Inside USD

Students’ Curiosity Vital to Research Opportunities

Monday, April 22, 2013

When Alyssa Ong traveled to China last summer, she did so knowing about the strained China-Tibet relationship. The fact that the Dalai Lama was exiled from China brought that issue into the mainstream international media’s focus. So while Ong could have done a research project tied to some aspect of that situation, especially so soon after the Dalai Lama’s visit to San Diego, what it really did was peak Ong’s curiosity in a new direction.

“I was interested to know something different about the Chinese and their relations with others,” said Ong, an English and Communication Studies double major and Asian Studies minor.

The class trip to China with History Professor Yi Sun and conversations with Bahar Davary, a USD Theology and Religious Studies professor, (both pictured at left, with Ong) led her to focus on the Uyghurs, a prominent Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang Province, and their relationship since 1949 with Han China. Examining the history of religion, education, politics and Uyghur women, notably Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled president of the World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur American Association, Ong’s curiosity became her research project.

“It was great to find out what their story was,” she said. “It means a lot to me to do this kind of scholarly work. I greatly appreciated the opportunity.”

The University of San Diego’s desire for all students to do research as part of their undergraduate experience was on display last Thursday as Ong was one of more than 350 students to showcase a record 200-plus projects in the Hahn University Center. Ong’s curiosity fit what Executive Vice President and Provost Julie Sullivan described as a reason to champion the annual spring Undergraduate Research Conference.

“It’s a chance for students to create new knowledge, new processes and develop new prototypes,” said Sullivan, adding that it is part of a strong liberal arts education mission at USD. “I’m so glad that we have passionate students who want to be involved.”

The conference produced research from a true cross-section of disciplines — hard sciences, social and political sciences, business and leadership. Studies on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, international science research and a USD degree-planning tool were next to a study about the effects of basketball players who shoot airballs during games. This annual showcase of collaborative work by USD undergrads and faculty filled the UC’s three forum rooms, its foyer and the nearby Exhibit Hall with posters, oral and physical presentations, visual art and even a mobile art truck called “Untitled Space” parked outside the UC.

Among the hundreds of research participants was Amy Kame, a standout guard for USD’s women’s basketball team and a Communication and Media Studies major. Her topic, “Terministic Screens and Ideographs: Reinforcing a Dominant Ideology Through Film,” let her examine the separation of pro-life and pro-choice on the issue abortion in the film “The Cider House Rules.” The movie naturalized both sides of the topic and reinforced sides’ beliefs, attitudes and values.

“It’s a polarizing issue and this research played into my interest in politics, women’s rights and feminism,” said Kame (pictured, above right) about the 1999 film. “Last year was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and it’s interesting to see that it still resonates as an issue.”

Meanwhile, a group of mechanical engineering students — Kristian Wittman, Elphbert Laforteza, Nicholas Perez, Denver Pascua and Justin Snelling (group picture, left to right) — were in the UC foyer discussing the merits of the Open Source 3D printer they’ve created as their senior capstone project.

The project came about as a result of the USD Engineering Department’s desire to have one efficient 3D printer that could replace its two current printers. The printers are used to educate students and to manufacture parts and prototypes for projects. One printer is too expensive while the other is difficult to maintain. The five students, all of whom will graduate in December, were up to the task. While their project will be complete and shown at the May 10 Engineering Open House in Loma Hall, Snelling said the group enjoyed the opportunity to build something with lasting value.

“The printer is used in the labs, so it will be cool that when we come back (as alumni) to visit the lab that something we did will still be there,” he said.

Another research project with change-making ability came through Carrie Enkler’s internship with the USD Office of Sustainability. She was assigned as director of a Green Office Certification program. She formed a team to evaluate campus offices and their level of sustainability, promoting sustainability awareness beyond just students to create a unified, campus-wide understanding.

“Sustainability is second nature to me,” said Enkler, an environmental studies major and marine science minor. “(Director of Sustainability) Michael Catanzaro has been a driving force for sustainability awareness at USD. I’m happy to help spread this awareness so it can become second nature at this school. It’s only going to get better.”

Research projects can also lead to answers, even if it’s to say that something can’t be done. Sophomore Leah Mandeville and freshmen Brook Santangelo and Katherine Fotion and their “Walking through the Königsberg Bridge Challenge” spotlighted a 17th century problem that led to the discovery of graph theory.

The problem pondered the layout of the city of Königsberg and its seven bridges that connect four landmasses. Could a path be determined to allow one to cross each bridge once and only once? The answer, as determined in 1736 by Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler’s research, was that it was impossible.

Santangelo, Fotion and Mandeville, who had been in a Math Logic class together with Math Professor Lynn McGrath, were interested to join her research team. They attended a meeting and this was the initial problem to solve. Their respective interpretations of the problem were displayed on the poster they presented. Those who stopped at their poster on Thursday were asked to try and solve the puzzle. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Mary Boyd and Chemistry Professor David De Haan (pictured, right, with the students) were among those who attempted it.

Upon realizing that it wasn’t possible, that’s when not only a spark of knowledge arrived, but also curiosity and a desire to research it more took hold.

“I think doing this research and working with other people on it really makes me appreciate how many different options there are in math,” said Santangelo, who hasn’t declared her major but plans to minor in math.

Said Fotion: “We showed on our poster that there are three different proofs and there are so many different ways you can interpret this problem. Based on how Euler presented it and the idea of graph theory, it shows that there’s a ton of math you can do, just in general, using a new idea. You can solve so many problems with it and interpret it in your own way. It’s cool that we can all write our own proof based on how we interpreted one small diagram and can think of it in our own way.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Learn more about all 200 projects at the Undergraduate Research Conference, and visit the UC Exhibit Hall now through April 28 to check out student artwork that was part of the conference.

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