Passing by Stover Walk two weeks ago, Pomona College pedestrians may have been surprised to see 151 posters lined up and almost 200 students milling about. Posters such as “Do Photons Exist?” or “The Sociology of Senegalese Hair Braiders in NYC” were among the wide range of subjects, from the basic sciences to the humanities and interdisciplinary studies.
All of the posters were the result of in-depth research conducted through Pomona’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and were showcased at the 24th annual Poster Conference on Tuesday, Sept. 1. This summer, 60 percent of the applicants were awarded research grants and almost all recipients stayed on campus for ten weeks during the summer. Some received a SURP fellowship, embarking upon independent research under a faculty member’s guidance. Others were research assistants, working in close collaboration with a faculty member.
The diversity of departments represented at the Conference is a relatively new development. SURP was conducted exclusively in the sciences when students started doing summer research in the 1960s. Since its official opening in the 1980s and particularly over the last six years, both the number of departments involved and the program itself have expanded. Still, the program remains predominantly based in the sciences.
This summer, over half the projects were conducted through science departments, with approximately 120 out of 190 students doing research in the fields of biology, biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, cognitive science, geology, mathematics, neuroscience, or physics. The social sciences made up just over a quarter of the projects, while only 14 projects were undertaken in the humanities. The remaining seven posters presented research in interdisciplinary subjects.
SURP offers an uncommon opportunity that provides numerous benefits, according to Professor of Biology Jonathan Wright, who organized the program.
“We can set our students on an exceptionally good footing for grad school, both in terms of training and preparation and having them already well informed about what research is like,” Wright said.
Meredith Course PO ’12, a neuroscience major who has conducted research through SURP for the past three summers, agreed.
“[Graduate schools] are most interested in your research experience,” Course said. “I can apply to grad school right now, start in, already published, already having experience in the more professional world.” She added, “It obviously puts us all at an advantage.”
Wright outlined other perks: “It gives students a flavor of what it’s like to do research, it shows students how knowledge is gained, [and] it makes students more critical about interpreting the material they read about or learn in class.” He also mentioned that SURP projects can be extremely useful for senior theses, because students have a foundation in place and don’t spend half the time “seeing if it’s really a viable project.”
Course, who conducted her research in neuroscience, finds the program extremely convenient.
“It’s neat that the school has set up a program in which it’s so easy to get the kind of research experience you need and the money you also need,” she said, adding that she would be working a service job if not for the program. But she’s not the only one. “Most of the people here need to have jobs over the summer,” she added, “and obviously spending your summer doing something productive is a lot better.”
Amina Simmons PO ’12 is one student whose summer research has become her senior thesis. Her project about the cultural maintenance of black students at predominantly white institutions grew out of a personal passion. She interviewed students from colleges across the country about their experiences and is working on a survey that she will send out in October. She said the purpose of her research is to look at how black students cope in predominantly white institutions, and to take those findings to the institutional level.
One conclusion, for example, could be ensuring that there is a black student resource center on every campus as a support for students, Simmons said. She had been discussing with friends how to cope with difficult times as a black student at Pomona, when she found she could combine her personal experiences with her SURP project. “I’m a psych major. They’re going to make me do research. I might as well do something I’m passionate about,” Simmons explained.
Not everyone, however, was as pleased with the program. One student who wished to remain anonymous was disappointed with the lack of professor involvement. “…back and forth emailing is essential for student intellectual stimulation, especially in the case of a humanities SURP as a lot seems vague at the start if not much course work has been done in the field” he said.
Still, many students maintain that the program was an invaluable and rewarding experience. “They have the money to fund what you’re passionate about,” Simmons said. “If you ever get a chance, I really recommend you do it.”