Undergrads as an Asset in Neurobiology

written by Chris Smith

BS Neuroscience  Furman University From Greenwood, SC

Chris Smith
BS Neuroscience Furman University
From Greenwood, SC

I am a 6th year Neurobiology PhD student in the lab of Charlotte Boettiger in the Department of Psychology at UNC. During my time as a graduate student at UNC – CH, I have had the pleasure of working with 8 UNC undergraduate students whose interests ranged from psychology to biology. My role was to show them the various aspects (and challenges) of human subject research and how it can be used to understand the cognitive processes related to addictive behaviors we study in the lab. Specifically, I focus on understanding the neurobiology of decision making processes which may be altered in populations at risk for developing addictive disorders or populations already diagnosed with addictive disorders.

This academic year I have three undergraduates – Melisa Menceloglu, Michael Parrish, and Scott Oppler – working with me. Their projects demonstrate the range of approaches we use to understand human behavior. Melisa and Michael are assisting me on a neuroimaging project to understand neural circuit differences across individuals which may modulate the behavior we study. Scott, on the other hand, has been helping me investigate how genetic polymorphisms affecting dopamine levels in humans impact their behavior.

Michael Parrish  BS Psychology/ BS Biology

Michael Parrish
BS Psychology/ BS Biology

Scott Oppler  BS Psychology & Biology Melissa Menceloglu BA Psychology

Scott Oppler
BS Psychology & Biology
Melisa Menceloglu
BA Psychology

How UNC Undergraduate Students Are An Asset to My Work:

While working with UNC-CH undergraduate students, I have learned that they are all extremely bright, self-motivated, and eager to learn new things. They have assisted me greatly in the work I have been doing over the years. For example we have been looking at the role of age and genetic polymorphisms on human behavior. Specifically, a person’s age (emerging adult versus adult) appears to determine which particular genetic variations may be associated with a tendency to value the future less: a process we believe is implicated in promoting and sustaining alcohol use disorders. A total of 4 UNC-CH undergrads were      acknowledged in the paper (in Psychopharmacology) focused on this project.

The Importance of Undergraduate Research Experiences:

 Getting experience with scientific research is the best way to know whether or not pursuing a career in science is right for you. I was able to take advantage of undergraduate research at Furman University while I pursued my Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience. My early work, looking at the impact of alcohol and the neuropeptide beta-endorphin on stress and anxiety behavior in mice, was critical in inspiring me to apply to PhD programs focused on the neurobiology of drug abuse and behaviors associated with problem drug use. Conducting original science is a difficult enterprise and nothing prepares someone more for understanding the process better than doing it firsthand, which is the value of pursuing research opportunities early.

I encourage anyone remotely interested in the scientific process to think about volunteering in one of the hundreds of labs at UNC-CH. This is a great place to explore a vast array of research topics and areas. In labs affiliated with the Neurobiology Curriculum, for instance, one can experience the various approaches researchers take to understanding the brain and behavior from animal models to humans, from intracellular signaling in individual neurons to widespread neural activity as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Links to publications of my work (containing acknowledgements to many UNC undergraduate students that have helped out over the years):

Smith CT, Boettiger CA (2012) Age modulates the effect of COMT genotype on delay discounting behavior. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 222: 609-617.


Smith CT, Swift-Scanlan T, Boettiger CA (2013). Genetic polymorphisms regulating dopamine signaling in the frontal cortex interact to affect target detection under high working memory load. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, in press.


Other papers of Interest from our lab:






Your Undergrad Research Career Awaits

-written by Daijha J. Copeland

With the fall semester nearing its end many Carolina students realize that while this is a cause for celebration there are still measures to be taken to prepare for the spring and summer.  Along with creating the perfect schedule for the spring semester, avoiding the dreadful 3:00 p.m. Friday class, it is time to think about applying for summer fellowships and internships. Application deadlines, occurring between January and early March, can easily sneak up on you once we return from winter break.  I found myself extensively Google searching or searching through every department for fellowships that appealed to me. It was not until later in my undergraduate career that I found about funding databases that listed tons of research opportunities for undergraduates. Two such databases are listed below. Please utilize them and save yourself a lot of time in your search for an opportunity that appeals to you.

The Odum Institute  Computing Lab

The Odum Institute
Computing Lab

Carolina Internal Funding Database

Carolina Center for Public Service funding database

Maybe you are unsure of your interest in conducting and/or are qualified to conduct an individual research project. Or maybe you have already received a fellowship/internship and are looking for help in carrying out your project whether it be data collection, data analysis, or publishing results.  The Odum Institute, located on the second floor of Davis Library, is one such resource that offers numerous services to aid the undergraduate researcher, particularly in the social sciences, in aspects of the research process.  A large number of workshops and short courses ranging in various topics dealing with research methods and related software tools are open to all students and are great for those wanting to acquire these skills before diving into an independent project. Several full-time staff members are available for consulting on survey research methods, qualitative methods, and quantitative methods.  An open computing lab staffed by advanced graduate students is provided for help and support with the computers, software, finding data, basic statistical consulting, etc. for the undergraduate researcher in the heart of their project.

The Health Sciences Library

The Health Sciences Library


The Health Sciences Library provides services for the undergraduate researcher despite this notion that the library only serves degree holding individuals well into their career.  A variety of instructional sessions on research related topics are offered by the Heatlh Sciences Library that are open to anyone. Over a 130 self-help research guides and tutorials for every aspect of the research process are offered. Students can use email, chat, phone to ask questions or set up a one-on-one consultation for help with their research by using the Ask a Librarian page.  Most Librarians specialize in certain fields thus choosing the right person to contact via the Ask a Librarian page is essential. More information about each librarian and their special expertise is listed on the Meet Your Librarian page.

The Odum Institute and the Health Sciences Library offer resources for the undergraduate researcher beyond what is offered at the Davis Library or the Undergraduate Library.  Many of us forget that these buildings exist for our usage and many are even unaware that these services exist. No matter what point in your research career, there are resources accessible to make you more knowledgeable in aspects of conducting research making your project proceed smoothly. So don’t procrastinate in any regard to your undergraduate research career as summer will be here before you know it.

CUR’s Social Media Adventure Encourages Interaction

Written by Mollie McNeill

The 14th Annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research took place on April 15th. For the first year, the symposium was the focus of a “Social Media Adventure.” This was a weeklong “challenge” during the celebration of National Undergraduate Research Week leading up to the symposium. Each day, there was a new social media objective. To fulfill these objectives, participants checked into the CUR Facebook event, live-tweeted the symposium, and submitted photos for the OUR blog.

The CUR Facebook page was a great way to keep in touch with participants and attendees. Participation in the CUR Facebook event increased this year making communication with the public a lot easier. Presenters also took to Facebook to create their own events and tell their friends about their research.

On Twitter, #UNCCUR13 didn’t exactly trend but the activity on twitter provided great insight to what was happening at the symposium. Participants live tweeted the event and some presenters tweeted about their research to draw an audience.

The photo blogging portion of the symposium was a great way to capture the excitement at the symposium.Symposium Participants submitted photos from the Symposium to be featured on the blog. This photo submitted online by Brad Smith shows attendees of the symposium viewing presentations. Other attendees of the symposium wrote their own blogs about the symposium which will be posted later this month.

The Role of Mentors: Graduate Mentor Beth Knight’s Perspective

Written by Beth Knight

Mentors guide, teach, and challenge while giving the student enough space to grow and work independently.  Like learning how to ride a bike, the mentor guides the student a push and training wheels, but the student must pedal on her own.  When roadblocks or mistakes occur, the mentor helps the student meet challenges head-on with critical thinking, patience, and creativity.

Through clear, organized teaching of concepts as well as details, a mentor imparts a foundation of knowledge to the student.  But mentors also challenge their student to retain and augment their knowledge, work increasingly independently (“see one, do one”), and meet realistic goals.  Student ownership, autonomy, and success fuel motivation and confidence.  Flexibility for deadlines is given when a student falls slightly behind their schedule, as respect for student autonomy engenders a positive attitude.

Finally, an effective mentor fosters a relaxed learning environment that encourages initiative, curiosity, and teamwork.  Trust and mutual respect enable a student to approach with any problem or question.  It is critically important for each student to feel personally valued.  It doesn’t take much energy or attention, but each simple act that demonstrates the student is welcome and cared for instills a sense of belonging and purpose that improves self worth and work ethic.

Mentoring is like teaching someone how to drive at a go-cart course: there is plenty of leeway in the road, but generous bumpers and soft track walls in case things go awry.  Through this process, a mentor shares information, insights, and encouragement to help the student compose and reach their goals.