Virtual SURF Day 2021 a celebration of undergraduate research, perseverance

Through the use of the Gather platform and Zoom webinars, SURF Day 2021 took on a reimagined form but offered the same opportunity to celebrate undergraduate research at Elon.

In a celebration of the power of undergraduate research and mentorship, nearly 240 students showcased years of hard work and dedication to their research at Elon on Tuesday.

The 28th annual Spring Undergraduate Research Forum invited students to share their work with the campus community. The forum took on a reimagined form, however. Instead of meeting face-to-face to learn about student research projects in locations across campus, attendees created virtual avatars and traveled from presentation to presentation via the Gather platform and Zoom webinars.

The fully virtual SURF event allowed for safe and healthy engagement and interactions for students, faculty and staff in attendance. Similar to the small crowds that could gather around a student presenter, Gather allows multiple people to engage with the presenter via video, and then move around the virtual “poster room.”

Nicholas Urbanski ’21 presents research on the human body’s defense against skin cancer via the Gather online platform.

That engagement among students, faculty and staff is an important element of SURF, explained Qian Xu, associate professor of strategic communications and associate director of undergraduate research. “Participating in SURF is a way through which the whole campus embraces Elon as an intellectual community,” Xu said. “It is not just about supporting the presenters and performers as they share the joy of their exploration and discoveries, but also a great opportunity to enhance interdisciplinary communication and knowledge sharing.”

Undergraduate research projects span across almost every discipline at Elon. Courtney Kollar ’21, a psychology major and dance minor, studied the believability of alibis and how they can affect jury perception of a defendant in a legal trial. Kollar worked with Professor of Psychology and Director of Undergraduate Research Meredith Allison to present mock crime scenarios to participants and determine how the credibility of an alibi corroborator, the person supporting the accused’s alibi, might affect a jury.

Kollar created eight scenarios and manipulated three factors in each: the corroborator’s relationship to the defendant (neighbor or brother), level of certainty (65- or 100 percent), and whether the corroborator was cooperative when questioned by police. More than 150 participants were given one of the eight scenarios and asked whether they thought the defendant was innocent or guilty based on the alibi corroborator. Kollar found participants were most likely to believe the defendant’s alibi when the corroborator was a neighbor who was 100 percent certain of the alibi and cooperative when questioned.

As she will soon begin her pursuit of a graduate degree in psychology, Kollar says the opportunity to take on an in-depth research project, with guidance from a faculty expert, has prepared her well for the future.

“It’s just so rewarding to see what I have been able to create here at Elon with such an awesome research mentor,” Kollar said.

The opportunity for close mentorship was also a key element for Haileigh Houser ’21, who researched the enzyme kinetics of thyroid peroxidase and characterization of oxidized substrates with Professor of Chemistry Kathy Matera. The research relates to polycystic ovarian syndrome, a female reproductive endocrine disorder that affects ovarian function resulting in the growth of cysts on and in the ovaries.

This is a second research project with Matera for Houser, who will be pursuing her doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder after graduation. She hopes to eventually run her own research lab focused on women’s reproductive-based issues.

“She pushes me to be better than I thought I ever could be while encouraging me to explore something I am passionate about.” Houser said of Matera.

Daniel Bascuñan-Wiley ’21 leveraged an internship with the local nonprofit Healthy Alamance to advance research into the effectiveness of empowerment programs in promoting healthy eating. A human service studies major, Bascuñan-Wiley developed a food empowerment series with four classes available to local residents, with topics including starting your own herb garden and working with local produce.

Survey data from participants showed a high level of empowerment. Participants said they were pleased with the classes, would be interested in taking more and felt comfortable sharing new information they had learned with others. Next steps for Healthy Alamance could be to expand the topics and number of classes and pursue a broader audience, Bascuñan-Wiley said.

“Using an empowerment-based lens gives people the option to create more of an organic and easier environment for people to connect and feel more of a capacity to act,” he said.

Part of the challenge within the research was coordinating grant funding to support the program, which Bascuñan-Wiley presented another opportunity to learn. Guiding him through his research and the ins and outs of grant funding was his mentor, Lecturer in Human Service Studies Monica Burney.

“This mentorship is everything to me,” Bascuñan-Wiley said. “To have someone I trust pointing me in the right direction when I am struggling has been so helpful. Professor Burney has been phenomenal and I have learned a lot more about creating effective programming because of her.”

Qian Xu, associate professor of strategic communications and associate director of undergraduate research, watches over presentations from the SURF Day 2021 Help Center.

As with many aspects of life at Elon, the pandemic has disrupted undergraduate research. Students and their mentors pivoted during the past year to adapt research plans to the restrictions and limitations imposed by the pandemic. That included meeting virtually, implementing health and safety measures in the lab, altering the focus of community-based research and other measures.

“This year’s SURF shows that despite the difficulties, great work has continued to happen,” Allison said.

Amanda Ornstein ’21, a psychology major, understands those difficulties all too well. She worked with Assistant Professor of Psychology CJ Fleming on a project that only took form this past summer. Ornstein originally set out to research programs focused on reducing and preventing sexual assault, but since that project would have required international travel, Ornstein had no choice but to pivot.

The result was a research project that delved into the very virus that put her in that difficult position to begin with. Ornstein and Fleming studied depression and anxiety as they relate to COVID-19. The research involved surveying around 600 working and partnered adults about stressors related to working from home and their personal lives. The study found that depression levels of those surveyed were double the normal levels found in non-clinical samples. Anxiety levels among the group were three times higher than those of the broader population.

Despite the disruptions caused by COVID-19, Ornstein was proud of herself and her fellow researchers for persevering through the pandemic and making it to SURF Day – even if it couldn’t happen face-to-face.

“It’s just a testament to humans in general,” Ornstein said. We are resilient. It’s true in so many cases, and this case is no different.”

For many students, SURF represents the culmination of research that can stretch back several years. The presentations they make during SURF could have been honed during earlier academic conferences, and could also pave the way for presenting at larger, national conferences or the preparation for the publication of an article in an academic journal.

Allison said that SURF presents the challenge of being able to speak about your research to a variety of audiences.

“Presenters have to think about how to relate to first-year students who may not have a background in the discipline,” Allison said. “It is equally important for student attendees to hear about research and think about whether it is something they may want to get involved with.”

Nicholas Urbanski ’21 presents his research project from his room on SURF Day 2021. (Courtesy: Nicholas Urbanski ’21)

SURF Day was a moment more than two years in the making for Nicholas Urbanski ’21. Urbanski worked with Associate Professor of Biology Jen Uno to study the skin microbiome, or the bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on the skin. More specifically, Urbanski looked into the S-epidermis, a skin bacteria that has been found to help protect humans from skin cancer.

For his research, Urbanski sought to determine how demographical and behavioral factors might impact the existence and effectiveness of S-epidermis. The study found little to no difference in the helpful bacteria from person to person.

As an aspiring dermatologist, Urbanski says the opportunity to research and present work that has a great deal of professional and personal meaning to him has presented an invaluable experience.

“Being able to do what I’m passionate about and what I’m interested in, and being able to work with a mentor and use university facilities to do it has been a really awesome experience,” Urbanski said.

Among the nearly 240 presentations were two interdisciplinary symposia titled “South Asia and the Challenges of the Twenty-first Century” and “Sustainability Across the Disciplines.” The South Asia symposium focused on how South Asian cultural traditions are challenged, adapted and extended as they meet the demands of the 21st century. The symposium, in its fifth year, is hosted by the South Asia Research Group at Elon (SARGE).

Srija Dutta ’21 presents on her research topic, “South Asian, college-aged women and the influence of religion and cultural factors on sexual decision making,” during SURF Day 2021.

As a part of the symposium, Srija Dutta ’21 presented on her research topic, “South Asian, college-aged women and the influence of religion and cultural factors on sexual decision making.” Dutta worked under the mentorship of Lecturer in Public Health Studies Amanda Tapler to analyze the role that religion and cultural factors play in shaping sexual knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and autonomy of college-aged, South Asian women.

Dutta says she learned a great deal about flexibility and tenacity when her original research project was canceled because of the pandemic. Still produced a research project to present on SURF Day, which served as her fourth opportunity to present at state or national conferences this academic year. Despite the obstacles she confronted throughout her research, Dutta is grateful for the opportunities that undergraduate research at Elon has presented.

“Undergraduate research completely transformed my entire college experience,” Dutta said. “It instilled a sense of confidence within me that has allowed me to reach my full academic and personal potentials. I think every student should perform research during college because it highlights the ways what we learn within the classroom can be used in the real world to reach sustainable outcomes.”

Ciara Sutherburg ’21 undertook research that placed her in the classroom, working to determine if content-based physical activities deployed during class time could help students better engage with the content. Working with fifth- and seventh-grade students at Blessed Sacrament School in Burlington, the elementary and special education major focused on Spanish instruction, with a vocabulary activity lasting five- to seven-minutes and requiring students to run up to the front of the classroom to answer questions.

While the implementation of the activity didn’t correspond with an increase in quiz scores, Sutherburg said that she observed increased engagement, and received positive feedback from the teachers about the impact on student engagement. Looking ahead, a more complete research project could look at the impact of the activities across a longer span of time, Sutherburg said.

Her undergraduate research was an opportunity to dive deep into a topic and work closely with her mentor, Lecturer in Exercise Science Elizabeth Bailey. She selected her research topic during her sophomore year, and Bailey worked with her to focus her interest. “She helped me bring it down to a size that would be doable during the time we have to pursue it,” Sutherburg said.

She said that honing her skills around the collection and interpretation of data will be useful once she has a classroom of her own. “In education, there is a lot of data collection you need to inform your instruction,” Sutherburg said. “I feel like working with this amount of data, analyzing it and drawing from it will only help me in the classroom when I need to make decisions.”