Research in Oral History: LGBTQ Activism in the NC Triangle Area

-written by Aaron Lovett, History and Communication Studies, Class of 2017

-editor Monica Richard

Before coming to UNC last fall, I thought research was something only done in the physical and life sciences. So when I heard about undergraduate research, I imagined chemistry and biology majors spending all day in a lab, manipulating a plethora of confusing technical instruments, wearing huge goggles and white lab coats, examining bacteria, and conducting experiments on mice.

Ian Palmquist Photo source:

Ian Palmquist

That was not at all where my interests were. But during my first semester at UNC, I took a research-exposure first-year seminar in history, and through that course realized that research could be done in any subject. After hearing about UNC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), I decided I wanted to apply for the chance to conduct research of my own.

As a member of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community, I wanted to learn more about being queer in the Southeast United States, an environment historically hostile to queer people. Throughout American history, people who are now collectively identified as LGBTQ have been branded as deviant, ignored, and hated.

Alexis Gumbs Photo source:

Alexis Gumbs

Religious fundamentalism and social conservatism in the South have exacerbated this issue. Making matters worse, there is a slim amount of studies and literature on LGBTQ topics in general, let alone LGBTQ issues in the south.

However, through the Southern Oral History Program at Chapel Hill, I learned that oral history was a valuable method for learning about oppressed groups of people whose history is not thoroughly documented in official texts. So, I began an oral history project on LGBTQ activism in the Triangle area, to learn about queer history firsthand from people who have devoted their lives to shaping it. My second semester at UNC, I received the Pine Tree Fund SURF for research in LGBT Studies to fund my research.

For the project, I interviewed hardworking local activists such as Ian Palmquist, Alexis Gumbs, and Carlton Rutherford. Ian Palmquist, a UNC alumnus, is the former Executive Director of Equality NC, a statewide LGBTQ political action committee, and currently works at Equality Federation, a nationwide advocacy organization.

Pastor Carlton Rutherford Photo source:

PR Carlton Rutherford

As an experienced lobbyist and political activist, he offered valuable insight into how various progressive lobbying groups helped pass the NC School Violence Prevention Act in 2009, the first law in North Carolina history to include the terms “sexual orientation and gender identity,” and the first piece of legislation in the South to include the phrase “gender identity.” Carlton Rutherford has been a pastor for several years at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, which offers an all-inclusive space for religious members of the LGBTQ community. His experiences as a gay man of color and clergy member brings to light the many intersecting identities of LGBTQ people. Alexis Gumbs is a queer feminist activist whose work documents the histories of queer black elders; she received her PhD in English, Africana Studies and Women’s Studies from Duke University and is a widely published writer on LGBTQ topics. Younger than most of the activists I interviewed, she was able to not only add a queer woman of color’s perspective on LGBTQ activism, but also represent a newer generation of progressive activists.

My research experience taught me two critical things. First, that there are people from myriad and diverse ethnic, religious, and political groups, who share many of my past experiences. The ability to speak to and learn from them has been invaluable. Second, not all learning happens in the classroom – rather, some of the most valuable knowledge is gained through personal experience. There is so much you can learn by going out into the world and actually finding knowledge, archiving it, and reflecting upon it. And this process of retrieval, documentation, and analysis benefits not only the individual researcher, but the community they are a part of as well.

‘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.



Symposium Poster Winner Sherifat Ademola on Conducting Research in the Hodge Lab

-Written by
Sheri Ademola

Sherifat Ademola.4

Ademola is one of three poster winners from the 14th Annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research Symposium

Carolina’s emphasis on research served as the primary motivating factor behind my decision to enroll in such an outstanding institution. Along with taking courses, I spent my first year
exploring the research opportunities offered at Carolina. Tailoring my research to fields pertaining to psychological behavior, I came across a research project studying alcoholism, a complex neuropsychiatric disorder. My interest in this academic arena was derived from my high school AP Psychology class; I thoroughly enjoyed the material. Since I’ve taken this class, I’ve attained a particular excitement for examining the structure of the brain and its association with psychological processes and behavior. In addition, learning about some of the environmental, social, and genetic factors that affects the development and maintenance of the brain settled with my intellectual curiosity.


Finding a research opportunity and a lab

I stumbled upon the Hodge Lab in the OUR Database on my hunt for a meaningful research opportunity. The Hodge Lab, located in the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, offered a research project on alcoholism that engendered a number of goals geared towards understanding alcohol and its effect on the brain.

Sherifat Ademola.2

Ademola responding to questions during poster session

More specifically, some of the goals included identifying the long term effects of alcohol exposure during adolescence, clarifying molecular mechanisms of alcohol induced changes in mood, and examining pharmacological compounds that could potentially treat problems resulting from alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Once I read through the research project description, I contacted the members of the research team. After completing the interview process, I received great news via email stating that I had received a position to work with the Hodge Lab.


Lab Year One: Proficiency

My first year at the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies comprised of performing several lab techniques including but not limited to western blotting, brain slicing, and immunohistochemistry. Learning the protocols behind the experiments and becoming proficient in the lab techniques came with countless challenges.


Lab Year Two: Accountability

Sheifat Ademola pix 3

Sherifat Ademola, Class of 2014
Psychology major, Chemistry minor

After my first year with the lab, I decided to do research for credit. This would allow me to be more accountable and more equipped with research expectations. Under the guidance of Dr. Sara Faccidomo from the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, I focused my research on creating a valid preclinical model for alcohol studies. In addition to creating a valid model, I was interested in examining the effectiveness of the methods utilized to increase alcohol consumption and anxiety-like behavior in mice. During the spring of 2013, I had the amazing opportunity to present my research findings at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research Symposium. Working in the research lab allowed me to gain the essential skills and values necessary to continue my trajectory towards pursuing a career in academic research.  Determination, patience, and consistency of fulfilling one’s curiosity represents just a few of the many values acquired within my research experience at UNC Chapel Hill.


The highlight of the symposium

One of the highlights of my research experience was speaking with my peers about their respective research projects at the 2013 Celebration of Undergraduate Research Symposium. From this opportunity I gained some perspective of what undergraduate research entails in other fields. Research projects represented an array of subject areas including psychology, journalism, biology, political science, history, etc.


What I cherish

From spending an immense amount of time in the lab with my lab mates to compiling my research findings to present at the symposium; I am extremely grateful for my research experience and will forever cherish it. I hope to continue my research and present new findings in next spring’s symposium.



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.’



Our Research Madness Bracket Contest: Congratulations to Kandace Thomas

The time has finally arrived. While Louisville may have taken the national title in the bracket – and basketball- contest, who won the Office for Undergraduate Research’s Research Bracket Contest? This March, OUR decided to give students who were presenting at the symposium a chance to share their experience early. Five students submitted blog posts about their research and took to their social media sites, friends, family, and classmates to get votes during the three rounds. In the end, Kandace Thomas received over 300 votes on her project about well-being among non-Panhellenic sorority women and Panhellenic sorority women.

photo-10 Her study allowed her to incorporate her psychology major, Women’s Studies minor and her interest in Panhellenic sororities. We are delighted that Kandace shared her story with us, and pleased to announce her a winner! Kandace will receive a packed Research Bracket themed prize, including a family pack to Morehead Planetarium, goodies from UNC Student Stores and more!

Kandace Thomas.2



Congrats Kandace!






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.

Research Madness Bracket Contestant #5: Marquis Peacock

This post is part of our Research Madness Bracket Contest. Make sure you cast your vote for your favorite Tar Heel researcher  here. 

Written by Marquis Peacock

The Pursuit of Spirituality


Nine cities in two months; in many ways my SURF research was one of the most imposing journeys that I had undertaken. I was alone in the U.S. exploring religion and culture by living it. The thought excited and intimidated me. This was both a way to become better acquainted with myself and a challenge that I had to surmount and I was eager to face it.

I began my journey alone in Chicago and traveled throughout the Midwest, the South, and the East Coast. My research focused on the ways in which religion has been used both as a colonial tool of oppression and a tool of liberation for the African-American community historically. The travel that I embarked upon was to augment the intense study of scholastic and primary sources in which I traced this history from the time the first African slaves were brought to America until the Harlem Renaissance. I wanted to see first-hand the effects of this period on African-Americans, which can be exemplified by glancing at polls and statistics. It is estimated that as many as 83% of black people are Christians. Of this population, about 48% are Baptists and 8% are Methodists, which were the two denominations that actively sought to convert them.

I began my journey to explore the roots of modern religion, but what I experienced was much more. I was mystified by the spirituality of some people; I heard stories of gang violence, drug abuse, and betrayal from people I knew for only a few minutes; and the most impactful result on me was the state of vulnerability that I was initially in was overcome and I was able to evolve.

Research Madness Bracket Contestant #4: Brandon Rafalson









This blog is part of our Research Madness Bracket Contest. Make sure you cast your vote for your favorite Tar Heel researcher here.



Written by Brandon Rafalson, Junior, American Studies and Dramatic Art

The plan was simple: prep up on books about the history and technique of improv comedy in Chicago; take classes there with some of the leading improv schools, iO and Second City; take notes on classes; talk with insiders; bring back research that I could apply to UNC’s sole improv group The Chapel Hill Players (CHiPs); run some free public workshops with the newly acquired knowledge; badda-boom, badda-bang; get in, get out—simple.  But things got complicated.  What I didn’t anticipate when going to Chicago is how much I learned about improv outside of Chicago.  You see, Chicago has long been viewed as “the Mecca of improv comedy,” but that’s just a sliver of the truth.  While in Chicago I learned about how improv has been growing across the country, and the world.  I spoke to individuals who had founded improv companies in Nashville and Atlanta, who were doing the work in Austin, Texas and New York, New York; I met improvisers from Toronto and Edmunton, Canada; England, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, France, Australia…and it didn’t help that my SURF experience spilled over into my study abroad experience that followed soon after.  While in London, I got to work with the people I had met over the summer, go to an improv-festival in Germany and watch shows in Poland.  But it gets worse: now that I’m back in Chapel Hill, I’m directing CHiPs and applying the knowledge I learned in Chicago and abroad here.  Where did it all go so…great?