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May 11, 2003

Campus Event Takes Show and Tell to New Level
By Daniel Yi

Ever wonder about the biochemistry of shark cartilage? Or what happened to Jews of medieval Spanish heritage? How about the subjective nature of Renaissance studies?

Those were just three of the 345 undergraduate research projects on display Saturday at the UC Irvine campus.

The 10th annual symposium had a record 503 student researchers this year, organizers said. The projects ranged from the natural sciences to humanities and performing arts.

The creator of one dance project, Nathan Hodges, warned his audience in the student center's Crystal Cove Auditorium that his "Benefits of a Catholic Education" might prove to be a "little intense."

In other rooms, students showcased their findings in 15-minute presentations, as professors, fellow students and the simply curious nodded in appreciation.

The halls were filled with glossy posters of more research projects. The biochemistry of shark cartilage, by the way, differs from species to species, according to preliminary research by biology student Jennie Beltran, and it may have to do with sharks' different lifestyles and habitat.

"We want students to ask themselves, 'Why am I interested in this topic? Why did I choose this major?' " said Said Shokair, director of UCI's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which funds the projects and organizes the symposium.

"A typical undergraduate education has students going through a set of courses required for a major and then they graduate," said Shokair. "We want students to invest in what they are learning."

That's what Pamina Elgueta did.

The 24-year-old senior spent the last year researching the Sephardi, Jews of medieval Spanish descent. Religious persecution during the Inquisition spread the Sephardi throughout Europe, Africa, North and South America, Asia, and the Middle East, Elgueta said during her presentation. They took with them Spanish traditions, customs and Ladino, a version of the Spanish spoken during medieval times.

She found small communities of Sephardic Jews in Orange and Los Angeles counties who were rapidly losing their heritage through assimilation.

"This has been pretty much my full-time job," Elgueta said of her research.

The native of Chile, who discovered her Sephardic heritage 13 years ago, is pursuing bachelor's degrees in English and Spanish literature.

Serious university research is usually found in post-graduate programs, but these UCI undergrads were not shy of heady subjects.

"Repositioning the Renaissance: An Analysis of Tasso's Crusade Narrative, Jerusalem Liberated" was the title of senior Alana Shilling's research project.

Simplified, her premise is that our understanding of cultural periods in history is misshaped by the subjective interpretation of those who came before us.

How does a 21-year-old research such esoteric subjects?

"The trick is to understand lengthy complex sentences with deep theoretical meaning," Shilling said. "But after you get past that, you are golden."

A double major in comparative literature and European studies, Shilling said she hopes to pursue a PhD. There is only one problem.

"Renaissance is not sexy" in the world of academic research, Shilling said. "It is not Angelina Jolie. It is not postmodern, cutting edge But I'm going to make Renaissance sexy."