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From the Magazine: Summer = Research

Emelia Pinamang Asiedu ’11 at Ghana's National Theatre

Emelia Pinamang Asiedu ’11 at Ghana's National Theatre / Photo by Eric Don-Arthur

At Pomona, summer means research. This year, the College had a record number of participants, with upwards of 170 student projects funded through Pomona or outside sources. Here’s a sampling of the work that goes on.

Reviving Ghanaian Theatre

When Emelia Pinamang Asiedu ’11 visited her native Ghana this summer for a research project on “Reviving Ghanaian Theatre,” she was dismayed to find that racy movies vastly outnumber theatrical productions. Most film previews have nudity or sex and “sometimes you can’t even tell what a movie is about,” says Asiedu. “People are really angry about that.” One of the negative consequences of this trend, she learned from her research, is that Ghana’s woefully underfunded theatre barely plays the vital role it once did in preserving and perpetuating the nation’s fragile oral traditions.

In Ghana’s capital, Accra, Asiedu visited her primary school, where she worked on a project aimed at gauging the creative ability of seventh-grade students in the school’s drama club. Showing great enthusiasm and initiative, the students wrote their own plays and performed them while Asiedu filmed the details.

“But not a single one of them used a Ghanaian name, which is understandable—we are all given our English names,” says Asiedu, a theatre major. The rub, she adds, is the students adopted names they saw in movies. What’s more, one of the plays was about a boy whose father is kidnapped for ransom, a crime largely confined to the silver screen in this African nation.

In an interview with the executive director of Ghana’s National Theater, Efo Kodjo Mawugbe, Asiedu learned how social and cultural elements that were once integral to the nation’s theatre are being steadily replaced by ideas borrowed from Western mass media. “We should have a system of arts management that allows us to teach children about what we go through as Ghanaians, and then fuse them into theatre,” the director told Asiedu.

Bridging the gap between foreign ideas and Ghanaian culture, however, can be a delicate task. A few years ago, for example, the National Theater organized a local version of Cinderella. Titled Cindorama, the play focused on how Cinderella’s character was abused as a child and why it’s important for people to stand up for their rights.

“The children who saw the play got riled up and wanted to attack the actors because the human rights issues in the play were very real to them,” says Asiedu, explaining that child abuse
is rife in Ghana, where children are often forced to earn a living at an early age instead of going to school. But, adds Asiedu, “the play was also an education for them.”

Where the Herring Once Spawned

As a boy, Nicholas Tyack ’11 often went on boat rides and caught fish in a stream barely 50 feet behind his house in Hanover, Mass. Called Third Herring Brook, the stream flows to a pond that once served as a spawning area for herring, a food staple of the local Wampanoag tribe. Over the decades, however, three dams straddling the stream have blocked the fish’s passage from the ocean, forcing them to spawn downstream, thereby drastically affecting their population as well as the brook’s water quality.

“Growing up, I didn’t know about these issues, but I wondered why there weren’t many river herring,” recalls Tyack, a biology major who spent the summer conducting a 10-week research project on herring conservation in his hometown.

Thanks to a $4,000 stipend from the Environmental Analysis Mellon Grant and guidance from Biology Professor Nina Karnovsky, Tyack was able to conduct a series of tests on two dammed streams in the region, including the one near his home where herring spawn. He found that both streams were suitable nursery habitats for young herring and that Third Herring Brook had dangerously high levels of coliform bacteria, most likely because of a faulty sewage system.

Built hundreds of years ago to power cotton gins and saw mills, the dams created high water levels that facilitated such recreational activities as swimming, boating and fishing. But the structures have long been falling apart and leaking. Fixing them is prohibitively expensive.

Tyack presented his research data to a number of organizations that own the dams and are under considerable public pressure to remove them. “I met with dam owners to give them a perspective on the benefits of removing the dams,” says Tyack. “Surprisingly, all of them were interested in it.”

In an op-ed article that he wrote for a local newspaper in August, Tyack argued that removing one of the major dams, a fixture of the regional landscape, “shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing” but rather as “a return to the natural state of the stream … a restored cultural resource resonating with local history.”

Taking On a Scourge

Every 40 seconds somewhere in the world, a child dies of malaria, and hundreds of millions of people are infected by the virulent mosquito-borne disease each year. For Ulysses Gomez ’11, those grim statistics sparked his desire to create a new drug that would end malaria’s stubborn resistance to existing treatments and involve nine U.S. laboratories in tackling malaria research.

Gomez spent the summer synthesizing chemical compounds in the lab in a painstaking effort to design a revolutionary drug that would prevent Plasmodium falciparum, the malaria-causing parasite, from multiplying in the human body. “It takes months to go from one step to the next,” explains Gomez, who began his project in fall 2009 and is still working on it. So far, Gomez has synthesized three different antimalarial drugs and hopes to create three more before sending them out for tests in collaborators’ laboratories.

Fortunately, he had expert help all along: Gomez worked with Chemistry Professor Cynthia Selassie, associate dean at the College, and he had the funds for specialized lab equipment. Last year he was one of two students who won the prestigious Pfizer Academic Industrial Relations (AIR) Diversity Fellowship in Organic Chemistry, which came with an award of $15,000 for each winner.

Gomez is something of a rarity in the world of anti-malaria research. Malaria is a Third World disease and there are hardly any U.S.-originated efforts to combat it. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” says Gomez, who is majoring in chemistry. “The U.S. is such a powerful country and should be leading efforts to help combat malaria.”

Gomez attributes his interest in medical research to his childhood in a low-income Latino community in the Coachella Valley, where, he recalls, “there were health disparities, the doctors were mostly white and my mother was intimidated to ask them anything.”

In August, Gomez presented his research findings at one of Pfizer’s major global research and development facilities in La Jolla, Calif. After his presentation, he was taken on a tour of the complex. “I got to see how it is that industrial chemistry works,” he says. “Overall, a wonderful learning experience."