Faculty Spotlight – Professor Beth Grabowski

Beth Grabowski

Beth Grabowski

- written by Sagar Patel

Meet Beth Grabowski, a professor and director of undergraduate studies for Studio Art.  Professor Grabowski received her BA in Studio Art from the University of Virginia, and her Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Immediately after graduate school, Prof. Grabowski joined the UNC Art Department faculty.

Prof. Grabowski finds that the research-oriented perspective of UNC makes for a rich environment in which to study, make, and teach art. She says that contrary to the popular characterization of creativity as divine inspiration or available only to those with native talent, creative research actually requires a deliberate and disciplined practice of “critical making.” The notion of criticality calls upon students to ask not only how something is made, but also why, and to understand the context of production. Hallmarks of this practice include the abilities to adapt to change, to acquire skill, knowledge, and understanding through physical experience and to read meaning in the unfamiliar. The art-making process includes a great deal of experimentation. Starting anywhere, students will create something, receive feedback, analyze it themselves, and then make changes, try variations or in the event of an “accident” or “failure,” see if different question reframes a next step. She calls this process “iterative thinking” and in this way, research in art is very similar to research in other subjects – there is a need to “fail” (and recover!) to learn something new.

Prof. Grabowski serves as a faculty mentor for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) students, and an honors thesis advisor.  In this role, she has overseen many interesting student projects.  For example, one student traveled to Arizona and worked under the guidance of a native Hopi medicine woman to study traditional medicinal plants (through drawing).  Another went to Cairo, Egypt as the post-Mubarek political landscape was unfolding and documented street art made by women artists exploring issues of sexual harassment and women’s rights.  Whether traveling across the country, overseas, or staying right here in Chapel Hill, Prof. Grabowski’s students have conducted some amazing research projects.  Prof. Grabowski says her favorite part of being a mentor is seeing the enthusiasm and passion that students have for their projects.

A sample of Professor Grabowski's work

A sample of Professor Grabowski’s work

When asked to give one piece of advice to undergraduate students interested in research, Prof. Grabowski said the following: “Be curious. Treat all assignments and tasks as personal challenges–make them take you somewhere new. Students who explore on this deeper level and resist grabbing for answers that reinforce what is already known, are already engaging in research.”

Professor Grabowski currently teaches book art and photo printmaking.

Pictures taken from Beth Grabowski’s faculty webpage at http://art.unc.edu/studio-art/faculty/beth-grabowski/.

Lauren Askew: OUR Ambassador

Askew Picture NewestThis is my first year being an ambassador for the Office for Undergraduate Research, and it has been a great experience. It’s nice to be an individual on campus who can provide some guidance that other undergraduates are seeking. Research has been a large part of my undergraduate experience and has influenced my career pursuits substantially. I hope to spark enthusiasm into the minds and hearts of fellow students and hopefully be a positive influence as they try to gain experiences that will refine their goals for the future. “If you wait until you can do everything for everybody, instead of something for somebody, you’ll end up not doing anything for anybody” (Malcom Bane).

Make a difference, and apply to be an ambassador!


2014 SURF – An Unexpected Adventure

- written by Sarah Bird, 2014 SURF recipient

In the fall of 2013, I responded to a prompt for a paper assigned to me in my freshman English class. “Pick a research question and write a mock proposal for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF).” I didn’t think much of it as I didn’t know what SURF was, but I wrote my assignment based on a research question I had come up with in my marine science class. When February came around, I decided to actually submit the proposal for consideration, because… why not? I had ended up spending way more time on the assignment than I intended to because, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Almost accidentally, I had found something I liked and was passionate about.

Lake Wylie lies on the NC/SC border, 20 minutes south of Charlotte, NC.

Lake Wylie lies on the NC/SC border, 20 minutes south of Charlotte, NC.

Research and proposal writing became a big part of my life in the following year leading up to my submission for the 2014 SURF. Working on my SURF proposal became an obsessive hobby, and something I came to see myself doing for the long haul. The most valuable benefits from preparing for SURF were the relationships I formed. I started talking with my professors more after class, bouncing ideas around and formulating research goals.

Lake Wylie’s fish contain high levels of contamination, whether it be PCBs, mercury or tritium. The fish are big enough to catch and eat, which leads to these alarming warning signs posted around the lake.

Lake Wylie’s fish contain high levels of contamination, whether it be PCBs, mercury or tritium. The fish are big enough to catch and eat, which leads to these alarming warning signs posted around the lake.

My faculty advisor became a great mentor, as she supplied me with her lab and equipment in the UNC Marine Science department, taught me the necessary field and lab techniques, and connected me with scientists around the country for advice. I even got the chance to speak with the Executive Director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Association, whose input was incredibly valuable to my proposal.

By February 2014, I had come up with the proposal for a project that I was proud of and excited about. It revolved around the spills that had occurred at the Catawba Nuclear Center in Lake Wylie, SC. I proposed to investigate the effects of the spilled tritium (a radioactive compound) on the organisms of Lake Wylie.

While there have been many twists and turns since I was awarded the SURF, the experience has been beyond fulfilling. I intend to have significant results by the end of the year, and I can’t wait to present my findings at the Celebration for Undergraduate Research in the spring. Furthermore, the SURF experience has solidified my interest in pursuing a career in environmental research. I would encourage anyone interested in research or in a real-world topic outside their course of study to pursue the SURF, and undergraduate research in general, because you may just find something you love.

The Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Other Spring 2015 Events to Highlight Undergraduate Research

Here in the Office for Undergraduate Research we are busy gearing up for the annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research which will be held on Wednesday, April 15 from 1:00-3:15 p.m. as part of National Undergraduate Research Week. If you are planning to present at the Celebration, the deadline to submit your abstract is March 1.


We are fortunate to have additional events taking place on campus this spring that highlight undergraduate researchers at Carolina. Please join us at the Celebration and also take advantage of these other opportunities to support other students and learn about the wide range of research being conducted by Carolina undergrads.

Upcoming Events:

McCain African and Diaspora Student Undergraduate Research Conference
Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies
March 20-21

The McCain African and Diaspora Student Undergraduate Research Conference presents undergraduate research projects on a variety of aspects of African, African American and Diaspora studies. The Dunbar-Stone lecture will kick off the conference on Friday, March 20; the keynote speaker is Cami Chavis. The conference will follow on Saturday, March 21 from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. More details will follow.

Biology Undergraduate Research Honors Symposium
Monday, March 23, 2015
All day in Coker 215

Biology senior honors thesis students present their research. Open to the public.

Department of Sociology Honors Research Presentations
Monday, March 23, 2015
3:30 PM
Hamilton 271

Sociology Honors students from Duke and UNC will be presenting their findings. Everyone is invited to attend.

Biology Undergraduate Research Poster Session
Friday, April 17, 2015
2:00-5:00 p.m.
Genome Sciences Building, lower level lobby

BIOL 395 students in their second semester of research will present their findings. The posters will be displayed throughout the week of April 13-17.

Undergraduate Art Symposium
Wednesday, April 22, 2015 (tentative)

Details forthcoming

If your department or unit is hosting an undergraduate research conference, symposium or event, please let us know and we will be happy to include it on this list.

Completed Events:

Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology Student Research Symposium
Saturday, February 21, 2015
9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
North Carolina Botanical Garden

The 3rd annual CEE Student Research Symposium is designed to showcase many of the program’s students and their research accomplishments.  The symposium will incorporate oral and poster presentations from both graduate and undergraduate students over the course of the day.  In addition, the symposium will serve as a great networking vehicle for various members of CEE to meet and get to know one another. This event’s main goals are to provide student researchers the opportunity to present their research in a supportive environment and to foster relationships among members of the Curriculum, the University community, and the Research Triangle.​ You can review the program: CEE Symposium 2015.

Are You Interested in Serving as a 2015-16 OUR Ambassador?

Have you had a substantial undergraduate research experience? Do you enjoy talking about your research, scholarship and/or creative work? Would you like to have access to professional and leadership development opportunities? Are you interested in helping to support and expand the work of the Office for Undergraduate Research?

If so, please consider applying to serve as an OUR Ambassador! We’d like to recruit several additional Ambassadors for the 2015-2016 academic year.

You can read about some of our current Ambassadors here.

Our goals for the program:

  • To build a cohort of student ambassadors to support and enhance the work of the Office for Undergraduate Research
  • To provide opportunities for students to help continue to build a culture of undergraduate research at UNC
  • To provide peer mentors to incoming and current students interested in research
  • To provide professional and leadership development opportunities to OUR Ambassadors
  • To provide assistance to OUR in developing fundraising activities


  • Complete application and interview process
  • Meet 3-5 times during the academic year with OUR staff for program planning and professional development
  • Commit 15-20 hours/semester to Ambassador activities. In addition to Ambassador meetings, you might mentor current and incoming students, participate in panels or present in classes about undergraduate research, and engage in other outreach activities, including fundraising

If you are interested in applying to be an OUR Ambassador for next year, please complete the application on or before March 20, 2015 and email a copy of your current resume.

If you have any questions, email us.

Structuring Cities in the Past and Present

- written by Drew Cabaniss, BA Classical Archaeology, Class of ’15


Drew on site in Crete

Cities vary greatly in their organization and social dynamics. As more people live in larger settlements, we would like to understand the constraints on cities as well as the effect of alternate forms of social, political, and economic organization. Defining these frontiers of possibility requires an understanding of urban diversity, an issue best targeted by studying present day cities alongside the anthropological and archaeological record of urbanization and urbanism.
I first became interested in this sort of work during a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Santa Fe Institute, where I had the opportunity to work with Luis Bettencourt and Scott Ortman on urban scaling in archaeological contexts. Urban scaling is observing how a city changes over time – factors such as economic productivity, population, and resource consumption contribute to these changes. Our work focused on the Basin of Mexico, where we found evidence for scaling patterns similar to modern cities in smaller communities occupied between 1000 BCE and 1500 CE. These sorts of commonalities between the past and present form were interesting; they helped us set a baseline for urban settlements as a whole.

Once back at UNC, I started working with Prof. Donald Haggis in the Classics Department on Greek urbanism in Crete, where clan groups were exceedingly important in the social and political life of settlements.  That summer I joined the Azoria Project, an archaeological excavation of a city in east Crete occupied from the 12th through 5th centuries BCE.  The site had been burned and abandoned in the 5th century, and the topography was monumentally transformed in the 7th century, making it very useful in observing the process of urbanization and city structure.


The site of Azoira, seen from Kavousi Kastro in eastern Crete

I spent my first season working as a trench supervisor, overseeing the excavation of a small portion of the site, and then returned the following season as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Specialist. I now manage the equipment and software infrastructure for recording most spatial aspects of the excavation, such as the depth of stratigraphy and the location of artifacts. Combined with the increasingly digitized records from the first six years of excavation, I’m slowly building a geodatabase that contextualizes the recovered materials in their space on the site and within buildings. We’re already getting a clearer image of how a clan-based urban society works, with important consequences for the types of processes that maintain the social and economic structure of cities over long periods of time. As we build up our knowledge of Cretan urbanism, we’re understanding the limits and trends of human settlement, providing powerful tests and predictions for the present.

The discussions and contacts I have had over the course of my research has prepared me for graduate study and a future career in the field.  I have met numerous people interested in working with me and have gotten a few invitations to join graduate programs. Between the range of skills developed and the useful discussions, I have a range of possibilities open in archaeology as a direct result of this undergraduate research experience.

Reflection and Resolution: The Summer Internship Program at NIEHS

Written by Yasemin Cole, Biology Major

As the year came to a close, I reflected on the opportunities UNC-Chapel Hill has given me and the amount I have grown academically since I entered as a first year student. One experience topped the list: this past summer, as I was preparing to leave for my nine week journey to study abroad in London, I received exciting news from my mentor at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) that I would be a co-author of a scientific research article. I was ecstatic to hear the news and the memories came flowing back in my mind of my time in the lab running western blots and going into the dark room time after time to develop films. My experience at NIEHS sparked my passion for scientific research and gave me fundamental research skills that I have built upon as a Biology major at UNC.

Reflecting on the experience, I knew that my hard work in the lab for the past two summers had paid off — not because a paper was published with my name on it but because I had helped find something that no one has seen before.

During the summer before my freshman year and the summer before my sophomore year I spent 8 weeks each summer working at NIEHS with the Summer Internship Program (SIP). With the help of my mentor, I researched the role of Glis3 (a transcription factor which regulates insulin production) in transdifferentiating an exocrine cell into an insulin-producing beta cell. The following summer, I built upon this work by researching the protein-protein interaction between an ubiquitin ligase and Glis3 to see how it affects insulin transcription. Through this research process, I learned the art of experimentation and built the curiosity to analytically question results one step at a time.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park

To a non-science major student these terms may be unfamiliar but the point is that as a first year I was able to learn about these incredible cellular mechanisms that occur in each cell of your body. To me, that is an amazing thing! Potentially in the future, with further research, we will be able to identify therapeutic targets for the treatment of diabetes (an insulin related disease). I know that my research is one small step in the many steps that will eventually help someone who is sick.

Beyond working in the lab, the SIP program provided me with the opportunity to explore my scientific interests by listening to talks and presentations given by other labs at NIEHS. Furthermore, all SIP participants attended planned seminars and workshops on topics such as UV radiation and pollution (which were my favorite). At the end of the program, all participants presented their research at the poster session. Apart from these enriching activities, I met other UNC students and college students from around the U.S. who are as passionate as I am for science. This program by far went beyond the expectations that I had when I applied.

My suggested New Year’s resolution for you is to apply for this internship program and to take part in this incredible experience. If I could apply again for this internship program I wouldn’t think twice; I believe this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It made me realize how basic scientific research works and how it benefits human health. Since this research experience, I have been brought back to these thoughts in all of my Biology classes where we learn about amazing scientific discoveries and feats. But nothing can compare to tangibly performing experiments and discovering results that no one has seen before; that is the beauty of scientific research.


Note: The deadline for the Summer 2015 SIP is March 1, 2015.

My Summer in Shillong

- written by Courtney Shepard, Anthropology and South Asian Studies

When I entered UNC-Chapel Hill, I never imagined myself spending a summer in northeast India undertaking a research project.  However, this unlikely possibility started to become a reality when I took courses such as Indian Colonialism and Anthropology of Development.  These courses interested me to the point that I wanted to study these topics on my own time, and last year, I decided to attend UNC’s Summer in India program. My experience in India has challenged me intellectually and sparked a love for the diversity and complexity of South Asian culture. courtney 2

With immense help from my academic advisor, I was able to  develop a plan for my summer research. I was ecstatic to receive the  Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) as it allowed me to go to Shillong, India.  Shillong is in the northeastern state of Meghalaya, and I quickly realized that this part of India is so different from the rest of the country. It is an area with great tribal and governmental conflict, a place that still has traces of British colonialism. The northeast is a geographically beautiful area with many waterfalls and root bridges, but is also unfortunately an area of unsafe migration and human trafficking. During my time in Shillong, I worked  with an organization called Impulse Social Enterprises, which spun off from an anti-human trafficking NGO, and now aims to provide a sustainable livelihood to weavers across the northeastern states of India. My main goal was to assess the degree to which Impulse Social Enterprises creates a safe and sustainable livelihood for artisans in northeast India.

My experience was amazing in many different ways, but completely different than anything I could’ve imagined.  To conduct my research, I volunteered as an intern in the main Impulse office in Shillong to learn about the background and history of the organization.  I met artisans working with Impulse in the neighboring state of Assam. I stayed with a master artisan, Rekha, who taught me the basics of weaving and how to make a living off of it. I also had the privilege of meeting some local Khasi weavers in a village called Um Den who weave through a natural and environmentally sustainable process, using silk worms and natural dyes. I’ve tasted a fresh, local, and transparent food chain, and taken in the breathtaking natural wonders of northeast India. During my time in Shillong, I stayed with a host family, which was important in helping me pick up the culture and history in and around the city. I’ve befriended other volunteers and interns at the organization and made some great contacts.

courtney 3This summer experience has been important as I now have some clarity on what I want to pursue in the future.  The experience forced me to learn how to conduct interviews with management in an NGO setting, often with people who do not speak the same language as I do.  With this research as a building block, I will continue documenting worldwide craft culture in its various forms. My ultimate aim is to capture more moments, stories,  and techniques, and eventually present the beauty of environmentally compatible small-scale craft culture. The  opportunity to do undergraduate research at Carolina is incredible because of the immense support the school offers to students, along with amazing opportunities for networking and chances to take on things you never thought were possible.

To read more about my experience in Shillong, please visit my personal blog at http://courtneymshepard.wordpress.com.

Research – It’s About What You Don’t Know

- written by Maria Williams, 2014 SMART Transfer Recipient

Before transferring to UNC Chapel Hill, I attended a community college. There, I discovered my passion – teaching. I wanted to teach mathematics at the college level, and with this path chosen, I needed to find out how to get there – this brought up new questions. Should I go for a masters or doctorate degree? Research or course-based track? What is the role of a math person in the world of scientific research? What would that be like?

The SMART program was exactly what I was looking for – a guided introduction to scientific research. That the program extended over the summer and was a paid fellowship was icing on the cake. Like many transfer students at UNC, my course load over the school year left little time to explore research, even as a volunteer. As an older full-time student, I was entirely dependent on financial aid to cover my tuition and living expenses, thus limiting my summer options. I applied to the SMART-Transfer summer research program to finally be able to explore my interest in research.

Sea squirts, pictured above, have a very similar circulatory system as humans, making them an unlikely close relative.

I was accepted into Dr. Laura Miller’s lab, and my main task was researching the circulatory system of sea squirts. The goal of the project was to create a computation model, and I considered myself at best a novice with coding. I worried that my mathematic knowledge would not be sufficient and my biology was more than a bit rusty – after all, it had been over ten years since I’d even touched a microscope.

I spent the first few weeks reading. I learned about fluid mechanics and read about previous research related to our area of investigation – the sea squirt heart and its remarkable similarities to the human heart. Despite spending this time reading, I felt I truly wasn’t learning anything and felt lost. This is where the SMART program helped me the most.

In the weekly SMART meetings we discussed each other’s research projects and learned valuable skills for reading and writing scientific publications, giving Chalk Talks, creating scientific posters, and being a researcher in general. Most importantly, through our weekly meetings I found that I was not alone in feeling lost and confused. My fellow SMART-Transfer students were in the same boat as I was. I became comfortable enough to speak to Dr. Shemer and Dr. Waldrop about my concerns. They reassured me that in research, a feeling of confusion and curiosity was to be expected. After talking with my peers and supervisors, my confidence in the lab skyrocketed.

During the SMART experience, I learned to operate a stereo light microscope, which I used to capturing video of the animals. Using still frames of video, I traced and measured the diameters of the heart and main apparent blood vessels. Using these measurements, I wrote a MATLAB code to create a two dimensional representation of the tunicate circulatory system, to be used in simulations. I ran simulations, tweaked parameters in the code for vessel elasticity and heart pumping force, and ran simulations again. I analyzed the resulting simulation data through visualization software. I hadn’t known how to do any of these things before the program began. At the start, I had been so concerned about what I didn’t know. However, I found a new perspective – research is all about what you don’t know.

It’s true that research can be frustrating, dry, and difficult. However, through the SMART program, I’ve discovered that it can also be rewarding and even fun. I’ve found mentors for life and a passion for this project apparent to anyone who has asked me “How was your summer?” Thus far, our adjustments to the computational model have been unsuccessful in yielding heart pumping behavior as seen in the animal. That’s ok. That’s research. I’ll be staying on through the school year as a volunteer to see this through, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Research as Art and Growth

- written by Chris Register, SURF 2014 Recipient

My research experience has helped me grow tremendously. Not only have I learned a great deal about the content of my research, but I have also learned about what it is like to perform independent research in a graduate or post-graduate atmosphere. First-hand research is a different experience entirely from the classroom because it allows for much more freedom to explore and grow.

The Cognitive Hexagon, above, shows the six fields of study that make up cognitive science.

For my project on Bayesian Models of Cognition, I met with Professor David Danks at Carnegie-Mellon University. As a leading scholar in the philosophy of cognitive models, Professor Danks provided invaluable feedback on the results of my research project. In my last meeting with Professor Danks, I told him about how much I had learned by being immersed in a research environment as opposed to a classroom. Perhaps the contrast is a difference in kind; a research experience, as an immersive and “hands-on” activity, teaches you to know-how, whereas classroom learning is primarily teaching you to know-that. In research, one gains a robust knowledge of very fine-grained differences in the various practices and ideas of one’s field. Professor Danks and I considered the possibility that the difference is immersion; complete involvement in a field lets one see every dimension, practical and theoretical. In this way, we can see that learning about a field—whether philosophy, psychology or any other specialized discipline—is very much like learning a new language: the hands-on experience really makes a world of difference in one’s understanding.

As a philosophy student, I was not sure if there would be a great difference between my undergraduate and graduate studies – after all, reading, contemplating, discussing and writing are all activities that will continue to graduate-level courses. And yet, Professor Danks stressed the difference to me. In undergraduate philosophy, one primarily explains others’ ideas or grapples with them on the other’s terms. In graduate philosophy, one begins to develop and express one’s own ideas. It is a difference of degree: as one pursues research more independently, moving further afield from the beaten path, the language becomes less well-defined. The questions become more exploratory. In independent research, one sets out the domain of inquiry; you are free to define the problem, and hence, to choose your own practice. The difference stressed by Professor Danks is that in this sort of research, there is more freedom. Correspondingly, there is more demand on the researcher. When one creates one’s own questions about the world, the “correct” answers do not yet exist. That is the nature of novel research: to create the answers to new questions. In this way, research is a kind of art—it is creative and exploration is encouraged.

My SURF experience allowed me to travel to Pittsburgh, PA to speak with Professor Danks. Above is the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh.

The language of a discipline is the canvas for research. It is a language that one must come to know in order to produce beautiful works in that domain of human knowledge. Over the course of my research, I developed a more nuanced understanding of the Philosophy of Cognitive Science and of the language of Bayesian models of cognition. Only after undertaking an immersive investigation of Bayesian models was I able to produce something interesting. And while the product of my research—a paper—is simply a fruit from the tree, it is the growth of the tree which carries over into the coming academic seasons.

On that note, I would like to thank my advisor, Professor Laurie Paul, for encouraging me to pursue this project in a highly independent fashion. She knew that the experience and growth over the course of the project would be more important for me than the particular questions I investigated.