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Cal Poly Alumna’s Undergraduate Research Awarded Top Honor at Social Sciences Conference

Cal Poly 2014 social sciences graduate Mikaela Vournas recently received the Charles McCall Best Undergraduate Paper Award at the 40th annual California State University (CSU) Social Science Student Symposium.

The symposium, supported by the Social Science Research & Instructional Center (SSRIC), was held at Sacramento State. Scholars from across the state gathered to share social science-related research on topics such as education and policy, psychology and media, and health and race/ethnicity issues.

Mikaela VournasVournas’ paper, “Mapping Motivations: Nutrition in Transition in Fiji,” won the highest honor at the conference. The paper documents her research findings collected in Fiji during summer 2014. The paper combines the study of people and cultures and GIS (geographic information systems) practices to explore how seven families in a rural Fijian village make food choices and what motivates their dietary preferences.

The results indicated that the families consumed no less than 52 percent of store-bought food. Social sciences Professor Dawn Neill, who initiated the research expedition and leads the project, noted that convenience was a greater motivating factor in dietary choices than maximizing energy. Neill found that the project’s tentative results move against the optimal foraging model in which humans make food choices that provide the most calories for the least amount of labor. Instead, Vournas’s paper establishes convenience as a factor encouraging Fiji’s transition from a rural to urban food economy.

“In terms of the academic intellectual component, we can actually see how people are making these transitional diet changes. We are understanding how humans think, in terms of our evolution and ecological knowledge,” Neill said.

Vournas, an undergraduate during the Fiji trip, enjoyed a rare opportunity of contributing to the project from inception. Her work has helped introduce the project to the public and will likely set the groundwork for its continued collaboration of scholars and undergraduate students.

Vournas' paper and 15-minute presentation was a distillation of her 100-page senior project and work about Fiji.

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