2018 Celebration of Undergraduate Research Poster Winners

The Office for Undergraduate Research would like to congratulate all the poster winners from the 2018 Celebration of Undergraduate Research! We thank you for your hard work and effort, and you should be proud of your accomplishments.

Session I Winners

Name Major
Jennifer Hausler Social Sciences
Lacy Hunter Arts & Humanities
Carolyn Liu Natural sciences
Carrington Merritt Social Sciences

Session II Winners

Name Major
Simon Khadka Social Sciences
Dhalia Mohamed Arts & Humanities
Dhru Shankar Natural Sciences
Morgan Vickers Arts & Humanities

Three Exciting GRC Courses for Spring 2018!


If you’re interested in taking an exciting class for spring semester we’d like to suggest three great options – CLAS 057H (Classics), WGST64.001 (Women’s and Gender Studies), and ENGL 695.001 (English). You can sign up for all of these classes now on Connect Carolina.

All three of these are research-exposure courses, which allow undergraduate students to take part in the research process in a collaborative manner and which require the completion of at least one fully-realized research project. REC courses provide a unique opportunity for UNC undergraduates to gain valuable insight into research methods across different disciplines. Keep reading below to learn more. Read More »

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.


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

by Liah Laila McPherson
Undergraduate Researcher
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.

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.

5 Takeaways from the SURF Info Session

room of students listening to student panel and professor

Students hear from undergrad researchers and faculty about summer funding opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Present at a Research Conference?

Syracuse University will be hosting the 2016 Meeting of the Minds

Syracuse University will be hosting the 2016 Meeting of the Minds

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


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


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


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


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


Yesenia Merino: OUR Outreach Coordinator

Yesenia Merino, OUR Outreach Coordinator

Yesenia Merino, OUR Outreach Coordinator

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

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

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

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

Outreach at the National Mall in DC during a rally

Outreach at the National Mall in DC during a rally

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

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

What could be better?!

Exploring Diabetes Prevention and Management in Chennai, India

– written by Pranati Panuganti, SURF Recipient

The Health Sciences Library

The Health Sciences Library

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

– written by Griffin Creech, SURF Recipient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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