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From novels to neuroscience, SURE scholars dive deep into research

This year's 53 students participating in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences program presented mid-summer progress in their work on July 22.

The 2016 SURE scholars gathered in McKinnon Hall on July 22 to present their progress on research projects supported by the program. (Photo by Kim Walker)

One is spending the summer crafting her first novel. 

Another is connecting with African-American women to learn about how stories of childbirth have shaped what they expect as they become first-time mothers. 

A third is designing a "smart walker" for older adults equipped with an automatic braking mechanism. 

They're among 53 Elon students that collectively make up this year's Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences cohort, with each spending eight weeks working one-on-one with faculty mentors and advancing long-term research projects. Participants receive a $3,000 stipend during the program, with most continuing their work during the upcoming academic year. 

These SURE scholars offered the community a mid-summer look July 22 at the projects they've undertaken and the progress they've made during a research presentation event at McKinnon Hall in the Moseley Center. 

Paul Miller, director of undergraduate research and intellectual climate initiatives and a professor of exercise science, said this year's class of SURE scholars is the largest yet, and represents 20 different majors across 22 university departments. 

The research presentation event featured work by 53 students, the largest number to participate in the program.  (Photo by Kim Walker)

"Undergraduate research is definitely something our community embraces and values," Miller said. "It speaks to the liberal arts part of the Elon experience, and supports the holistic development of the student."

For Daniela Sostaita '17, the SURE program has offered her the time and the opportunity to dive into interviews with members of the congregation at Iglesia Bautista La Roca in Raleigh. Sostaita is talking with women in the church about how their religious beliefs are impacting their sexual attitudes and behaviors, including how they view sexual activity, abortion and contraception. It's a first opportunity to immerse herself in a full-scale research project and practice the ethnographic methods of gathering information she's learned. 

"I'm definitely glad I've started this research during the summer," Sostaita said. 

Sostaita is being mentored by Toddie Peters, a professor of religious studies, who said that during the academic year, it's difficult to find the time to devote to in-depth research like one can during the summer through SURE. 

"They have such a concentrated time to be able to collect the data during SURE," Peters said. 

The range of topics addressed by SURE scholars continues to broaden, with students from 20 different majors and 22 departments participating. (Photo by Kim Walker)

‚ÄčAs the program has grown during the past several decades, the scope of the research participants undertake has broadened as well, Miller said. That has included projects that are focused more on research or advances in creative fields. 

"We're not just talking about students at a lab bench," Miller said. "We really do want students who are studying photography, who are studying dance."

Or writing a novel. 

That's the focus of Jackie Grant '17, who is majoring in English and working towards the completion of a full-length novel by the time she graduates in the spring. 

This summer she's partnering with Associate English Professor Tita Ramirez, who herself a fiction writer herself. Given the time required, SURE offers the opportunity to focus solely on the novel's development and crafting an opening to the work that the typical academic year does not, Grant said. 

"This is the only time I'll have the opportunity to get a lot of feedback from someone who knows my writing and has written a novel before," Grant said, referring to Ramirez, who is herself working on a novel. 

SURE scholars can draw from their personal experiences to craft research ideas, as was the case with Beth Lester '17. Before starting at Elon as a freshman, she visited her aunt, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has to use a walker to get around. She saw how her aunt's weakness caused her to struggle as she moved down ramps, given that she couldn't squeeze the brakes to keep it from getting away from her. 

With an interest in engineering and design, Lester has crafted an independent major in industrial design studies, and through SURE has been working to develop a "smart walker" prototype. With the help of gyroscopes and actuators, the walker will detect slopes and automatically apply brakes to help the user ease down a ramp. 

"The way my brain works, I like to hyperfocus," Lester said, explaining that SURE allows her to devote her time to this research. 

She plans to have a working prototype developed by the time she graduates in the spring, and hopes the project progresses to the point where she can apply for a patent for the new technology. 

"Ideally, I would like to bring this 'smart walker' to market," Lester said. 

Alex Vandermass-Peeler '17, is a SURE scholar and political science major who has also been working with the Undergraduate Research Program of which SURE is a part to help promote the program and recruit interested students. A lack of awareness is a chief challenge, but more students are coming to understand the opportunities there are for research at Elon, she said. 

"Sometimes it's difficult to reach people, but once you do, they're in," she said. 

Owen Covington,
7/22/2016 12:15 PM