Widgets Magazine

Evaluating evidence: Undergraduates choose research for summer vacation

ERIC KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily

Though summer vacation may evoke fond memories of tanning at the beach, playing volleyball in the lawn or getting up at 11 a.m., others are hard at work developing a thesis or a summer philanthropy project. Every summer, many Stanford students choose the latter vacation plan, electing to spend their free months working on various types of research, with different motivations.

Some students link up with professors or graduate students with whom they have had classes in the past, others are working on projects within their departments or have been inspired by personal experiences. Ayna Agarwal ’14 became more interested in philanthropy and social impact after taking political science professor Rob Reich’s class, “Ethics of Philanthropy, Civil Society and Non-Profits.”

“I learned that approximately $300 billion are contributed to nonprofits every year, yet too often the measure of that impact is not quantifiable and remains unclear,” she wrote in an email to The Daily.

She searched different Stanford departments for a project that matched this curiosity and was led to economics professor Woody Powell, with whom she is currently working on a summer project concerning evaluation and metrics in the nonprofit sector. For 20 hours a week, over 10 weeks of the summer, she is documenting different sources and types of nonprofit evaluation and using that information to explain its effect on the United States and abroad.

“I am exploring over 250 websites to collect data which will eventually be sorted into a larger networking scheme to understand relationships between these different measurement factors,“ Agarwal said.

“I want to become a better researcher within the social sciences and continue pursuing this project until its completion,” she added.

Other students choose projects that place them in Stanford’s innumerable labs. Calvin Fernandez ‘13 is working on a combined project with Billington and Frank Labs called the Bioinsulation Foam Project. He is working with a foam that contains PHBV (poly-3-hydroxy butyrate-co-valerate), which is a type of bio-plastic that currently isn’t foaming properly.

His job is to create a process in which silk can be turned into powder so that this powder can be combined with the foam–the idea being that the powder will help the PHBV foam better by producing larger bubbles. Devoting about 40 hours a week to the project, Fernandez says the main reason he chose to work on it was that it sparked his interest.

“I might pursue something similar later for a thesis, but this summer is simply because I was interested in the project,” he said.

Despite his efforts, he recognizes that the daunting task that he faces may go unfinished.

“By the end of the summer, it would be nice to have the answer to the problem, but I know that’s not going to happen so I’ll just settle with some intriguing results that I can write an interesting paper about,” he said.

Still other students use summer as a time to work on their honors theses, like Anna Robertson ’12, a double major in psychology and English. Robertson first became interested in psychology after taking Introduction to Psychology her freshman year, and she spent the summer after that doing psychology research though a psychology summer internship program. This fall, she will be working in a lab and is spending a large chunk of her summer planning her thesis research project.

“I began to dedicate much more time to planning my thesis during the spring and, after spending a little over a month working on my thesis on campus this summer, I think I will be in good standing to begin running subjects in the fall,” she explained. “Because psychology theses typically involve human subjects, which in turn requires an extensive review by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), my time this summer has been devoted to preparing my thesis.”

“This involves writing the computer program I will use, selecting relevant measures, outlining protocols and doing literature searches,” she added.

For other students like Natalie Cox ’12, this summer involves simultaneously balancing theses and independent research projects. Cox is working with Michael Klausner, a professor of business at Stanford Law School. She spends 20 hours a week working with him and an additional 20 doing independent research for her thesis. Potentially interested in pursuing a joint degree in economics and law, she is able to explore both fields while furthering her capstone project.

“I wanted to get firsthand experience in research and get some work done on my thesis,” she explained. “I do a lot of work with securities class action data with professor Michael Klausner at the Stanford Law School. [My] tasks include cleaning, sorting though it and figuring out how to best turn raw information from law dockets or complaints into uniform data that is actually usable in an empirical study. For instance, I might go through a set of cases and map the different stages at which they settle.”

But among those aiming for publication or in pursuit of a cure for cancer, some students doing research over the vacation simply wanted some work experience. Moses Gonzales ’13 is working 10 hours a week as a lab assistant through the Office of Accessible Education. Gonzales has been researching uranium contamination in ground water since May of this year and plans to continue to do so until the end of next year.

“My ultimate goal for this position is essentially to gain as much hands-on experience as possible,” he said. “While I definitely hope to help the lab make some cool discoveries, my focus is not on the research but on the skills I am gaining.”

He does, however, plan to stick with the job for the “foreseeable future” and potentially through the remainder of his Stanford career.

“I plan to continue working in this lab at least through the end of next year,” he said. “And then depending on my plans when the year ends, I may continue working in the lab through next summer and my senior year as well.”