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Student research projects develop critical skills—and could change the world.

By Amy Gutmann | Walking around Penn during semester break, in the relative solitude of an early morning in January, provides a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the history of accomplishment and achievement that our campus has witnessed. Passing the Moore Building, the original home of our Department of Electrical Engineering, at 33rd and Walnut streets, I am reminded that it was here, on another winter’s day, in a large undistinguished room with dull walls and open rafters, that the information age and, arguably, the modern era, were born.

Sixty-five years ago, on February 14, 1946, ENIAC, the world’s first general purpose electronic computer—originally intended to perform mathematical calculations for the military—was unveiled. It would have been impossible to imagine, then, the countless ways that ENIAC’s legacy, from laptops and smartphones to medical equipment and navigation systems, would shape our lives and our world in the 21st century. The contributions and difference made by ENIAC are incalculable, and ENIAC was made possible by Penn researchers. 

In the years since ENIAC, the ever-quickening pace and progress of research and innovation at Penn have been extraordinary, as we have become one of the world’s leading research universities. There is also something very distinctive about research activities at Penn, because our undergraduates today not only have unprecedented opportunities to undertake innovative projects with some of the world’s finest faculty, but to also design many of the projects themselves.

Engaging in independent research nurtures our students’ creative, analytical and leadership skills. Laura Boudreau W’10, who was a Wharton Undergraduate Research Scholar, researched risk, development, and poverty with Erwann Michel-Kerjan, director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, and Howard Kunreuther, the Cecilia Yen Koo Professor of Decision Sciences and Public Policy and a co-director of the center. Laura now serves as the disaster risk financing assistant at the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery of the World Bank, which rarely hires anyone with only a bachelor’s degree. She is also a research assistant for the Wharton Risk Center, where she is continuing work that she started as an undergraduate on agricultural insurance for Senegalese farmers as a way to promote food security in a volatile climate, and she is engaged with other innovative risk-management research with her undergraduate mentors.

Laura writes that “my research projects taught me time-management skills, perseverance, and resilience, and my field experiences in Senegal and France challenged me to be highly adaptable and quick thinking. I haven’t found anyone not from Penn who has this kind of outside experience that is driven by your own research interests. I attribute a significant portion of my personal development during my time at Penn to my undergraduate research projects. My current career hinges entirely on my research.”

Besides gaining extraordinary experience, through their research our students are also proving to be the heirs of ENIAC’s legacy; with fabulous faculty mentors, they are increasing knowledge, contributing to the common good, and charting new paths in scholarly inquiry. 

Penn students are helping to increase knowledge.
Penn students are helping to increase knowledge through the interdisciplinary research activities that all of our schools today encourage and facilitate, often in close interschool collaboration. Xiao Qiao EAS’11 W’11 is a student in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology; he is majoring in materials science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and statistics and finance at Wharton. The Fisher program allows students to jointly pursue a degree from each school and to gain insight into how the intersection of business and engineering profoundly affects our modern world; it combines two of Penn’s greatest assets, Penn Engineering and the Wharton School, into one world-class interdisciplinary educational experience, a top priority at Penn that makes our educational experience unique. 

Under Wharton’s Social Impact Research Experience (WSIRE), and the direction of Franklin Allen, the Nippon Life Professor of Economics and Finance, Xiao travelled to China to investigate the Chinese perspective on the global financial crisis. He discovered that one of the most important factors affecting the Chinese economy, as in the United States, is the real estate market, and he is now researching potential problems, government policies, and other aspects of the Chinese real estate market.

Along with the work of our individual schools, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF) supports and guides students from throughout the University who are interested in undertaking research with Penn faculty.

One of the programs CURF administers is the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM), which provides undergraduates with an in-depth research experience under the guidance and direction of a faculty mentor. To give an idea of the breadth and depth of work that PURM supports: Seth Pollack C’13 researched the origin of modern humans in Morocco with anthropology professor Harold Dibble; Amanda Johnson C’12 examined the proverbs of Benjamin Franklin with history professor Michael Zuckerman C’61; and Jeffrey Lee Nu’12 W’12 focused on transitions in healthcare for older adults with cognitive impairment—work he continues, with Mary Naylor, the Marian S. Ware Professor in Gerontology and director of the New Courtland Center for Transitions and Health.

Penn Students are contributing to the common good.

Besides increasing knowledge through their research, Penn students are also contributing to the common good. Michelle Lu Nu’12 W’12 entered Penn as a Wharton student and worked as a research assistant with nursing assistant professor Anne Teitelman, the winner of the 2009 Dean’s Award for Undergraduate Scholarly Mentorship, on a project that examined partner abuse and HIV risk among adolescent females. In Michelle’s words, her research helped her “gain an interdisciplinary understanding between healthcare and economics.” Thanks to that experience, Michelle enrolled in the Nursing and Wharton dual degree program, and is collaborating with Dr. Teitelman on an exploration of economic abuse in serious adolescent dating relationships. Their on-going study, which is now being funded by a PURM grant, aims to address how relationships affect the ability of girls to acquire, use, and maintain economic resources in a lower socioeconomic setting where resources are already scarce.

In another study that is contributing to the common good, Alexandra Crooks C’12 is working under the guidance of Dr. Charles Vite of the School of Veterinary Medicine to study neurological diseases in animal models. The goal is to find a suitable marker for use in biochemical testing that will make it easier to diagnose patients with Niemann-Pick type C disease, a disorder that causes severe neurological degeneration in infants, children, and adults. Her work is being funded through another program administered by CURF, the University Scholars Program, whose focus is aiding undergraduates, financially and otherwise, to conduct in-depth self-directed research.

Another University Scholar, Kristin Hall C’11 W’11, researched how the YouthBank program affects street youth in the Surelere district of Lagos, Nigeria. YouthBank is a small-business incubator designed to connect street youth, ages 15-25, in the urban developing world with the skills, mentors, and resources needed to help them launch their own community businesses. Kristin, who was awarded the Goldman Sachs Global Leader Scholarship, is also one of Penn’s two recently named Marshall Scholars, and she will be pursuing her MSc in economic development at the University of Oxford. She will be joined by fellow University Scholar, GJ Melendez-Torres Nu’11 W’11, a Truman Scholar and Rhodes finalist, who will be studying for his MPhil in evidence-based social intervention.

Penn students are charting new paths in scholarly inquiry.
With support from a College Alumni Society Research Grant and CURF, Rachel Romeo C’11 began research in the summer of 2010 at Penn’s Infant Language Center with assistant professor of psychology Daniel Swingley and at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Childhood Communication with Dr. Eileen Rall on a project designed to help diagnose early hearing impairments and language disorders. 

Rachel is examining the developmental language skills of children who experienced chronic middle-ear infections during the first years of life. These infections, which often do not exhibit any symptoms, frequently cause temporary hearing loss, and if the loss continues over long periods of time in the formative years, the child’s speech and language development may be delayed or distorted, possibly even after the infection is cleared.

To study the children’s comprehension, Rachel used language-guided looking. Rachel describes it as a recent methodology “in which children are shown pairs or sets of pictures; one is named in a sentence (e.g.,‘Where’s the dog?’) and a video recorder tracks the children’s visual fixations. Since eye movements are an automatic, direct reflection of language processing, speech discrimination abilities can be measured by looking at patterns in response to simple mispronunciations (‘Where’s the tog?’) years before the child can reliably respond to more mature language tasks.” 

Rachel is breaking new ground, charting an entirely new path in scholarly inquiry, because this technique has never before been used, anywhere, to study very young children with possible hearing impairments, who might show a deviation in the way they perceive the sounds of words and cognitively process them. The study continues, with Rachel comparing infants with and without a history of infections every three-and-a-half months to see if poor hearing affects the way children learn language throughout childhood. Rachel has already contributed to our understanding of the extent of the challenges and complications that such a nearly undetectable illness can cause. Commenting on her experience, Rachel noted, “It’s one thing to take classes with world renowned faculty, but to actually work side-by-side with mentors like Professor Swingley and Dr. Rall, as an undergraduate … that’s what has taught me that it really is possible to change the face of science.”

The spectrum of student research being undertaken at Penn is truly inspiring. It is impossible to convey fully the range of work in this one article, but just to give you an idea of the scope, other projects have included: Parth Kothari EAS’13’s focus on engineering insulin for oral delivery; Meghna Chandra C’13’s efforts to examine immigrant arts and culture in Philadelphia; Nathan Zeichner EAS’11’s work to help design folding robots; Joshua Black EAS’13’s examination of the mechanisms of pain; and Gregory Cordina EAS’12’s research on using light to treat cancer.

Like the research that led to ENIAC, the research being undertaken by Penn students today will someday open new doors to invention, uncover new ways to address old problems, and lead to a new understanding of ourselves and our world. As we look forward to all that we will accomplish in our Penn community in the coming year, let me offer each of you my best wishes for a New Year filled with health, hope, happiness—and discovery.

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