Michelle Kalu
Senior pharmaceutical sciences major Michelle Kalu will be making a poster presentation on her E. coli study at UCI’s Undergraduate Research Symposium this Saturday. Steve Zylius / UCI

A study of rare plants along the California-Mexico coast. A photography series depicting the landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An initiative to promote dementia care in Orange County’s Asian American communities. These are just a few student projects among over 800 that were presented May 19 at this year’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, a daylong showcase of undergraduate research in the UCI Student Center featuring every discipline on campus, from contemporary dance to computer science.

More than 1,200 students and 460 faculty mentors presented at the 25th annual event, either orally or via poster. Each has spent at least a year on research, and some have devoted all four undergraduate years to their projects. Said Shokair, founding director of UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which sponsors the symposium, says that this kind of sustained, independent learning lets participants “explore their interests, fail productively, cross disciplines and become thinkers rather than robots.”

One group of biomedical engineering students will exhibit a technology they developed to keep chronic wounds oxygenated through “nanobubbles” that can speed healing time and decrease chances of infection. The project was challenging and full of setbacks, says senior Lauren Lastra, but her team persisted and finally produced the “impactful” apparatus.

“This research gave us the chance to see what steps go into building a medical device,” she says. “We’re excited to showcase our progress from a minimally viable product to an actual working prototype.”

In addition to logistical support, UROP provides grants to many students who request them, often covering materials, travel or research costs. For dance choreography major Radhanath Thialan, the funding subsidized a journey last fall to Shanghai, where he designed and performed a piece about pollution in China. During the trip, Thialan made professional connections, engaged in interdisciplinary environmental studies and found ideas for more dance projects; he will present two of them as films at the symposium.

“UROP allowed me to dive deeper into the arts,” he says. “In Shanghai, I was exposed to different living conditions, cultures and people, which inspired me as a choreographer working to exchange such knowledge.”

Jonathan Agena, an Asian American studies major, says that UROP gave him the means to explore racial inequality in superhero films, a deep interest of his. Collaborating with the head of his department, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, instilled in him the confidence to present part of his research last summer in Massachusetts at the Southeast Asian American Studies Conference – the first time he’d done so to a scholarly audience. An aspiring professor, Agena hopes that those who read his full paper at the Undergraduate Research Symposium will “feel inspired to change their entire outlook on race, superheroes and Hollywood.”

Shokair, who has seen the symposium grow from a handful of students in 1995 to the major annual affair it is now, looks forward to watching hundreds of students on Saturday exhibit projects years in the making. Free and open to the public, the event will culminate with an awards ceremony.

“For our UROP participants, this has been about enjoying the research process as much as the results,” Shokair says, “but we’re still very excited about putting those results on display and showcasing why the breadth and quality of undergraduate research at UCI is among the best in the country.”