Winners of the UCLA Library Prize for Undergraduate Research are shown here with their faculty sponsors and retired campus counsel Ruth Simon (center). Todd Cheney/UCLA
Winners of the UCLA Library Prize for Undergraduate Research are shown here with their faculty sponsors and retired campus counsel Ruth Simon (center). Todd Cheney/UCLA

Undergraduate research prize honors ‘passion for learning, pursuit of knowledge’

By Meg Sullivan
Originally posted in UCLA Newsroom

Shortly after transferring to UCLA from Pasadena City College as a junior, Hilo Sugita made a point of looking up UCLA Egyptologist Kara Cooney with the hopes of taking an independent research course with her.

Cooney suggested that the Near Eastern languages and cultures major investigate two ancient Egyptian coffins that had languished in the bowels of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History since being donated in the 1920s by the developer for whom Janss steps are named.

Less than two years later the international student from Japan has figured out roughly when the sarcophagi were produced, the town where one of them was made some 4,000 years ago and the name of the person who was buried in the other. Moreover, Sugita is teaching herself to read hieroglyphics so she can ascertain even more information about the precious artifacts about which little was known before she came along.

Sugita’s efforts last week won her UCLA Library system’s top prize for undergraduate research. Days later she said she was still having trouble believing her good fortune.

“I’ve never been confident about my writing skills in English,” confessed the Tokyo native.

In all, 11 undergraduates received awards for their research activities as part of the sixth annual UCLA Library Awards Day, held in the Powell Library Rotunda. Designed to recognize and honor excellence in UCLA undergraduate research, the competition awarded prizes in nine different categories. Two professors, two librarians and a past winner judged submissions. Prizes ranged from $250 to $450, depending on whether the project took one or more quarters to complete.

Topics ranged from an analysis of anatomical drawings from the era of Frankenstein to the unique musical contributions of Japanese immigrants in Brazil to the risk and rewards of making DNA information public.

“Each of the students … demonstrated remarkable intellectual curiosity and the skills and capacities to conduct meaningful, important research,” said Kelly E. Miller, head librarian at Powell Library. “The projects they have produced are compelling, thought-provoking and inspiring.”

Winning projects, she said, reflect “a passion for learning and pursuit of knowledge.”

While the sciences, performing arts and social sciences were represented, most of the winners hailed from the humanities division in UCLA’s College of Letters and Science.

“These are really inspiring students, and their projects demonstrate the obvious commitment on the part of our faculty in mentoring undergraduates in meaningful research,” said Humanities Dean David Schaberg.

To qualify, students needed to begin their research as part of a UCLA undergraduate course and they needed to have consulted library resources. In many cases, winners worked directly with librarians to locate the precise resources they needed. French literature graduating senior Sasha Richman won the competition for best paper written in a foreign language with an analysis of the milieu reflected in the landmark 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris.” When she wasn’t able to locate the library’s lone copy of a Time Magazine with a key article about the film, Richman consulted a librarian, who directed her to a resource she wasn’t familiar with.

“One of the librarians suggested I use microfilm and I was very embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what it was,” Richman recounted to the amusement of her mentor, Laure Murat, a professor of French and Francophone studies.

The prize is supported through funding from UCLA’s Music Library, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library and UCLA Library Special Collections and a donation by retired campus counsel Ruth Simon, who attended the ceremony and later posed for photographs with winners.

For the first time in the award’s history, winners’ papers will be published on eScholarship, the open access platform for research produced at the University of California.

Several undergraduate projects appeared to be headed toward publication in additional scholarly outlets. One project, an investigation of how lizards in Tahiti use the cries of birds to gauge the approach of predators, is already under review at a prestigious journal, said Daniel Blumstein, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Blumstein mentored the three undergraduates who nabbed this year’s only prize in the sciences. Juniors Holly Fuong and Kathryn N. Keeley and senior Yasemin Bulut conducted the research for a field biology course that sends students to Tahiti for three weeks. Two other projects, including Sugita’s, were worthy of being published in a scholarly journals and would eventually be submitted, said the professors who sponsored the winners.

The effort reflected in the student scholarship was leading to other benefits as well. Charlotte Rose, an English major who won the prize for a paper in the humanities that took more than a quarter to complete, has been accepted to five graduate schools, including the University of Oxford, announced her faculty sponsor Joe Bristow, a UCLA English professor. Rose’s winning paper, a senior thesis that explored the legacy of Victorian era art historian and social reformer John Ruskin, was “the finest piece of undergraduate research I’ve ever had the honor or privilege of advising at UCLA,” Bristow said. “I know she will thrive in her future.”

Watch the entire ceremony.