SURF: 25 years of showcasing undergraduate research at Elon

Elon's daylong Spring Undergraduate Research Forum puts the spotlight on cutting-edge undergraduate research through poster and oral presentations around Elon's campus. 

Armed with posters and PowerPoint presentations, not to mention the knowledge and analysis from months and months of work, about 240 students showcased their undergraduate research projects during Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum on Tuesday.

With poster sessions in The Great Hall in the Global Commons and dozens of oral presentations at locations around campus, SURF is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Initially called the Student Undergraduate Research Forum, Elon’s first undergraduate research event was held in Carlton Building on a Friday afternoon in 1993 with 19 students and 13 faculty members from seven departments taking part. 

Now the daylong celebration draws students and faculty from across the university as presenters and brings together a broad swath of the campus community to learn about what their peers and professors have been working on. For students, participating in SURF is an integral part of their undergraduate research experience and among the opportunities that many in higher education wouldn’t get until graduate school. 

Undergraduate research has offered Anna Linsz ’19, a Teaching Fellow and elementary education major, the chance to explore a topic beyond what she has been learning in the classroom. In The Great Hall Tuesday morning, she was presenting her findings from her study of the impact of a mentor-based program on the self-esteem and perceived body image of fourth- and fifth-grade girls. 

“I certainly wanted to explore a topic that’s within the population I’ll be working with as a teacher,” Linsz said. “I’m really into mental and emotional wellness, and this has allowed me to explore than within elementary education.”

Working with the Girls in Motion program, which pairs college-age women with fourth- and fifth-grade girls to serve as mentors, Linsz surveyed the attitudes of the students and the women before and after the eight-week program. They were asked questions about their perceived body image, self-esteem and “drive for thinness,” with the results pointing to improvements in those attitudes among both the women and the girls after the program. 

“I’m hopeful that my findings will help Girls in Motion so that they can better understand how well the program is working,” said Linsz, who is working with Elizabeth Bailey, lecturer in exercise science, on the research. 

Meredith Allison, associate professor of psychology and director of undergraduate research, said one of the benefits of SURF is that it provides these students the chance to share their research with those outside their discipline. Rather than presenting to a group at a conference that’s specific to their research area, they are explaining their work to a more general group and likely fielding a broader range of questions, Allison said.

“That incorporates different skills for them — having a speak to a much broader audience,” Allison said.

Qian Xu, associate professor of communications and associate director of undergraduate research, echoed Allison’s thoughts about this benefits to students. “They will be able to answer questions they wouldn’t normally receive from people in their own disciplines,” she said. 

Within The Great Hall, a slideshow of photos from across the 25 years of SURF flashed on the video boards while below this year’s showcase offered insights into everything from typography to choreography, psychology to microbiology and everything in between. Along with the students, faculty members delivered explanations of their own research as part of the two poster sessions held on Tuesday. A full list of the presentations along with abstracts is available here

A member of Elon’s track and field team, Lydia Laws drew on her background as an athlete and her academic work as a sport management major to determine her research focus. Collecting data from a multitude of sources, Laws studied the career paths of Division I athletics directors at more than 370 colleges and universities and how long they typically remain in the positions. 

Laws found that there is a growing number, though still a minority, who are coming from the corporate sector to lead Division I programs. Additionally, Laws discovered that the length of stay for athletics directors at schools with football programs that compete in the Football Championship Subdivision, like Elon, tend to be longer than those from schools competing in the higher-profile Football Bowl Subdivision. The length of stay for ADs at schools without football programs was the longest among those studied, and historically black colleges and universities saw the shortest length of stay for athletic directors, Laws found. 

“It’s been so rewarding to dive into this topic and really learn how to do extensive research like this,” Laws said. 

This year saw students from Walter M. Williams High School in Burlington, N.C., participating in SURF — a first. Sam Cryan, Anna Altmann and Maddie Touchette worked this year with Associate Professor of Mathematics Chad Awtrey, who is also associate director of undergraduate research, within his research area of Galois groups. Awtrey’s work with the high school students to further explore the concept, which deals with whether polynomials are solvable with radicals, is supported by grant funding from the Mathematical Association of America. 

The research partnership comes thanks in part to Robin French ’15, a faculty member at Williams who worked with Awtrey during her time at Elon. French explained that the concepts Cryan, Altmann and Touchette have been exploring are far beyond what they would typically be exposed to in high school.

“The biggest challenge at first was getting a crash course in the mathematical concepts,” Cryan said. “This has been overwhelmingly beneficial for me.”

Midday in a Lakeside meeting room, Joanna Salerno ’18 and Kayla McGraw ’19 explained the work they’ve been doing with mentor Amy Overman, associate professor in the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Program, into memory. Supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, their research, Salerno and McGraw are looking at whether age impacts how people remember an item, and whether a visual context for that item aids memory. 

Their findings point to older adults being better able to remember a picture of a face if it is superimposed on a contextual background as opposed to being just placed side by side with that background. “It helps for them to see it as one ensemble,” Salerno told those who assembled for the presentation, noting that the discoveries could contribute to advances in memory retention by older adults. 

In McKinnon Hall in the Moseley Center, Brooke Hunzinger walked those gathered for her oral presentation through her findings, which found a correlation between rising obesity rates in young children (those in kindergarten through second grade) and declines in their reading and math scores on standardized testing. Working with Katy Rouse, associate professor of economics in the Love School of Business, Hunzinger pulled together extensive data on thousands of school children from around the country to explore potential connections. 

There are studies that find adult workers who are obese can see lower wages on average, so the goal is to see if there is some connection earlier in life so that earlier intervention might be possible, Hunzinger said. “This is a long-term and short-term lifestyle issue,” Hunzinger explained. “My motivation is to see how this fits into the larger trends.”

Tuesday afternoon also saw a multidisciplinary symposium focused on South Asia that brought together faculty and students from the departments of Anthropology, Religious Studies and Political Science and Policy Studies. “They’ve been working together all year on organizing the symposium,” Allison said. 

New this year, faculty members from three academic departments will be conducting assessments of student presentations. Awtrey said the goal is to offer narrative feedback to the individual students who are presenting, as well as collect assessment data about how well SURF is accomplishing its goals. Among the areas those evaluations are looking at is how well students communicate and deliver their presentations and how well they present their supporting materials. “We hope to expand these evaluations in future years,” Awtrey said. 

There will also be an effort to solicit feedback from attendees to look for ways to continue SURF’s success in the future and improve in areas that need improvement. Those who turned out for the two poster sessions on Tuesday were asked to check in using their Phoenix Cards and will receive an online survey. That survey is also available here