Undergraduate research showcased in virtual fair for A&S Research Opportunities Program

March 24, 2022 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

In her poster session, Developing Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) Learning Modules for Biology Courses, undergraduate Sahar Mahmoudian made the case that EDI practices are crucial for fields like biology which have “rich histories of racism, sexism and ableism that continue today.”

She went on to describe learning modules she had developed in which students examine past abuses, prejudices that persist in current science practices, and EDI-centric practices for the future.

“Engaging in this research opportunity was a chance to bring awareness to longstanding EDI disparities in my field of study that are often overlooked,” says Mahmoudian, a member of Victoria College in the third year of a human biology major with a double minor in immunology and psychology.

“My hope is that students can use these modules to gain insight into how to centre EDI work into their own professional and academic careers. So whether they move on to a PhD or become a professor, they can contextualize the issues and work in a more socially conscious way.”

Mahmoudian’s project was just one of 85 featured on March 17 in the online poster fair for the Faculty of Arts & Science’s annual Research Opportunities Program (ROP).

The program provides second- and third-year undergraduate students with opportunities to join an instructor’s research project in the humanities, social sciences, life sciences, physical sciences or mathematics. It gives participants a chance to learn research skills and methodologies and collaborate with other students. It can be a student’s first glimpse at what a career as a researcher is like.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, students shared their projects at an in-person poster fair held twice a year. Since 2020, that gathering has been replaced with an online virtual fair.

On the 17th, the students and attendees were welcomed by Vikki Lowes, director of Experiential Learning & Outreach Support which runs both the ROP and the Research Excursion Program; and by Bill Ju, the Faculty’s associate dean, student affairs, who also supervised Mahmoudian’s project.

“ROP students get to work alongside U of T's outstanding research faculty,” said Ju to kick off the event. “They explore novel research topics, discover things that don't yet appear in any textbook, and help move forward the limits of our knowledge.”

The fair included 110 presenters from 14 units, as well as three from outside the Faculty. The projects reflected the breadth and diversity of Arts & Science, and included such projects as the examination of the 17th and 18th century Books of Secrets, faith-based environmentalism, machine-learning models and statistics, and micro-plastics in Arctic char.

Swanee Douglas’s project examined interactions between a type of bacteria and three species of carpenter ants found in the Galápagos Islands. Such interactions are called mutualisms as both organisms benefit from the relationship. The research helps us better understand symbiotic systems and their ability to respond to varying environmental pressures driven by climate change.

“It’s been a special experience to contribute to the work of Professor Megan Frederickson’s lab over the past two semesters,” says Douglas, a member of Trinity College pursuing a neuroscience specialist and a mathematics minor. “And to do research into these mutualistic interactions under the supervision of María Tocora.

“After having worked in an engineering lab for three summers, the ROP has challenged me to grow academically and professionally while providing me with opportunities to develop countless new skills, such as experimental molecular techniques, genetic data analysis and project management.”

Rachel Ho presented her ROP project, How Do Adults and Children Believe Experience Shapes Moral Character. The research was led by graduate student Alexa Sacchi and supervised by assistant professor Christina Starmans in the Department of Psychology.

Among other results, their study showed that when presented with scenarios in which a child “Tom” is a member of a mean or nice family, children were more likely than adults to judge Tom’s character according to the Good True Self Hypothesis that says we are all fundamentally good.

“I got my foot in the door of psychology research through the ROP and it’s definitely a valuable experience to be involved in research on a first-handed basis,” says Ho, a member of Innis College in the second year of a psychology specialist program.

“As an ROP student in Professor Starmans’ lab, I get to work closely with a graduate student and assist with lab studies with a team of amazing people. The best thing about the ROP is that you’re not expected to have any prior research experience. So while you’re contributing to the lab, the lab also facilitates your learning in a friendly environment. It opens up a lot of opportunities in the future.”