5 Takeaways from the SURF Info Session

room of students listening to student panel and professor

Students hear from undergrad researchers and faculty about summer funding opportunities

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending my first Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Information Session. Now I’ve been conducting research for close to 20 years now, but revisiting the beginnings of the journey into research through the eyes of UNC undergrads was such a great experience! This is one of those programs I would’ve loved to have when I was first entering the realm of research. That being said, there was so much information provided that I could see it being a bit overwhelming for anyone to process or try to explain. As such, here are what I consider the main takeaways from my first SURF Info Session.

1. Research is about creating new knowledge
At its core, research is about asking new questions and getting answers to them so you can contribute to the larger body of knowledge. That means finding a topic that you think is interesting, learning more about it, and identifying questions or gaps in knowledge that no one else has thought about yet. For this, I think the fresh perspective of undergraduates is great – it is often new eyes on an old problem that creates some of the most innovative research.

2. There are LOTS of details to consider
It starts with a question, but that’s just the start. In addition to coming up with Specific Aims of the research (i.e. what you intend to create, invent, or discover), you have to think about the Significance (or what makes your research, invention, or creation important), any Preliminary Work or background information about what you or others might have previously done on the topic, the Methods or steps you will take to complete you project, and what Products will come of the research, whether it be a performance, a publication, an invention, or a website. Taken one item at a time, each step feels much more manageable, but it does take a bit of preparation. Which bring me to the next takeaway…

3. Planning is essential
Considering the details that going into developing a research proposal, it takes some time and planning to get everything together. Plus, finding the right faculty advisor to fit your research interests can take a little while. Having the freedom to conduct your own research is a great feeling, but it also means you have to put together the parts that make a successful project in a way that no one but you can determine.

4. There are TONS of people who want to help
For a 90-minute session, there were a lot of people talking about ways they could help – from SURF Peer Writing Advisors to OUR Ambassadors to The Writing Center to staff at OUR, there seems to be someone to answer any question you might have about applying for summer undergraduate research funding. There are plenty of OUR Resources for those that are just getting started with research or still developing their questions as well.

5. UNC undergrads have some great ideas
I personally had the chance to speak with a student who was interested in combining her computer science major with her pre-med interests, another student interested in health economics research, and yet another who was interested in looking at how international policies affected the lives of people in Lebanon. That doesn’t even touch all the previous SURF projects that UNC undergraduate researchers have completed through the years.

While research isn’t for everyone, it is open to everyone and applying for a SURF can help emerging undergraduate researchers see where their curiosity takes them.

Why Present at a Research Conference?

Syracuse University will be hosting the 2016 Meeting of the Minds

Syracuse University will be hosting the 2016 Meeting of the Minds

With the deadline to submit an application for funding to attend the ACC Meeting of the Minds Conference rapidly approaching, I can’t help but reflect on my first (missed) opportunity to present my work at a conference. As an undergrad, I had been working in the lab of one of the faculty members in my department. She had submitted an abstract to an upcoming conference and said I was welcome to come if I wanted but there wouldn’t be any financial support for me to go. It sounded like a nice idea, but I didn’t think much of it beyond that conversation. Looking back on it now, I realize how beneficial it would have been for me as a budding researcher to present my work at a conference. It would’ve given me a sense of ownership over my work and introduced me to how big a part of talking about your work is to the conduct of research. To that end, here are a few things to think about if you’re considering presenting your research at a conference or unsure why academics talk about it so much.

 

1. No one will know about your work unless you tell them.
The point of conducting research is to add to the larger body of knowledge about a field. The only way to do that is to engage in the conversations about the topic(s) you’re studying. Those conversations usually take on two primary forms in academia and research: journal publications and conference presentations. The added benefit of talking about your work in a conference is that you get to hear questions and interact with others interested in your work. Speaking in front of people can be scary, especially at first, but you’re the expert at what you’re researching since you’re looking at things no one else has, and it can actually be pretty helpful to remember that when other researchers show an interest in the work you’re doing (and potentially how it relates to their work as well).

 

2. It is an opportunity to talk out some of the things you’re working through with colleagues.
Analysis is at the heart of research – it is where you make meaning of all the data you’ve collected and get to why the work matters to the larger body of knowledge in the field. That takes time, thought, and often bouncing ideas off other researchers. There are few better ways to do that than to present your ongoing work at a research conference. Because conference presentations are less permanent and less often cited or referenced in academic writing, they’re an opportunity to engage with others interested in your topic, hear questions and provide clarification, and see through fresh eyes where you might have blind spots in your own thinking.

 

3. One of the best parts of presenting is getting a chance to listen.
Typically, conference presentations happen in chunks at a time with several speakers organized around a unifying theme. As a presenter, you get to talk about your research at the same time that you get to hear about people doing related work. The conference organizers have shown you how your research fits into the broader scope of knowledge being produced in your field of study. Often, that will give you an opportunity to get to know others doing the same kind of work you’re doing (i.e. networking) and find potential collaborators for future research projects. Additionally, you get to listen to what others think of your work, which can lead you in new research directions.

 

If you’re a researcher, strongly consider presenting your work at a conference (especially one like the ACC Meeting of the Minds where you can present with fellow undergraduate researchers). If you’ve never conducted research but think you might be interested in doing so in the future, consider attending a conference to find out more about what research is all about!

 

Yesenia Merino: OUR Outreach Coordinator

Yesenia Merino, OUR Outreach Coordinator

Yesenia Merino, OUR Outreach Coordinator

Greetings! I’m a PhD student in Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and have the immense privilege of joining the OUR team as Outreach Coordinator. I grew up just outside of Washington, DC in Northern Virginia where I got my BS in Biology from George Mason University. Before coming to Chapel Hill, I lived in Atlanta, GA for a couple of years while getting my MPH in Behavioral Sciences & Health Education from Emory University. As one of my first tasks as OUR Outreach Coordinator, I would like to introduce myself to this enthusiastic community of scholars and researchers by telling you a little about how I got to this place in my career and what has me so excited about working with undergraduate researchers.

Like many first generation students, I went into college with a lot of drive to succeed and willingness to learn, but no clear roadmap for the path ahead. In my junior year, I was taking a medical microbiology course taught by the chair of my department. Having been fascinated by microbiology for a long time, I talked to the chair about doing some sort of lab study on my own since the questions I asked were outside of the scope of any of the available coursework. After some discussion, the chair and I agreed I would work in her lab for a two-credit independent study course.

I LOVED IT. But I also realized bench research wasn’t for me.

There was something great about 4am growth curve data collections and getting to work with equipment most people couldn’t even pronounce. One time, I spent the more than two weeks obsessively trying to figure out why my bacteria turned bright blue rather than pale pink like I was expecting. But there were also plenty of times where I was in the lab by myself for hours, working on a project that I couldn’t talk about with very many people because this wasn’t exactly one of my 300-person lecture classes. As much as I enjoyed bench research, I realized that once I graduated I would need to look for jobs that allowed me to interact with people on a regular basis. These were things I couldn’t possibly have learned as an undergraduate without having conducted research outside my coursework.

Outreach at the National Mall in DC during a rally

Outreach at the National Mall in DC during a rally

I went to work in outreach and education, where I got to use the knowledge I learned in school but still had constant interaction with others. But my interest in developing new knowledges never left me. Eventually, I ended up in clinical research where I got to interact with people constantly, still used my biological knowledge, and was able to participate in the development of new knowledge. My decision to come back to school to get a PhD was largely informed by my desire to make greater contributions to the development of new health knowledges. I reached the point in my career where I had questions of my own and I felt ready to set about getting answers to questions I had but didn’t hear anyone else asking in public health.

Now here I am, training at UNC to become an independent researcher with the same fascination for learning and pushing boundaries that I had as an undergraduate student. Most of the work I do is interdisciplinary (I especially like working with arts and humanities researchers since they offer such a fresh perspective on health topics), so I very much look forward to talking with students from different disciplines about how their interests might lend themselves to research. I’m now getting the opportunity to talk with others who are passionately curious but may not be sure where to go to get answers to them. I’m one of those people who tend to get most news from carefully curated sources on Facebook and Twitter, so I’m excited about connecting with students and academics who do the same. Having worked in evaluation for several years now, I’m also looking for suggestions and ways for improving existing programs so I’m thrilled that I will have the chance to do so here at OUR. In my own work as a participatory researcher and now in my position as Outreach Coordinator, my goal is always to get more people involved in research so we can ask better questions and get better answers. I get to combine my excitement about all kinds of research with my incessant need to connect with people.

What could be better?!

Exploring Diabetes Prevention and Management in Chennai, India

– written by Pranati Panuganti, SURF Recipient

The Health Sciences Library

The Health Sciences Library

Many Indians like my grandmother are suffering from diabetes and other chronic diseases, which motivated me to pursue a summer internship at the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation (MDRF) in Chennai, India. My two-month stay in this urban city served a two-fold purpose: (1) To learn how food, culture, and other lifestyle practices influence the rapidly escalating prevalence of diabetes in Chennai, and (2) To analyze the effectiveness of a school-based intervention in teaching Chennai’s youth about diabetes.

At MDRF, I was a research assistant for the ORANGE study: Obesity Reduction, Awareness, and Screening for Non-communicable diseases through Group Education. Phase I of this study is a screener for diabetes risk factors in 2,000 randomly selected children from residential colonies in Chennai. During our 7:00AM field visits on Saturday mornings, my team performed anthropometric measurements, an oral glucose tolerance test, and administered a questionnaire about the child’s lifestyle practices. A trend I noticed among many participants is they do not willingly engage in sports or exercise. Rather, their physical activity seems to come from activities of daily living, such as getting to and from work.

After screening for diabetes in these colonies, select individuals with pre-diabetes or diabetes were invited to Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Hospital for consultation. I met an 11-year old research participant who attends a boarding school where he only learns Sanskrit, and no math, science, or English. When the diabetologist asked about playtime, the boy’s eyes widened and he shook his hands to exclaim, “No! We are beaten if not studying!” I have learned this boy is one of many children in India who face barriers to healthy living stemming from illiteracy. Without being able to read and write, it is difficult for people like him to learn from intervention strategies and health promotion programs, such as pamphlets, posters, and presentations.

Phase II of the ORANGE study involved a school-based co-curriculum intervention for diabetes awareness and self-management training in children and adolescents across Chennai. I analyzed intervention results and identified several emerging themes. First, I found that students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) had trouble distinguishing non-communicable and infectious diseases. For example, many students from low SES suggested sanitation as a healthy habit to prevent diabetes. Among students of high SES, many mistakenly associate an expensive lifestyle with a healthy lifestyle. Finally, among both low and high SES students, there seems to be a lack of awareness of physical activity and an increased emphasis on diet as healthy behaviors to prevent or manage diabetes.

These issues and emerging themes call for two restructured intervention programs, one tailored towards students from low SES and one for those from high SES. This experience has taught me that improving the health of low-income populations depends on meeting the basic, grass-root needs of the people (such as clean water, clothing, and literacy), before intervening to improve diabetes prevention and management.

For more details & pictures, stop by my blog at: www.pranatiloveschennai.wordpress.com

 

Samuel Harper, the Search for Answers, and the Heart of Research

– written by Griffin Creech, SURF Recipient

A 1916 photo of Harper attached to his passport. Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Special Collections Archive, Samuel N. Harper Papers, Box 3, Folder 2.

A 1916 photo of Harper attached to his passport. Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Special Collections Archive, Samuel N. Harper Papers, Box 3, Folder 2.

The Cold War. American intellectuals. The Russian Revolution. What do these terms make you think of? Your mind probably flashes to duck and cover drills, men wearing bowties and monocles, and Lenin. In order to get to know a man who probably wore a monocle and, certainly, a bowtie, I spent this summer in the University of Chicago’s Special Collections archive examining thousands of documents dated between 1916 to 1921. This intellectual was Samuel Harper, professor at the University of Chicago from 1915 to 1943, the first American to devote an academic career to studying Russia, and the protagonist of my senior honors thesis in history.

I set out to examine Harper’s intellectual role in forming American attitudes towards the Soviet Union. As I stood in front of the archives before beginning my research, I thought I knew what I would find inside: a record of every lecture and exam that Harper ever gave at the university. These documents, I believed, would show me how Harper interpreted the Russian revolutions of 1917 to undergraduates in his classes and how he used his academic position to form a strictly intellectual framework for interpreting Russia that would become important during the Cold War. I had a preconceived answer to my research question, yet no evidence to confirm it.

Yet, that day I found letters linking Harper to American corporate tycoons including Henry Ford and International Harvester Corporation executives. As my search continued, other similar documents emerged until I was at an impasse. Was Harper really just a university professor, or was his intellectual and political legacy more complex?

The University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library and the home of the Samuel N. Harper Papers. Photo courtesy of Griffin B. Creech

The University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library and the home of the Samuel N. Harper Papers. Photo courtesy of Griffin B. Creech

It turned out that Harper was far more than a professor. He spent most of 1916 acting as a go-between for American business interests, informing them on how to claim a stake in the economic renaissance that he believed was transforming Russia’s “backward” economy and political traditions. Optimistic over the country’s prospects for democracy, Harper broadcasted his analysis in American newspapers, speeches to civic groups, and a shockingly small amount of university lectures. His interpretation, I discovered, had little sympathy for far-left parties like the Bolsheviks, who came to power in 1917. So, Harper had helped to construct the Cold War’s intellectual framework; he simply hadn’t done it in the way I expected.

This conundrum perfectly encapsulates the research experience that my SURF made possible this summer and summarizes what I would change if I could repeat my experience: not beginning my research with a preconceived notion of what I would find. If I had to leave my readers with a message, it would be that the foundation of research lies in understanding what we don’t know or in disproving that which we accept. Having one’s preconceived notions challenged is a positive thing, and I would argue that it is exactly this that a SURF makes possible. So, apply for one, get ready to have your ideas challenged, and accept that knowledge stems from being open to an array of answers.

Beyond Words: A Comparative Analysis of the Symbolic Role of Silence in Two Monastic Communities—Oriental and Occidental

– written by Rukmini Deva, SURF Recipient

Rukmini with Father Kevin in Mepkin Abbey Monastery, SC

Rukmini with Father Kevin in Mepkin Abbey Monastery, SC

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A periodical decree of silence is not a torture, but a blessing.” This summer, I embarked on a quest to understand why “silence is golden” in both eastern and western religious doctrines. Monastic silence is of particular interest to me, since it indicates a lifetime of voluntary commitment to silence and/or “stillness.” In order to explore this topic further, I visited monasteries around the world but selected two monastic communities to study in depth: a Trappist monastery of fourteen Catholic monks in South Carolina, and a Yogoda ashram monastery of Swamis in India. Through an ethnographic characterization of the symbolic role of silence in the spiritual practices of these two groups of monks, I explored how and why silence is used as a vehicle of deeper thought and spiritual experience within their respective communities.

After days of participant observation and interviews*, I understood how meaningful silence is to these monks. Being a medium of thought, exploration and awe, silence is one of the greatest shapers of the monastic experience. Although the techniques of attaining silence differ for occidental Trappist monks and oriental Kriya Yogis, and the understanding of term “silence” differs as well, the ultimate purpose is common: God-contact. Having years of spiritual experience, these monks understand the occasional temptations, spiritual dryness, and distractions which result during silent meditation. Yet, they are adept at maneuvering their minds God-ward despite “inner demons.” They use will-power and persistence to accomplish their highest spiritual aspirations.

I was touched by their eager willingness to verbalize a sacred, inner journey, so honestly with me. One Trappist monk stated, “Monastic silence has not been easy for me. But it’s certainly the most fulfilling, and it allowed my deeper self to come out faster than anything else.”

Rukmini at a Yogoda Ashram Monastery in India (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India)

Rukmini at a Yogoda Ashram Monastery in India (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India)

Each monk I interviewed left me with a different thought to ponder. A Trappist monk, for example, suggested that ideal silence consists of being comfortable with oneself; people often distract themselves with noise so they do not have to face their inner selves. A Kriya Yogi stated that “motion is the death of spirituality.” It is in true stillness that God can be heard and found. Therefore, it is not surprising that the words “silent” and “listen” consist of the same letters!

While silence was not the goal for either community of monks, it was a means to achieve spiritual attainment. The Kriya Yogis understood this silence as mental and physical stillness while the Trappists understood it as a space for contemplative prayer.

These individual monastic narratives have helped me to appreciate silence as something tangible and worth practicing.

*This human participants’ research was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB)

Appreciation for Comparative Literature 460

– written by Morgan Welch, B.A. Anthropology and Archaeology, minor in Social and Economic Justice, Class of ’15

Study Session for Final, Roy Rice Photography

Study Session for Final, Roy Rice Photography

I am writing this in extreme appreciation for my course Comparative Literature: Transnational Romanticism with Professor Janice Koelb (CMPL 460). I wanted to stress that this course allowed me to pursue diverse and in-depth research topics, and was the best taught research-focused course I found in my undergraduate career.

The seminar format of the class facilitated communication between students and student/professor interactions. I found that the structured research of the class led me to use both online and print resources I didn’t know existed before this class, and I particularly enjoyed using the Articles + feature from the UNC library. I found that having a clear research focus throughout the class allowed for me to develop my ideas more clearly, and get feedback at every step of the writing process. We utilized an open forum concept following project presentations, as well as individual meetings with a graduate student to workshop our research methods, questions, and process.

The course also made clear the importance of interdisciplinary considerations from work, and the blending of visual and written art to convey thematic ideas in a creative format. We were able to benefit from a visit to the Ackland, after reading essays that critically discussed paintings that were available to the public there. We also had the privilege of seeing Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, following a close reading and discussion with the director about the motivations behind his interpretation of the play.

I was exposed to essays, discourses, novels, and poetry that challenged my conceptions of the Romantic movement, and also expanded my artistic tastes. I can honestly enjoy museums and poetry much more, now that I have learned more about how to properly analyze what is being said. I have also come to appreciate the role of poet as social critic, and found that poetry written centuries ago is aptly able to describe emotions and concerns that are relevant to me.

I feel that this class has impacted me in a profound way, and this is due to Professor Koelb. She is so genuine and gifted at helping students reach their potential. She has made me a better student, and not only expects greatness, but nurtures it through a responsive and kind teaching style. All her assignments are clearly linked to the goals of the course, and I appreciate the clarity and creativeness that her classes foster. This is a sentiment shared by all of Dr. Koelb’s students.

Thank you for your time, and for your support for undergraduate research on campus!

Note: You can read this related post on the GRC Blog from Rachael Isom, the Graduate Research Consultant in the course.

A Sleepy Summer on Campus: Conducting Sleep Research, that is!

– written by Lindsey Freeman, senior SURF Recipient

As a SURF recipient this summer, I got a head start on collecting data for my senior Honors Thesis. I’m interested in investigating how different wavelengths of light (manipulated through the use of colored glasses) impact circadian rhythm, daytime energy level, and mood. Blue light emitted from artificial light sources at night can suppress melatonin synthesis, and can make people feel less tired. Theoretically, filtering out this blue light with amber-tinted glasses could mimic the effects of darkness and allow for the natural production of melatonin, despite our continuing light-emitting device usage.

To investigate the effects of these glasses, I got the chance to work with human participants. This meant that I had to draft, submit, and revise my first IRB ethics application. There was a lot of prep-work involved before I could start the protocol after Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, though. This study uses Ecological Momentary Assessment in studying the constructs of sleep, energy, and mood, which simply means that I want to study how people are feeling in the moment, at random time points throughout the day. To achieve this, I worked with one of my faculty co-investigators to modify a programming script she had written to automatically send my survey links via text message to the participants. After some initial debugging and troubleshooting, I was able to get 14 participants completely through the 18-day protocol. For me, this meant that I had to meet with each of the participants at separate times to go over the consent form and hand out the first pair of colored glasses, meet with them again halfway through the study so that they could exchange their glasses for a second, different-colored pair, and again at the conclusion of the study for them to return their glasses and to get debriefed/compensated. Additionally, I was involved in writing more computer code to merge and clean my data files, and I was involved in conducting preliminary data analysis to lay the foundation for further analyses with a larger sample.

Lindsey Freeman

Participants were asked to send in “selfies” of themselves wearing the glasses each night to track their adherence to protocol—This is my example!

Through this experience, I gained skills working with the R programming environment (R: A language and environment for statistical computing.) for data cleaning and automating tasks. My organizational skills have also improved: I’ve had to keep track of different bursts of participants and have had to check in on their survey completion, often needing to troubleshoot if the survey technology fails to cooperate. I have also sharpened my analytical skills, brushing up on what I’ve learned in introductory statistics classes.

This project has affirmed my interest in a career dealing with psychological research. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed researching this topic and have learned a great deal from each step of the process. Although it can be frustrating sometimes, the rewards of psychological research encourage me to continue conducting research to some degree in the future. Depending on the results of this study (which is still ongoing), I would love to conduct future research to see how amber-lensed glasses perform in clinical populations (particularly in those with bipolar disorder or depression, including post-partum depression). Special thanks to Dr. Eric Youngstrom, Dr. Nisha Gottfredson, and Tate Halverson for their tremendous help with this project.

Welcome to the Fall 2015 Semester

We are also happy to see and feel the energy that comes with the start of a new semester. As you’re thinking about your undergraduate research career here at Carolina, don’t forget about OUR resources and support.

You can talk with an OUR student Ambassador or Department Liaison for advice and support.

Check out opportunities that have been posted in the Database of Research Opportunities.

Review the criteria to be a Carolina Research Scholar and plan to earn this transcript designation.

Check out our Fall Event and our SURF Information Session schedule.

Read the OUR Blog, sign up for the biweekly e-newsletter, follow our Twitter feed and like us on Facebook.

A Different Kind of Semester — Research at a North Carolina Field Site

– written by Andrea Stewart, OUR Ambassador and Environmental Science major

The Institute for the Environment at UNC is praised for its network of field sites, where students can venture for a semester in North Carolina or abroad and do coursework, take field trips, hold internships, and perform group research projects. As an environmental science major with a concentration in natural resources and conservation, I chose the Highlands Field Site, a beautiful place in the NC mountains known for its high biodiversity. Little did I know that through this program, I would have the opportunity to study at Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, home to one of the oldest continuous environmental studies in North America.

A waterfall in the experimental watershed

A waterfall in the experimental watershed

I was assigned a research internship at Coweeta and visited the lab several times each week in the fall semester of my junior year. My mentor was an ecologist who is interested in studying the effects of logging on forest vegetation dynamics. Research at Coweeta usually focuses on one or more watersheds, or areas of land where all the water flows to the same location. In our study, we examined a watershed that was partially logged by researchers in the 1950s. We asked – how was this forest changed over the past 60 years?

To answer that question, I trekked into the field, a mountainous forest that ranged in elevation over 1300 feet. I located large plots that were established in the 1930s to measure vegetation. One by one, I measured and identified all the trees in these plots, careful to record the data accurately, not get tangled in rhododendron shrubs, and watch out for black bears! Considering that Coweeta is located in a temperate rainforest, the work outdoors was not always easy, but it was very informative. I learned to identify many tree species, observe vegetation patterns, and recognize different forest ecotypes, skills that I could not have gained by simply reading a textbook.

Measuring tree diameter at Coweeta Lab

Measuring tree diameter at Coweeta Lab

After completing the field work, we resurrected historical data from the 1930s and 1950s and compared it with our data. We also used similar data from a watershed that was completely logged and a watershed that was unaltered by humans. I was surprised to discover that, in some ways, partially logging affects the characteristics of a forest significantly less than clearcutting. We also observed that forest hydrology is not significantly changed due to partial logging, a finding that has important implications for water sustainability.

My internship at Coweeta Hydrologic Lab through the Highlands Field Site was an exceptional introduction to ecological research. This project elucidated for me what exactly “research” looks like and how it is conducted. Furthermore, it helped me solidify my interest in forest ecology and ecohydrology. I encourage all students to consider a research project or independent study at a field site; the experience outside the typical classroom cannot be matched!