How SDSU students spent their summers doing at-home research.
By Padma Nagappan
When life gives you lemons, grow strawberries instead.
With research labs off limits to summer interns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, San Diego State University senior Daniel Pentico signed up for a remote research opportunity instead — growing hydroponic strawberries at his home.
The communications major constructed a growing chamber fitted with LED lighting, customized hydroponic systems (using water and minerals instead of soil) and installed sensors to monitor temperature and humidity. He worked with mentor and nutritional sciences professor Changqi Liu on the research, aimed at improving the quality of the strawberries.
The summer project exemplifies the collaborative, cross-disciplinary research culture that is so strong at SDSU and was one of nearly 90 remote internships SDSU students completed as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP).
Since field, lab and in-person activities were not possible for undergraduates this year, program planners had to be creative in their offerings. Faculty members from diverse fields including STEM, performing arts, theater and political science came up with innovative ideas they tailored around the COVID-19 restrictions for staying safe while offering valuable research/internship experience with student stipends of $1,500-$3,000.
“We wanted to continue to offer this program to our undergraduate students to provide high impact experiences that could benefit them in grad school or their future careers,” said Alicia Kinoshita, director of undergraduate research and creative activities.
“I was engaged in field work and research early as an undergraduate student, and had amazing faculty mentors,” said Kinoshita, an associate professor of civil engineering. “That’s how I got hooked on research. It’s really important to provide such opportunities to our undergrads and summer is an ideal time for an immersive experience.”
Pentico said he hopes his summer research will help lead to advances in sustainable agricultural practices. But the project brought immediate personal benefits.
“During this unprecedented time of COVID-19, this research opportunity has been a slice of normalcy,” Pentico said. “Despite not being on campus I still feel connected through this project.”
Among other notable SURP-at-home endeavors:
Ilse Ayon, a history major at SDSU Imperial Valley, tapped U.S. Census data to identify historic socioeconomic and educational conditions in the border town of Calexico. Her mentor LLuliana Alonso, an assistant professor in teacher education, designed a remote project by turning to Ancestry.com to access early 20th century census data so her students could learn about the people who had lived in the community a century ago.
Lung Tissue and Math
Senior Dewayani Windy, an applied math major, used computational simulations to study how lung tissue grows and branches out to form airways. She learned to use math equations to describe complex biological processes.
Immersive theater and remote rehearsals
Junior J’Arrian Wade approached mentor Katie Turner about starting an immersive theater club. Together, they developed the idea of an at-home immersive theatre, where the audience is completely surrounded by the action of the play, instead of sitting in seats at a distance from the stage.
“I knew I wanted to mentor a summer project for SURP because I wanted to give a student the opportunity to grow professionally as well as earn money in a summer where jobs were going to be scarce,” said Turner, a lecturer in the School of Theatre, Television, and Film.
Turner tapped her experience with devising, producing, and directing theater to mentor Wade through the full production process, all via Zoom.
“This idea came out of the passion for immersive theater and the need for creativity at a time like now,” Wade said. “It developed very naturally and we were able to marry our common interests of folklore, mythology, and spirituality. I was able to gain so much experience and played many roles such as co-writer, co-producer, co-director, actress, and mentee.”
Meanwhile, associate professor Dani Bedau, the head of youth theater, had been exploring ways to convert performances for “Two Lakes, Two Rivers” online once the campus closed in March. When summer rolled around, she designed a process for remote rehearsals via Zoom, and tasked theatre major Madison Stallings with keeping a log of lessons learned that could be applied in the future.