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 do 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!

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:


SURF 2014 in Malawi

– written by Connor Belson, BS Biology and minor in Business Administration, Class of ’15

I arrived at the University of North Carolina in the fall of 2011 with a head full of ideas—plans for the future, places I wanted to see, experiences I wanted to create. But none of these plans involved Malawi. And none of these plans involved research. However, I now find myself entering my senior year of college in the midst of a life-changing research experience in Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe. The development of my research experience at Carolina resulted from a series of relationships that have been growing since my freshman year. It began with a shadowing experience with a doctor at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC two summers ago, which led to a friendship first built between him and me over discovering that he had attended Ubelson 1NC for undergraduate and medical school, and then strengthened over sharing our love for Carolina basketball, Franklin Street, and lunch at Weaver Street on a Sunday afternoon. He then connected me with several UNC staff members back in Chapel Hill, who, after meeting with all of them in the fall, each connected me with several more. And then, two years and countless conversations later, I was offered the incredible opportunity to travel to Lilongwe, Malawi and work with the UNC Project Research Center for Infectious Diseases at the Kamuzu Central Hospital.

I am pursuing an undergraduate degree in Biology with a minor in Business Administration through the Kenan-Flagler Business School. Because of my interest in both the hard science and financial aspects of the healthcare world, the director of the UNC Project Research Center, Irving Hoffman, asked if I would like to join a team that was working on a new business proposal that would improve access to sufficient healthcare and diagnostic testing for the population of Lilongwe. Because many clinics and research centers in the country operate with a significant lack of resources and cannot provide all of the tests needed for their patients, a majority of individuals who come for diagnosis and treatment are not able to receive a comprehensive set of all possible causes of their illnesses and can risk missing the proper treatments. However, the University of North Carolina’s center at Kamuzu Central Hospital has a full laboratory with the resources to test its patients for any and all possible causes of their illnesses. In order to provide this to a wider portion of the population of Lilongwe, the UNC Project has offered to allow other clinics in the city—those without access to sufficient patient testing—to pay for samples from their patients to be tested in the UNC Project laboratories, ensuring that the patients receive a proper diagnosis. During both of the last two summers, I have traveled to Lilongwe, Malawi to conduct research on this process. In my first trip, I researched the feasibility of the patient sample exchange system. This involved performing a financial analysis of the UNC Project laboratory to ensure that it could handle an increased level of patient samples and conducting market research as a means of identifying potential partner clinics in the area. By the end of the summer, I had generated a final presentation that supported the feasibility of the proposal and that identified the UNC Project’s future partners who could benefit most from the commercialized system.

This summer, through OUR’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, I was able to travel back to Malawi and research the financial and cultural implications of the new partnerships as they were being implemented. The goal of the research was to identify any barriers that were met along the way and to record how they were resolved, in addition to tracking the additional revenues and expenses that were generated for the laboratory as a result. I designed and incorporated a computerized accounting program to replace the inefficient and unorganized handwritten receipting process, as a way of helping the staff handle an increased influx in work. In addition, a system of transporting the samples between clinics was created, and pricing system for all of the tests was created to make sure the lower-resource clinics would still be able to pay for any tests their patients needed. Thus far, the commercial system for patient samples has generated additional profits that the UNC Project has been using to support the free clinic it provides for patients. In addition, the partner clinics have successfully increased the array of diagnostic tests that they can deliver. Although several cultural issues have been encountered along the way, solutions have been found for all of them, indicating that this system is one that has potential to be incorporated in other low-resource areas as well.belson 2

Because I had never considered research before coming to Carolina, I did not seek out my initial research opportunities. However, I soon learned how integral research can be to other areas of work, like medicine, that had always interested me. And so when the opportunity for international research presented itself to me, I took it immediately, despite knowing very little about what experience I would have or how it would impact my future. Since then, my research with the UNC Project in Malawi has become a defining characteristic of my undergraduate experience at the University of North Carolina. I have used it to help reinforce my desire to work in a medical career. In addition, it has opened the doors of clinical and public health research as potential roads I may find myself traveling down in the future. It has given me countless memories, experiences, useful skill sets, and friendships, and I would now recommend undergraduate research to anyone, including those not currently considering the idea of research. It will provide ways to learn outside of the classroom, to discover hidden interests and passions, to expand important networks of relationships, to see the world, and to enjoy the entire process.

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.


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:

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.

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. Read about this Conference here.

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.

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.

Letters from Panama, Summer 2014

Brianna Osinski, who graduated from Carolina in May with a major in Biology, in is Panama on a research internship with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. As an undergraduate, Brianna studied phenotypic plasticity in spadefoot toads in the lab of Dr. David Pfennig. Brianna has been sharing her experiences with her mentor, Dr. Peter White, and agreed to let us publish the following excerpts. Thanks, Brianna!

From: Osinski, Brianna
Sent: June 7, 2104, 4:20 pm
To: White, Peter S
Subject: Panama, week 1 review

So, wow, Panama! How have I never been here before!?!? It is so verdant and life is brimming everywhere you look. My alarm clock here consists of a chorus of green parrots that roost outside my window and the occasional trio of tamarind monkeys. Then there are the agouti that just stroll through the backyard eating our mangoes and the iguanas zipping about around them. I think so far I’m most captivated by the leaf-cutter ants. Their sheer numbers are amazing and their industrious nature is simply admirable. Also, the trees here are breathtaking. I just keep stopping to gape at all the buttress roots and staring up into the canopy trying to take in the enormity of the nature surrounding me.Brianna trees

The scientific community here is wonderful, too. I’ve yet to meet an unkind soul and the best part is that everyone here is in love with what they’re studying. So, when I ask questions, a LOT of questions, I’m met with excitement and joy, because they want to talk about what they’re studying just as much as I want to hear about it. We had our first “frog talk” yesterday, which is when all the people here studying frogs gets together and present their research, and it was heavenly! I’ve found my niche, and it is amongst biologists.

Our research with the Tungara frogs is going well. We start at 7:30 pm and collect pairs for about 2 hours at various sites. Then we take them back to the lab, run the females through some phonotaxis tests in our sound chamber to observe their mate preference, we weigh/measure/and toe clip them (toe clipping took some getting used to :/), and last but not least we put them back where we found them before the sun comes up. Ideally, we’re done by 3:30 am, but some nights, like last night, run long and we were working till 6:30. But, since I love what I’m doing, it’s really not so bad when it goes late. If I had infinite energy levels and didn’t require that whole sleep thing, I’d do research all day long.

Week Two in review.

Week 3 was as grand as could be!

Animals galore during week 4!

Great to be alive during week 5!

Rhyming week 6 has me in a fix!

Note: If you are interested in learning more about Brianna’s research or about STRI itself, please feel free to contact Brianna:

SMART Program Alumna Spotlight

written by Lauren Askew B.S. Biology 2016

edited by Daijha J. Copeland

When I started my first year of college at UNC-Chapel Hill, undergraduate research or a research-related career had never crossed my mind. However, once I decided that I wanted to go to medical school my focus changed. I quickly discovered that it would be helpful to have some lab experience, so I found a research opportunity in Dr. Mara Duncan’s cell biology lab. As I gained more skills and summer approached, Dr. Duncan suggested that I apply for the Science and Math Achievement and Resourcefulness Track (SMART) summer research program. I was accepted into the 8-week program. I remember being both nervous and excited. Each week I spent about 40 hours in the lab and attended 3 meetings: lab meeting, a larger lab meeting with other labs, and a program meeting. I gave two presentations weekly and thus gained confidence in presenting scientific data. The first few weeks of the program were difficult because I was afraid to ask questions. I feared that lab members would think poorly of me. One day a graduate student took me under his wing and encouraged me to ask questions about my project and the projects of other lab members. I acted on the graduate student’s advice and my overall performance in the lab lead to an opportunity to do independent research my sophomore year.


LB+ Ampicillin bacterial plate with DamLmnB transformed colonies.

I did research on autophagy in yeast and how it can be initiated during the summer and the following school year. Early in the school year though, I transitioned to a biochemistry lab, and gained a new prospective on the work that I had previously conducted.

During the summer, working in a lab every day was straightforward. Research was my sole responsibility. I found during the school year that conducting research was far more difficult. Expectations were higher and time management was crucial when working with longer experiments. And then there was school work, and other obligations. By the end of my sophomore year, I better understood my capacity, stopped spreading myself so thin, and could better schedule experiments and extracurricular activities.

Lauren Askew before her journal club meeting during her Summer Internship Program (SIP) and John's Hopkins.

Lauren Askew during her Summer Internship Program (SIP) at John’s Hopkins.

Currently, I am doing research at Johns Hopkins for 10 weeks through their Summer Internship Program (SIP). My research is on Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes delayed developmental growth and is characterized by premature rapid aging of the face in early childhood. The goal of my project is to find novel interactions between Zmpste24, a gene that codes for a post-translational enzyme, and other regulatory proteins proven to be involved in premature aging syndromes. The research involves working with mammalian cells and performing a lot of cloning, both of which are new to me.

Getting involved in research has changed my career plans significantly. Instead of pursuing the M.D. path, I plan to obtain an M.D./Ph.D. dual degree in infectious diseases. Although it is possible to do research as an M.D., I want to gain the research skills provided by a doctoral degree to reach my maximum potential as a medical researcher. My research experiences have also made me more interested in academia in the future. I had amazing mentors, who have constantly encouraged me and helped me strive towards excellence. Using the mentoring techniques I gained from my mentors, I have been able to help fellow students in their research projects. I find joy in sharing my knowledge with others and would definitely like to make mentoring others a part of my career.divider

“When One Teaches, Two Learn”

written by Rob Uche Onyenwoke

edited by Daijha J. Copeland

Rob Uche Onyenwoke, PhD

Rob Uche Onyenwoke, PhD

My career in the sciences began at the University of Georgia in Athens, where I received a B.S. in Biology and conducted an honors thesis involving an evolutionary analysis of microbial tRNAs (transfer RNAs). From working on my senior thesis with my mentor Prof. William B. Whitman, I garnered an interest in microbiology and decided to stay on and pursue a Ph.D. I focused my studies in the areas of performing biochemical and microbial analyses of oxidoreductase enzymes and microbial metabolism and performing microscopy. One of my fondest memories of this time was due to my mentor, Prof. Juergen Wiegel, who helped me through the trying time of completing my Ph.D dissertation. Prof. Wiegel was the epitome of a great mentor and working with him led me to serve as an instructor of microbiology and later a teaching fellow during the final year of my Ph.D. work.

While completing my Ph.D., I spent a significant amount of my time as a researcher and teacher, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in my respective departments. Having had a fantastic mentor, like Prof. Wiegel, I was eager to guide and counsel younger researchers through their journey. Based upon my own experiences, I learned to view mentoring as very important work.

I accepted a post-doctorate fellowship from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, after completing my teaching fellowship and Ph.D. work. UNC gave me the opportunity to work with Prof. Jay Brenman in the Neuroscience Center and Lineberger Cancer Center studying and identifying novel metabolic targets involved in the progression of diabetes and cancer/neuroblastoma. Soon I began developing my own areas of research and went on to further characterize a calcium channel intimately involved with metabolic disease using high-content imaging.

(B) Representative image of wild-type da neurons expressing an Actin::GFP fusion transgene in a second instar larva. (C) ampka mutants display enlarged plasma membrane domains (arrows) in sensory neuron dendrites, but not axons. (D) A wild-type ampka transgene expressed autonomously within da neurons completely rescues the dendrite phenotype.

(B) Representative image of wild-type da neurons expressing an Actin::GFP fusion transgene in a second instar larva. (C) ampka mutants display enlarged plasma membrane domains (arrows) in sensory neuron dendrites, but not axons. (D) A wild-type ampka transgene expressed autonomously within da neurons completely rescues the dendrite phenotype. Images from: Swick, L. , & Kazgan, N. , & Onyenwoke, R. U., & Brenman, J. E. (2013). Isolation of AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) alleles required for neuronal maintenance in Drosophila melanogaster.. Biology Open, 1321-1323.

Dr. Brenman on occasion also served as a faculty mentor to a program offered at UNC called the Science and Math Achievement and Resourcefulness Track program (SMART). I participated as a mentor. The SMART program paired undergraduates with mentors. Students were expected to commit a minimum of 30 hours a week during the summer to complete a research project. Thanh Bui (B.A. Chemistry ’14) was my mentee last summer. I helped her navigate the ins and outs of the lab in order to complete her project examining the relationship between the enzyme AMPK, gene TRPML1, and the target of rapamycin complex 1 (TORC1) pathway. I am proud to say that we have plans to include her work in a revised manuscript to be submitted to the journal Science Signaling. Bui will begin her graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Pharmacy in the fall.

Dr. Rob Uche Onyenwoke is an independent Principal Investigator with the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE), a part of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham as a Research Assistant Professor/Core Facility Manager. NCCU’s BRITE is primarily a training institute and seeks to mentor and train the next generation of scientists.divider

In With the New – OUR Welcomes New Ambassadors

UNC - Chapel Hill with Graham Memorial in the background

The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
with Graham Memorial in the background

written by Daijha J. Copeland

As nine ambassadors turned their tassels to officially become Carolina alumni in May, we welcome a new group of highly-qualified and enthusiastic undergraduate researchers. With experiences ranging in disciplines from Art History to Biology to Political Science, our new ambassadors offer a diversity of experiences to share with the Carolina community. These ambassadors have worked on timely projects such as: how specific RNA molecules distribute controls the division of zygotes, the role of suicide in the plays of William Shakespeare, further development in C. elegans, and the development of a thermoelectric vaccine cooler. Check out the ambassadors’ page to get to know all of our ambassadors and the other enriching projects that they have been a part of.

The ambassadors program was created for undergraduate researchers to be used as a resource to advocate for undergraduate research to university leaders and to serve as peer mentors. Ambassadors frequently host meet-and-greets with fellow students and give presentations on research opportunities offered through OUR and the greater university. And of course ambassadors are here to provide information, make faculty introductions, or answer any questions, so feel free to contact them for any assistance navigating Carolina’s research filled world.

If you have research experiences that you would like to share with other undergraduates and would like to apply to be an OUR ambassador, look for the call to apply in early spring. Below are the OUR ambassadors for 2014-2015.

Lauren Askew Biology /Spanish for the Medical Professions

Jordan Bishop

Emily Cerciello Health Policy and Management &

Sarah Cooley Geoscience-Geophysics/ Math and Religious Studies

Clark Cunningham Chemistry &

Sarah Faircloth History & Art

Blake Hauser Environmental Health Sciences &

David Joyner Political Science &

Sloane Miller Environmental Health Science &

Rizul Naithani Clinical Laborarory Science/ Chemistry Minor

Layla Quran Global Studies/ Journalism

Sam Resnick Biology/ Chemistry Minor

Jay Zhang Biostatistics & Quantitative Biology/ Chemistry

Zijian (Larry) Zhou Chemistry/ Computer Science


Reading, Writing, and Undergraduate Research: Sustaining my College Education

Written by Dillon Crockett, a graduating senior and a Comparative Literature and Biology major

It is easy for me to proclaim that my experiences in research have defined my undergraduate education.

I am reminded of when Dr. Jan Koelb, one of my esteemed research advisors, expressed to me one day that “everything is education.” The all-encompassing quality of this claim initially gave me pause. How can everything be education? “That has to be an overstatement,” I thought privately at the time. However, several semesters later, not only do I now fully believe this to be true, but I even think this dictum could be modified to assert that “everything is research.” All of my experiences as an undergraduate have not only been educational, but they have also been engagements in research, formally and informally.

During my four years at Carolina, I took advantage of a wide variety of opportunities available for undergraduate research, a number of which are already advertised on the Office for Undergraduate Research website.

I took major-specific courses in research methodology: how do professionals in different disciplines go about doing what it is they do? For my comparative literature major, I took Dr. Rebecka Rutledge Fisher’s CMPL 251 course, an introduction in literary theory, and for my biology major, I took Dr. Pat Pukkila’s BIOL 211 course, an introduction to research in biology. In retrospect, I now see my experiences in each of these courses as being entirely indispensable to my undergraduate education in these two fields. Had I not explicitly explored the various approaches to reading and experiencing texts, or been specifically guided through the process of understanding experimental design and scientific literacy, I would see myself as severely lacking in my abilities to function within these disciplines. I cannot imagine myself being as satisfied with my education within these majors had I not been directly exposed to these discipline-specific research methodologies, and I am boundlessly grateful for these professors’ interests in developing and offering such curricula. Fortunately, similar courses exist in most undergraduate majors, either as their own courses within the bulletin or as special topics courses, and I imagine they would add depth of inquiry to any student’s program.

I also took research-exposure courses that were specifically structured around the generous and insightful assistance of Graduate Research Assistants (GRCs). These included Annah Lee, who served in Dr. Jan Koelb’s CMPL 260 course, Landscapes in Literature and the Arts, and Heath Sledge, who served in Dr. Donna Bickford’s ENGL 444 course, Contemporary American Women Writers. Although research is not a requirement to graduate in any particular major for undergraduates, research is a central requirement for graduate students to complete their programs. Because these skilled individuals—whose current interests lie in being thoroughly engaged in their own research—were inserted into my undergraduate courses, I received irreplaceable one-on-one guidance as I carried out my own research projects. Even more, it was my research from these two courses that I was able to present at the 2013 and 2014 Celebrations of Undergraduate Research, which the Office for Undergraduate Research hosts each spring. There is no rule stipulating that undergraduate research and graduate research are necessarily distinct from each other, or that student research must be inherently separate from faculty research. In fact, the mentorship of faculty and graduate students is important for undergraduate researchers, and the ideas of undergrads often enrich the projects of faculty and graduate students. Research is research, regardless of who is conducting it, where they are conducting it, or how they are conducting it. Collaboration is a mutually-beneficial practice essential to research on all scales and on all levels, and engaging in it early on, even through a course with a GRC, can be deeply enriching.

While these courses specifically included undergraduate research components, much actual research occurs outside of the classroom. I was chosen to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute internship for Future Teachers,  which provides time and funding for undergraduates to conduct research projects over the summer. In this particular program, which is directed by the fabulous Dr. Jennifer Coble, students integrate professional research in biology with developing biology curricula at the high school and college level. The final step in the research process for any investigation—communicating your results—is the means by which any research can have broader impacts on the scholastic and public community. If you define research as the process by which an individual can expand the limits of human knowledge on a particular issue, then your research is only relevant when you devise a way to carry people through the new intellectual spaces you create. Developing curriculum modules, preparing an oral presentation, organizing a professional poster, or hosting a demonstration or performance are all valuable ways of conveying information to a broader audience.

Although there are benefits to engaging in such discipline-specific projects, I am not a staunch advocate for embedding oneself within the conventions of a single discipline. In fact I would advocate for the exact opposite; to do otherwise would be severely hypocritical considering the interdisciplinary project with which I have been working for the past year. Dr. Rachel Willis, a social scientist by training, is currently researching the effects of climate change—an (albeit, anthropogenic) natural phenomenon. She and I are not unlike in this way: I entered Carolina with the expressed purpose of majoring in a field on each side of the arts/sciences divide. Knowing that both the arts and the sciences are obligatory components of K-12 curricula, I thought each discipline must have some particularly useful skill set for me to pursue in my college education. Now that I am a graduating senior, I understand even better now how little difference there is in the methodology of these two disciplines. Sure, comparative literature and biology each ask somewhat different questions, and each goes about somewhat different means to answer those questions. However, each discipline does establish questions, study the extent to which other scholars have approached those questions, formulate hypotheses, generate a procedure to collect data, analyze their results and find a way to communicate their results to others. Indeed, I am sure that this is the intention behind the interdisciplinary design of OUR’s IDST 194 Modes of Inquiry course, and even the Celebration for Undergraduate Research, both drawing from the arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Another feature common among the disciplines is the helpfulness of research advisors. Yet while advisors are wonderful resources to have when conducting research projects, it is ultimately up to the individual researcher to develop their independence and their own sense of confidence in their research. Although an advisor is oftentimes capable of providing suggestions for further avenues of inquiry, there is no way that they can replace the sort of lessons and character traits that an undergraduate develops on their own through the process of conducting research. Confidence is one character trait that I found essential throughout my tenure as an undergraduate. Whether I was writing an application essay, or assisting with an experiment, or exploring my own thoughts on an issue—confidence was necessary. Whether I was writing a paper (especially one not required for a course), or asking for feedback and criticism, or standing in front of complete strangers while trying to convince them that my interests and ideas are worthwhile—confidence was required. Even taking my first solo out-of-state journeys this semester to conferences in Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Ohio required confidence that I would otherwise have had no need or opportunity to develop without my undergraduate research experiences.

This characterization of research as a prime opportunity to develop confidence and independence as an undergraduate is closely tied to an understanding of research as a learning strategy. One of the theorists that Dr. Jill Hamm introduces in her EDUC 532 course on adolescent development is Lev Vygotsky, whose theory of proximal development claims that students are only capable of constructing new knowledge if they are provided instructional scaffolding for support as they build upon the knowledge they already have. Although this course is part of a teacher-preparation program, which may not seem research-intensive, it includes field-based research components, such as conducting interviews with teachers and making observations of area classrooms. These assignments were created to allow undergraduates to apply course content to the knowledge they construct for themselves as they complete those assignments, a kind of engaged learning. Any undergraduate beginning their own research project follows a similar pattern: you begin with the knowledge you already have, then you decide upon some question of interest, and then you go about answering that question. Considering Vygotsky’s constructivist view of education, undergraduate research is a fundamentally more effective pedagogy since it leverages prior understandings, abilities, and experiences for students.

Given this understanding of scaffolding, I now realize that I did not procure this confidence out of thin air. I found myself in a very difficult environment during my first semester at Carolina, one that was challenging both academically and socially, and I doubt that my experience was too unique from many of my peers. As first generation college student and a Carolina Covenant scholar, I had certain disadvantages that some other students did not have, but I also had a number of advantages that helped me tremendously. I received unfailing support from several of my professors during that semester, especially Dr. Jim O’Hara, whose help ensured that I remained a Carolina student. Since that unfortunate term, I have more than doubled my first-semester GPA and presented seven different conference papers. Neither of these feats would have been possible without the help of Carolina faculty, who are committed to assisting me in finding opportunities to become interested and involved in undergraduate research. It was not only because I spent hours scouring bibliographies in Davis or the archives in Wilson that my performance and my affect improved; it was the fact that I had established personal, relevant connections between my own interests and those of others—faculty members, fellow undergraduates, graduate students—and not just at Carolina, but at other institutions as well—even Duke (for better or for worse). For the current or future undergraduate researcher, know that despite them seeming intimidating and out-of-reach… conferences are particularly useful for making these connections and for making personal growth in your research.

Of course the avenues of undergraduate research that I have traveled are merely a sampling of the possible routes. Many students conduct senior honors theses, for example, as means of gaining professional research experience. Due to having a GPA below the minimum requirement, and due to having committed my last spring semester to student teaching, I did not complete a senior honors thesis myself. It was unfortunate that certain missteps and choices closed this door for me, but even though that particular means of undergraduate research has certain prerequisite requirements, there is fortunately no minimum GPA for conducting undergraduate research in any of the above paths that I did explore. One closed door does not mean all doors are closed. There is no one in the world with the power to tell you that your interest or your question is a project reserved for seniors with particular GPAs, or for graduate students, or for faculty members. I was able to forge my own path though the boundless world of research opportunities (with the guidance and help of all those mentors cited above, and several more) to find myself leaving Carolina with a bounty of extraordinary experiences. I am extremely fortunate to have found myself in such a positive environment here, which supports undergraduate engagement in research.

Above all, I have learned that failure is okay, and even necessary. Whether you fail an exam or maybe even a class, or whether you take a direction on a project that leads you into a counter-productive rabbit hole, the central purpose of being at an institution like Carolina is to educate yourself. If you fail introductory physics during your first semester of college, that is okay. You may not know much about rotational inertia—yet!—but you should know how to grow from that misstep. Re-take that class. Re-write that paper. Re-do that experiment. Take another look at that problem. Fix your mistakes, and do better. Learn. If I were to speak to an incoming first year student in my former position, I would say that you should know never to give up on yourself or on whatever you find most enjoyable. You should know that if you see yourself doing something, you should clear the path for yourself to do it, without question. You should know that asking is never as painful as remaining uninvolved. Research exists only because people ask questions. If you do not ask that professor to participate in their research now, you never will. Be thankful for the resources that are available to you, and take advantage of them. Know that what matters most is your own education, and it is up to you to take an active role in constructing it.

I took advantage of lots of opportunities here at Carolina. One I missed was enrolling in a class with Dr. Sharon James but, in a brief meeting I had with her one afternoon several semesters ago, I received the best advice I have ever received at Carolina. “Do what you want.” Nothing has reverberated within the decision-making space of my mind as greatly as those four words. Do what you want. Whatever you think your path at Carolina will be, I believe, whether you know it yet or not, what you really want to do is research.