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A Pomona Tradition: 50 Years of Summer Research

Pomona’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program took root after the Second World War, with students assisting in the laboratory of Professor Corwin Hansch, who in the 1960s, was an established name in chemistry and mentored scientists from all over the world.

The idea of professors collaborating with undergraduate students to the benefit of both gradually caught on, and in the late 1980s, an official SURP Poster Conference was created. In the beginning, the summer program involved mostly the basic sciences, but eventually grew to include the social sciences as well as the humanities. “In the sciences, it’s easy to envision how eager minds and a pair of hands in the lab can help you with your research, and now a number of faculty in the social sciences and humanities have also realized how they too can benefit from student collaboration,” says Associate Dean and Chemistry Professor Cynthia Selassie, who administers the program.

Under the program, students apply to work with faculty as research assistants or on independent projects either on or off campus. At the end of the summer, students present their findings to the College community during the annual SURP Poster Conference. The entire undergraduate research program, both in the summer and during the school year, has become a flagship of the College’s offerings.

Says Michael Gormally ’11, a recent SURP participant and a winner of the prestigious Churchill Scholarship and the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholarship: “When I first came to Pomona, I wasn’t aware of the program, but I’ve really come to appreciate how much it sets Pomona apart. None of my friends at other colleges really have such opportunities.”

Alumni who have participated in the program see its rewards clearly, and often wish to share the benefits. For example, Gormally’s SURP was enabled by a gift from the estate of Dale Robertson ’49, who himself had worked under Professor Hansch as a researcher.

Emil Kakkis ’82, who since graduating has done groundbreaking work toward cures of rare diseases, was inspired by his own SURP experience to donate a substantial amount to funding other students’ experiences.

“I was hoping to do something that would be significant enough so that kids who needed to earn money in the summer could still do this project and not hurt their overall financial situation,” Kakkis explains. “My hope was to try to put together a plan that would support research and supplies and time, that would allow them to really pursue the research and focus on it.” Kakkis, who went on to specialize in medical research after getting a taste of it during his SURP, also wished to honor the two professors who inspired him, Professor Hansch and Biology Professor Bruce Telzer. His faculty-directed SURP profoundly influenced his direction: “It was pivotal in allowing me to recognize I really liked research and was good at it and that it was the kind of thing I wanted to do with my career.”

Continued and growing student interest in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program has put a strain on finances this year. The current economic climate has significantly sapped some of the foundation and corporate funding that previously subsidized the program. “In light of these constraints,” says Selassie, “we expect that the application process for summer ’11 will be highly competitive.”