“Push Beyond the Boundaries:” GS Students Share Research Experiences

Five GS participants in this year’s Columbia Undergraduate Research Symposium share the impact of research on their academic and professional trajectories.

November 29, 2023

Of the many characteristics that make Columbia such a unique and exciting place, its status as a top research university provides distinctive opportunities to students. Chances to engage in research abound, and these experiences can be invaluable academically and professionally.

At this year’s annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, over a dozen GS students presented their research projects alongside undergraduate peers from across the University. We spoke with five of them who shared the stories behind their projects, how research fits into their overall goals, and advice for fellow GSers interested in research.

Yardena Rubin '26GS

Yardena Rubin ‘26GS

Joint Program with the Jewish Theological Seminary, sustainable development major

Tell us about your research: the what, why, and how.

My research project, titled “Unveiling the Illusion: Exploring the Impact of Social Media on Travel Disconnect in Venice, Italy '' delves into the intriguing relationship between social media and our perception of travel experiences. Venice's unique setting served as the perfect backdrop for this exploration. My paper explores the specific impact of social media on over-tourism in Venice, uncovering how the incessant influx of tourists driven by online platforms has contributed to significant environmental challenges.

After spending two weeks in Venice through the Global Columbia Collaboratory: Water and the Future of Venice program with the Columbia Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement, I noticed many of the issues that over-tourism causes in Venice. Venice’s environment is under considerable stress due to the overwhelming influx of tourists driven by social media. This has resulted in many environmental concerns, such as increased pollution, erosion of historic structures, and challenges in waste management. This research became a way to bring awareness to the evolving dynamics of travel in the digital age, emphasizing the need for conscious and sustainable tourism practices, while harnessing the potential of social media as a tool for both education and global connection.

Why did you want to pursue a research opportunity, and how has it enriched your undergraduate experience? 

I wanted to pursue a research opportunity as it provided me with a unique chance to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application. Seeing the struggles faced by Venice due to over-tourism during my time in the city was a transformative experience. It not only deepened my understanding of the challenges cities like Venice encounter, but also ignited my passion for advocating sustainable tourism practices. This exposure inspired me to undertake this research project, using Venice as a case study that could serve as a model for addressing similar issues in other tourist destinations worldwide.

This research opportunity has greatly enriched my undergraduate experience by allowing me to apply the skills and concepts I've learned in the classroom to a real-world context. It has given me a platform to contribute to a pressing global issue while broadening my horizons and gaining a deeper appreciation for interdisciplinary approaches to complex problems. The insights and knowledge I've gained from this experience are invaluable in shaping my future career path and enabling me to contribute meaningfully to the development of solutions for similar challenges faced by other destinations worldwide. I aim to use this research as a stepping stone for further academic exploration, and to make a positive impact on the world by promoting responsible and sustainable travel practices.

What advice would you give to other students interested in research experiences?

My advice to students interested in research experiences is not to be afraid if you don't feel like you have the experience. Just go for it and research a topic you are genuinely interested in! Research is a journey of exploration and learning, and it's perfectly fine to start with limited experience. Taking that first step to explore what truly interests you can lead to a rewarding and enriching research experience.

Sami Omaish '26GS

Sami Omaish ‘25GS

Dual BA Program with Sciences Po, urban studies major

Tell us about your research: the what, why, and how.

I worked on a faculty-sponsored project through the Undergraduate Research Fellowship (URF). Specifically, this was a “Digital Humanities” project led by Dr. Lila Abu-Lughod from the Department of Anthropology compiling the life and work of one of her colleagues and friends, Dr. Michael Gilsenan, former professor of anthropology and Islamic studies at NYU. While I didn’t have much background in anthropology before completing this project, I had just completed two years specializing in the Middle East at the Menton campus of Sciences Po. 

Furthermore, my dad’s family comes from Jordan and Syria, and since I spent most of my childhood in the US, I have been working to reconnect with this part of my heritage. Thus, it was the focus on the Middle East that drew me to this project — Dr. Gilsenan completed field work in Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon, as well as with the Yemeni diaspora in Singapore and Malaysia. Additionally, Dr. Abu-Lughod herself completed fieldwork in Egypt and is a leading scholar on women’s rights and Islam.

Regarding the project itself, I worked with a research partner to transcribe and edit a series of interviews Dr. Gilsenan completed with various other scholars, primarily those specializing in Middle East and Islamic studies, about a variety of topics. Some interviews focused on his field work, others on his personal life. In the end, these interviews and their transcriptions will be published on a website that aims to serve as a “Festpod” — taking from the German word “Festschrift,” meaning a celebratory piece of writing, to in this case denote a celebratory “podcast” of Dr. Gilsenan’s long and accomplished academic career.

Why did you want to pursue a research opportunity, and how has it enriched your undergraduate experience? 

At the moment, I am not planning to work in academia after graduation, so this research experience was primarily aimed at deepening my current academic study rather than preparing for a future career. First of all, the opportunity to work with leading scholars in the fields that most interest me was an incredible experience in and of itself and furthered my interest in the Middle East. Furthermore, as the focus of our work was primarily anthropological, it offered a refreshing new perspective from the politics-focused study I did at Sciences Po. 

It gave me the chance to learn more about individual lived experiences — not just Dr. Gilsenan’s, but also those of the many locals he met during his years working in the field. I am so thankful to have been exposed to the work of both Dr. Gilsenan and Dr. Abu-Lughod, as much of their work — some of which I learned about from the research, others from reading their published books — has allowed me to see this region that I feel such a deep connection to through different angles and perspectives.

What advice would you give to other students interested in research experiences?

I participated in the URF program before even starting at Columbia, and I will admit that I was quite nervous. It ended up being an amazing experience, allowing me to explore Columbia and its incredible resources ahead of time and make the most of the 2 years I will spend here. Thus, all I can suggest is that if you’re interested in research, just go for it, regardless of your experience or background. Whether that means applying through the URF platform or emailing a professor, the worst answer you can get is a “no.” I didn’t even have formal research experience before starting, so this was the perfect way to begin. It has already opened the door to more opportunities with my former research advisors — over winter break, I’ll be helping Dr. Gilsenan with the latest book he’s writing!

Griffin Fadellin '24GS

Griffin Fadellin ‘24GS

Undergraduate, anthropology major

Tell us about your research: the what, why, and how.

My coworkers and I are research assistants for a qualitative study on the effects of data surveillance on college students under Dr. Madi Whitman from the Center for Science and Society and Professor Gil Eyal in the Department of Sociology. Through a survey and waves of interviews, we hope to learn what data privacy means to students, and how the realities of data collection impact the student experience. As undergraduate researchers, we help conduct, transcribe, and analyze interviews, collect and cite recent articles and studies, and we have the option of pursuing further lines of inquiry.

I first heard about the Center through a class called History of Science and Pseudoscience, which is co-taught by Dr. Madi Whitman and Professor Pamela Smith. When I saw there was a call for research assistants, I jumped at the chance. The topic is fascinating, and I have learned so much about conducting social science research from the process.

Why did you want to pursue a research opportunity, and how has it enriched your undergraduate experience? 

Exploring the ways in which culture shapes our everyday lives has been a passion of mine since I first encountered anthropology at community college. I had never really considered a technology-oriented approach to social science research, but learning about feminist science, technology, and society (STS) theory and methodology has broadened both the research questions I would like to pursue and the methods I can bring to a future research career.

What advice would you give to other students interested in research experiences?

Do not be afraid to push beyond the boundaries of what you are most familiar with. While data privacy was a major subject in the class I had taken, I was honest that I did not really consider myself a “techy” person when I applied for the research position. Now, I consider my research and experience within the field of STS to be a strength and skill set I can bring with me into a future career, be it academic or professional. Remember to be kind and patient with yourself and others, and never be afraid to learn something new.

Dominique Jenssen '24GS presenting her research

Dominique Jenssen ‘24GS

Undergraduate, environmental science major

Tell us about your research: the what, why, and how.

Before Columbia, I was a research assistant at Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth Minnesota, where I studied cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Superior. This research ignited my interest in these systems, and I started to fall in love with the microorganisms that occupied these spaces. As I transitioned into my new home [at Columbia], I familiarized myself with the different aquatic ecosystems of New York. This soon led to an interest in Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), a continued threat to the Long Island Sound (LIS).

I joined the Tzortziou Lab in October 2022 as a research intern in partnership with Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in pursuit of better understanding and protecting the coastal ecosystems I so dearly loved. My work with the lab focuses on the specific phytoplankton that cause a specific type of HAB called a Red Tide in LIS., the majority of which are diatoms and dinoflagellates. Phytoplankton are single-celled microorganisms responsible for most of the planet’s photosynthesis, and are critical to our world’s food web and the integration of carbon into the ocean. Once naturally regulated, this community of microorganisms has been corrupted by climate change and anthropogenic pressures through increasing temperatures, and pollution like nutrient rich runoff from Long Island.  Red Tide occurs when these microorganisms grow excessively. A fateful imbalance that causes repercussions for the entire surrounding community.

To better understand these occurrences, part of my day-to-day work is assisting in analyzing images of these incredible microorganisms and determining which types of phytoplankton are abundant in the LIS when Red Tides occur. The images are from actual water samples of LIS through a Flowcam, a technology developed specifically for the task at hand. Using Flowcam, we can image and characterize the phytoplankton through flowing water. In a liter of LIS water, there may be hundreds of thousands of phytoplankton (or more!), so the water is analyzed in very small increments. I find the phytoplankton often appear beautiful and whimsical. The beautiful shapes and textures found in these organisms, hidden by their size, are never seen except when you have the opportunity to use a microscope. 

Why did you want to pursue a research opportunity, and how has it enriched your GS experience? 

I initially pursued research as I found a posting through work-study, and I knew I wanted a job that would help me with my future professional goals. I have gained so much more than I ever imagined! I am not only grateful for the opportunity to work with such dedicated scientists who are the leaders in their fields, I am building a skillset that will benefit me in whatever sector I end up in next. Through this research I have had incredible networking opportunities and professional development such as interacting with various private and governmental agencies, presenting at conferences, and working on outreach projects. Beyond professional skills, I found my research enhanced my academic pursuits as I had real world applications for many of the concepts we are learning in the classroom.

What advice would you give to other students interested in research experiences?

Talk to people! While many of my research experiences came from a more formal process such as an application to an internship or job posting, I discovered these opportunities through talking to people about the things I am interested in. This list includes professors, TAs, fellow classmates – sometimes complete strangers! These opportunities can build skills beyond the technical aspects of your research; many are quite universal such as project management, communication, public speaking, and problem solving.

Heyuan Yao '24GS

Heyuan Yao ‘24GS 

Joint Degree Program with the City University of Hong Kong, mathematics-statistics major

Tell us about your research: the what, why, and how.

This summer, I participated in the Department of Statistics’ Summer Internship Program, engaging in the project “A comparative study of two indexes of inequality: The Gini coefficient in Economics, and the Gini index in machine learning.” My motivation for selecting this project stemmed from a keen interest in the core research area of probability theory. 

Throughout the internship, my primary responsibilities involved conducting literature reviews, developing theoretical frameworks, and performing numerical computations and simulations. Given the inherently mathematical nature of the work, I predominantly carried out the research using traditional tools such as paper and pens.

Why did you want to pursue a research opportunity, and how has it enriched your GS experience? 

One of the important reasons I pursue undergraduate research opportunities is to prepare for future graduate applications and research endeavors. You can also check if you really love to do research and are suitable to conduct research. In addition, trying research not only lets me apply my knowledge learned from coursework to some special topics, but also helps shape my choices for major electives and potential subfields within mathematics and statistics. 

During my research experience, I received invaluable guidance and suggestions from my groupmates (my supervisors and their PhD students, and some coauthors). The academic interactions within this collaborative environment have enhanced my individual capabilities and fostered a sense of teamwork that extends beyond the confines of short-term projects with my classmates.

What advice would you give to other students interested in research experiences?

The following suggestions are particularly beneficial for students intending to explore research in mathematics and (theoretical) statistics. In addition to fulfilling mandatory coursework requirements in calculus, linear algebra, and ordinary differential equations (ODE), it is highly advisable to enroll in 4000-level courses, especially real analysis and probability theory in the department of mathematics. These measure theory-based courses will establish you a robust foundation, facilitating ease in comprehending scholarly articles and composing essays. Furthermore, both the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Statistics actively welcome historically underrepresented students and those with non-traditional experiences, with GS students often holding a more competitive edge. 

I also recommend exploring summer REU programs hosted by various institutions. The American Mathematical Society's website provides a comprehensive list of programs. The programs held by Williams College (SMALL), UChicago, and the University of Minnesota are highly recommended; competitive but rewarding.

*Parts of the Q&A with Dominique Jenssen were adapted from an unpublished blog for the Tzortziou Bio-Optics website, credit to communication intern Ella Jacobs

**Updated 12/4/2023 with the addition of reflections from Heyuan Yao