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Undergraduate research is celebrated: egg white myths, 'gaydar' and malaria and the catalpa tree

"The process of doing research ... makes you feel part of the larger Cornell community," said Sharon Avgush '10, a biology and society major, at the 24th annual Cornell Undergraduate Research Board spring forum April 15. She is one of the nearly 3,000 undergraduate students who participate in original research at Cornell every year.

Members of the Cornell community crowded Duffield atrium to celebrate many of these undergraduate researchers. Students gave poster and oral presentations on their research, which ranged from culinary myths of egg whites, "gaydar" (sensing if another person is gay) and judging sexual orientation, to the theory of children's picture books and emotional influences on gambling.

Avgush, for example, examined bark and leaf material from the catalpa tree, which contains quinine, to see if any compounds would be effective to treat malaria. She is working with plant biologist and senior research associate Manuel Aregullin to look "for natural products that can be used against malaria, using Native American folk medicine as a guide," she explained.

In the class Strategies and Drug Discovery, Avgush had learned that most Western medicines can be traced to natural compounds. Avgush hopes the quinine compounds may prove to be a cost-effective malaria treatment and help combat drug resistance that has arisen from current anti-malarial agents.

Many students, including Elizabeth Hartmann '09, presented projects they completed for their honors theses. Working with Sharon Sassler, associate professor of policy analysis and management, Hartmann studied relationships in low-income couples. She found that family background and where couples meet can be significant in how quickly couples decide to have sex or move in together. Planning to pursue a career in policy research, Hartmann will present her research at the American Sociological Association with Sassler this August.

Such programs as the Hughes Scholars and the Rawlings Cornell Presidential Research Scholars support many undergraduate researchers. Jamie Feigenbaum '09, for example, said that the Rawlings research program, which gave her research funding for her four years here, was an influential factor in her decision to come to Cornell. Working with Joseph Mikels, assistant professor of human development, Feigenbaum investigated differences in the memories of younger and older adults when exposed to emotionally positive, negative or neutral words. One of the biggest differences Feigenbaum discovered was the older group falsely remembered more positive words than the younger group.

"[This] relates back to the literature, which finds that older adults tend to focus mostly on positive information," said Feigenbaum at a special recognition dinner of Rawlings presidential scholars April 16 in the Biotechnology Building. "They have better emotion regulation than [younger people] do, and they can honestly focus more on the positive."

Undergraduate research was also recognized April 24 at the release party for the spring issue of The Research Paper in the lobby of Mann Library. The magazine features undergraduate research projects from across campus.

According to the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, undergraduates across all seven undergraduate colleges participate in research, with nearly all students in the physical and life sciences and engineering taking part in an undergraduate research experience before graduation. According to exit interviews of graduating seniors, such experiences rank highest among their college academic experiences.

Laura Janka '09 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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Blaine Friedlander