SURF Spotlight – Chris LaMack

by Chris LaMack
Undergraduate Researcher
History / Archaeology / Anthropology, class of 2019

I first heard about the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program through my English 105 course during my freshman year at UNC: the unit project for our ‘Writing in the Natural Sciences’ unit was a mock SURF application. This was spring semester, and I had just begun volunteering in the Research Laboratories of Archaeology, making 3D Structure-from-Motion models of artifacts in UNC’s collections.

Chris LaMack at Town Creek Indian Mound.

I was intrigued by the potential of this technology to enable a volunteer with modest training to record important works of art and objects of cultural patrimony; I had also recently attended a talk about the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Syria, and how some volunteers were risking their lives to document these sites before they were erased. I reckoned that, since Structure-from-Motion is such an approachable and accessible technology (all you need to make a 3D model this way is a digital camera and software downloadable from anywhere with an internet connection), there might be something to utilizing this method to create accurate digital representations of threatened sites, to be curated in accessible online repositories.

Thanks to SURF and my amazing faculty adviser Steve Davis, I was able to actually test a few site documentation methods, an invaluable experience which provided insights I hope to further hone and organize to create an easy-to-use field guide for volunteers. Every bit as important as confirming workable approaches is learning what doesn’t work, and my research allowed me to improve my design, and account for a variable that no breathless idea pitch and paper scheme can truly get at: that cultural preservation is, above all else, a labor of love.

It is a love, I am pleased to say, that I have discovered in myself.

 

University Research Week Schedule

University Research Week

October 9 – October 13

University Research Week (URW), a semi-annual, campus-wide event designed to improve awareness of what it means to be a research university and enhance opportunities for undergraduate students to join the research community. Students, faculty, departments and centers are encouraged to sponsor or participate in activities during this week so that we may learn more about the variety of inspiring research and scholarship that takes place at Carolina.

Monday, October 9

  • OUR: Getting Started in Research-Workshop, 039 Graham Memorial 2:30-3:45pm
  • UNC Global: Global Project Showcase Student Union 3102 12:20 – 1:20pm
  • Talk to UNC JOURney, UNC Libraries, UNC Medical Dialogues, and the Honor Court about undergraduate research, Davis Library Canopy, 12:00-3:00pm
  • Mathematics Department: Fluid labs tours. Chapman Hall basement, B01., 3:00 – 4:00pm
  • Mathematics Department: Research talks for undergrads Phillips Hall, Rm 330, 4:00 – 5:00pm
  • Be A Maker Calendar
  • Biology Department Lab Tours
  • House Undergraduate Library

Tuesday, October 10

Wednesday, October 11

Thursday, October 12

Friday, October 13

  • Political Science Department: Dr. Frank Baumgartner’s Deadly Justice Hitchcock Multipurpose Room, Stone Center 11:00am
  • Health Science Library: Predatory Publishing: Do not become a prey. HSL, Rm 227 12:00 – 1:00 pm
  • Communication Department: Beyond Fake News, Pleasants Family Room, Wilson Library, 12:15 – 1:45pm
  • English and Comparative Literature Department : What does Research in the Humanities Look Like and How Can Undergraduates Get Involved?” Greenlaw 223, 2:00-3:00pm
  • Ackland Art Museum: Discover a work of art to investigate. Museum Tours, 5:00pm, 5:30pm, 6:30pm
  • Psych & NeuroFest: Davie Hall 1st floor lobby, 2:30 – 4:30 in the 1st floor lobby of Davie Hall.
  • Be A Maker Calendar
  • House Undergraduate Library

Marine Research: “It’s Always Been Dolphins.”

by Liah Laila McPherson
Undergraduate Researcher
Biology/Psychology, 
class of 2019

It’s always been dolphins. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by their lives and intelligence. What’s going on in their complex brains? How and what do they communicate with each other? What are they thinking about as they glide past and look you in the eye? These are questions that I share with Dr. Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project (WDP), who has been studying wild Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) in the Bahamas for nearly 35 years. As a former intern for the project, I was invited back this summer to assist with six 10-day research trips aboard the project’s 62ft power catamaran, the RV Stenella.

In the crystalline waters surrounding Grand Bahama and Bimini the Wild Dolphin Project performs non-invasive underwater research to study the ecology, behavior, and communication of dolphins. We don’t harass, chase, or touch the dolphins, and all interactions are voluntary— the dolphins have their own agenda and will disappear in a heartbeat or evade us completely if they want to. Often, they’re interested in or at least accepting of our company and will spend anywhere from three minutes to three hours zooming around us in the water or simply allowing us to peer into their daily lives.

My typical day on Stenella begins shortly after sunrise when I bring the camera gear outside on the deck and prepare for the day’s research. Following breakfast (and a quick morning swim, weather permitting), I take my coffee up to the bridge of the boat and scan the horizon for dolphins as we lift anchor and begin our search. If it’s bottlenose dolphins we find, we photograph them from the surface for identification, as they tend not to stick around when we enter the water. We sometimes take surface shots of spotted dolphins too, but most of our data is gathered underwater with cameras and hydrophones as we record their behavior and vocalizations. Every evening I spend time entering and analyzing data on the computers.

Depending on which individuals we find during the day and what behaviors they’re exhibiting, I am responsible for either photographing or videoing the dolphins underwater. All of the dolphins have names and are identifiable by their spot patterns and features such as fin and body scars. They have “names” of sorts within their own communication system as well— these are known as signature whistles, and each dolphin has its own unique whistle. The video cameras we use are outfitted with hydrophones to record these whistles and other complex vocalizations. Underwater we record a wide variety of behaviors such as foraging, courtship, play and aggression. Sometimes they’ll even imitate humans or play with us!

Wild Dolphin Project’s motto is “In their world, on their terms…”— it’s important to note that all of our interactions with wild dolphins are non invasive and solely for research purposes. WDP has attained Bahamian research permits to study these animals. Please be respectful of wild dolphins and whales in US and Bahamian waters; it is illegal to approach and swim with them without a permit.

I first decided to attend UNC for my undergraduate education, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to pursue marine biology as I wished, given that the Marine Science department is small, and the university isn’t located near the ocean. However, the experience and connections I have gained so far are invaluable. The marine science classes I’ve taken at UNC have been of the highest caliber, and I’ve been fortunate to participate as an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Adrian Marchetti’s phytoplankton lab for three semesters. Now, I’m in Bermuda to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation. Until mid November, I’ll be conducting an independent research project, studying the light use efficiency of coral reef communities under the mentorship of professors Dr. Yvonne Sawall and Dr. Eric Hochberg. I was encouraged to apply by Dr. Marchetti, and was selected as one of eight students to attend this program. Without being involved in the Marine Science program at UNC, I would have never even discovered this opportunity.

My greatest aspiration has always been to study dolphins and the marine environment they live in. With enough determination, I think everyone has the potential to chase their dreams, and there’s no better nursery for those dreams than a university like UNC. College is whatever you make of it, and studying Marine Science at Carolina is no exception.