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November 23, 2003

Rabbit Diets Were Just for Starters
By David Reyes

For Cal State L.A. student Maira Soto, it's all about the jojoba oil.

On Saturday, the 21-year-old senior joined more than 550 other students from 90 institutions who presented their undergraduate research projects at UC Irvine.

Hers was titled: "The Influence of Dietary Jojoba Oil on Cholesterol Metabolism in Cholesterol-fed Rabbits."

The idea behind the conference was to encourage undergraduates to become involved with academic research, "something that ultimately may promote a passion," said Said M. Shokair, director of UC Irvine's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which funds the projects and organized the conference.

"We encourage all types of research, and it doesn't have to be in their field of study. A science major can study dance, for example," he said.

Soto's findings on the dietary habits of rabbits and jojoba oil were offered during a 15-minute presentation that allowed her to flex her communication skills while giving her research skills a break.

Don't worry. The rabbits lived, she said.

She chose them as lab animals because, next to primates, they are closest to humans in terms of cholesterol metabolism. "Primates are too expensive," she said.

She was trying to show that rabbits could regulate enzymes by changing their diets, and her data showed she succeeded.

Her mentor, Raymond Garcia, a professor of biochemistry at Cal State L.A., said he was adamant that she attend the conference because it gives students presentation experience. "And it also gives them a chance to see what other students are doing," he said.

Research ranged from the natural sciences to the arts, and included topics such as making robotic fish float and determining the meaning behind religious bumper stickers.

One of the hot topics at the conference was MEMS — short for microelectromechanical systems — which are tiny mechanical devices made with integrated-circuit technology.

The term "MEMS" joined the lexicon of academia only 15 years ago, said William C. Tang, UC Irvine's professor of biomedical engineering. Tang led a discussion that captivated Karan Kumar, 19, a UC Irvine sophomore from the Bay Area city of Martinez.

Kumar said he was helping another UC Irvine physics professor do research on detecting how particles collide. But he said he may want to study MEMS, because they have applications that go beyond lab research.

Vehicle air bags, microwave ovens, inkjet printers and new toys using pressure sensors are just a few of the items that employ the tiny mechanical devices, Tang said.

The halls of the student center were filled with posters explaining dozens of other projects. Christine M. Rodrigue, chairwoman of the Cal State Long Beach geography department, was the mentor for a project on the Oakland hills firestorm in 1991.

Rodrigue's three students — Leslie Edwards, Doreen Jeffrey and Leeta Latham — said their project was timely, given California's recent spate of fires.

Jeffrey, 44, a senior geography major, said some of their recommendations matched those offered by fire officials more than a decade ago: reduced housing density and wider roads.

The students said they learned a valuable lesson in human nature. "They rebuilt their homes anyway with the same street width and also the same number of homes," Jeffrey said, adding that the public's interest in safety seems "brief, like it only lasts a few weeks."