Cornell University: CURB Spring Symposium celebrates undergrad research

Five million tons of apple pomace, the waste product created in juice production, goes into U.S. landfills every year. But new student research shows how this trash just might become treasure – when transformed into biofuel.

“If we already have all the infrastructure for burning fossil fuels and we’re able to generate these biofuels that can be used within the same infrastructure that we have already, I think that would solve a lot of problems,” said Samantha Rubin ’23, an environmental engineering major.

Rubin’s project was among 50 on display at the annual Spring Symposium, held May 4 in the Duffield Atrium and hosted by the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board (CURB). The event includes a poster session where student researchers present scholarly work in front of an audience.

Colin Zenge ’22 presents his work on biosensors.
Since last June, Rubin has been working in the lab of Jillian Goldfarb, associate professor of biological and environmental engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and hopes to eventually pursue a Ph.D. She said her research has been a valuable learning experience.

“To have to figure out a way to present my work in a way that is accessible to a wide variety of people, it’s a really challenging thing,” Rubin said.

The event creates space to celebrate the work of undergraduate researchers – but isn’t all about science. Any undergrad from any major can present research on their chosen topic – as long as the research is done at Cornell.

Sophia Matton ’22, a policy analysis and management major, wondered about the effectiveness of paid family for new mothers. She posed the question: Does access to paid family leave correlate with an increase in female labor force participation rates?

“As a woman who’s going to law school, that’s something that I definitely want,” Matton said. “The ability to have a career and also have a family.”

She looked at data from the American Community Survey on women in Texas without access to paid family leave and women in California with access, and was surprised to find that paid family leave did not correlate with a higher percentage of women having jobs.

Matton said analyzing this issue from a policy perspective encouraged her to dig into it from the legal side next.

For Benjamin M. Dever-Mendenhall ’24, a research trip to Argentina to study Magellanic penguin hunting habits may have altered the course of his life.

“This trip was the first time I’ve conducted field research,” the psychology and philosophy major said. “I found that I really enjoyed doing it and working with the animals assessing wild populations. And potentially that is something I would consider going into in the future.”

On the class trip, in January 2022, students sought to assess whether short-term fluctuations in environmental variables, specifically temperature, tide level and wind speed, would impact penguins’ foraging behavior.

His findings, that penguins seem to prefer foraging during lower temperatures and low tides, highlights the threat of rising global temperatures on Argentina’s ecosystem.

“We know from previous research that long-term changes in these variables do affect the foraging behavior,” Dever-Mendenhall said. “The results of this study helped confirm that we see those same patterns emerge in the short term. And that has implications for the number of fish and the population numbers of the penguins in the future.”

Students were scored by judges – faculty members and grad students – on the quality of their projects and the effectiveness of their verbal presentations. At the end of the event four awards were given out to the top scoring undergrads.

The awardees:

Humanities

Winner: Priya Mukhi
Runner up: Sophia Matton
Design and Engineering

Winner: Leo Moon
Runner up: Hannah Lim
Life Sciences

Winner: Vicens Vila-Coury
Runner up: Owen Farchione
Applied Research

Winner: Stephen Stresow
Runner up: Hanyu Zhang

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