Students reflect on summer research during the pandemic

Plants growing in pots are lined up in rows.
(Midway though the summer, some students were able to move on campus for in-person research. Courtesy: Anna Reitman)

Student-conducted research looked very different this past summer at the 5Cs. The COVID-19 pandemic showed the variety of ways research can adapt and continue with added restraints.

While many students adapted their research to work remotely, a select number were allowed on campus to use facilities under the mentorship of a professor.

Ulysses Sofia, dean of the Keck Science Department, noted the drastic improvement of research opportunities in comparison to last summer. “There was a loss of many hands-on experiences for students, and gathering of new data for faculty,” Sofia said via email. “For the summer of 2021, we were nearly back to normal.”

Pieter van Wingerden CM ’24 researched remotely through the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies on the June 2020 Hong Kong national security law’s effects on Hong Kong’s democratic autonomy relative to mainland China and the “one country, two systems” policy.

Van Wingerden interviewed those both pro-Hong Kong and pro-Beijing — journalists, academics, activists and others involved in the Hong Kong political scene. However, he still struggled with finding people willing to talk about a subject so contentious with so much at stake.

“I found a lot of the activists in Hong Kong were very hesitant to speak with me because this is an ongoing situation,” van Wingeden said.

Despite the drawbacks of travel and gathering restrictions, van Wingerden found digital accessibility beneficial to his research practices.

“In a way, it was a blessing in disguise because I was able to interview people who weren’t in the same location as me — so there are a couple of sinologists who were in New York, or journalists who work overseas that I was able to speak with on Zoom,” van Wingerden said. 

“In a way, it was a blessing in disguise because I was able to interview people who weren’t in the same location as me — so there are a couple of sinologists who were in New York, or journalists who work overseas that I was able to speak with on Zoom.” —Pieter van Wingerden CM ’24

While many lab-based research projects were forced to focus on computational work due to gathering restrictions, Mihira Sogal HM ’23 sought an opportunity to explore problems with computer modeling through the TECBio program at the University of Pittsburgh. He worked on a protein called the nuclear pore complex, the main molecular cargo channel between the nucleus and the cytoplasm of the cell.

“We’re interested in studying its action, because its transport is very fast, and also highly selective and energy-efficient, and typically those three characteristics come at the expense of one another,” Sogal said. Understanding of the protein could eventually lead to the design of medical devices using synthetic membranes and pores.

He used molecular dynamics computer simulations to model the complex protein system, which cannot be easily investigated through wet lab techniques due to its continuously changing configuration. However, labs still bring value to computational work.

“Mostly what I missed out on was the opportunity to really be in the lab environment, and get to be around other student researchers for the entire summer,” Sogal said.

Sam Malik PO ’24 was one of the lucky few who moved onto campus in the middle of his 10-week research period, once Pomona opened for in-person research.

“Research is always better with people there because there were times where I was completely stuck,” Malik said. “If there was someone there, then it would have increased productivity in a sense.”

Malik worked with computer science professor Eleanor Birrell and five other students. The group investigated the relationship between cybersecurity and a behavioral economic theory regarding the perception of potential losses versus gains called prospect theory.

“We were trying to convince people to make better choices online, using nudging techniques instead of forcing them to use a strong password, for example,” Malik said. “We dove into how we can do that with password managers and browser cookies.”

In the digital surveillance age, it is increasingly important to ensure the privacy of one’s data. Malik helped build an interface for users to interact with and analyzed the resulting data.

“I feel there’s a lot of misconception about computer science research,” Malik said. “Coding is definitely one aspect of it. But what I did was largely empirical, involving more statistics and how we can use our computer science knowledge to better people.”

Anna Reitman SC ’23 also got to work on campus daily, living in off-campus housing after receiving the Scripps College Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Environmental Analysis. She contributed to an ongoing study overseen by biology professor Findley Finseth on the genetic basis of petal cell shape, which plays an important role in pollination. 

Reitman performed a combination of lab microscope imaging and greenhouse botanical work on monkey flowers, crossing two species, Erythranthe parishii and Erythranthe cardinalis, to create a hybrid known as a recombinant inbred line that contains an entirely homozygous genome.

“You could grow the same plant over and over and know you’re getting the same genome every time,” Reitman said. “They’re really powerful for genetics because we can scan the genome and pick up genes that maybe would have been hidden.”

With fewer students on campus and only one other student working in her lab at the time, Reitman received more time to directly interact with her professor — a personal relationship that is not as easily fostered virtually or in large lab groups.

“It was nice to know that I had a lot of support if I needed it,” Reitman said. “I really liked my professor, because she also allowed me to be independent if I wanted to.”

Cutting-edge research is usually not clean-cut. For the pandemic, Reitman formulated a COVID-19 contingency plan with her advisor in the event they were not allowed on campus. At the end of the day remains the assurance that discovery takes time, flexibility and patience.

“I don’t get to see the fruition of my project immediately,” Reitman said. “But I know I’m contributing to this larger effort that a lot of past students have done, and future students are going to do. I think it’s really cool that we’re all working together to build this final project product.”

The student researchers encourage all 5C students to seek out research opportunities.

“We have very well-connected faculty that are able to find opportunities and help you get into them,” Sogal said. “I think all of these resources are underutilized here.” 

There are innumerable ways to get involved with research across fields, topics and practices in your areas of interest. Applications for summer research grants, fellowships and programs are available at each of the 5Cs, with applications due in early spring. 

If you are a 5C student looking to learn more about summer research opportunities, visit your college’s website for more information.

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