Staying for the summer: Undergraduate Research Center provides students and faculty with summer research opportunities

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JP Flores (junior) discusses his experience with Occidental’s Summer Research Program outside the library at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Thursday, Sept. 12. 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

While most of the student body leaves campus after finishing spring semester finals, a handful stay on or near campus as part of the Undergraduate Research Center’s (URC) Summer Research Program. This past summer, the URC hosted 111 students who worked closely with 64 mentors on topics ranging from cancer outreach in LA to the role of fashion in hip hop culture.

In 1998, the URC summer program began as a primarily STEM-focused research experience with 35 students and 26 faculty mentors and has grown to be one of Occidental’s major research opportunities for students in all departments.

Undergraduate Research Center (URC) Director Janet Morris discusses the success of Occidental’s Summer Research Program in the URC office at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Thursday, Sept. 12. 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

According to Director of Undergraduate Research Janet Morris ’87, there is no typical experience for a student conducting summer research.

“The Summer Research Program is only average in that everyone is at Occidental for a full ten weeks, they all work with a faculty mentor and they primarily all stay on campus to conduct their research. Beyond that, because the program is open to all disciplines, someone doing research in the humanities will probably have a very different experience than someone doing hard science in a lab,” Morris said.

For instance, Cassie Carter (senior), a UEP major, spent her time researching how investing in the upcoming Olympic Games can leave a lasting, positive impact on LA.

“The objective of my project was to look at how the 1932 and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics housed athletes, and if the 2028 Games could be an opportunity to increase the affordable housing supply in Los Angeles through the development of a new Olympic Village intended to be converted to affordable housing units after the Games end,” Carter said. “A typical day for me involved doing independent research in the library, meeting with my mentor Professor Kelema Moses or visiting the LA84 Foundation Olympic Library.”

While Carter’s days were primarily spent researching in the library or working off-campus, JP Flores (junior) had an entirely different experience researching fish-hunting cone snail venom and possible medical applications of it.

“A typical day was kind of like my days at Oxy during the school year except instead of going to classes I was just doing research in the lab with my mentor,” Flores said. “He was always there for me and was very patient with me even though I initially thought I was too incompetent to be in a research lab. He really took the time to make sure I knew everything and that I was also in a good mental state as well.”

One of the most important parts of the URC Summer Research Program is the relationship between mentors and mentees, according to Andrew Shtulman, current Chair of the Research Program Selection Committee.

“The way the committee thinks about it is funding a unit, a mentormentee relationship,” Shtulman said. “The best student projects are the ones where they know their faculty member, have worked out the details of their project in advance, and the chances of success seem to be high.”

Morris echoed the importance of student relationships with faculty, especially regarding those who are interested in applying to the URC’s summer program in the future.

“Students that are interested in any of our programs need to get to know faculty members because all of our programs require a letter of recommendation or some kind of support,” Morris said. “If you want to do summer research specifically you have to have a faculty member who is willing to be on campus and physically work with you.”

Another priority of those involved in the student selection process for the summer is that the program remains open to everyone of all majors and classes, something that makes this program unique to a small liberal arts school like Occidental. While summer research opportunities at other institutions are primarily offered to students working in the sciences, Occidental provides research opportunities for all fields of study.

“Something the committee tries to maximize is the diversity of the kinds of research that is happening,” Shtulman said. “The summer program actually began with just the sciences and then expanded to include other disciplines, including the humanities.”

Morris also applauded the academic diversity of research topics within the program.

“We have a very broad definition of research because we want to give this intensive opportunity to as many people as we can,” Morris said. “Oxy was one of the first liberal arts schools to expand summer research beyond STEM fields. Other schools have wanted to come see our program and what we’re doing here, which is very gratifying.”

The URC also provides other resources to students beyond just the Summer Research Program. The Academic Student Projects (ASP) program provides smaller grants of up to 300 dollars for student research conducted during the academic year. The URC also provides support for students who want to present their research at conferences by paying for lodging and travel up to a certain amount. For instance, Flores plans on applying for finances to support his lab group.

“I will definitely continue using the resources at the URC. My lab is actually going to another conference in January in Austin, Texas and we are planning on applying for URC funds,” said Flores. “I also want to participate in the Summer Research Program next summer and plan on applying again.”

This article was updated at 12:01 p.m. with Professor Shtulman’s correct title as current chair of the Research Program Selection Committee.