SURF: Posters and presentations tell the story of undergraduate research at Elon

More than 200 students on Tuesday, April 29, presented the fruits of their research at SURF — the annual Spring Undergraduate Research Forum — in poster sessions, oral presentations and symposia.

Arriving at the university in 2015 as an Elon College Fellow, Sarah Lord knew her senior year at Elon would culminate in the presentation of an in-depth, intense research project she would spend years working toward. On Tuesday, standing in the Great Hall next to a poster displaying the results of that work, that time had come. 

"I've been working toward this for four years, and to get to this point is amazing," said Lord, who is majoring in political science. "It's been so nice to work closely with a mentor, someone who will read your paper deeply, take the time for in-depth discussion, and look at you not just as a student, but a fellow researcher."

Tuesday was a day of posters, presentations and symposia, as Lord along with more than 200 other students participated in the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum, Elon's annual celebration of undergraduate research. Faculty, staff and fellow students crowded into the Great Hall, McKinnon Hall and meeting rooms in Lakeside to hear these researchers talk about how they selected their topics, how they conducted their studies and what they've learned. 

"These students are able to talk about what they've been studying and what they've with a broader audience at SURF than they might find at a disciplinary conference," said Qian Xu, associate professor of communications and associate director of undergraduate research. "It's always so exciting to see these in-depth conversations between the presenters and the audience. That helps them deepen their research and think about their research from a different perspective."

This year, the 26th for SURF, saw 233 presentations throughout the day, with some students presenting multiple times. Serving as bookends for SURF were poster sessions in the Great Hall in the morning and late afternoon, with oral presentations and two symposia held during the middle of the day. This year, the symposia focused on South Asian communities and globalization, and on sustainability across the disciplines and in community-based partnerships. 

​To help guide attendees through the presentations and map out topics of interest, SURF this year introduced an app through the University Guides platform. The app was designed to help people navigate through the posters, learn more about individual presentations and tag presentations they were interested in attending, Xu said. Also new this year — a new pilot program provided faculty members the opportunity to review presentations by students to give them direct feedback on their research and how they presented it.

For a second year, students from Williams High School in Burlington, N.C., presented their research. Ty Cryan, Karan Patel, Yousuf Siddiqui and Kenzi Talhelm have worked with mentor Ryne VanKrevelen, a lecturer in statistics, with the support of grant funding from the Mathematical Association of America. The students presented their work on predicting the records of professional sports teams, using data from different points during a season to try to determine how teams will finish the season.

SURF provides students from across all disciplines at Elon to showcase their undergraduate research, which is one of the five Elon Experiences. Each year, 20 to 25 percent of each graduating class has participated in undergraduate research during their four years. Meredith Allison, director of undergraduate research, said that fostering a connection a relationship with a mentor is an integral part of the research experience. 

"You develop a professional relationship with a mentor who can teach you the skills needed to be an expert in your discipline," said Allison, a professor of psychology.

Jack Amend, who is majoring in computer science and applied mathematics, found a direction for his research with the help of his mentor, assistant professor of computer science Scott Spurlock. Amend devoted his work to develop an algorithm to draw Congressional districts in North Carolina that are not gerrymandered and don't give an innate advantage to one political party over another. Using census data and machine learning, Amend ran various iterations that would produce districts of equal populations, and will next be looking at demographic characteristics to see how the districts differ and what impact that may have politically. 

"It's been such a great experience to have a single topic and to really focus on it," said Amend, a junior. "And it's really not guided research, since neither of us know exactly what the answer is."

Across the Great Hall, Matthew Foster held a prototype he developed with Mike Borucki and Ryan Paxson, all juniors who are majoring in engineering. The trio set out to develop an on-demand nicotine delivery device to help people quit smoking that could be more effective and with fewer potential health risks than other options such as patches, gum or electronic cigarettes. 

The prototype they developed seeks to deliver nicotine through the skin similar to a patch, but to be able to do so on demand, so as to replicate the quick dose of nicotine that smokers might get from a cigarette. Building an on-demand device would help smokers respond to an urge to smoke in the way that a patch can't, and doesn't have some of the health concerns that e-cigarettes have, Foster explained. 

The project is a prime example of the iterative process of designing a device to address a specific problem. The students explained that their design has evolved to respond to various challenges that have arisen as they have considered how someone might use it, as well as to make it more user-friendly by reducing the size, and eventually building it as a Bluetooth device that can be operated by a cell phone. Foster, Borucki and Paxson worked with mentor Jonathan Su, assistant professor of engineering, on the project. 

"One of the biggest problems we faced was size," Borucki said. 

Chad Awtrey, associate director of undergraduate research and associate professor of mathematics, said SURF is an exciting event as students share about what they've been able to discover during the course of their work. "My favorite part is the excitement that students express when they share the new contributions they've made to their discipline," Awtrey said. "There's excitement in the students, and there's pride in the mentors."

Max Pivonka, a senior majoring in finance and marketing, credits an internship after his sophomore year with sparking the idea for his research, which looked at how inside salespeople focused on business-to-business sales employ social media to connect with customers. During his internship, he found those in sales he worked with seemed to have very diverse strategies for using social media. 

"What I noticed is there was no set way that people were talking about using social media in the sales prospecting process," Pivonka said during his oral presentation in the Lakeside meeting rooms. "That really sparked my interest."

Pivonka conducted in-depth interviews with two dozen inside sales representatives from around the country and analyzed their responses about how they used social media to cultivate sales prospects. He found that many used social media to leverage online communities, create different digital personas for themselves, maintain indirect communications with potential clients and to research new prospects. 

​Participating in undergraduate research can play a critical role in developing critical thinking skills, with Genna Kasian, an international and global studies major, noting that work on her project has helped her better think for herself. Working with mentor Elisha Savchak-Trogdon, an assistant professor of political science, she compared the backgrounds of justices selected to the highest courts in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia to look for differences in judicial and legal experience, geographic diversity, gender and other factors. 

"It's not always something where you can just find a journal article to tell you what the answer is," Kasia said. "I've become able to develop conclusions based on my own thoughts."