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!

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?!

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.

A Different Kind of Semester — Research at a North Carolina Field Site

– written by Andrea Stewart, OUR Ambassador and Environmental Science major

The Institute for the Environment at UNC is praised for its network of field sites, where students can venture for a semester in North Carolina or abroad and do coursework, take field trips, hold internships, and perform group research projects. As an environmental science major with a concentration in natural resources and conservation, I chose the Highlands Field Site, a beautiful place in the NC mountains known for its high biodiversity. Little did I know that through this program, I would have the opportunity to study at Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, home to one of the oldest continuous environmental studies in North America.

A waterfall in the experimental watershed

A waterfall in the experimental watershed

I was assigned a research internship at Coweeta and visited the lab several times each week in the fall semester of my junior year. My mentor was an ecologist who is interested in studying the effects of logging on forest vegetation dynamics. Research at Coweeta usually focuses on one or more watersheds, or areas of land where all the water flows to the same location. In our study, we examined a watershed that was partially logged by researchers in the 1950s. We asked – how was this forest changed over the past 60 years?

To answer that question, I trekked into the field, a mountainous forest that ranged in elevation over 1300 feet. I located large plots that were established in the 1930s to measure vegetation. One by one, I measured and identified all the trees in these plots, careful to record the data accurately, not get tangled in rhododendron shrubs, and watch out for black bears! Considering that Coweeta is located in a temperate rainforest, the work outdoors was not always easy, but it was very informative. I learned to identify many tree species, observe vegetation patterns, and recognize different forest ecotypes, skills that I could not have gained by simply reading a textbook.

Measuring tree diameter at Coweeta Lab

Measuring tree diameter at Coweeta Lab

After completing the field work, we resurrected historical data from the 1930s and 1950s and compared it with our data. We also used similar data from a watershed that was completely logged and a watershed that was unaltered by humans. I was surprised to discover that, in some ways, partially logging affects the characteristics of a forest significantly less than clearcutting. We also observed that forest hydrology is not significantly changed due to partial logging, a finding that has important implications for water sustainability.

My internship at Coweeta Hydrologic Lab through the Highlands Field Site was an exceptional introduction to ecological research. This project elucidated for me what exactly “research” looks like and how it is conducted. Furthermore, it helped me solidify my interest in forest ecology and ecohydrology. I encourage all students to consider a research project or independent study at a field site; the experience outside the typical classroom cannot be matched!

SMART and SMART-Transfer Research Presentations

Each summer the Office for Undergraduate Research offers the Science and Math Achievement and Resourcefulness Track (SMART) and SMART-Transfer program. This program is conducted in partnership with North Carolina A & T University, the lead campus in the NSF-funded North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, (NC-LSAMP) Phase IV. Dr. Laura Miller is the PI for the NC-LSAMP Grant and Dr. Gidi Shemer is the SMART Programs Director.

SMART 2015 participant Dana Elhertani gives a chalk talkThe students selected to participate in the program are matched to a laboratory based on their interests; they spend nine weeks during the summer doing 30 hours of research per week under the mentorship of a lab member and the principal investigator of the lab. Students also attend weekly meetings with their peers and the program director where they discuss scientific papers, present chalk talks, and gain scientific writing skills.

SMART 2015 students studyOn Friday, July 17, at 12:00 p.m. in the Genome Science Building lobby, there will be a research symposium where the SMART and SMART-Transfer students will present their summer research projects. Dr. Shemer noted that a wide range of STEM fields were involved in this program; projects included: “A computer-science approach to design an easily accessible keyboard for the disabled,” “Comparing water treatment protocols to determine which provides the best (almost) germ-free water that we should drink,” and “How to use Nanodoplets to fragment chromatin and to improve personalized cancer screening.”

Feel free to join us at the research symposium, and keep an eye out for these up-and-coming scientists.

Burch Fellowship Scholar – Burn Prevention in Malawi

– written by Marissa Bane, Health Policy and Management student and Burch Fellow

As a burn survivor, I had dreamed of working at the Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) burn unit in Lilongwe, Malawi for several years, and I was finally able to go this past summer as part of the Burch Fellows Program. The burn unit was founded in 2008 through a partnership with UNC Hospitals to help improve outcomes for burn patients. Because the unit is relatively new, they had no knowledge on burn prevention in Malawi, and they did not have the resources to research and fund a program. At first, I did not understand why it was important to research burn prevention strategies in Malawi. In the United States, we already know how to prevent burns – for example, we know not touch a hot stove or let children near a pot of boiling water. However, if we tried to implement our burn prevention strategies in Malawi, most would be completely useless and even confusing. The challenges Malawians face regarding burns are very unique, and burn prevention strategies need to be relevant to them.

Open flames are the cause of the majority of burns in Malawi.  Marissa's project aimed to educate Malawi's citizens on fire safety and burn prevention.

Open flames are the cause of the majority of burns in Malawi. Marissa’s project aimed to educate Malawi’s citizens on fire safety and burn prevention.

With the help of UNC surgeons, I created and translated a 35-question survey that was asked to the parent of each child at the burn center under eight years old. Prior studies have shown that children bear a disproportionate share of the burn injury burden, which is why this specific age range was chosen. The goal was to understand how serious burns occur for children, as well as the environment surrounding the accidents. To do this, it was important to assess other factors potentially affecting the burn accident, such as underlying health problems and bad weather. The survey consisted of five main sections, which included basic demographics of the burn patient, socio-demographics of the patient’s primary guardian, cooking style in the home of the patient, child care in the home of the patient, and information about the burn accident.

Marissa with a family in Malawi.

Marissa with a family in Malawi.

We discovered more than half the burns were cooking-related. Further, most people in Malawi are dependent upon fire for survival. They use open flames or unsafe traditional stoves several times a day for light, heat, cooking, bathing water, and manual labor. At the time of the burn, only 23 percent of mothers were with the patient. Further, 22 percent of patients had no one looking after them when they were burned. There were several other discoveries that were found to be extremely helpful when considering burn prevention in Malawi. Information collected from the study should be used to help create effective burn prevention strategies for those in sub-Saharan Africa, which is why I plan to present my findings from the study at Harvard University’s 2015 National Collegiate Research Conference, as well as produce a publication under the guidance of UNC surgeons.

I loved my time in the beautiful place I now call a second home. I learned so much during my time in Malawi and built some amazing friendships. My heart was broken by the poverty, especially the failing health care system. And while I know my research will not change everything, my hope is that I can change the life for at least one person. As a burn survivor, I know the pain and hardship a burn produces. Therefore, if I could prevent the burn of just one Malawian, I would consider my research a success. They call Malawi the “Heart of Africa,” and I now know why. I will never forget the people I met and the experiences I had.

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.