How do I get started in research as an undergrad? (Database Edition)

by Kaushik Puranam
Undergraduate Researcher
Chemistry, Class of 2018

hands typing on a keyboardGetting started in undergraduate research can be a daunting experience. One way to look for a research position is through the OUR research opportunities database – something I did my sophomore year at Carolina.

I started as simply as I could think of – with a Google search for undergraduate research at UNC. The first thing that came up was the OUR website and the database. Seeing this made the database made me wish I’d known as a freshman how easy it was to search for a research opportunity – I would have started in my first year.

Since only open positions are posted, this made finding a position more straightforward for me than emailing around to different professors asking about potential openings. On the database, researchers post details about the position type (credit, pay, volunteer), availability (fall, spring, summer), contact information, and a description of the project. All of them are searchable by major or area of study. From the first email to getting hired took me less than three weeks. Here are some pointers for anyone looking to use the database to find a research position:

  1. There tend to be more a larger number of new postings right before the new school year starts and the first couple weeks of every new semester, so check back regularly around those times if you’re looking for a position.
  2. Remember, these postings are directly from professors, therefore the quicker you act upon them the better. If you contact the professor a week after the posting, chances are that they have already been contacted by several other students and have set up interviews.
  3. Does this mean that you should apply to every posting you see for your major that day its posted? No, of course not, you should apply for research opportunities that interest and excite you while keeping in mind that you may not find the position you are exactly looking for in the database.
  4. Stay positive whilst applying for different research positions! Getting a research position in your first try is rare so keep your head up and be on the lookout for the next opening.

After the post-doc I was working with accepted a job at a different university, I was on the hunt for another position. Since I had knew several labs doing interesting research by then, I emailed a few labs I was interested in. Now, I am doing neuroscience research in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology where I am researching survival in neurons and cancer cells after suffering damage.

Research can be such a rewarding experience; I was lucky enough to find my first research lab through this database and I was exposed to many new techniques that I never thought I would be getting the chance to utilize as an undergraduate. The most important thing to remember is to apply to positions that truly interest you so that you can not only prove your passion to the Principal Investigator but also be excited yourself about the amazing prospects of doing research at UNC.

Finding the Right Research Experience

by Jeet Patel, OUR Ambassador

Getting started in research can be a daunting and frustrating process. When you first get started there are a lot of variables – field of study, type of work, environment – which you may not even consider just trying to get your foot in the door. But what do you do if, once you get your first research opportunity, you are unhappy with your position? Some might feel stuck because they don’t want to go through the process of finding a new opportunity while others might shy away from research entirely. While it is nice to find a great research job and stick with it, you shouldn’t be afraid of experimenting a bit to find a good fit.

My first research experience was during high school. I was a summer intern at Duke (I know what you might be thinking, but keep in mind that Duke is a great research university despite some of its faults and there are many opportunities for UNC students to work there) in a lab studying protein biochemistry. I worked on a computer sifting through data and running computer simulations. Most of the work I got to do was very defined and didn’t involve any problem solving, which was a major reason I became interested in research in the first place. I didn’t really have the opportunity to create my own experiments and mostly looked through online databases or ran code for the graduate students. I spent a lot of time not really knowing why what I was doing mattered.

While my lab doesn’t necessarily study exactly what I want to, I am very interested in the work being done here and have been able to learn a lot from this experience that will aid me in my next experience.

I did gain a lot of valuable skills from this first research experience. Working in different labs, you get exposure to a variety of ideas and sometimes entirely differently subjects. Working at this lab also helped me realize that I didn’t want to work in a completely dry lab setting. When I started applying to labs in college,  I took a chance and applied to a different kind of biology lab looking for an undergrad to train and work on an independent project. Now, I am working on a project studying the development of oral tissues, which is not something I had ever really thought about prior to joining my lab.

I spend a lot of time doing bench work and collecting data and have been able to take a more active role in the progression of my project. I’m a lot more engaged in the subject matter and I have gained a skill set entirely different from my first research experience. My mentor and PI have helped me integrate into all aspects of performing research – from grant writing to publishing – which has made me feel much more involved and given me a better sense of the goals that I am working towards. While my lab still doesn’t necessarily study exactly what I want to, I am very interested in the work being done here and have been able to learn a lot from this experience that will aid me in my next experience.


I do miss some of the work I did previously. Sometimes it is nice to have full control over a project or to get an immediate result, which is a less common occurrence at the bench. Having worked in both of these different settings, I now feel like I have a much better idea of what I would like to pursue in the future. Working at a crossroads of computational and experimental research seems to be the ideal choice for me, one that would not have been clear had I not worked in these two settings. I also might not have gained the mindset of a developmental biologist if I had not taken the leap out of computational science.

Whether you are a new researcher or just looking for a change of pace, don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. There are a lot of opportunities available and finding the best fit will make research that much more fun and engaging. Keep in mind:

  • What kind of work do you want to do: computer-based, working with people, historical analysis, or bench work, etc.
  • What fields are you interested in (even if you aren’t majoring in it, research can be a good way to get exposure in a different area of study)?
  • What you want to gain? Some people may want to work independently while others might want to assist in research or perform guided work.

Even if you don’t get the job you want the first time, every research experience can be valuable. Make sure you get as much out of it as possible!

Recruiting 2016-2017 OUR Ambassadors!

3 ambassadors speaking to a room full of students

OUR Ambassadors speaking with interested undergrads

Are you a current undergraduate student (first year, sophomore, or junior) with experience finding creative answers to questions in your field? Do you enjoy talking about your creative work, entrepreneurship, or research? 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 (OUR)

If so, apply to become an OUR Ambassador! Please complete the application by April 5, 2016 (don’t forget to send a copy of your resume to

The OUR Ambassadors Program is designed to:

  • Build a cohort of student ambassadors to support and enhance the work of the Office for Undergraduate Research – from art to biology to policy
  • Create opportunities for students to help build a community of undergraduate researchers throughout UNC
  • Provide peer mentors to incoming and current students interested in creative solutions through projects and research
  • Offer professional and leadership development opportunities to OUR Ambassadors
  • Assist OUR in developing fundraising activities

You can read about some of our current Ambassadors here.


  • 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 have any questions, email us at

It takes a village to understand a neighborhood: On the interdisciplinarity of research

Dr. Wizdom Powell speaking at a podium

Wizdom Powell, PhD, giving the IAAR Faculty Fellows Lecture at the Stone Center

written by Yesenia Merino, OUR Outreach Coordinator


Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a lecture given by Dr. Wizdom Powell, UNC Institute for African American Research (IAAR) Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the Department of Health Behavior. Her talk, given in the beautiful UNC Stone Center, was entitled “They Can’t Breathe: Why Neighborhoods Matter for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Outcomes Among Emerging Adult African American Men,” and detailed the work that has informed her current project looking at how communities impact the lived experiences of African American men in Durham, NC.


Studies like the one Dr. Powell described remind me of the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and all the potential points of entry for someone looking to get involved in research available within a single project. While the researcher in me was enthralled with the details of her work given its salience in the current sociopolitical climate in and around UNC, the part of me that strives to see things from the perspective of someone outside of academia was astounded at the sheer scope and size of her work. She began her project by trying to understand the neighborhood environment – a step that involved collaborating with Dr. Debra Furr-Holden at Johns Hopkins University to learn how to spot and measure signs of substance use or social disorder at the neighborhood level – then went on to recount her collaborations with a developer that could turn their data collection form into a smartphone app, a designer to help brand the project, a team of students to collect the data, and countless other experts and stakeholders providing input into the process.


team of researchers standing together

Dr. Powell’s Men’s Health Research Lab Team (from left to right): Leslie Adams, Andre Brown, Tamera Taggart, Wizdom Powell, Jennifer Richmond, Tainayah Thomas

As Dr. Powell waxed poetic about the importance of student researchers in executing a study of this magnitude (as well as the need for more students interested in the project moving forward), how much she learned from them in addition to them learning from her expertise, the OUR Outreach Coordinator in me naturally thought about what kind of undergraduate might be a good fit for this study:

  • Art majors – to help develop the study branding or help analyze the deeper meanings behind some of visual aspects of community
  • Geography majors – to help map out (and make sense of) all the components of the neighborhood that constitute the Durham community
  • History and political science majors – to help situate the findings from the data within the social-political-historical context that has made Durham what it is today
  • Social science majors – to help unpack the lived experiences of African American men in Durham
  • Statistics and computational biology majors – to help analyze the data necessary to draw conclusions about how neighborhood factors impact the health and well-being of participants
  • Computer science majors – to help leverage existing technologies and develop new solutions (e.g. a smartphone app that can serve as a mental health intervention as Dr. Powell mentioned)
  • Countless others I haven’t thought of…

The fact of the matter is that studies like the one Dr. Powell discussed are looking to tackle big issues and thus necessitate many different perspectives in order to find a way through what Dr. Powell affectionately calls “wicked problems.” At an elite research institution like UNC, the question is not so much if there are opportunities for you to conduct research in your field as it is a matter of finding a research opportunity that fits your interests.


Getting Involved
If you’re interested in working in Dr. Powell’s Men’s Health Research Lab, please email or For other research opportunities,

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?!