Science and Math Achievement and Resourcefulness Track Program Symposium

2015 SMART symposium

2015 SMART symposium

On July 17, 2015, the SMART Program hosted a research symposium highlighting the work of SMART undergraduate researchers. This program is supported by the Office for Undergraduate Research, and 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. You can read more about the program here.

In his opening comments, program director Dr. Gidi Shemer praised the students and encouraged them to think of their summer research as just the first step in their journey. Research, Dr. Shemer observed, is an excellent way to develop critical thinking skills. He noted the power of witnessing the transformation of the students as they learned to think like scientists and matured into scholar-scientists. The students reported that their projects pushed them to step outside of their comfort zones; many were initially surprised at the high expectations of their labs, PIs, and co-mentors. They were, in fact, expected to do real research! Dr. Shemer announced that plans are underway to build in more interaction between the SMART and SMART-Transfer cohorts for next summer’s participants.

Nicholas Larsen presents his project

Nicholas Larsen presents his project

In two poster sessions in the lobby of the Genome Science Building, program participants discussed their summer research projects. There was an impressively diverse range of projects from many academic disciplines, including Computer Science, Biology, Chemistry, Nutrition and more. Students discussed using network analysis of bill co-sponsorship to determine relationships between US Senators, the efficacy of the flu vaccine in obese subjects, the connection between head impact and reaction time in high school football players, and more.

2015 SMART participants

2015 SMART participants

This event was an impressive example of summer undergraduate research at Carolina. Thanks to the PIs and co-mentors who welcomed our students into their labs and supported their interest in scientific research, and to all who attended the symposium.

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.

Research in Medical Robotics

– written by Cenk Baykal, BS Computer Science and Mathematics

When I started at UNC, I didn’t have the slightest idea what undergraduate research was. As a freshman, I heard about research opportunities, but given my inexperience, I was hesitant on pursuing them until my sophomore year. That year, I began to work as a research assistant in Enabling Technologies under the supervision of Dr. Gary Bishop. During this time, I helped develop and enhance, a website designed to provide a collection of easy-to-read books, and created an online game designed for visually impaired students. I was able to see the positive impact this work had, and wanted to continue conducting research afterwards.

I then became a research assistant in the Computational Robotics Group led by Dr. Ron Alterovitz. In the robotics group, I’ve been researching concentric tube robots – medical robots that have potential to enable novel and minimally-invasive surgical procedures. One challenge that we’ve faced is allowing for intuitive control of these robots by physicians. Hence, I have worked with graduate student Luis Torres and developed a multi-component system architecture that bridges real-time motion planning with an interactive user interface and visualization. Concurrently with my robotics work, I conducted research with Dr. Ming Lin and graduate student David Wilkie on participatory route planning, which culminated in the creation of a mobile system, similar to Google Maps, that was able to generate optimal route plans by considering the impact of the system’s own plans on future traffic conditions.

An image of the cocentric tube robot used in Cenk's project.

An image of the cocentric tube robot used in Cenk’s project.

During Summer 2014, I continued my research on concentric tube robots with the help of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and my advisor Dr. Ron Alterovitz. Namely, I have been investigating the optimization of the design of these medical robots on an application- and patient-specific basis. More specifically, I have been developing a software program that is capable of computing the optimal design under which the robot can feasibly maneuver to clinical regions of interest and simultaneously avoid damage to surrounding tissue. This has been an extremely exciting project and a great experience as it not only combines my passion for Computer Science and Math, but also has potential to facilitate the use of concentric tube robots for early diagnosis of lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Thanks to the Dunlevie Honors Undergraduate Research Award, I will be extending my work and writing an honors thesis on the design optimization for concentric tube robots during my senior year.

In retrospect, undergraduate research has definitely been a highlight of my experience at Carolina. I had the opportunity to work on fascinating projects and collaborate with outstanding professors, graduate students, and mentors, to whom I am extremely grateful. Conducting research has exposed me to a wide variety of notions and concepts that I would not otherwise be introduced to in a classroom setting alone. Participating in undergraduate research has also motivated me to apply to graduate schools this fall in pursuit of a PhD in Computer Science, something that had never crossed my mind when I first came to Carolina. I would definitely encourage every undergraduate student to give research a try and not be demotivated by qualms concerning lack of experience or skill. As I look back on my research experience, the only regret I have is not starting any sooner.

For more information about these projects please see:


Exploring Research in Public Policy

– written by Dalia Kaakour, Public Policy student

Research. Research. Research. Coming to UNC, I had been inundated with pamphlets urging me to explore my curiosities, and had spent hours trying to understand things like my older brother’s complicated research — it was something related to biophysics…I think. But despite my limited understanding of what “research” really meant, I was convinced that I would end up doing it, because frankly, it seemed like an important thing to do at a huge research institution like UNC.

Not long after arriving at, I found myself applying to labs, but without any real reason for why I wanted these positions. I realized that I wasn’t allowing my interests and passions to drive my research goals; I wasn’t searching with any direction or specific purpose.

After three years of reflection, exploration and, of course, a little luck, I’m happy to announce that I’ve finally found my niche in research. I reconciled my interests in the fields of public policy and medicine, independently designing and taking on a project examining “Physicians’ End-of-Life Healthcare Decision-Making,” as my Senior Honors Thesis. If you think the title sounds like a mouthful, just imagine explaining it to your friends and family!

Dalia at the 2015 Celebration of Undergraduate Research

Dalia at the 2015 Celebration of Undergraduate Research

The topic stems from my interest in healthcare spending. Not only do we as Americans spend way more than we have, but we undergo treatments and procedures that we don’t really even want. This is particularly pertinent to end-of-life care. The reality is that we spend an incredibly large amount of money on health care expenditures and often undergo unwanted treatments in the last days or weeks of our lives.

Not only does this put a strain on our finances as individuals, but it also puts pressure on our domestic healthcare system as a whole. Looking at this issue through the lens of doctors and what they would choose for their own end-of-life healthcare measures, I am examining the discordance between physicians and their patients. My hope is to draw conclusions as to what can be done to improve communication while still respecting patient desires and the authority of physicians, all the while retaining efficiency in end-of-life care.

Overall, my research project within the Department of Public Policy has been one of the highlights of my academic career. I went from an inexperienced undergraduate to a Principal Investigator — skipping over the Research Assistant step and everything else in between, which may not be the traditional way of doing things. However, everyone has a different path to reach their ends, and the best advice I can give is that it is never too late to find your passions, whether it is through research or elsewhere in life. I now finally understand what it means to “research” — not in its textbook definition, but more importantly in what it means to me as a student, and the continued role that I plan for it to have in my future career and life.

The Celebration of Undergraduate Research Best Poster Award

Written by Caleb Helms, OUR undergraduate assistant and Chemistry major

Before this year, I was unaware of the scale of the Celebration of Undergraduate Research. However, after experiencing it first hand, I now have a greater appreciation for the time and effort that undergraduate students put into research. On Wednesday, April 15, 2015, nearly 170 students gathered in the Great Hall of the Student Union to showcase their research in poster sessions and more than 40 students presented in neighboring panel sessions. From psychology, art, and sociology to mathematics, physics, and chemistry, all disciplines of research were well represented at the symposium. Watching so many students passionately present their research to students, parents, and faculty at the University was a unique experience. As I walked past group after group listening to descriptions of the research, I heard strings of intense words being spoken by the researchers. Words like “sclerochronological,” “ubiquitination,” and “Siderastrea siderea” that I had to look up to spell, and definitely remain unaware of their meaning. As a Chemistry major, I have continuously heard of the research opportunities available but never truly understood the level of rigor involved in undergraduate research. The immense amount of time invested by these students was evident in their presentations. It was amazing and inspiring to witness the commitment students had made to specific areas of research. I have carefully reviewed information that I know and none of my knowledge reaches the equivalent depth of these researchers. After experiencing the Celebration, I have an enriched appreciation for undergraduate research and the students who take part in it. I would recommend that students attend the Celebration of Undergraduate Research and view for themselves the sense of accomplishment achieved when students immerse themselves in a research project.

As an undergraduate assistant in the Office for Undergraduate Research, I was given the task of guiding a group of reviewers in selecting eight students to receive the “Best Poster Award.” The recipients of this award were decided based not only on the content of their research, but also the visual and oral presentation by the students. The graduate students and postdoctoral scholar judges worked hard to make it to each poster in the designated time limit. Each of the judges struggled to pull away from one poster and described the ‘immense detail’ or the ‘intriguing nature’ of the research that the students conducted. I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to present the “Best Poster Award” winners with a ribbon for their accomplishments. Since only eight of the nearly one-hundred and seventy students received this recognition, the award was a huge accomplishment for the recipients.

The eight students recognized at the 2015 Celebration of Undergraduate Research with the “Best Poster Award” included:

• Courtney Shepard, Assessing the Sustainability of Impulse Social Enterprises
• Jonathan Garrick, A Late Holocene Sclerochronological Analysis
• Teresa Martz, Retinal Vessel Oxygenation in Diabetic Retinopathy
• Millicent Robinson, Superwoman Schema, Stigma, Spirituality, and Sensitive Providers
• Mary Ward, Exposing Students in Special Education to STEM
• Emily Davidson, Shifts in Aqueous Carbonate Chemistry
• Samuel Brotkin, Future Self-Continuity and Health Behavior
• Luma Essaid, Hepatocyte Growth Factors and Their Role in Breast Cancer

Along with the Office for Undergraduate Research, I would like to congratulate these students on their accomplishments and thank all the participants at the 2015 Celebration of Undergraduate Research.


“Best Poster Award” Winners from Session One. From left to right: Teresa Martz, Millicent Robinson, and Courtney Shepard. Not Pictured: Jonathan Garrick. Photo Credit: Dan Sears

“Best Poster Award” Winners from Session One. From left to right: Teresa Martz, Millicent Robinson, and Courtney Shepard. Not Pictured: Jonathan Garrick. Photo Credit: Dan Sears




Winners from the second session of the Celebration of Undergraduate Research. From left are, Samuel Brotkin, Luma Essaid, Emily Davidson, and Mary Ward.



“Best Poster Award” Winners from Session Two. From left to right: Samuel Brotkin, Luma Essaid, Emily Davidson, and Mary Ward. Photo Credit: Dan Sears



Congratulations to our Summer 2015 SURF recipients!

Congratulations to our 2015 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) award recipients! After a thorough evaluation process, our multidisciplinary faculty selection committees awarded 79 students a SURF award.

The SURF program attracts a variety of students, from the novice researcher looking to discover something new to the student preparing for their honors thesis. A wide range of projects are fostered by the program. The 2015 selected project titles include: “The Role of Household Chaos in Infant Sleep Development”, “A Critical Examination of Online Registration Services at Universities in North Carolina”, and “How do you create stigma-free charity care?”

Each SURF recipient will engage in undergraduate research, scholarship or performance for at least 9 weeks between May and August, with a minimum of 20 hours per week. Projects will be supervised by faculty research advisors, and collaborations with graduate students or postdoctoral fellows are encouraged. To learn more about the SURF program and the application process, please visit here.

Luis Acosta, Chemistry

Kevin Anderson, Physics & Astronomy

Cathy Anderson, Chemistry

James Andrews, Biology

Allison Baker, Biology

Ishmael Bishop, English and Comp. Literature

Ashley Bittner, Physics/Astronomy

Alexander Buckley, English and Comp. Literature

Kyle Bullins, Geology

Amanda Carew, Chemistry

Jules Carter, Sociology

Michael Catalano, Economics

Jesse Chang, Health Policy and Management

Yasemin Cole, Biology

Griffin Creech, History

Rukmini Deva, Biology

Isaac Durrington, Exercise & Sport Science

Matthew Fay, Chemistry

Le Feng, Sociology/Public Policy

Lindsey Freeman, Psychology

Vineet Gopinathan, Enviro. Sci. & Engineering

Hailey Gosnell, Biology

Joshua Green, Sociology

Apoorva Gupta, Biology

Marc Gutierrez, Chemistry

Kescia Hall, Sociology

Caroline Hamilton, Geography

Laura Hamon, Biology

Tracie Hayes, Biology

Wesley Holland, Biology

Thomas Hunold, Biostatistics

Apoorva Iyengar, Biology

Austen Kelly, Mathematics

Subreen Khatib, Nutrition

Jeremy Kim, Computer Science

Michelle Kramer, Exercise & Sport Science

Dana Landress, History

Mia Lei, Psychology

Spencer Lewis, Computer Science

Szu-Aun Lim, Biology/Chemistry

Gillian Litynski, Nursing/Global Studies

Parth Majmudar, Chemistry

Gabrielle McHarg, Psychology

Grace McLaughlin, Biology

Mariauna Moss, History

Meaghan Nazareth, MDS

John Ogunkeye, Psychology

Pranati Panuganti, Nutrition

Mark Paradzinsky, Chemistry

Michael Peralta, Biology

Daniel Perron, Biology

Kaylyn Pogson, Biology

Elizabeth Porter, Chemistry/Computer Science

Jacqueline Poston, Biology

Joe Puccio, Computer Science

Danny Rahal, Psychology

Kyler Riker, Chemistry

Hannah Saggau, Health Policy & Management

Pranavi Sanka, Biology

Ellen Saunders-Duncan, American Studies

Coertney Scoggin, Biology

Neal Shah, Chemistry

Meghana Shamsunder, Nutrition

Karen Sieber, American Studies

Nathan Smith, Philosophy

Haley Solomon, Psychology

Lauren Speare, Environmental Science

Charlotte Story, Biology

Preethika Sundararaj, Psychology

Bryan Wang, Biology

Boya Wang, Chemistry

Joseph Welsh, Applied Sciences

Katherine Wiley, Psychology

Brandon Wong, Religious Studies

Catherine Wood, Chemistry

Eleanor Wu, Psychology

Zimeng Xie, Biostatistics

Kaitlyn Yelton, American Studies

Daniel Zeitouni, Nutrition

Zhan Zhang, Communication Studies

Mentor Spotlight: Exploring Research and Jellyfish

– written by Julia Samson, Biology graduate student.

Looking at jellyfish to learn about group behavior

Julia Samson

Julia Samson

I am a 2nd year graduate student in the Biology department and a member of the Miller Lab. The Miller Lab studies the interaction between organisms and fluids. We look at heart pumping in vertebrates and invertebrates, tiny flying insects, and swimming jellyfish. I am particularly interested in the biomechanics of upside-down jellyfish and the interactions between jellyfish groups and their fluid environment. Since upside-down jellyfish are usually found in groups of 2-3 to over a hundred, the fluid dynamics of the group might have an important role in the development and growth of individual jellyfish, especially for smaller jellyfish. Choosing a certain position or neighbor in the group might benefit smaller individuals and increase their fitness.

Andy presenting his poster at the SMART symposium

Andy presenting his poster at the SMART symposium

Last summer, I had the privilege of mentoring Andy, an undergraduate who took part in UNC’s SMART program. His project focused on the jellyfish groupdynamics, more specifically how the size of individual jellyfish affects the formation of a group (do the smaller/bigger animals have a preferred position within a group?). To investigate this, he recorded groups of jellyfish and analyzed the videos to track individual positions over time. Using video analysis software, he also quantified certain group parameters (e.g. group size and distance between jellyfish).

Beyond the actual topic, doing undergraduate research is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn more about the scientific research process and to develop skills that will be very valuable inside and outside of the lab. Andy set up his own project, from inception to presentation of the results. My role was mostly to offer him guidance in designing his project by pointing him to useful resources,

Julia, the other graduate student, teaches Andy about worm phylogeny and her research while we are waiting for the tide to be right

Julia, the other graduate student, teaches Andy about worm phylogeny and her research while we are waiting for the tide to be right

discussing his ideas, and going through the different steps of research together (formulating a research question, then a hypothesis, designing an experiment to test the hypothesis, defining the control, etc.). At the start of his project, he had to learn a lot about jellyfish: their biology, how to take care of them, previous research done on them, etc. We also talked about the process of doing research and how to design a sound experimental protocol. Andy learned how to take care of the jellyfish, how to turn behavioral observations into an interesting research question, and how to design an experiment to answer his question. At first, I showed him how to take care of the animals or gave him examples of research questions. Then, Andy repeated the steps of animal feeding and tank cleaning after me, and I helped him until he felt confident enough to do it on his own. Two weeks into his project, he was running experiments and analyzing results on his own.

Undergraduate research is also about the relationship you develop with your mentor, other lab members, and scientists in your field. Andy attended our weekly lab meetings, sharing his updates and research ideas and hearing about other people’s research projects. In our lab, all students, whether graduate or undergraduate, participate in lab meetings; these meetings are informal and after hearing a couple of

Digging up worms at the coast

Digging up worms at the coast

other lab members describe their research projects and week’s progress, Andy was able to contribute to the meeting by explaining what he had been doing in the past week and what challenges he was going to focus on during the upcoming week. Research is a community activity and I wanted to expose Andy to as many research experiences as possible during his short stay in our lab. Andy and I went to the coast to help Julia, another graduate student in biology, collect marine worms. Going to the field to gather data or specimens is an important part of many biological studies. At the marine station, we met and talked with scientists about their work and Andy’s research. Learning how to communicate about your projects and how to be part of a professional community are important skills for your career (scientific or not).

Doing research in a lab gives you the opportunity to test your ideas and apply your knowledge to design your own experiments and answer questions that you are interested in. It is an invaluable experience that you can’t get from classes and lectures, and I really encourage any undergraduate interested in a certain topic and/or in the process of scientific research to join a lab and get your hands dirty. You will experience how things really work outside of your textbooks, but more importantly, you will grow as a person.

Faculty Spotlight – Professor Beth Grabowski

Beth Grabowski

Beth Grabowski

– written by Sagar Patel

Meet Beth Grabowski, a professor and director of undergraduate studies for Studio Art.  Professor Grabowski received her BA in Studio Art from the University of Virginia, and her Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Immediately after graduate school, Prof. Grabowski joined the UNC Art Department faculty.

Prof. Grabowski finds that the research-oriented perspective of UNC makes for a rich environment in which to study, make, and teach art. She says that contrary to the popular characterization of creativity as divine inspiration or available only to those with native talent, creative research actually requires a deliberate and disciplined practice of “critical making.” The notion of criticality calls upon students to ask not only how something is made, but also why, and to understand the context of production. Hallmarks of this practice include the abilities to adapt to change, to acquire skill, knowledge, and understanding through physical experience and to read meaning in the unfamiliar. The art-making process includes a great deal of experimentation. Starting anywhere, students will create something, receive feedback, analyze it themselves, and then make changes, try variations or in the event of an “accident” or “failure,” see if different question reframes a next step. She calls this process “iterative thinking” and in this way, research in art is very similar to research in other subjects – there is a need to “fail” (and recover!) to learn something new.

Prof. Grabowski serves as a faculty mentor for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) students, and an honors thesis advisor.  In this role, she has overseen many interesting student projects.  For example, one student traveled to Arizona and worked under the guidance of a native Hopi medicine woman to study traditional medicinal plants (through drawing).  Another went to Cairo, Egypt as the post-Mubarek political landscape was unfolding and documented street art made by women artists exploring issues of sexual harassment and women’s rights.  Whether traveling across the country, overseas, or staying right here in Chapel Hill, Prof. Grabowski’s students have conducted some amazing research projects.  Prof. Grabowski says her favorite part of being a mentor is seeing the enthusiasm and passion that students have for their projects.

A sample of Professor Grabowski's work

A sample of Professor Grabowski’s work

When asked to give one piece of advice to undergraduate students interested in research, Prof. Grabowski said the following: “Be curious. Treat all assignments and tasks as personal challenges–make them take you somewhere new. Students who explore on this deeper level and resist grabbing for answers that reinforce what is already known, are already engaging in research.”

Professor Grabowski currently teaches book art and photo printmaking.

Pictures taken from Beth Grabowski’s faculty webpage at