A Celebration of Research

April 21, 2014
Amanda Nagy
student and professor posing in a laboratory
Photo credit: Dale Preston

Undergraduate research takes many different forms at Oberlin. It all starts with a question, an intellectual pursuit, cultivated by rigorous academics and faculty-mentored studies. It develops in the science lab, the art studio, a conservatory practice room, and everywhere in between. Oberlin students achieve a level of scholarly work that rivals the opportunities at some graduate institutions.

From experimenting with novel methods to test for an ovarian cancer marker; reading the entire two volumes of Don Quixote and researching the novel’s influence on western classical music; examining the politics of respectability in African American women’s struggles; and coauthoring a paper on word aversion, research discoveries abound throughout nearly every discipline in the college and conservatory.

The annual senior symposium demonstrates the breadth of scholarly and artistic achievements of the graduating class. This year’s program features 50 seniors who will present their independent and collaborative work to the college and community. The symposium consists of concurrent panels in which each student delivers a 12-minute presentation.

“One aim of an Oberlin education is to help students develop the skills and the confidence to pursue something big, be it a research question, an artistic interpretation of an existing work, or the creation of something new,” says Randal Doane, assistant dean of studies. “This event celebrates that process and the fruits of their labors, and it allows first-years and sophomores to see what’s possible, to recognize where different majors may lead them.”

The symposium allows students to share their engagement with these ideas, as well as the evidence they’ve gathered, and to do so in a way that is understandable to a broad audience.

Several of this year’s presenters described the work that went into their research projects and offered their perspective on the Oberlin experience.

“Moist” is the word

You step outside on a humid summer day. The air is moist. “Moist” — that’s a word that makes some people recoil. But why? Paul Thibodeau, assistant professor of psychology, and fourth-year psychology major Chris Bromberg have been studying the phenomenon of word aversion. The goal of the research is to find out what proportion of the population is word averse, and what specific factors make people shudder at the word.

“We want to know why people say they’re word averse,” says Bromberg, who is from Plainsboro, New Jersey. “We’ve found that sound and connotation play a role.” Contextual differences can invoke a positive or negative effect on reactions. For instance, when the word “moist” is presented in relation to “cake,” respondents are much more likely to have a positive reaction.

For the past year, Bromberg has been measuring response data from lab experiments, which employs Oberlin students as participants in addition to larger population samples. Thibodeau’s lab is also measuring response time, and future work may test to see if word aversion can be induced in the lab.

Thibodeau and Bromberg are coauthors of a paper, titled “An Exploratory Investigation of Word Aversion,” which will be presented at the CogSci 2014 conference.

Bromberg says he plans to pursue a PhD in cognitive or social psychology. He’s interested in positive psychology, an emerging branch that examines how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. “Psychology covers the entirety of human behavior, but the field has traditionally focused on dysfunction, such as mental illness or other disorder,” Bromberg says. “There is a dearth of neutral or positive psychology. Instead of just looking at aggression in kids, positive psychology studies growth and resilience.”

Hitting the high notes

Nicole Nance first discovered Oberlin when reading one of her favorite novels, Beloved by Toni Morrison. Morrison has strong connections to the campus and community — she grew up in nearby Lorain, Ohio; the college is home to the Toni Morrison Society, and Oberlin is one of the society’s “Bench by the Road” sites for its role in the Underground Railroad.

A soprano who has been singing in choirs since childhood, Nance has been taking vocal performance lessons while fulfilling her English degree. While she has developed an even deeper appreciation for Morrison, having met with her several times during the author’s visits to campus, she drew inspiration from journalist Ida B. Wells as the starting point for her honors project in English. Nance has been studying respectability politics—the act of adhering to higher moral standards and cultural codes to earn approval—and how black female self-representation has adapted to different eras.

She studied three works: Crusade for Justice by Ida B. Wells, Quicksand by Nella Larson, and Tar Baby by Toni Morrison to find differing statuses of respectability politics. “Ida B. Wells was very interested in the public versus the self,” says Nance. “Her reputation allowed her to become a crusader for justice.”

Nance argues that the practice of respectability politics can be a useful tool when used consciously. “It’s only when a person has the ability to separate the self that uses respectability politics from the internal self. You have to be conscious that you’re using it rather than going through life trying to meet the demands, otherwise it becomes a burden, and you’ll be crushed by it.”

It’s no coincidence that Nance’s research is interdisciplinary. She has taken courses in Caribbean literature, Africana studies, and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies (GSFS). “I have a lot of experience with GSFS without being a major or having a concentration,” she says. “That’s one of the things I appreciate most about Oberlin. There are so many different ways you can go with your major.”

Last year, Nance spent the fall semester at the Newbury Seminar in Humanities in Chicago, a research-intensive program that culminates in a paper. The following semester, she studied literature at King’s College in London. A Chicago native, she intends to pursue a career in entertainment law so she can be an advocate for fine and professional arts, and she plans to take the LSAT in September.

A bold and brilliant innovation

When an experiment fails, the student researchers in Associate Chemistry Professor Rebecca Whelan’s lab analyze the issues step by step to improve. “It really feels like graduate-level research,” says Brian Uhm ’14.

Research in Whelan’s lab focuses on detecting ovarian cancer biomarkers. Uhm is one of five students conducting research for Whelan, whose work is supported by the National Cancer Institute. For Uhm, a chemistry and biochemistry double major on a pre-med track, the opportunity is an ideal fit.

Ovarian cancer biomarker CA125 is widely used to diagnose and monitor ovarian cancer. Uhm has been instrumental in developing a novel method, called One-Pot SELEX, to select nucleic acid aptamers (also known as affinity probes) for the ovarian cancer biomarker CA125. “Different variants of this research project have been on the agenda in my lab for several years, but the complex experimental methods required (involving protein biochemistry, molecular biology, and analytical chemistry) are difficult to master,” says Whelan. “Added to this challenge is the difficulty of CA125 itself, a large and sticky protein that engages in nonspecific binding to most surfaces, making manipulation and quantitative analysis difficult.”

Whelan says Uhm made a “bold and brilliant methodological innovation” that effectively turned the most challenging thing about CA125—its tendency to adsorb—into a strength. He also optimized the DNA amplification and single-stranding methods required in the aptamer selection process.

Uhm has worked in Whelan’s lab continuously since fall 2012, including summer 2013 and during the 2014 winter term. “I consider myself extremely lucky that I was able to recruit him to the lab and retain him for this duration of time. Brian is one of the most skilled, directed, and focused research students I have worked with during my nine years on the faculty at Oberlin. I expect that his honors thesis will serve as the nucleus of a published report—with Brian as first author—within the year.”

Uhm says he admires the strong support and collaboration in the lab. “It’s remarkable how you can do intensive research at a small, liberal arts college. It makes me glad I came to Oberlin.”

When he’s not in the lab, Uhm, who is from suburban Chicago, is a member of the Oberlin Korean Student Association, and he has worked as a DJ at WOBC.

Don Quixote’s greatest hits

Julia Connor says she wrote the thesis statement for her honors project on a whim, not fully expecting her idea to be accepted. Her advisors saw the potential, and over the summer she immersed herself in reading El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, more commonly known as Don Quixote, in Spanish.

A double-degree student majoring in Hispanic studies and violin performance, Connor’s project explores why the novel has for so long served as a source of inspiration for Western classical composers. She analyzed the way in which Don Quixote was interpreted in Western European countries, and how the novel influenced music composed there from the time it was published in the early 17th century to the early 19th century.

She found at least 300 works written about or inspired by Don Quixote. “In England and Germany, the music parallels the reception to the literature,” says Connor, who will also have a minor in historical performance. “It was initially made fun of when translated into theater and opera. But those countries gradually started to recognize the satire. When the romantic era hit, Don Quixote became a figurehead. He evolved from a buffoon into a God-like figure in Western countries.”

One reason the novel’s popularity has prevailed is that each generation finds something about the stories to love and grasp onto, Connors says. Although she had previously read the more famous parts of Don Quixote, Connor found the Spanish novel to be very challenging. “It’s definitely a masterpiece, even though it rambles a lot.”

Connor, who is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, began playing violin at age 10, and she has been playing piano since she was 7. She also dances occasionally at Ohio Dance Theater. Being a double-degree student means time is scarce, but she makes a point of finding time to socialize. “You never know if your classmates will be your colleagues later.” She is applying to graduate programs for violin performance.

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