Through SURE, students and mentors concentrate research efforts during summer months

Wednesday's poster session offered nearly 40 Elon students the opportunity to share the progress they made on a range of research topics through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, one of Elon's signature program. 

Amanda Ruvolo ’20 is heading into her senior year making preparations for a presentation at the National Council for Social Studies and drafting two separate manuscripts for publication in academic journals. For all three, the Lumen Scholar is drawing from her experience crafting a new approach to teaching social studies that better engages students and gets them out of the classroom to experience democracy firsthand.

“I would not be where I am in my research without SURE,” Ruvolo said Wednesday, talking about the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. “SURE offers the chance to dive deep into the topic that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Ruvolo, who is majoring in secondary education and history and is mentored by Assistant Professor of Education Scott Morrison, was one of nearly 40 Elon students who on Wednesday shared how far they’ve come in a wide range of research topics thanks to SURE, one of Elon’s signature undergraduate research opportunities. Gathered in McKinnon Hall in the Moseley Center, most were for the first time standing beside posters displaying the results so far of their research while fielding questions about how they’ve approached their topics and relaying their findings to members of the Elon community. It’s an experience many students won’t have until they have entered graduate school.

SURE offers undergraduates and their mentors the opportunity to devote time and resources outside of the main academic year to their research passions. Supported by a $3,000 stipend, these students work full time in collaboration with their mentors on projects that can stretch across multiple years of their Elon education.

​”SURE provides these students a pathway to really jumpstart their research,” said Meredith Allison, director of undergraduate research and professor of psychology. “During the academic year, there can be so many things competing for their time and attention, but through SURE, they’re able to really focus on their research.”

Students spend 30 to 40 hours each week working on their research in close collaboration with their mentors, who also have more time during the summer to devote to the project. This summer, Rachel Dzik ’21 and her mentor, Associate Professor of Human Service Studies Judy Esposito, met regularly as Dzik moved forward on her research looking into the concepts of “girl toys” and “boy toys,” and whether adults support those stereotypes in their interactions with children.

“I got to find this passion of mine,” said Dzi, who is majoring in human service studies. “My mentor and I met every other day. We’d check in with each other, and it felt like I had someone there to guide me rather than jumping in by myself and not knowing what I was doing.”

Colin Deutsch has been working closely with his mentor, Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Uno, as he explores the effect that diet can have on learning ability. Deutsch has been using zebrafish to explore the issue, which stems from the “gut-brain axis,” which is the tie between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system.

“It is so great to have that support system there to help me understand what’s happening specifically and how to apply that to the real world,” said Deutsch, a senior biochemistry major and a recipient of the Lumen Prize.

Along with offering the time to conduct intensive research, SURE this year provided participants with academic and professional development resources. This summer, SURE students have participated in a series of workshops about how to present their findings on a poster, how to develop their “elevator speech” that they give at presentations, such as Wednesday’s poster session, and other topics. They have also received assistance with their writing, with coaching on how to craft and draft personal statements for graduate school applications.

​The goal with many of these workshops this summer has been to help these researchers translate what they are studying and learning for a broader audience, Allison said. “You can’t just use all the jargon you might use with others in the discipline,” she said. “You need to be able to explain it to a more general audience.”

Elon students weren’t the only ones on Wednesday sharing their research findings. Nick Granowsky is a student at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., who has been working with Professors Eric Hall and Caroline Ketcham, co-directors of Elon BrainCARE Research Institute. On Wednesday, he was presenting findings so far from his research into student-athletes who have a history of concussions and the impact those injuries may have on their memory.

“Being able to be in a lab and gain the experience of conducting research is not something I expected to be able to do during the summer,” Granowsky said. “I just think the approach of this program, the way they work with you on your schedule is great, and is an experience I can’t get during the school year.”

SURE is one component within Elon’s broader focus on undergraduate research. The expectation is that SURE participants will continue their work through the fall and will also present at the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum, an annual showcase of undergraduate research that last year drew more than 200 students.

​For Alexandra Grillo, her SURE experience is the latest step in what started as just a general research question about how infants who are new to standing interact with objects around them. A rising senior majoring in psychology, Grillo has been working in the Infant Development Lab headed by Assistant Professor Sabrina Thurman. Grillo designed a method for examining the infants as they stood and interacted with various objects, and has coded those interactions to look for themes.

“It has been so rewarding to see what was just a general idea take shape and then come together in the lab,” Grillo said. “SURE has really brought that idea to life.”