are certainly some things you can’t get exposed to on campus because they just don’t exist at Pomona itself, so it’s nice to have the opportunity through SURP to do work in a field you might not have had much chance to experience.”
In addition to broadening students’ horizons, the program undoubtedly gives Pomona alumni a leg up in their careers.
“It made my grad school application,” says Michael Gormally ’11, who plans to pursue a medical degree. Gormally, who did a SURP on polyelectrolyte surfaces in Professor Malkiat Johal’s laboratory, will study molecular biology at the University of Cambridge in England as part of the prestigious Churchill Scholarship program and will continue directly into a Ph.D. program as part of the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program. Only 14 Churchill scholarships are awarded each year to U.S. students, and last year only 15 students received an NIH Ox-Cam Scholarship.
Gormally considers his SURP invaluable: “That research experience really allowed me to get a feel for what working in the laboratory was like, to hit the ground running.”
Laura Enriquez ’08, currently studying for a doctorate in sociology at UCLA, couldn’t agree more: “Without the SURP, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I don’t think I would have gotten into graduate school without that research experience.” Enriquez worked with Sociology Professor Gilda Ochoa on an ethnographic study of a suburban Southern California school. The field interviews she conducted with the students and the subsequent publication of a paper gave her confidence in furthering her career: “I felt comfortable with the research methods; I had presented at a conference; I had worked on a book chapter in the process. So I think I was definitely ahead of the curve.”
Enriquez has co-written a chapter in a University of Nebraska Press book that will be published this spring. She is hardly alone; many SURP participants have had their work published. “They do such a significant amount of work on these projects that they subsequently get their names on the resulting papers,” says Chemistry Professor Cynthia Selassie, the associate dean who administers the program. “A lot of times, the students even write the first drafts.”
The Summer Undergraduate Research Program provides much more than benefits to individual participants, however; it helps those individuals make a difference in the world. In the case of Emelia Pinamang Asiedu ’11, it may help promote a resurgence of indigenous culture in Ghana.
Asiedu’s SURP involved returning to her native country and working with primary school theatre club members on dramatic productions. Asiedu expresses dismay at the eclipsing of Ghanaian culture by Western influences, and believes her experience could help her preserve the country’s heritage: “My plan is that after my grad school education, I would like to return to Ghana and try to set up the kind of system that helps to promote Ghanaian theatre and to make people more aware of it.”
Charu’s SURP experience convinced him to turn down a coveted Fulbright Fellowship to pursue more practical applications at the NIH John Fogarty International Center. “I felt at some point that going abroad to do a Fulbright would have been more about me—about my learning experience—than it would have been about my really contributing to any kind of major project,” he says.
As part of his SURP in India, Charu worked with a grassroots-based neonatal program that helped reduce infant mortality by as much as 75 percent. Apparently, the social relevance was addictive.
“It was cool to see that there were still some very simple, scientific ideas that were being implemented in resource-poor areas and that could do a lot of good.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 Campaign Pomona: Daring Minds newsletter.