This summer, more than 170 students kept their neurons fired up through research projects both on and off campus. Hailing from a range of academic disciplines, these students took part in research opportunities funded by the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). 

Highlights of Pomona College's Summer Undergraduate Research 

Whether they studied memory deficits related to Alzheimer’s disease or researched the history of Pomona College’s orchestra, students embarked on learning journeys guided by experienced faculty members. 

SURPs offer the chance to learn the techniques that students will use for research projects they will continue in the academic year. They also learn how to design their own experiments based on earlier findings they read about in academic literature, and develop skills to present their work at the Intensive Summer Experience Poster Conference in early fall.

Below is a sampling of the research projects that took place this summer.

Anthropology

Jordan Grimaldi, SURP, Class of 2020, Environmental Analysis

Jordan Grimaldi '20 at Unidad Park in Los Angeles

For her independent research SURP, environmental analysis major Jordan Grimaldi ’20 decided to explore the benefits that urban green spaces can provide. This is a topic she first studied in her Anthropology of Environmental Justice class.

“My project is a continuation of my research paper for Assistant Professor of Anthropology Joanne Nucho’s class,” says Grimaldi. “My interview research methods are based off of a research model found in ‘Rethinking Urban Parks’ called REAP (Rapid Assessment and Applied Ethnographic Research).” 

Throughout the summer, Grimaldi conducted interviews with community members and park visitors in Los Angeles, as well as staff members and experts on park poverty at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, a group she partnered with to examine urban green space inequity in L.A. neighborhoods, specifically through an environmental justice lens. 

As part of her role of faculty mentor, Nucho helped Grimaldi with the Internal Review Board process to make sure Grimaldi was following appropriate ethical protocol for her research.

Grimaldi hopes to also address the question of who typically has access to green spaces in urban settings. Furthermore, she wants to study what the roots and causes of inequities in urban green spaces are in Los Angeles. 

Neuroscience

Karen Parfitt Neuroscience Lab, SURP, students

Erin Bigus '19 discusses her SURP research at Professor Parfitt's lab.

In the next few decades, the numbers of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to almost triple, from 5.4 million today to at least 16 million by 2050, according to Professor of Neuroscience Karen Parfitt

“This is why our Alzheimer’s project is important,” she says.

Using electrophysiological recording in the hippocampus of mice, Parfitt seeks to develop an understanding of the molecular mechanisms of memory as well as changes in synaptic transmission that occur in various disease states such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Four neuroscience majors and one molecular biology major worked in Parfitt’s lab this summer on two projects related to Alzheimer’s: Erin Bigus ’19, Caroline Casper ’19, Kayla Lanker ’19, Jessica Phan ’19 and Elizabeth Rose ’19. Andy Pelos ’19, a Goldwater Scholarship recipient, worked remotely with the lab from the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle.

“For the past five years, we have had two main projects in the lab – one related to Alzheimer’s disease and another examining synaptic changes that occur in mice following intense exercise,” says Parfitt.

According to Parfitt, the tripeptide they are working with reverses the synaptic deficits seen in mice with Alzheimer’s disease; thus, it’s possible that it will also reverse the learning and memory deficits in these animals, and perhaps in humans as well.

Theatre

Jeff Friedman, Class of 2019, SURP, Theatre

Jeff Friedman '19 rehearses at Seaver Theatre on Pomona College's campus

Jeff Friedman, a rising senior from St. Louis, Missouri, majoring in media studies and minoring in theatre, found a way to incorporate both his academic interests into his independent research SURP.

Friedman’s goal was to search the historical links between improvisational comedy and Jewish humor. He did so under the guidance of faculty mentor Carolyn Ratteray, assistant professor of theatre and dance.

To do so, he took an improv class on the form known as the “Harold” at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) in Los Angeles, and read and interviewed academics such as Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse regarding the history of Jewish humor. He also read works from Jewish writers such as Franz Kafka, Philip Roth, Sam Lipsyte and Mark Leyner.

In addition, Friedman compiled footage from shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Seinfeld,”  Sarah Silverman standup, Mel Brooks movies, etc., and, most importantly, he interviewed Jewish writers, comedians, producers, actors, directors on their associations and experiences with the phrase “Jewish humor.”

“One of my main goals with the project is to explore the treatment of traumatic events like the Holocaust in comedy,” says Friedman. “Another is to consider if there’s something about Jewish humor that lends itself to the improvisational style naturally.” 

Ultimately, Friedman hopes to raise questions about where to draw the line with stereotypes in comedy of various forms (improv and other theatrical forms, standup, television, film) and to consider how a comedian’s generation and cultural identity might play a role in setting these limitations.

Psychology

Lupe Bacio, Psychology, Centro Lab, SURP

Jennifer Acevedo ’19, Sergio A. Ruvalcaba ’19, Jovani Azpeitia ’19, Yazmin Meza ’20, Anayansi Alatorre Romo ’20 and Elia Gil Rojas ’21 have a group discussion with Psychology Professor Lupe Bacio.

Using a combination of community-based participatory research, laboratory-based tasks and large-scale surveys, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Chicana/o Latina/o Studies Lupe Bacio led a group of six students this summer on two different SURP projects. 

The focus of the research in Bacio’s psychology lab, also know as the CENTRO Lab, is to contribute to the reduction in health disparities among Latinx and other understudied/underserved populations, Bacio says. 

“To this end, these two studies are addressing big gaps in the literature with respect to identifying risk factors for alcohol and other risky behaviors among Latinx adolescents from different backgrounds and inform culturally responsive intervention services.”

In their first project, the group developed the instrumentation and procedures to roll out data collection this fall on a study of alcohol, drug use and mental health among first-, second- and third-generation immigrant Latinx adolescents.

Their second project examined data collected during the 2017-18 academic year on predictors of adjustment and academic outcomes for first-generation students.  

The group of students who worked in the CENTRO Lab this summer included rising sophomores to seniors majoring in areas such as psychology, Latin American studies and cognitive science: Jennifer Acevedo ’19, Sergio A. Ruvalcaba ’19, Jovani Azpeitia ’19, Yazmin Meza ’20, Anayansi Alatorre Romo ’20 and Elia Gil Rojas ’21.

Geology

Researching volcanology through history?

SURP, Geology, Students, Honnold Library

Gigi Voss '21 and Phoebe Thompson '20 conduct their research at Honnold Mudd Library.

That’s exactly what classics major Phoebe Thompson ’20 and Gigi Voss ’21 – who plans to double major in math and geology – did this summer under the guidance of Professor of Geology Eric Grosfils.

“We are looking at this really cool text ‘Campi Phlegraei’ by Sir William Hamilton which was published in the late 18th century,” says Thompson. The text found in Honnold Library’s Special Collections documents more than 30 years of Mount Vesuvius’ eruptions detailed in letters sent to The Royal Society in London. 

“We pulled together physical data and we tried to make a clear set of diagrams based on what the text says happened,” says Thompson. “From that point, we analyze if what was documented was feasible and thus try to recognize what kind of eruption he was describing.” 

On the more quantitative side, Voss took Grosfils’ volcanology class, where she learned a lot about computer modeling with simulation programs used to figure out plume heights and their velocity.

“One of the things I find most interesting is that we have photographs and more modern records of Vesuvius,” says Voss. “With a volcano as potentially dangerous as Vesuvius, this information is valuable now for volcano safety. Even as an eruption feels like it was a long time ago, it has important things to tell us. It’s a line of inquiry that is important for scientists to follow.” 

Music

SURP, Oliver Dubon, Music, Orchestra

Pomona College Orchestra's Principal Tuba Oliver Dubon '20 at Bridges Hall of Music 

Music major and composer Oliver Dubon ’20, principal tuba with the Pomona College Orchestra, found there was no information on the orchestra from right before World War I to the beginning of World War II. So he decided to investigate the orchestra’s history through his research assistantship under the direction of Professor of Music Graydon Beeks ’69.

Dubon pored over raw data such as TSL [The Student Life newspaper] articles, programs and scrapbooks, almost none of which had been synthesized or put into any sort of easily searchable electronic sources.

According to Dubon, what is really interesting about this research is that it shows what it takes to start an orchestra at a small liberal arts college. He found that the faculty in charge of putting together an orchestra had a very difficult time in finding people with the skills required not just to play an instrument, but to play it at a high enough level that they could tackle the pieces that would make people come to their concerts.

Another difficulty for the orchestra was the timing of all of these events. “The most amazing part of this orchestra's developmental years took place during one of the most difficult times in this nation's history, being the time of both World War I and World War II, as well as the Great Depression occurring between the two,” says Dubon. “I found that the years during which World War II was occurring marked a decrease in participation in the orchestra, only to have a surge after the war, with a number of the concert programs listing personnel with their military designations.”

Through his research at Honnold Mudd Library and Thatcher Building, home of the Music Department, Dubon found that the orchestra was tasked with finding people with the skills required to play a specific set of instruments for a repertoire consisting of mostly pieces written by extremely well-known composers. 

“Despite all of this, the orchestra has still managed to evolve into the renowned ensemble it is today, with an established history of playing a great deal of difficult pieces from the standard repertoire, such as landmark pieces by great composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Ligeti, and Adams,” says Dubon.