One Lesser Known Gem of the Undergraduate Library (UL)

written by Mollie McNeil          –edited by Daijha J. Copeland

The Undergraduate Libray

The Undergraduate Libray

If you have ever spent time wandering around the UL looking for a free table or just stretching your legs, you may have come across the second floor display case. The display case, erected to not only separate study space, it also houses undergraduate research projects from UNC-Chapel Hill undergrads. I know what you’re thinking: “I have too much work to do to spend time at a display case!!!” However, the projects featured in this case are hand-picked and the display can give you valuable insight to undergraduate research.

Each year at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research, students present their research to the UNC- Chapel Hill community. For undergraduates, this celebration is a great time to publicize and share their research, whether in a talk or poster format.  At the end of the symposium attendees vote on the best poster, taking into account both professional and artistic appeal.The winning posters are then put on display for one month each for the upcoming academic year. These projects are not only hand-picked for their widespread appeal; they provide a wide-ranging illustration of the endless possibilities of undergraduate research.

The Celebration for Undergraduate Research Poster Winner Display Case

The Celebration for Undergraduate Research Poster Winner Display Case

These project displays, which are sponsored by the Office for Undergraduate Research, can help you find inspiration to conduct your own research. The posters come from a variety of disciplines and are a true testament to the multitudinal nature of undergraduate research. On top of that, each research poster is accompanied by short student bio and reflection about their research experience.  These reflections give insight to the research process and describe the long-term benefits that undergrads have received from research. The current poster on display is Sherifat Ademola, a Psychology major from the class of 2014.

If you want to see what your peers are doing in research, learn more about the process, or be productive while taking a study break, check out these displays. Further, If you would like to see a wider range of current projects, consider attending the 15th annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research, Monday, April 14, from 1-3:15pm, at Franklin Porter Graham Student Union, Great Hall.


Writing with a Lens

written by Caroline Kirby (Class of 2012: Honors in Comparative Literature and a major in French)

I am coming of age in a time when image and sound are replacing the written word in many forms of communication. Even significant life events are flashed on Instagram before they are summarized on Facebook, or, in an even more archaic form, detailed via e-mail. As a Comparative Literature major, research became the outlet for me to both rediscover the written word and translate it into today’s audio-visual language.


Statue of Madame la République
location for one of the 17 October protests

Dr. Inger Brodey’s Comparative Literature 250 course challenged me to interpret literary works of art through disciplines such as music, art and film. Just as Romantic poets rewrote Classical epics in the context of their experiences, so contemporary filmmakers rewrite novels and short-stories through the lens of a camera. We studied how syntactical elements in prose, such as punctuation and sentence structure, can be communicated through audiovisual media.

The next semester, I discovered in Dr. Valerie Pruvost’s French 310 course a topic ahead of its time, captured not through text but through image and sound. According to Benjamin Stora’s La gangrene et l’oubli (La Découverte, 2005), trans. Gangrene and Oblivion, the French-Algerian War (1954-1962) remains largely undocumented in contemporary French history. As I discovered more about this “guerre sans nom” (war without a name), I came to understand these events were not recorded on pages but on the streets of Paris and Algiers, captured only by rare photographs (see Elie Kagan’s) and oral histories (Leila Sebbar’s La Seine Était Rouge (Thierry Magnier, 2003), trans. The Seine Was Red).

A Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship provided me with the resources to continue the work of historians Jean-Luc Einaudi and Benjamin Stora in filling in the blanks of history books surrounding the French-Algerian War. I took particular interest in the traumatic events of October 17, 1961 in Paris, France. On that night, thousands of anti-war protestors left their homes to march peacefully through the streets, yet hundreds were never seen again. On the eve of its 50th anniversary, historians, writers and activists were calling the French government to acknowledge the Paris Massacre, and I was among them.


Insignia of the French Republic
outside a prison where some of the protesters were detained

Informed by the work of Einaudi and Stora, I traveled to sites in Paris where violence had occurred on the night of October 17, 1961. I was largely unimpressed. These train stations, statues and cafés seemed shrouded in the prosaic din of vehicles and passer-bys, none of whom slowed to take notice. I yearned to honor those whose lives were lost there, communicating their stories in the audio-visual language of my time. I returned to Chapel Hill with hundreds of photographs and hours of footage, and, with FinalCutPro and my narrative voice, began to write the story of the Paris Massacre.

The following academic year, I had the opportunity to present my work at Virginia Tech University’s ACC Meeting of the Minds Conference and at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Celebration of Undergraduate Research Symposium.  I was thrilled to continue my discovery of unwritten francophone histories through a Fulbright Research Grant to Geneva, Switzerland following graduation. Image and sound have become my way of writing, and the lens has become my pen. I am grateful for those professors who taught me the languages of literature, film, French and Arabic, and for those mentors who gave me the confidence to write in my own.


Capturing the Past in the Present

written by Olivia Dorsey

edited by Daijha J. Copeland

Olivia Dorsey B.S. Information Science Afri Amer &Diaspora Stds Minor  from Clayton,NC

Olivia Dorsey
B.S. Information Science
Afri Amer & Diaspora Stds Minor
from Clayton, NC

Upon entering into Carolina, participating in undergraduate research had never crossed my mind. I just wanted to hone in on my technical abilities to produce websites and graphic designs, which was my passion. After taking an African, African American, and Diaspora Studies course my sophomore year, I acquired an interest in African American Studies. After hearing about the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) from a friend who was a recipient himself, I was convinced to apply.  I decided that I would use my SURF experience to challenge myself; I would combine my two passions for history and technology. The skills in web development, which I had developed in my years at Carolina, would allow me to create a digital collection, preserving damaged historical photographs from families in the area.

To conduct my project, I traveled to Franklin, North Carolina where I would be able to digitize the family photographs of those who may or may not realize the historical or sentimental value. Many people had their photo albums tucked away, and had even forgotten about them. Yet when asked to see the photos, they were eager to relive those memories and take me along for the journey.  By the end of the project, I created, a website, which holds about 200 photographs and several interviews capturing Franklin’s past.

A photograph of unknown individuals, take from the album of Carrie Stewart Franklin, NC

A photograph of unknown individuals, take from the album of Carrie Stewart
Franklin, NC

In Franklin I created bonds with people there that I will continue to cherish. Next semester, I will be attending the School of Information and Library Science, at Carolina, in pursuit of a Masters of Information Science to study the Digital Humanities. Because of my SURF project, I want to pursue a career as a developer of Digital Humanities projects.  I am not only focusing on web design, but also 3D modeling, motion graphics, and other avenues that I feel will only enhance historical projects. I really hope that by creating these projects, I can continue to make local history accessible to those within the community who may not know about their history or who may not have the means to access it.

I encourage anyone who is planning to pursue a research project, whether funded through SURF or not, to be persistent. If your project is something that you are passionate about, you will be able to find a way to make it happen. But I also think that in order to make your project successful, you must be willing to challenge yourself. divider

What You Can Gain From Attending An Information Session

Written by Monica Richard, OUR Staff. Originally published 11.6.2012. Updated 11.1.2013.

If you are thinking about applying for a job, continuing your studies, or considering a fellowship opportunity, at some point you may encounter the “Information Session” event. This blog post isn’t going to address whether or not you should attend the event, but what you can expect to gain if you do.Decision Image - blog 11.6.2012

Believe it or not, organizations and programs want you to be successful when applying for the opportunities they offer. If a program gets the right student for the right opportunity then everybody wins.  The best organizations put some effort in helping you successfully navigate their application process. The information session is one such tool.  The format for these sessions can range from an organization or program overview where decision makers are present to a panel of people who have completed the opportunity you covet, in some cases tips are provided to help you make your interview or application stronger.

Information sessions serve a purpose and provide benefits, and there are three things that you should know:

  1. They are for you. Yes. Program information will be shared, but it is done so to provide you with information to make your interview or application stronger.  Otherwise, why go to the trouble of providing so much information on a website and hosting an information session? If particular points are highlighted during the session, pay attention. The organization is telling you what others have either done well or poorly.  For instance, if a recurring theme is “Please read carefully,” be sure that you do what? Correct. Read carefully.
  2. They will save you time. Let’s face it. Sometimes reviewing information on a website, though informative, can be overwhelming, especially if you are not sure where to start. During an information session, you will be directed to the places you need to go to learn about the program, and how to apply.  Occasionally attendees are given a checklist or handout to streamline the application process.
  3. You can ask specific questions. An organization will do its best to try to cover the answers to past questions it has received through its frequently asked questions (FAQs) page. However, both the questions and the responses are going to be written for a general audience. It’s hard to capture every scenario. And if your situation is the exception to the exception, then perhaps speaking with someone after the information session is the best way to address your concern. More than likely there will be someone present that can address your issue without having to get back to you.

If you decide to attend an upcoming information session, be prepared to listen for dos and don’ts, take advantage of any extras (e.g. advice, handouts, direct links, etc.) and come prepared with questions.

Join us at an upcoming Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program (SURF) Information Session:

  • November 12, 2013, 5:00-6:30 pm, FPG Student Union Room 3408
  • January 28, 2014, 5:00-6:30 pm, FPG Student Union Room 3408

To learn more about the Office for Undergraduate Research and its programs, visit

Rats, mice and psychopaths: SURF alum Leah Townsend’s research journey

For her 2009 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, Leah Townsend ’11 explored perceptual differences between liberals and conservatives by providing two slightly different situations to her research subjects and asking questions that required them to articulate a moral judgment. Dr. Jesse Prinz served as her faculty advisor on the SURF project. At that point, Leah planned to go to graduate school in Philosophy. Now she’s a third year neuroscience Ph.D. student in the UNC Curriculum in Neurobiology. OUR Associate Director Donna Bickford had an opportunity to chat with Leah recently about her experiences as an undergraduate researcher and doctoral student.

Townsend (2)

Leah shared that for her the most significant result of having the SURF was that it helped her believe in herself as a person who could come up with interesting research questions, find an advisor who thought the project was cool enough to be involved with, and succeed in a competitive funding process. After the SURF, she was on track to apply to graduate schools and pursue an advanced degree in Philosophy. Leah was warned that grad school admission was ultra-competitive in her discipline and she’d formed the perception that she’d need either a publication or a major conference presentation to be taken seriously as a candidate. She was accepted to present a paper at the North Carolina Philosophy Society annual conference; she gave the paper the spring of her junior year. Leah says she discovered at the conference that the UNC Philosophy Department is fairly atypical in its interest in cognitive issues and that her passion for experimentation would be better suited elsewhere. Although she did write an Honors thesis in Philosophy, exploring morality as a secondary quality and whether psychopaths have moral agency, Leah decided not to move on to graduate school in the discipline.

Leah then took a class with Dr. Sabrina Burmeister and became interested in neuroscience. She connected with the TA for the course, Kimberly Carpenter Cox, and Leah and Kimberly devised a plan to turn a philosophy major into a competitive applicant to neuroscience PhD programs in one summer. Leah notes that the SURF experience gave her the confidence to switch fields; it wasn’t easy, but she knew she could succeed. Leah refers to that summer as “science boot camp” – she took classes and she also did research in Dr. Josephine Johns’s lab. Leah describes her initial work in the lab as “grunt-work” as she spent the summer coding videos of rats and their maternal behaviors (as a volunteer), but the diligence and commitment she demonstrated earned the trust of Dr. Johns and the senior graduate students in the lab and she then had the opportunity to do more independent research. This led to her second Honors thesis, in Psychology, which examines the effect of prenatal cocaine exposure on oxytocin receptor levels.

Leah was able to leverage her undergraduate research experience in additional ways. She was one of the students who represented UNC at the annual ACC Meeting of the Minds conference and presented her SURF research there. She found the experience very satisfying, relating that this is the “only time I ever got a standing ovation.” Leah also found the conference a great opportunity to network and build relationships; she still keeps in touch with people she met at that conference. And, Leah was invited by OUR Founding Director Dr. Pat Pukkila to serve as one of the original OUR Ambassadors, which created an avenue for her to provide information about undergraduate research to interested students and to help them develop strategies to access research experiences.

When Leah attended her graduate school interviews, she was surprised to find that interviewees were most interested in talking about her undergraduate research experience and her SURF and honors theses projects. These major research projects helped her stand out from other applicants and contributed to her acceptance to graduate school.

Leah enthusiastically pointed out that of the 12 people in her cohort, 10 are women; thus she’s contributing to efforts to reduce the gender disparity in science disciplines.

Leah is now part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Graduate Training program in Translational Medicine, working with research mentor, Dr. Spencer Smith, and clinical co-mentor Dr. Joseph Piven.  She studies autism and notes that although there are between 400-1000 genes implicated in autism, they manifest similar behavioral patterns. How do these mutations produce the cluster of behaviors that we call autism? Leah discusses the importance of beginning to think about disease in new ways, going beyond the mindset of single genes causing diseases to considering the larger impact of those genetic mutations on cortical circuitry. She’s digging into the actual disordered circuitry by investigating the development of visual circuitry in mouse models of autism. The Smith lab and Leah’s work in mouse models might provide ideas about what to look for in patients and thus impact clinical practice and protocols.

In a note of advice for prospective or current undergraduate researchers who are contributing to larger projects, Leah stresses that it’s extremely important for anyone doing undergraduate research to take responsibility for their work and to feel some sense of accountability for the project, even if it’s “just” a class project. She has seen students treat their work casually, not recognizing significance of what they’re doing and the impact it has on the larger project, which is often someone’s life work. Being a careful and responsible researcher is especially important for undergraduates who might want a letter of recommendation.

When asked if her future included clinical practice or a research path, Leah observed that she would like to stay in academics, and is certain that anything she does will include some component of community outreach. Leah finds it critically important to participate in efforts to communicate science to non-scientists. To that end, she is one of the contributors at a Museum After-Hours event at the Durham Museum of Life & Science. Brains will be held on October 17, 2013 (register here). Food trucks will be on hand and adult beverages will be available for purchase. There will be lots of different scientists in attendance talking about various aspects of brains and neuroscience. Leah will be discussing autism facts and myths, including debunking misperceptions about autism and vaccines.

‘An active creation’: Oral history and race and equality in Chapel Hill’s public schools

-Written by Grace Tatter

[Brown vs. Board of Education] was the single most important moment in the civil rights movement, its most enforceable intervention, and its most powerful statement. But Brown was not all that we could have had or all that was due the South. (Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie)]

UNC alumna and award-winning historian Glenda Gilmore implies in Defying Dixie, that the success of Brown and the subsequent school desegregation in the ‘50s and ‘60s is often overstated

Howard Lee campaign brochure, 1969. North Carolina Collection Biographical Clippings. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Howard Lee campaign brochure, 1969. North Carolina Collection Biographical Clippings. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The dominant narrative suggests that equality was achieved when black and white students began to attend the same schools. In fact, there is a litany of other factors required to ensure equality, not least of which is communication between communities that, even today, are separated by the legacy of Jim Crow.

The opening of the Howard and Lillian Lee Charter School offers an interesting jumping off point into the discussion of racial equality, and the history of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS). The new school, founded by the daughter of Chapel Hill’s first black mayor, is marketing itself toward the African-American community, with the stated intent of reducing the racial achievement gap.[1] Some fear it sends the message that desegregation did not work, and that Chapel Hill should give “separate but equal” another shot.

In an oral history conducted in 2001 by the Southern Oral History Project, Fran Jackson, who helped desegregated Chapel Hill’s schools as a middle school student, described how miserable her experience as a black student at Chapel Hill High School was, and how little she saw change for her daughters, who attended school in Chapel Hill.[2] “I don’t think anybody was courageous enough to step out and say that we need to do something to assure that these students feel more accepted and more comfortable in class,” Jackson said of her experience in the 1960s.  “They just said, ‘Wow… maybe it’ll get better with time.’ And to be honest with you I don’t think that it has gotten better with time, because if it had then we would not see this wide gap in terms of academic performance,” Jackson said. Jackson’s experience demonstrates the importance of examining the tensions in CHCCS.

I decided to tackle this subject by conducting my own oral histories. As an academic discipline, oral history is often less about cold, hard facts, and more about the sense and perception of a period. Oral history is particularly valuable for expanding historical research to include “ordinary voices” or the “inarticulate;” it allows historians to draw on the experiences of people who will not necessarily be considered “important” enough to have their papers archived in Wilson Library or be written about in newspapers, but still have valuable insights on what it felt like to live in a certain time period.

Recently I interviewed David Kiel, now leadership coordinator at the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence, who worked with Upward Bound, a federally-funded summer enrichment program on UNC’s campus that aimed to create the equal educational opportunities promised by Brown v. Board of Education. Kiel described how the black students he worked with needed that space to talk about desegregation, which for some was a discouraging experience. Of desegregation, Kiel said, “…it did represent a victory against the Jim Crow regime, yet it certainly did not fulfill the best hopes and wishes of their parents and civil rights activists.”  My interview with Kiel illustrates the complexity of the community and the issues being studied.

Oral histories add nuance and understanding to research on issues that are missing from official documents. I have spent many hours in Wilson Library looking at microfilms and sorting through stacks of school board minutes. However, the face-to-face interactions I’ve participated in through oral history have added a new dimension to my research.

[1] Ferral, Katelyn. “Lee Charter School hits delay.” Chapel Hill News, June 12, 2012. (accessed February 21, 2013).

[2] Interview with Fran Jackson by Christa Broadnax, 23 March 2001, K-0208, in the Southern OralHistory Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



2013 SURF: Revisiting Room G272

-Written by Ellen Marie Murray 

Murray figure 3There’s a unique sort of feeling sitting in room G272 again.  I sat in this same room three years ago as a junior in high school, but being back makes it feel like yesterday.  It was in math classrooms like this that my interest in the relationship between female students and mathematics began.  My Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) topic focuses on conducting observations and research in high schools in both my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and those in China.  I thought that there was nowhere better place to start than my own alma mater, and thus I am back in room G272 one more time.

During my first week of observations I sit unobtrusively in the back of the classroom.  I create sketches of the classroom layout and analyze the gender distribution.  I quietly write tally marks to keep track of participation, questions asked by students, and how often the teacher cold calls on each gender.  Also, I give each class a math survey in order to better gauge their opinions on mathematics and the relationship the teacher, relevance, attitude and future plans have on their feelings towards the course.

After closely going through my surveys from the first week, I eagerly enter back into the classroom to conduct group and individual interviews with teachers and students.  In the small groups, the students open up once they realize that I am just a few years their senior.  I make small talk with them before carefully asking questions about their perceptions of math, feelings about their own personal abilities, the influence their teacher has on the class, and their future plans for careers.

At this particular high school, the teachers tell me that they notice no distinct differences between female and male performance in mathematics, but in my survey the female students indicate that only 35% of them enjoy math while over 60% of males do.  In speaking with the females, I am able to gather that they care much more about the teacher than their male counterparts.  Teachers who are not as welcoming or warm are discouraging to many female mathematics students. However, the female students do express a greater interest in learning about the relevance their mathematics courses may play in future endeavors.  One student tells me that she loves science and wants to be a biomedical

Murray figure 2 clipart engineer, but does not understand how math will be involved in her career.  Another girl tells me that she wants to own her own hair salon; she does not mention any understanding of the necessary math skills involved with budgeting and running one’s own business.

I remember what is was like to be in the seats of these students, and this understanding proved to be a great way for me to connect with the students and speak with them in greater detail about what can spark more interest in mathematics.

G272 is just one classroom that I worked in before heading off to conduct the comparative part of my study in China and it proved to be a great launching pad for my research.


2013 SURF: Searching for Originality


John Rawls
Photo by Jane Reed

-Written by Jonathan Edelman, UNC ’14 Philosophy

My absolute least favorite school project in middle school was the science fair. No matter what type of project I did, or whom I worked with, I could never find any inspiration to put together a project I was proud of.  It wasn’t that I was bad at science—chemistry and physics were always two of my best subjects—or that I had some deep-seated hatred of the scientific method. I just knew that as a 12- or 13-year old, I wasn’t going to come up with an idea for an experiment that was original. I would take days and days to think of an experiment I could do, and still once I started my review of literature, I found that someone had already done the exact same experiment I was about to do. After that point, I could never get excited about my project because I knew in the back of my mind that I wasn’t adding any revolutionary knowledge.

For better or worse, my research for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) has reminded me a lot of my ill-fated middle school science fairs. As a humanities researcher, I’ve had to create my own project proposal and work with a professor to create a proposal that was both new and appropriate for an undergraduate, which I promise sounds a lot more intimidating once you’ve been staring at the blank page that was supposed to be your research proposal for an hour. As a philosophy major who forays quite frequently into politics, I eventually chose to look at the 20th-century political philosopher John Rawls, to investigate how the liberal egalitarian theory espoused in one of his main books could be applied to evaluate the Affordable Care Act. I was happy with the originality of my research question, but sure enough, when I started the first book my advisor gave me to read the author talked of having created a matrix of sorts that he used to evaluate health care legislation based on John Rawls’ theory—in other words, exactly what my research was proposing to do. More than a bit disillusioned, I turned to my advisor, who reminded me that the “newness” of my research question came not from applying Rawls’ theory to health care but from applying it to the comparatively new Affordable Care Act—the question was original because no professors had time to ask it yet.

For me, the SURF has been a bit of an exercise in humility. Going through my philosophy coursework and getting rewarded for analyzing arguments well, it’s been easy to envision myself a bona fide philosopher. Analyzing arguments is easy. Yet philosophy isn’t just about that, it’s about asking questions that no one has asked before and finding answers to those questions. Those things are hard, but my research has reminded me that those things are why I got interested in philosophy in the first place.



2013 SURF: Welcome to Science

-Written by Nathan Ahlgrim

Research as a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) scholar has kept me in the same lab I have worked in for three years, but has thrown me into an entirely new role.

Nathan Ahlgrim Biology/Psychology Class of 2014

Nathan Ahlgrim
Class of 2014

I now attend every lab meeting, am left to construct my own experiments, and am expected to work independently.  Here in Dr. Glenn Matsushima’s lab, our efforts are focused on demyelination disorders of the central nervous system (CNS) like multiple sclerosis, and we attack the questions from many angles.  All that means is I have a lot of training to do.

I have been trained to be able to work independently through all aspect of data collection.  Since we work with a mouse model, I need treat and care for the mice, collect, prepare and label the brain tissue, and finally analyze the material.  I am indebted to Drs. Taylor and Puranam for training me in these countless procedures, and the process of gaining these new skills has highlighted one of the greatest characteristics of research science.  No one in our lab knows every procedure, and I myself have already instructed a post-doctoral scholar in a procedure I learned three weeks earlier.  In such a specialized field, knowledge and experience has to constantly be shared in order to be expanded.

Ahlgrim Figure 1

Staining of cells to show oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs)

Ahlgrim Figure 2

Staining of cells to show microglia

My efforts further understand demyelination disorders concern a gene called Pyk2 and its role in the glial cells of the CNS.  Myelin is the insulating fatty tissue around our neurons in the brain which allow for quick and effective signal transduction.  Without it, nerve impulses slow or fail.  Our experimental mouse model is a Pyk2 knockout, which means it does not have that gene, so we can study how those mice react to demyelination as compared to normal mice.  The Pyk2 protein acts in rearranging the cytoskeleton in a cell.  If the cytoskeleton rearranges properly, the cell can move appropriately.  Our hypothesis is that without this gene, key glial cells like microglia and oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) will not be able to migrate to damaged areas of the brain, worsening the effects of the disease.   A major tool in this will be immunohistochemistry, which selectively labels cells that express a specific protein.  As an example, the pictures show a staining of microglia (right) and OPCs (left).  Doing so over a time course of the disease allows us to understand the movement of different cell types and how their presence or absence affects the end result of demyelination.  This information will tell us more about the ways in which the CNS helps and hampers itself in demyelination disorders.

I have only just begun my work as a SURF scholar, and I am all but certain my project will not be complete with the closing of the summer.  However, the preliminary data and early collection stages are promising, and I have my mentors’ guidance to help me through this long and complex process.  Yes, my project requires many late nights and weekend hours, but as my supervisors have told me, ‘welcome to science.’



Alumni Spotlight: Reed Turchi – Music, Mississippi and More

Recently we had a chance to catch up with Reed Turchi ’12. Reed was an American Studies major with a concentration in Southern Studies and a minor in Entrepreneurship. His 2010 SURF project, “Documenting the Younger Generation of Hill County Musicians,” is one component of his consistent focus on music and musicians and has led to a number of other musical endeavors. Reed founded his own record label, Devil Down Records, to release music from the Southern Folklife Collection and draw attention to some of the North Mississippi blues musicians he recorded during his SURF summer. His band TURCHI has been actively touring this year and they are prolific; the band released an album in March, with a new album coming out in July, and they’ll be in the studio in August to finish up yet another album. And, Reed is director of the Ardent Music label at Ardent Studios in Memphis.

Reed credits Professor Bill Ferris with nurturing his interest in North Mississippi blues music, as well as encouraging him to apply for a SURF. In addition to providing Reed with the funding for his summer in Mississippi, having the SURF enhanced his credibility and helped him get face time with the musicians he wanted to meet, learn from and record. Reed recorded performances at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, a music festival whose goal is to “enhance appreciation and educate the general public about the native art form of North Mississippi Hill Country blues music through performance, preservation, and interpretation.” This recording turned into a Devil Down album, and the connections and relationships Reed formed in Mississippi have led to other albums.Reed Turchi photo

Reed’s SURF summer also provided a conduit to his current position at Ardent.  While in Mississippi he met Mary Lindsay Dickinson, mother of the North Mississippi Allstars. Her husband, legendary Memphis producer and musician Jim Dickinson, spent part of his career at Ardent Studios in the heyday of the Memphis blues scene. Mary Lindsay connected Reed to the folks at Ardent and he interned there the summer after his SURF research. Ardent hired him the day after his 2012 graduation. Reed is especially pleased that the first album wholly conceived of and completed since he became director of the Ardent Music will be released in late July; in the fall he’ll be working with three other bands that are cutting albums. Reed notes that his accomplishments with Devil Down Records in creating low-budget albums that garnered a lot of positive press and reviews led to Ardent’s interest in having him revive their label, which hadn’t been fully operational since the 90s. In the future he may transition Devil Down into an Ardent imprint to leverage his skills and success producing low-budget, low-fi albums featuring blues artists.

In his current whirlwind of activity, Reed spends one week each month in Memphis and otherwise lives out of his van while on the road with TURCHI. He’s particularly excited about a July showcase for the Oxford American magazine in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to TURCHI’s performance, Danny Nowell ’11, a fellow musician and Southern Studies major, will be writing an article on the band for the OA website and print edition.

Reed was the catalyst in creating the Sound of the South undergraduate award, which provides funding for a student wishing to record and work with musicians involved in any style or genre of southern music during the summer, and told us it might be the thing he’s “happiest about.” During his senior year, Reed worked with Ken Weiss – one of the instructors in his entrepreneurship minor — and pulled together folks from Southern Studies, Folklore and Music to develop the award. In the fall of 2011, Drucie French ’71 ’78 hosted the initial fundraiser, which garnered enough money to endow the award and fund one student each year. Reed’s goal is to increase the endowment so that it funds two students annually. One award will continue to be dedicated to undergraduate students and the second award might go to either an undergraduate or a graduate student. The recordings produced by the award winners are housed in the Sounds of the South archive at UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection. They might also be used by Southern Cultures, an award-winning quarterly which has published several issues focused on Southern music. The recordings that have been done so far are “pretty stunning,” according to Reed. The 2012 award recipient was Kaitlyn Vogt, who recorded musicians participating in an old time music jam at the Haw River Ballroom at Saxapahaw, NC. The inaugural award went to James Finnegan, who recorded Lumbee shape note singers in Robeson County, NC.

We asked Reed if he had any advice for current undergraduate researchers and he gave an emphatic “yes.” Students should definitely apply for SURF, he said, even if you feel like your idea is “way out of line” with what other folks are doing. Reed hadn’t even heard of SURF and only applied after Bill Ferris told him about it and suggested he apply.

Interested in learning more?  Reed’s band, TURCHI, will be performing at the Pinhook in Durham on June 6, at Motorco in Durham on July 21, and at the Crunkleton in Chapel Hill on July 22.