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Graduate Symposium showcases USC’s top student research

Sarah Pratt, vice provost for graduate programs and professor of Russian, congratulates Patrick Beck from the USC Davis School of Gerontology. (Photo/Lillian Insalata)
Sarah Pratt, vice provost for graduate programs and professor of Russian, congratulates Patrick Beck from the USC Davis School of Gerontology. (Photo/Lillian Insalata)

What do dark matter, microbial fossils, a South African rapper and Pompeii have in common? They were all research subjects at the fifth annual USC Graduate Research Symposium held on April 2 in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Grand Ballroom.

Hosted by the USC Graduate Student Government (GSG), the symposium presented top research produced by USC graduate students.

This year’s event went digital, with each student giving a five-minute talk accompanied by a single PowerPoint slide. The presentations were judged by faculty panels, and the top three students in STEM disciplines (sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics) and the top three students in the social sciences, arts and humanities were awarded cash prizes.

Congratulating the students, Michael Quick, executive vice provost and professor of biological sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said: “It’s really wonderful that you all took the time and effort to participate in this symposium. The more we can communicate our science, the more we can talk to our colleagues and to the general population about the work that we do.”

In the morning, 19 STEM students presented their research. Shili Xu, a PhD candidate from the USC School of Pharmacy, won the $1,500 first prize for “Discovery of a Novel Irreversible PDI Inhibitor for Ovarian Cancer Treatment.”

PDI, or protein disulfide isomerase, is an enzyme that catalyzes protein folding, which is “essential for tumor progression,” Xu explained. “Tumor cells proliferate and grow very fast, so they need to produce a lot of proteins.”

The new PDI-inhibiting drug, which has been tested on lab mice, shows promise for treating drug-resistant ovarian cancer and possibly other types of cancer as well.

The second-place STEM prize of $1,000 went to Curtis Lee, a PhD candidate from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering for “The Parylene Sheath Electrode.” Sometimes, the control signals leaving a person’s brain do not reach their target organs, such as the legs or the mouth. The Parylene Sheath Electrode can be implanted into the brains of people with these neurological disorders, enabling them to overcome impairments.

Morgan Canon Levine, a PhD candidate from the USC Davis School of Gerontology, secured the $500 third-place STEM prize for “Not All Smokers Die Young: A Model for Hidden Heterogeneity Within the Human Population.” Even though her research showed that certain people are resilient to some of the negative health impacts of smoking, she emphasized that she doesn’t “suggest anyone test whether they’re in that group.”

The panel of faculty judges featured Gregor Adams from the Keck School of Medicine of USC; Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati from the Keck School and USC Dornsife’s Department of Sociology; and Geoffrey Spedding, Geza Bottlik and Paul Ronney from USC Viterbi.

In the afternoon, 20 social sciences, arts and humanities students presented their research.

Sarah Pratt, vice provost for graduate programs and professor of Russian at USC Dornsife, thanked the students for participating in the symposium to cultivate their “professional aplomb and professional know-how as well as the ability to present themselves with confidence and be articulate about their work.”

The $1,500 first prize went to Patrick Beck, a PhD candidate from USC Davis, for “What Factors Influence Insurance Policyholders to Make Universal Design Modifications Following a Major Claim?”

Working with a major insurance company, Beck provided homeowners who had experienced a major loss in their home with information about Universal Design. Many of the older homeowners incorporated Universal Design features, such as ramps and grab bars, into their homes to make the environment less inhibitive.

“This is how we can house the aging population,” he said.

Susan Geffen, a PhD candidate from USC Dornsife’s Department of Psychology, won the $1,000 second prize for “When and How Infants Distinguish Between Statements and Questions.”

“By mapping these abilities in typically developing infants, this could help us develop a measure for assessing individual differences in language acquisition abilities in infants at risk for language impairments and disorders like autism,” she said.

Emily Gee, a master’s student in strategic public relations at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, earned the $500 third prize for “Engaging or Enraging: Political Talk on Facebook.”

Gee warned that Facebook “could have detrimental effects on the way that public opinion and politics are discussed in the future because the way that the platform is set up leaves little room for people who are undecided or in the middle.”

The panel of faculty judges included Charles Kaplan from the USC School of Social Work; David Sloane from the USC Price School of Public Policy; Doe Mayer from the USC School of Cinematic Arts and USC Annenberg; and Christelle Fischer-Bovet from the Department of Classics, Ann Marie Yasin from the departments of classics and art history, and Leo Braudy from the departments of history and English at USC Dornsife.

The symposium awarded fellowships totaling $6,000, contributed by the USC Graduate School, the Keck School, USC Annenberg, USC Dornsife, USC Social Work, USC Viterbi, USC Pharmacy and the USC Marshall School of Business.

“We had a huge involvement from international students, and an immense diversity in terms of the schools represented and the types of research,” said Tori Pinto, GSG’s director of academic affairs. “But more than anything, it’s just a really nice snapshot of the caliber of the research that graduate students are doing here at USC.”

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