First-year scholars plan early research in various fields
Twice a year, the Magellan Scholar Award is presented to a handful of USC undergraduates to sponsor in-depth field study in disciplines from science and medicine to theater and the arts.
This year, three USC Columbia freshmen were named among the 65 Magellan winners for their topic proposals. According to Director of Undergraduate Research Julie Morris, freshmen have made up 5 percent of Magellan winners since the program began in 2005.
“Our faculty is definitely interested in getting students involved in research early on,” Morris said. “Student research is an integral part of the university as well as a great opportunity for students to learn and become experts in topics they are passionate about.”
This year’s summer and fall project proposals deal with subjects from Irish equestrian sports to developing a solution to flooding in Five Points. First-year international business student Emily Watkins, will be using the $3,000 from the Magellan plus $1,000 extra in mini-grants to study broad-based black economic empowerment in sub-Saharan Africa. She will spend three weeks of her summer in Cape Town, South Africa, collecting information from universities and accounting firms to target the reasons behind the severe shortage of blacks in Africa’s business realm.
“There’s been what they call a ‘brain drain’ in Africa after apartheid,” Watkins said. “Education and income levels are still very unequal. Whites still dominate the higher-ranking jobs, even though the population of South Africa is mostly black. Most black students aren’t passing their board exams, and those who are doing well and graduating are moving elsewhere for work.”
Watkins’ research, supervised by Professor Robert Rolfe of the International Business Department, will focus on developing special programs to help improve business and math education for African blacks. She hopes that her findings will ultimately help South African schools and businesses develop strategies to raise the percentage of blacks in accounting from 2 percent to 25 percent, thereby improving South Africa’s economic independence.
“I’ve always been interested in social work and helping people through creating jobs,” Watkins said. “Simply pouring more aid into Africa isn’t helping their economy. I’m more interested in creating structures that will last.”
While Watkins will be taking her research abroad, first-year math student Nicholas Jaamin Smith, will use his scholarship to begin paid research at USC on the formulation of Sudoku puzzles. Smith will be working with Professor Joshua Cooper of the mathematics department to discover the minimum number of givens needed for a fair puzzle.
“Usually math researchers don’t worry so much about the application, but Sudoku is something that’s interesting to the public,” Smith said. “With this research comes the potential to produce tougher puzzles, and once we understand how to arrange it, we’ll be able to do things with it on the computer much faster.”
Smith said most of his research will be creating algorithms for testing and arranging different types of puzzles. He will also use his scholarship to travel to Boston in January to present his findings at the Joint Mathematics meeting, the largest math conference in the world.
Smith said he was prompted to look into research and the Magellan application by his University 290A class, a one-hour credit course on research methods. From there, the process of plugging into the project with Cooper was fairly easy. Smith said learning the necessary higher-level math and applications was the most challenging part, but also the most rewarding.
“So far, I’ve been doing a lot of learning about mathematical concepts during Cooper’s office hours,” Smith said. “I think it will definitely improve my mathematical thinking. Research is definitely different from your regular course work because you’re actually discovering something new, like you’re inventing.”
Students like Smith and Watkins will have the opportunity to present their research projects to their peers during Discovery Day on April 22 at the Russell House. Morris hopes this university-wide event, which includes students of all disciplines from USC’s branch campuses, will encourage others to take initiative in exploring their own interests.
“The ideas that students generate are incredible,” Morris said. “I love seeing students find out what they love to do. Their research definitely complements and enhances what they’re learning in class.”
Watkins recommends that anyone interested in getting funded for his or her own project get started several months before applying for a scholarship. Having rewritten her own proposal several times before zeroing in on her topic, she knows that research takes certain amounts of both curiosity and commitment.
“You really can do anything you want, even if it doesn’t have to do with you major,” Watkins said. “You just have to be patient with yourself, but never give up. Don’t ever think you’re too young or too inexperienced to do something. There are no limits.”