Undergraduate Research

Sophia Zandi '21

OUR Featured Researcher: Sophia Zandi '21

Portrait of Sophia Zandi
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Sohpia Zandi (she/her) is an Oberlin College Research Fellow (OCRF) majoring in Comparative Literature and Environmental Studies. She conducts mentored research under Professor Stiliana Milkova. Her project is titled "The Myth of Nature: Ecological Fertility in Literary Adaptations of the Persephone/Demeter Myth". 

Please describe your project: 

Just as circles of trees are read for data on the change in climate conditions, myths and their adaptations can be read for the meanings of a naturecultural environment across time. Myths, as communal stories, respond to change in both societal and nonhuman landscapes. The Persephone/Demeter myth is the primary Western cosmogony of agriculture and the seasons. I examine ecological fertility symbols from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and its corresponding rites in two 20th-century adaptations of the myth: Elena Ferrante’s novel Troubling Love and Gwendolyn Brooks’s prose poem “In the Mecca.” A comparative analysis across texts reveals a “nature” which is deeply cultural. Gendered, bodily analogies for ecological production as violent sexual acts have framed the relationship between human and nature as one of abuse. With violent and sexual metaphors etched into ecological narratives, nature is intimately tied to issues of social and reproductive justice.

Why is your research important?

Climate change is one of the most critical issues of our time, and while work in science and politics is super important, not enough attention gets paid to the environment through the lens of humanities, especially literature. I think that finding a “solution” to climate change needs to involve not just new technology and policies, but deeply examination of the human relationship with nature. Humans are deeply narrative creatures, and mythology is a great entry point because myths expand over time while adapting to the specific community, including the ecological environment.

What does a day in the life of your project look like?

In the summer, I would wake up, make breakfast for myself, and start reading at home. I would read a lot of books, and take notes and write. I’d sit in the sun and do the same thing! Then my mentor and I would meet at the coffee shop and exchange ideas. Often in the evenings when hanging out with my peer researchers we’d naturally start talking about our work, and those conversations also informed my ideas.

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I have done presentations and papers. The end goal of this project is publication for me, and I plan on applying to and attending conferences.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to want to seek out research experiences in college?

I’ve always wanted to do research and it’s a large reason why I came to Oberlin (at the time I thought I wanted to go into Astrophysics). I didn’t know that humanities research was a thing, or what Comparative Literature was. But in my freshman year, my current mentor approached me and asked if I would be willing to work as a paid research assistant for her forthcoming book. Since then, I’ve gotten involved in OCRF. 

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project How has it impacted you as a researcher?

My mentor is the U.S expert on one of the books I’m studying and brings a lot of helpful and interesting methodologies, which has been invaluable. It’s also such a unique and powerful experience to have a close, research-based relationship with a professor who you can look up to as a model for the future, and have her support, challenge, and believe in you. 

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?

Before research, I didn’t feel that I had a niche, but it’s given me something that is “my thing,” something that kind of becomes an obsession. It’s really cool to be able to have something academic that is “my work” as an undergraduate student; it also makes my classwork feel much more personal. It’s really made me look into the future and have more concrete ideas about what I’m excited about, curious about, and how to conduct that.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

Don’t listen to whatever imposter feelings you have. Talk to your professors. If you have an idea start fleshing it out as if it were real and it probably will become so. Even if you apply to something and don’t get it, the process of imagining research and articulating it is invaluable for intellectual and professional growth.