Faculty Mentor Spotlight – Sylvia A. Frazier-Bowers, D.D.S, Ph.D.

-Written by Daijha Copeland

-Edited by Monica Richard

Meet Dr. Sylvia A. Frazier-Bowers, a native of Chicago, an associate professor, dentist, researcher, and mentor. Frazier-Bowers came to University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1993.

As a child, Frazier-Bowers visits to her dentist inspired her to pursue dentistry.

Sylvia Frazier-Bowers

Sylvia Frazier-Bowers

Frazier-Bowers said, “For better or worse, I visited my dentist often so the comfort and ease I felt during my visits soon turned into intrigue. I later realized that unlike some health professional fields, the dentist seemed to be very solution-oriented and definitive in dealing with patients’ dental needs.”

In high school, Frazier-Bowers enrolled in the Chicago Health and Medical Careers Pre College Program. During the program, the ins and outs of the health profession and biomedical research were introduced to Frazier-Bowers, sparking an interest in research that never left her. Frazier-Bowers received her undergraduate degree from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but worked for a year in research and development before continuing her journey in to the dental profession. While attending dental school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Frazier-Bowers was actively involved in the research projects of her professors. Serendipitously, she opened a flier in the mail about a fellowship program at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (formerly National Institute of Dental Research) summer fellowship, applied and was accepted.

Dr. Frazier-Bowers and dental assistant with patient at UNC School of Dentistry Faculty Practice

Dr. Frazier-Bowers and dental assistant with patient at UNC School of Dentistry Faculty Practice

The experience was transformative. During the fellowship, Frazier-Bowers got the opportunity to listen to guest speakers who gave glimpses into their scientific work and medical practices. Frazier-Bowers said, “I was completely captivated by this environment of scientists.” It was during these talks that Frazier-Bowers realized that most of the problems and anomalies that patients face arise from facial proportions, which are largely inherited. It was obvious that these anomalies had a genetic route. Dr. Frazier-Bowers believed that by knowing what these genetic processes were a more holistic perspective could be given to patients’ conditions and their care could be improved.

Frazier-Bowers sought out a National Institute of Health training grant that would allow her to obtain a specialty in her field and pursue a PhD. Finding such a program at UNC-Chapel Hill, Frazier-Bowers packed her bags and moved to North Carolina. Obtaining a certificate in orthodontics and her PhD in genetics and molecular biology, focused and motivated, it was not long before Frazier-Bowers became an associate professor at the UNC School of Dentistry, where she now conducts her own research.

The Frazier-Bowers story does not end here. It is at UNC that Frazier-Bowers experienced a great need to “give back” in respect to all of the great mentors she had along the way. Frazier-Bowers believes that, “A mentor can help students combat the negatives in life, whether inside or outside of the lab or classroom, and draw inspiration from their experiences which can help them improve and succeed.”

When asked about the most challenging moments of mentoring students, Frazier-Bowers said, “There seems to always be a scheduling conflict. It is hard to ensure one-on-one time…That one-on-one time is crucial to the mentoring process.” But beyond the challenges, it is the energy and excitement about the science that young mentees bring into the lab that Frazier-Bowers enjoys most. Frazier-Bowers said, “Having that presence produces a spirited atmosphere that nurtures the ultimate goal – creating new knowledge – a product, I enjoy seeing come to life.”



UNC Faculty Spotlight: Don Reid, UNC Professor of History

Written by Dr. Don Reid, Professor of History, Alan Feduccia Distinguished Term Professor in Research and Undergraduate Education

What is research and why is it important?

My wife is not an historian. She’s a director at a big RTP firm. However, I’m struck by her response when people ask her where she learned what she needs to know to do this job. “By majoring in history and researching and writing an honors thesis (in which she argued that the culture of dueling presented a new way of understanding nobles in Louis XIV’s  France).” She never went to business school. She explains that what she learned doing history was how to formulate a question so she could research the answer, how to research, how to analyze the research, and how to present it. The important thing she took from her experience in history was not knowledge of events in 1066 or 1789, but the skill, craft and importance of doing research.   I teach and mentor researchers not to create new versions of myself or of my wife (!), but to give students ways to address issues and questions they will confront in their post-graduation lives.

Research takes different forms in different disciplines and within disciplines themselves. However, it incorporates certain components. The first and sometimes most difficult is formulating the question, deciding what one wants to find out and convincing others of its importance. Intellectual life is a conversation. On very rare occasions, a researcher may make the case that a problem no one has ever recognized before requires study. But even then, the researcher addresses discussions in contemporary research to show how the current conversation misses the big point. More common is the situation in which an intellectual conversation has proponents of a diversity of positions and the researcher develops a project which will allow these positions to be assessed in a new way. In so doing, the researcher makes herself a participant in the conversation, someone who will need to be listened to and challenged.

Why can this be the most difficult element of a research project? Because it requires entering the conversation with something new to say with which current participants will want to engage. We all know that participants in an ongoing discussion often show little desire to let a newcomer get a word in edgewise. Historians can be drawn to the arcane, to “their” subject that no one has studied before. However, researchers in all fields need to ask why their subject has not been studied before. There are thousands of things that could be researched, but only a few worth researching. What makes a subject worth studying is if the researcher  can convince others that they want—that they need—to know about it because it responds to questions they may or may not have realized haunt the “already known” of their conversations.

What I am calling the subject is a question or questions that engage others and ways of answering these questions. The methods used to answer these questions are what many think of when they think of research: reading archives, interviewing individuals, etc. However, the best research both keeps the research focused on answering the questions one began with and frequently stops and asks if the results of the ongoing research suggest the need to reframe the original questions or pose new ones.

Research is often presented as a heroic quest in which the scholar overcomes obstacles—closed archives, subjects who won’t talk—and triumphs. However research is rarely a story of a clear path with obstacles confronted and overcome on the way. It’s not that simple.  Researchers often begin with a sense of what they will find and when they don’t find this, they despair. Why am I doing this? Will anyone care? Researchers can feel that they are first to have run into these walls for, as any psychiatrist will tell you, no one’s despair is the same as anyone else’s. However, these are often the times when research is most fruitful. After all, if the results could be clearly forecast from the beginning, why bother pursuing this research? To the couch. This is the time for therapy. Absence is data too. If the data doesn’t exist or doesn’t tell the researcher what the researcher thought it would, maybe the research is revealing something radically new, unaccounted for in the already known of the ongoing conversations. Often adjustments have to be made in the research strategy. After all, the researcher is not following an existing path; she is forging her own.

Sometimes research is characterized as lonely because the intermediary phase between identifying the conversation and coming up with results that allow one to enter it may be done (in  the humanities and social sciences) in libraries or archives, but this “loneliness” is more complicated. On the one hand, researchers are most successful when they engage with fellow researchers as they pursue their work. And mentors are there to ask questions, make suggestions (“What makes you think that?’) during the aforementioned therapy sessions. But research does have an individual component (even when a group is doing research together) and being an individual does mean being on your own. This can be a difficult element of research for many of the best students who excel at mastering the material they have been presented and asked to master.  Research requires one to go solo in ways that go beyond good time management and other such skills of the successful student. Coming up with questions, ways of addressing them and responding to inevitable disappointments are first and foremost the work of the individual researcher. Know how to ask for guidance and recognize that if all the advice you are given feels unhelpful that may be evidence that you are thinking about your work and presenting in ways you need to revise, though not necessarily in the ways others suggest.

However this individual, perhaps lonely, element is also an important part of the reward of research. I’ve never worked with a student who didn’t take great pride in the fact that her research was at once hers—not someone else’s knowledge she was told to learn—and that it was knowledge she had created and convinced others they needed and wanted to know. The final element of a research project is presenting it to others in a way that helps them understand the project, the results and their significance. The most successful researcher starts by recognizing the positions and work of those already engaged in the discussion and shows how her research opens up their work in new directions.

To return to my wife and her honors thesis, research is not just for students who want to become teachers or researchers. These were never her goals. It is for people who want to be “deciders,” those who set the agenda, rather than simply follow agendas others set. It is, in sum, the heart of a successful liberal arts education.

OUR Staff Spotlight: Associate Director Donna Bickford

A Personal Paradigm Shift

I’m now in the middle of my fifth month as the Associate Director in the Office for Undergraduate Research and am having a very fulfilling experience in learning more about the office and contributing to its work.  One of the things that struck me almost immediately was how student paths into research require different navigational strategies depending on discipline.  For example, many students who are interested in science disciplines need and want to work in a lab doing research.  They often have to initiate contact with faculty and PIs whom they’ve never even met to ask about available positions for undergraduates.  My Ph.D. is in English, and I’ve taught in both English and Women’s Studies.  Students in those disciplines generally find their faculty mentors by taking classes in areas that interest them and developing relationships with faculty members who are then willing to serve as research mentors or to recommend the student to other faculty members.

I also began reflecting on my own pedagogy as it is connected with undergraduate research.  Before I came to Carolina, I taught for several years at the University of Rhode Island, and I occasionally have the opportunity to teach here at UNC.  Students in my classes always do research, but somehow I never framed it — for them or even in my own head — as undergraduate research.  This is really unfortunate because I think it may create an environment where students are likely to think of research in my class as just writing another paper, turning it in and being done with one more thing on their to-do list.

What would I do differently if I was thinking about these assignments as undergraduate research – and what will I do differently when I have an opportunity to teach again?  What I’ll expect from my students – a research project – won’t differ, but the context, framing and language will.

First, I will be more intentional in talking about the research process and in helping students think more deeply about developing their research questions.  English is extremely interdisciplinary; undergraduate researchers can leverage that flexibility and openness.  I will want to spend time on questions like these:  What does it mean to enter a conversation in a discipline and to make a contribution to that conversation?  How do you select a methodology, a theoretical perspective, or a set of critical lenses appropriate for a specific project?  How do you locate and select useful and relevant sources when you’re conducting research and how is that different from looking for a source to confirm what you’ve already written?

Second, I will help make students aware of opportunities to present and/or publish their findings.  In addition to the annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research at Carolina (which was on April 16 this year – check it out next April!), there are other opportunities for presentations both on and off campus.  And, there are many, many journals either devoted to, or open to, publishing manuscripts written by undergrads.

I had extraordinarily generous mentors during my graduate school years.  Dana Shugar (whose death at an untimely early age robbed the world of a wise and loving soul), Mary Cappello, Jean Walton, Rosa María Pegueros, Nedra Reynolds — brilliant scholars and extraordinary teachers who treated me, even at the very beginning of my scholarly journey, as an intellectual colleague and someone who could make a contribution.  I look forward to the opportunity to offer that experience more consciously and consistently to undergraduate students in my courses in the future.

This personal paradigm shift also helps me better serve undergraduate researchers and the community that supports them at Carolina; I continue to be excited about all the ways I can be part of expanding undergraduate research across our campus.  If you are seeking out opportunities to explore undergraduate research, OUR maintains a list of research-exposure courses that have been or are being taught.  These courses include a research component and are often taught with the support of a Graduate Research Consultant.  We also have a list of research-intensive courses.  These are courses in which over half of the course is devoted to students conducting original research and presenting research conclusions.

Where will your curiosity lead you?  Follow it down a path of discovery!

OUR Staff Spotlight: Ginnie Hench, HHMI Science Learning Communities Program Coordinator

Life Questions & Research Motivations

I still remember the day I became fascinated with molecular physiology. It was my first semester of college and I was sitting in a big lecture hall. My professor was explaining how factors circulating in blood bind to cell surface receptors, induce a conformational change in those receptor proteins, and set off signaling cascades that result in dramatic physiological changes across the entire system. I was hooked. The whole idea of it seemed key to understanding how my experience with asthma had changed over time.

When I was in kindergarten, I missed being introduced to the letter character that came the week after meeting Mr. M with the munching mouth. I was hospitalized because I could not breathe. I still remember how they made multiple attempts to find a suitable vein for the IV. While the hospitalization obviously left a mark on my memory, I didn’t appreciate how much harder it likely was for my parents until seeing my grown up friends with their own children. Or, perhaps, as Dr. Kevin Tracey details in Fatal Sequence: The Killer Within, the physiological shock reaction erased the memory of fear that I experienced at the time. I do remember being in the ER while they tried to find my vein, but it is a neutral kind of out-of-body memory, not one that makes me tense with fear and anxiety.

Once I left the hospital, my parents learned more about asthma – for my sake and also because my younger brother and sister were soon diagnosed. It is a curious thing how all three of us exhibited symptoms that led to the same diagnosis within a six-month period. Clearly, we shared similar gene sets, but if the disease were purely genetic (very few diseases are), then we should have each experienced disease onset around the same age, not within the same time period. So, it is likely that we were each exposed to a similar trigger during a certain window of time preceding the onset of symptoms. Perhaps it was a mold allergen in our unfinished basement. Maybe one of us picked up a respiratory virus that triggered our immune systems to go haywire.

I can only speculate on the interchange of environmental and genetic factors that were at play 22 years ago. I won’t ever have definitive answers, but my family’s experience with asthma motivated my interest in biology during college, and later motivated my desire to pursue research at the graduate level. Fast forward from the beginning of grad school to now and one of the most exciting fields of investigation in biology is epigenetics, the study of heritable factors that are not encoded in DNA, but in the way DNA-associated-proteins called histones are modified. While my current research project does not directly address any of the questions inspired by my experience with asthma, I participate in a global community effort to better understand the molecular epigenetic landscape that might one day offer more answers.

Being a postdoc member of OUR allows me to participate in UNC’s research and learning environment, while also guiding undergraduates who are starting the research process for themselves. I started working with OUR in August of 2011, just three weeks after defending my dissertation. I did my graduate work in UNC’s Lineberger Cancer Center in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Now, I am OUR’s HHMI Science Learning Communities Program Coordinator, which means I collaborate with people who lead different parts of the HHMI program. I work most closely with the HHMI Future Scientists and Clinicians Fellows.

Besides working with inspiring people who want to get the most out of their experience at Carolina, the impulse that drives me is very similar to the question embedded in OUR’s website: Where will your curiosity lead you? As an educator, I wonder what my students are curious about. I think about what motivates people to follow different research paths that can lead to exciting and unpredictable life paths. Finally, I think about how all of those seemingly separate, individualized motivations synergize to create a space where people gather together in the name of Learning and Research.

For students who are interested in doing research, my advice is to identify your passions and find someone at UNC who shares your interests. No one can get far on their own. You may not find someone who is doing exactly what you are curious about right now. You just need to find someone who can help you get started.

Dr. Pat Pukkila: Professor of Biology, and Associate Dean and Director of OUR

OUR Staff Spotlight

Each year, students who win Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURFs) have the chance to conduct projects of their own design with faculty mentorship and often with graduate student co-mentorship. Not only is this a fun way to spend the summer, but students also get the chance to “test drive” possible careers. I know how important this can be through my own experience as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (yes, I did root for Carolina on 11/30, but I also wore a small Bucky Badger pin…).

For me, the most influential person at the start of my career was my graduate mentor. I looked up to her, and did everything she told me to do (a summer course at Woods Hole, Yale Biology for graduate school, even seeing if I could work in Joe Gall’s lab for my Ph.D., which I did). We lost touch over the years, but reconnected last March, and picked up right where we left off. She is a professor at U. Southern California, and I STILL look up to her (even though now we are on the same level). When I had the opportunity to become the founding director of the Office for Undergraduate Research in 1999, I jumped at the chance. By then, I had mentored over 50 undergraduates in my own lab, which only reinforced my view of how important these opportunities can be for the Carolina experience. Two of these former undergrads are now my faculty colleagues at Duke and at Carolina!

Being Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research has enabled me to interact with amazing faculty and students in all disciplines on our campus, and help to connect faculty and students with similar interests. Students who receive SURFs and conduct research are also really valuable to the campus community. They share their experiences during CTOPs, volunteer to serve as Peer Advisors and Office for Undergraduate Research Ambassadors, and contribute to panel discussions in Modes of Inquiry (where those amazing faculty come to tell their stories and describe their research). I look forward to seeing reflections from these campus student leaders on this blog: how has YOUR research experience contributed to your Carolina education?