Donors Support New Undergraduate Research

By Tara Kyle, Office of Development Communications Posted Mon, 08/17/2015 - 16:03

This summer, Zachary Raha ’16 is examining the properties of a distant supernova, aiding in a search for answers that may help support humanity’s understanding of the shape and geometry of the universe. Senior Emma Weinberger is turning her intellect to the human mind, analyzing how foresight and hindsight impact surprise and, subsequently, information retention.

Both students are getting this chance with help from the new Undergraduate Student Research Fund, thanks to the gift of a University of San Francisco donor. The fund currently supports four outstanding students in the College of Arts and Sciences as they engage in summer research projects that will build not only a deeper knowledge of their chosen disciplines, but also critical skills in communication, independent thinking, creativity, and problem-solving.

As different as Zachary’s and Emma’s projects are, they reflect the College of Arts and Sciences’ support of a diverse mix of research interests. Other students awarded grants from the research fund are investigating topics in Latin American studies, the performing arts, and social justice. While many USF students conduct research with faculty, the new fund is the first entirely donor-funded initiative exclusively for student research.

“These research grants encourage students in all disciplines to follow their aspirations and develop the skills needed to succeed after graduation,” says Marcelo Camperi, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “They go from being students to being scholars, and that’s what people on the outside are looking for, regardless of what the next step is when they leave USF."

The Power of Education

USF Trustee Timothy Kochis and his wife Penelope Wong made a gift to the research fund because of Kochis’ appreciation for his own liberal arts education. Before going on to business and law school, Kochis was a double major in philosophy and sociology.

“I had the luxury to experience a broad, humanistic education, and through that I was exposed more broadly to the capability that people have to make their own lives better, but also to improve other people’s lives,” Kochis says. “I hope that the students get that sense of intellectual and psychic gratification that comes from studying something in greater depth.”

Emma is spending the summer performing quality testing on every aspect of her project, so that the methodology will be perfected in time for a final experiment with USF students this fall. Existing studies have looked separately at how foresight and hindsight impact surprise, and how surprise effects information retention. Emma’s project extends that research by looking at the relationships among all four phenomena. Ultimately, she hopes this work will improve our understanding of how people learn — and that those lessons can help teachers in the classroom.

Changing the World

Zachary shares Emma’s sense of social responsibility. He is passionate about communicating about science. He would like to teach, helping others who might find science intimidating. He also plans to pursue an advanced degree in physics.

His research this summer will help him get there. Last year, Zachary began assisting faculty member Xiaosheng Huang on his research as a part of the Supernova Factory, an international collaboration at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“It really speaks to how individualized our physics program is,” says Zachary, who is on track to graduate from USF in three years. “Here, my exceptionalism was recognized, and I’m really grateful.”

Zachary is helping Dr. Huang chart the distance between Earth and one supernova, known as SN 2012cu. The study of supernovae fueled one of modern cosmology’s biggest advances — the discovery that the universe is not just expanding, but doing so at an accelerating rate. Growing our knowledge of the properties of these exploding stars remains critical to scientists’ understanding of the universe as a whole.

“Right now, the pressure is on to release a paper. That’s exciting and stressful,” Zachary says. “I would like to thank the donors for believing in me.”

Gifts from donors create opportunity in the classroom and in the laboratory. Find out more