All walks of academic life explored at research symposium

Miki Johnson

Northwestern students strutted their academic stuff Monday at the university’s first annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, which provided a forum for research on topics from acoustic microscopes to pore distribution in the eye.

The symposium encouraged more than 200 undergraduates to present their work through posters, performances and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.

The day’s opening ceremony featured a keynote address by chemistry Prof. John Pople, a Nobel laureate who serves on the Board of Trustees.

Pople addressed the “joys and pains” of research, pointing out that the findings of many famous scientists, such as Charles Darwin, were originally scorned. “Often the community does not welcome new truths,” Pople said.

Pople also suggested that researchers should address broad issues instead of focusing on minute problems and should foster skeptical attitudes.

“I think it’s healthy,” Pople said, “if students at any level believe what their teachers say may not be the last word.”

After his speech, a few students gave presentations in the small rooms on the Norris University Center’s second floor. Most of the symposium’s 185 projects were presented on posters in the Louis Room.

The projects were presented from areas including the natural and social sciences, engineering and the humanities But many presentations tackled problems in biology, computer science and electrical engineering — and some addressed several fields simultaneously.

McCormick senior Joseph Zadeh has worked with a biology graduate student for more than a year to develop computer software that duplicates protein sequences, possibly for use in drug design.

“I’ve always thought of DNA as nature’s computing material,” Zadeh said. “So I have always seen a connection there.”

Zadeh said the research helped him decide to attend graduate school, where he hopes to continue applying his background in computers to the biology field.

Mixed in with the presentations on nanotubes and computer chips, however, were a few posters like one designed by McCormick sophomore Laura Pigion.

Pigion, an environmental-engineering student, received a grant from Ford Motor Co. to help research wetlands earlier this year. She said her research has helped her learn lab skills and make connections in the department.

This summer Pigion will continue her research on periphyton, a layer of algae and micro-organisms that filters out pollution in the wetlands. Her research focuses on finding the most efficient design for a type of mesh that encourages periphyton growth when placed in the lower layers of wetlands.

“We are going to have to find alternative ways to deal with pollution if we are going to continue on the path we are on now,” Pigion said.

One in six research presentations received small awards from a multi-department panel of judges, said Karen Mason, an Evanston nurse who volunteered at the symposium.

But McCormick senior David Parkinson said getting ready for the symposium was its own reward.

Parkinson said preparing his presentation forced him to compile all his present research on carbon nanotubes and decide how to proceed with his project.

“Plus, I just love being able to apply whatever I am learning,” Parkinson said.

The Daily’s Lindsay Sakraida contributed to this report.