SPARC scholars pursue research directions

From earthquake mapping to family obesity prevention, USC graduate students who received the SPARC Graduate Research Fellowship embarked on innovative research journeys this past summer.

Last year, the Office of the Vice President for Research launched the SPARC (Support to Promote Research and Creativity) Graduate Research Fellowship program to promote research and scholarly activity pursued by graduate students at USC.

Spanning all disciplines at USC, SPARC grant recipients are required to write a grant proposal. Faculty reviewers select the proposals to be awarded up to $5,000 for a research or creative project. More than 50 research and creative projects were funded to students representing nine different academic units this year.

This fellowship has enabled students like Ben Haywood, Danielle Schoffman, Erin Derrick and Alma Sehic to pursue new and exciting research or creative directions during their graduate career at USC.


Ben Haywood - Geography 

“Perhaps we need to start looking more at the personal value of citizen science participation itself instead of focusing squarely on cognitive outcomes,” said 30-year-old Ben Haywood, a graduate student in the geography department of the College of Arts and Sciences and SPARC grant recipient. That interest led Haywood down a path that started with a personal fascination with birds and has recently culminated with his summer SPARC-funded research project focused on volunteers who monitor birds and beaches along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. 

Dubbed “citizen scientists,” teams of volunteer scientists travel up and down northwest U.S. beaches surveying beached seabirds and observing the coastline. Haywood spent the summer learning about the relationships between participants in the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Teams (COASST) and the beaches where they survey.  Haywood sees himself pursuing a career that rests between academic and practitioner worlds, conducting research but also engaging in science and environmental education with nonprofit or educational organizations. 

Although interested in the long-term ecological monitoring COASST volunteers conduct,  Haywood’s SPARC project primarily examines changes in the people — not birds — that participate in citizen science and how their experiences have impacted the level of attachment and connection to certain places and the environment. 

“As a nature society geographer, I utilize tenets from cultural and political ecology to dig into the relationships between people and the natural world. As a bonus, working with programs like COASST, I get to interact with everyday citizens who really want to make a tangible impact on their community” Haywood said.


Danielle Schoffman - Public Health 

When California native Danielle Schoffman made the trek from Stanford University to famously hot Columbia, she settled in and adapted her graduate research accordingly. Taking a unique approach to the popular topic of obesity, Schoffman’s SPARC project will test commercially available mobile apps for healthy eating and physical activity for family obesity prevention. 

“Research shows that for successful weight loss in kids, we must incorporate physical activity tracking, monitoring healthy eating habits and parent-child communication,” Schoffman said. 

Schoffman’s SPARC project focuses on identifying existing problems with obesity preventing mobile apps, conducting focus groups and then developing a prototype for an entirely new mobile app based on participants’ needs. 

The 27-year-old is pursuing a doctorate in the Arnold School of Public Health focused on health promotion, education and behavior and is excited about the possibilities of her research. Along with her faculty adviser Brie Turner-McGrievy, Schoffman identified there was a significant gap in theory-based research on mobile apps for both children and adults. 

“Mobile health is a young but growing field,” Turner-McGrievy said. “Danielle is a student with impactful ideas and the ability to see them through.”


Erin Derrick - Geology

Few people know that Summerville, S.C., is home to an area of active seismicity, a zone of earthquakes, which is also the site of the 1886 magnitude 7 Great Charleston Earthquake. Erin Derrick’s SPARC research will propose a new structure for the fault line, which will impact public safety in that area as well as provide undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to conduct geology field research. 

One of three Taber Fellowship scholars in the school of geology in the College of Arts and Sciences, Derrick is excited to continue her research in Summerville. Her team of geology students will use “seismic refraction,” a process using seismic waves to map underground, to determine a safer structure for the area. 

“Nobody has yet imaged this fault through seismic refraction and after this project is completed, it will pave the way for future public safety initiatives in earthquake zones,” Derrick said. 

Derrick’s faculty adviser, Jim Knapp, highlights the future implications of her work.

“Through her SPARC research we have the potential to redefine 100 years of past research on the Summerville fault lines,” Knapp said. “Going forward, this will have major impact on geological science and public safety hazard information for South Carolina.”


Alma Sehic - Music 

Few people fully understand the intricate relationship between a person’s physical anatomy and musical instruments, but graduate student Alma Sehic aims to learn and teach an innovative technique called “body mapping” explaining that relationship. 

“Body mapping” is a highly advanced technique designed for upper-level musicians who want to better understand the relationship between anatomy and movement and use that knowledge to enhance their playing abilities as well as reduce tension and risk of injury while playing. 

“Alma has the constellation of skills to make a major contribution to classical guitar technique which gives her insight into the ultimate goal of high-level training,” said Christopher Berg, Sehic’s faculty adviser. 

Sehic’s SPARC project will fund extensive education in body mapping and subsequent studies of movements used by guitar players. She will undergo years of training in this technique to approach the end goal — being certified to teach a course for other musicians and educators alike. 

“Once you understand your own anatomy, you can discover misguided connections and errors in playing,” Sehic said. “After a personal injury in my left hand, I recognized the need for education in physiology of movement for musicians all over the world.”

As an adjunct guitar professor in the USC School of Music, Sehic’s students are equally excited about the possibilities for education in body mapping. Continuing education is a valuable resource for guitarists, and Sehic credits the SPARC program for granting her the privilege to study body mapping to the best of her ability.


For graduate students interested in pursuing a research or creative project and would like more information regarding the SPARC program, visit the websiteNext SPARC deadline: Oct. 10

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