Skip to main content
Northwestern University
Decorative imageleft

Seven Things We Learned From Students This Year

A new app that helps elderly patients and their caretakers navigate the chaos of emergency-room visits. A renewed focus on strategies to alleviate the plight of the homeless. A fresh look at the artworks of a modernist master.

These are just a few of the areas explored by Weinberg College students pursuing undergraduate research over the past year. Such focused and independent work not only leads to intellectual and personal growth — it can also yield important insights that can impact the world in unexpected ways.

It’s no wonder, then, that the number of Weinberg students pursuing undergraduate research — and the amount of funding available for their projects — has increased by more than 50 percent over the last six years: from 80 students and $201,000 in 2008–09 to 129 students and $302,105 in 2013–14. 

The benefits of these projects are manifold, says William N. Haarlow, Weinberg’s director of undergraduate research and college-admission relations. For starters, these experiences are often the highlight of students’ undergraduate careers, allowing them to apply ideas they’ve learned in the classroom to real-world problems and questions. Undergraduate research projects also help students step toward the future — whether they are headed to graduate or professional school or aspiring to a particular career track. 

“Pursuing undergraduate research demonstrates perseverance, intelligence, initiative and ambition. It helps students stand out among a very qualified group of undergraduates. It’s good all around — intellectually, as a practical application and contribution, and as a way to position yourself well for the next stage of life,” Haarlow says. 

Read on to learn more about some of the intriguing, enlightening and surprising research projects undertaken by Weinberg College students over the past year. 

1. Elderly patients interact with ipads differently than younger people do.

Visits to the emergency room can be chaotic, confusing and time-consuming, but an app that’s being developed for hospital-supplied iPads may make the experience a bit easier, particularly for elderly patients. 

Elizabeth Zborek ’16 combined her interest in communications and health science to research and help develop the app under the guidance of Feinberg School of Medicine assistant professor Enid Montague.

“The first year of the study, we interviewed patients in the emergency department and asked, among other things, if they were satisfied with their wait to see a doctor and with their communication with the doctor,” Zborek says. The answers were used to create an app that would improve the experience of patients and family members in the ER. 

Last year, Zborek recruited both younger and older subjects to test the app on an iPad. “We noticed that the elderly interact with an iPad differently than younger participants,” Zborek says. “The elderly tend to use their thumbs or middle fingers, and often they wouldn’t navigate well because they didn’t apply enough pressure in the correct spot. Elderly participants also held the iPad in one hand close to their face, rather than resting it on a surface.”

Results like these mean that among other design issues, on-screen buttons need to be larger and more sensitive for elderly users, says Zborek, who is planning a career in medicine. “This app is going to be very useful in the future,” she says. “I’m excited and wish this were already in the emergency department now.”

2. By the time they enter kindergarten, Children may already possess unconscious racial biases.  

As a double major in psychology and gender studies, Rachel Leshin ’15 had read a lot of research on gender bias and racism. She knew that researchers studying adults had found a correlation between implicit (or unconscious) biases and explicitly biased behavior. In other words, adults who showed prejudice on a specially formulated test proved more likely to engage in prejudicial behavior toward individuals based on skin color or gender.

But, Leshin wondered, does the same hold true for children? And if so, at how early an age would children exhibit such biases? She was disappointed to find only scant literature on the subject. “There hasn’t been research on this in young kids, even though it seems incredibly important because children are forming worldviews at that age,” Leshin says.

Leshin found the ideal opportunity to pursue her questions with psychology graduate students Ryan Lei and Danielle Perszyk, who have been studying racial biases in children for the last few years. Leshin joined Lei and Perszyk’s study in spring 2014.

One of the study’s biggest challenges was devising an age-appropriate task that would indicate a link between attitudes and prejudicial behavior. Leshin decided to use a measure called the Affect Misattribution Procedure, which has been used with children before. For the last several months, she has tested children ages 4 and 5 at a preschool. In one part of the study, Leshin shows each participant two photographs of other children of various races, and asks the participant to whom he or she would give stickers. Leshin says she won’t be surprised if the final results show a pattern of implicit bias.

“Age 4 or 5 is young to have implicit biases, or even non-implicit biases,” Leshin says. “[But] biases are a function of our society, and young kids are processing messages about race on a subconscious level.”

3. Jane Austen’s novels were even more progressive than we realized.

Despite the continued ardent popularity of Jane Austen’s novels and their frequent adaptations for film and stage, some literary critics have interpreted the writer’s intentions as more conservative than progressive. After all, Austen was a Tory in real life and wrote in the genre of 18th-century courtship literature, not quite the stuff of radicalism.

Yet, according to Chelsey Moler ’15, Austen’s works have much in common with those by Mary Wollstonecraft, her contemporary who has long been recognized for her protofeminist theories. “The narrative form of Austen’s novels encourages the same kind of rational thought and freedom that Wollstonecraft pushed for in her pedagogy,” Moler says. “She encouraged women to make their own decisions and judgments rationally.”

In preparation for her honors thesis, Moler spent last summer immersed in works by Austen, Wollstonecraft and their lesser-known contemporaries John Gregory, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Charlotte Smith. The plots of most courtship novels of the time dealt with anxiety over “stranger-suitors” — unknown men who may or may not want to trick young women into illegitimate marriages. Moler used narrative theory to examine how Austen and her contemporaries presented these plots. Most courtship novelists used “dissonant narration,” an authoritative narrative voice that is distanced from the voices of characters and leaves no room for readers to arrive at their own conclusions about stranger-suitors.

Moler argues that Austen opted instead for consonant narration — the perspective of a narrator who yields to the thoughts and feelings of her characters, allowing more opportunity for rational thought. 

“It’s incredible how much Austen stands out from her contemporaries,” Moler says. “She follows her protagonists’ evolving judgments of their suitors and challenges readers to evaluate the newcomer for themselves. She’s saying that readers should put their own power of judgment before the judgment of all other persons.”

4. Toulouse-Lautrec influenced Picasso and inspired a new celebrity culture. 

For a firsthand glimpse of the groundbreaking works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, most people have to visit a museum under the careful watch of guards. So when Sharon Chen ’15 and Angela Yu ’16 had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of his prints, they jumped at the chance. 

Led by art history professor S. Hollis Clayson, Chen and Yu were among 13 students to curate “Toulouse-Lautrec Prints: Art at the Edges of Modernity,” which appeared at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art earlier this year.

The exhibition presented a fresh look at 18 lithographs — including posters, portfolio prints and a book — that highlighted the artist’s inventive techniques. Students were responsible for developing the exhibition from beginning to end, including the title, layout, wall colors and wall texts. They began by viewing the prints at the home of Chicago-based collectors Andra and Irwin Press ’59, and then each student selected a few prints to explore in depth. In November they traveled to a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, an experience that both Yu and Chen say was invaluable.

When chose a poster depicting French performers in London, among them the famous Jane Avril. “La Troupe de Mademoiselle Eglantine” (1895) shows four dancers whose frazzled expressions belie their seemingly glamorous profession. “He wants to show them as individuals and give expression to what they’re really feeling as opposed to superficial smiles,” Chen says. Art historians have traced the roots of today’s celebrity culture to Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrayal of performers.

Yu focused on the artist’s commercial work, in particular “Confetti,” an 1894 poster that advertised the new product. She explained that Toulouse-Lautrec used a toothbrush ink-application technique to create marks that resembled confetti. “Picasso was emerging at this time, and he used similar speckles in one of his later Cubist paintings, demonstrating the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work,” Yu says.

5. A new compound could help cure diseases like Ewing’s sarcoma.

Chemistry major Ziyang Xu ’15 loves his time in the lab. But he has taken to heart encouragement from his adviser, Assistant Professor Alexander Statsyuk, to apply his knowledge to real-world problems. 

For the past three years, Ziyang, who has won several grants to fund his scientific research, has been working in Statsyuk’s lab, examining a protein associated with Parkinson’s disease, the Ebola virus and Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that primarily affects children.

“I was very interested in chemistry when I first got to Northwestern,” says the China native, “and Professor Statsyuk showed me how it can play a huge role in transforming human medicine”.

Ziyang dove into research the summer after his first year. He has worked closely with a graduate student to understand how the misregulation of the culpable protein — NEDD4-1 — can cause cells to proliferate in unwanted ways, and how a new, rationally designed compound can address those toxic effects and impede tumor growth.

“There has been much controversy as to whether NEDD4-1 is indeed oncogenic,” Ziyang says. “We’re hoping to use our molecule to understand the roles played by this protein and to optimize the compound into a drug that cures Ewing’s sarcoma.” 

The experience has shaped Ziyang’s post-college plans. After he graduates, he will pursue a combination of research and clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical Scientist Training Program.

“This project has allowed me to understand the intersections between science and medicine,” he says. “Our understanding of basic scientific problems could help us develop cures for some of the devastating diseases we are confronting.”

6. The homeless have come to be accepted as a new class of citizen in Chicago.

Two things propelled Jack Furness ’15 to study the homeless population in Chicago. 

The first was his involvement with Habitat for Humanity. Furness had been volunteering for the organization since he arrived at Northwestern, helping to build homes for those who could not otherwise afford them. The second was his experience studying in Nantes, France during his junior year. 

“It really struck me that I didn’t see homeless people in France the way that I do in Chicago,” he recalls. 

Furness shared his observation with his faculty supervisor, Dan Lewis, a professor at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. The two eventually structured a research project focused on the rising number of homeless people in Chicago. 

Initially, Furness examined statistics and reports from government agencies. At first, the numbers were confusing. “I wasn’t sure what I was looking for,” Furness admits. He then reached out to several of the 180-plus organizations serving Chicago’s homeless population. Through those conversations, he was able to see more clearly what was happening in the city. “Then I went back to the numbers and put things into context,” Furness says. 

What Furness learned was that 20 years ago, homelessness was seen as a temporary problem that would someday go away. But that hasn’t happened: there are now more than 140,000 homeless people in Chicago, according to federal definitions. Policies implemented by the city and the Department of Housing and Urban Development “have reinforced and accepted the fact that there is a huge, new class of citizens that has become institutionalized and normalized,” Furness says. Homelessness, he adds, has become a problem that society is no longer working to end but merely to control and moderate. 

“The findings have been eye-opening,” says Furness, who will serve in the Peace Corps after graduation. After that, he plans to attend law school and pursue a career in advocacy and public policy. “There’s a shortage of well-qualified legal advocates for the homeless,” Furness says. “It’s something that needs a lot of attention.”

7. Politics is everywhere, even in sacred music.

As a musician with a Sikh background, Conner Singh VanderBeek ’15 was naturally curious about the role of sacred music in the Sikh religion. 

For the past two years, he has been studying the sacred music that is played at Sikh temples — specifically, who plays it and how closely it conforms to the “classical” Indian style in its fidelity to the notes and tones of centuries past. 

“Music is how the Sikhs’ holy book is disseminated, and in the past, Muslims, whom the gurus had patronized centuries ago to become classical musicians, were involved in the music that was played at the holiest sites,” explains VanderBeek. 

Parallel to that tradition, a “popular” style of musical practice also arose among the Sikhs. This practice, which co-opts pop tunes, film melodies and devotional songs from Hinduism, continues to this day. 

In 1950, however, the Sikh orthodoxy decided to purify the faith and declared that Sikh music — regardless of the style — could only be performed by baptized Sikhs, which excludes Muslims.

VanderBeek studied the historic factors that led to the exclusion of Muslims from Sikh musical practice and how the classical practice of sacred music — of which Muslims played so much a part — has been reclaimed by Sikh orthodoxy. But Sikh music still isn’t being played the way the orthodoxy would like to hear it played — because the Muslim musicians who held the practice aren’t playing it, and also because the popular form of Sikh music is, well, more popular. 

“I traveled a lot in Punjab, going to as many Sikh temples as I could to hear the music and to see if anyone knew what classical music practice is, and no one did,” VanderBeek explains. “Although it was incredible music, it wasn’t in line with what Sikh orthodoxy says is correct.” 

Back to top