Remote Summer Research Has Long-Lasting Impact

Hannah Caris in a laboratory.

Last summer, Pomona College introduced the Remote Alternative Independent Summer Experience (RAISE) Program following a shift to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year RAISE returns for summer 2021 to support students’ independent projects and help connect students with faculty research programs.

The RAISE Program is a multi-week fellowship open to rising sophomores, juniors and seniors that provides stipends of $2,500 or greater to conduct research. RAISE was developed in response to the temporary suspension of Pomona’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

RAISE funding supports a broad range of projects meant to stimulate reading, writing, research and creative expression that last six weeks. Last summer, 404 Pomona students participated in RAISE. We talked to a few students about their summer 2020 RAISE projects ranging from Latino veterans of U.S. wars to bimodal bilingualism and what they are doing now with the research and knowledge gained.

The Incredible Plants of Wildermere Ranch

Makeda Bullock Floyd ’22, an environmental analysis major, studied wild plants growing on Windermere Ranch in Santa Barbara where she was living at the time. She catalogued and reported on the plant life at the ranch and presented the information in an accessible guidebook. The guidebook is set up as a collection of case studies and contains personal narratives, Western science, Indigenous knowledge and community experience, explains Bullock Floyd. She adds that it highlights a mix of native, invasive, edible and non-edible plants, each with unique strengths and properties explored in detail.

Bullock Floyd sees her summer research as an important step towards her senior thesis which she begins next year.

“I am interested in researching regenerative agriculture practices and how these can be implemented at the Pomona College Organic Farm. Agriculture is a major source of environmental degradation, yet food security is a critical necessity. I see regenerative agriculture practices and traditional ecological knowledge as essential now and for our future.”

“Additionally, I am interested in education and getting young people outdoors and learning about these important issues and solutions. The more I learn, the more I realize that these issues of climate change, food security, and environmental justice are deeply intertwined.”

Professor Char Miller’s support on this project was instrumental for Bullock Floyd, as was the mentorship of Tongva Elder Barbara Drake who taught her much of what she knows about traditional ecological knowledge. “Additionally, the opportunity to photograph each of these plants and interact with them so closely gave me safe hands-on experience not readily available during the pandemic,” she says.

Bullock Floyd presented her project at the RAISE Symposium held in September 2020.  

Ginseng and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases

Hannah Caris ’22, a neuroscience major, conducted a literature review investigating ginsenoside modulation of neuroinflammation and oxidative stress in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases under the mentorship of Neuroscience Professor Jonathan King. Caris explains that ginsenosides are the active compounds in ginseng, a plant root that’s been used for thousands of years in Asia as traditional medicine.

“The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of ginsenosides have been shown to act on various pathways to halt harmful cycles of neuroinflammation by reducing levels of pro-inflammatory and oxidative stress markers in mouse models of these diseases. Over the course of the six-week project, I enjoyed discovering connections between articles and solidifying my understanding of the pathways described.”

Caris was able to take a deep dive into the literature on neuroinflammation in these common neurodegenerative diseases and connecting it with her interests in traditional Chinese medicine to create what she says was the perfect interdisciplinary project.

“Reading current literature on a specific topic of interest provided me with a strong foundation for future scientific study, and further amplified my interests in neuroimmunology, which I hope to pursue after graduating from Pomona.”

For Caris, one of the highlights of her project was Professor King’s mentorship: from how to approach reading scientific literature to weekly meetings to discuss her various questions.

“Participating in the 2020 RAISE program gave me a strong sense of purpose and allowed me the opportunity to pursue academic inquiry even though planned in-person summer research opportunities were canceled.”

Latino Veterans Since Vietnam

Lerick Gordon ’22, a history major, analyzed the factors that led to the growth of Latinos in the U.S. Armed Forces under the guidance of Professor Tomás Summers Sandoval. Through the project, Gordon gained a better understanding of the historical research process itself and learned how to work with oral histories. His research spanned 60 years of military history with Gordon looking at what motivated Latinos to enlist, what their experiences were like and how their identity influenced their service as a whole.

“I conducted my research primarily by searching through online databases, historical archives, oral history interviews and various books and scholarly articles on Latinx U.S. military history/service. I was even able to conduct my own oral history interview, where I interviewed my dad, who is currently an active-duty soldier in the U.S. Army. And for my final product, I created a PowerPoint presentation that highlighted the most important aspects of my research on U.S. Latinx military service, which I presented at the RAISE 2020 Research Symposium last year in the fall.”

Gordon hopes to use his new research skills to further his research during his last year at Pomona, for his senior thesis and beyond, he says. He plans to focus on Puerto Rican military service post-Vietnam and how that has shaped the identity of veterans and their families, and its effect on Puerto Rican ideas of patriotism, duty and national loyalty.

“I really enjoyed getting to conduct research on a topic that is very important to me personally, as I’ve lived my whole life surrounded by this Latinx military history and I’ve seen firsthand what that entails for Latinx soldiers, their families and their identities as Latinas/os in the U.S. military,” he says.

Gordon says that sharing the stories of these veterans gives other people insight into the unique Latinx experiences/identities in the United States, within the framework of the military, while also acknowledging the fact that Latinx and other BIPOC have disproportionately served in the U.S. military for decades. “This to me was the most important and most rewarding part about my RAISE experience,” he says.

Economic Uncertainty and COVID-19

Franco Vijandre ’22, an economics major, worked with Professor Michelle Zemel on her research about economic uncertainty in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vijandre’s research revolved around understanding the existing economics literature to try and grasp the economic impact the uncertainty caused by the pandemic would have, he says.

Vijandre drafted a literature review about economic uncertainty, which required reading dozens of academic articles on the topic and summarizing the key findings into one paper.

"This exercise made me become more knowledgeable on how uncertainty as an abstract concept is measured and what micro and macro effects it has,” he said.

He then used his findings to quantify the uncertainty brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This involved Vijandre analyzing millions of rows of stock price and forecast data and my findings led me to conclude that the uncertainty caused by the pandemic was truly unprecedented and much higher than the 2007-2009 recession.

Vijandre says one of the reasons why he came to Pomona was because of the relationships that students can build with professors and departments as a part of the small liberal arts college experience. “The RAISE program exemplifies this sentiment,” he said.

“It is an incredibly rare experience to have an expert like Professor Zemel help me at every step of the research process and be readily available for any questions I may have.”

In addition, he says this experience also helped him discover a new area of economics. His summer work could help him construct his summer thesis, as well.

Moreover, I really enjoyed learning about a new economics topic outside of the classroom and without a syllabus. It was a unique challenge to research and read academic articles to become knowledgeable about a subject, but it was a task that I found very rewarding.

“Coming into college I didn’t think I was the type of student who would pursue academic research during the summer, but the RAISE opportunity and the Economics Department made research so accessible. I would encourage any current student to engage in some form of research to get the most out of your interested discipline and develop great relationships with departments and faculty.” 

Emotion and Bilingualism in Decision-Making

Alexandra Werner ’22, a cognitive science major, used previous studies on speech bilinguals to examine the interaction between emotion and bilingualism in decision-making and offered insights on how her research might translate for an overlooked group: bimodal bilinguals or bilinguals who know both a signed and spoken language.

“The inclusion of bimodal bilinguals offers valuable insights into how signed and spoken languages interact across modalities at the lexical and conceptual levels,” she says.

Werner explains that the ‘framing effect’ is a decision bias observed when people exhibit more risk-averse or risk-seeking behavior patterns in response to whether a decision is framed as a gain or a loss.

“Decision-making processes become less rational and more affected by framing biases when using the first language compared to the second one,” she says. “The less dominant language (usually the second one), may act as an emotional distancing mechanism that could make bilinguals rely on more systematic and deliberate modes of thinking that are not as dictated by emotions.”

Werner posited that the relative dominance of English or American Sign Language (ASL) in bimodal bilinguals would either exacerbate or dilute the framing effect when presented in each language.

To strengthen and inform her research hypotheses, Werner contacted and interviewed some eminent researchers in the field of decision-making and bilingual cognition. “I think what excited me the most was that I even got responses in the first place!” she says.

Werner says that being able to talk with the professors whose names she was used to seeing on the papers she was reading was “an unparalleled experience.” She also learned more about the deaf community and she hopes that in the future she can conduct this research project in real life and collect data to test her hypotheses.

“I also really enjoyed working under the mentorship of Professor Megan Zirnstein, who was incredibly helpful with guiding me onto the right pathways of focus and is now my academic advisor!”