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Nearly 150 students from across the country shared research conducted under the direction of Carolina faculty members at the annual Summer Undergraduate Pipeline Symposium.

Rising junior Emma Halker presents her research at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center
Rising junior Emma Halker presents her research at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center

Emma Halker is the first scientist — the only scientist — in her family, and she’s sharing her knowledge with the public for the first time.

A first-generation college student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Halker presented her biology research at the fourth annual Summer Undergraduate Pipeline (SUP) Research Symposium on Wednesday.

“It means everything to me to be here,” she said. “No one in my family has ever done this before. I don’t think my parents graduated from high school. So to be able to come to Carolina, to do research like this and present it — it’s kind of unprecedented for me and my family.”

Halker is one of nearly 150 students from dozens of universities nationwide who presented information about the research they conducted this summer under the guidance of UNC-Chapel Hill faculty. The students’ findings shed light on everything from mental health treatment to the search for truth in an era of “fake news.”

Student shares his research findings with the campus community
Student shares his research findings with the campus community

The symposium is part of a larger effort by SUP, a program within the Graduate School, to prepare diverse undergraduate students for graduate careers.

SUP coordinates with more than a dozen research programs at Carolina to provide research and professional development opportunities to undergraduate students, who conduct their own research projects with faculty, graduate students and post-doctoral mentors.

At this year’s symposium, students shared research from across the academic disciplines and represented 15 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

“Today’s student presenters have innovative ideas and believe that their ideas can contribute to a better world,” said Steven Matson, dean of the Graduate School. “We agree, and we celebrate with them.”

Halker hopes her project, which focuses on plant growth, will change the way we think about agriculture as the global population grows.

“We want to apply this to the real world to improve crop performance,” she said. “We hope it could even end up playing a decisive role in the efforts to mitigate world hunger.”

While Halker joked that no one can understand her research, gesturing to the words “phosphorylation of the aspartic acid of the type-B Arabidopsis Response Regulators” on her poster board, one clear outcome is her confidence in her own bright future.

“It’s incredible to be here. It gives me goosebumps to talk about it,” she said. “This is a stepping stone to the person I want to be and the life I want to make.”

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“The Graduate School’s Summer Undergraduate Pipeline is honored to work with 14 summer undergraduate research programs across campus in this effort. We also receive generous support from the Office for Undergraduate Research. Carolina seeks to encourage undergraduates that they have much to gain – and to share with the world – by applying to graduate school and further expanding their career goals.”

—Steve Matson, dean of The Graduate School

Berenice Vazquez Hernandez


Berenice Vazquez Hernandez, an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith University, is majoring in biology, with a double minor in chemistry and bioinformatics. She spent her summer at UNC-Chapel Hill studying protein mutations related to pediatric brain and bone cancers.

Berenice Vazquez Hernandez
Berenice Vazquez Hernandez

“My summer experience was exciting and fun overall. My mentor, Dr. Chris Abdullah, was awesome. He really helped guide and support me with the project. The SPIRE program, directed by Dr. [Brian] Rybarczyk, did a great job of structuring seminars and team building exercises for us undergrads. I’m looking forward to being able to use everything I learned this summer in my future career.”


Chad Covin

Chad Covin, an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill, is majoring in mathematics. He spent his summer at UNC-Chapel Hill within the SMART program, studying the brain’s white matter toward greater understanding of cognitive development in infants.

Chad Covin
Chad Covin

“I believe I was able to strengthen my ability to grasp an unfamiliar concept fairly quickly. In addition, having a research experience outside of my academic field helped me understand the opportunity to be well-rounded within different focuses. Essentially, it felt as though I was using a liberal arts approach to STEM disciplines, by becoming knowledgeable in a totally different area.”

Keith Rogers didn’t know he wanted to be a researcher. Then he came to Carolina.

By , The Graduate School

Keith Rogers working with mentor Megan Webster
Keith Rogers participated in undergraduate research at Carolina for two summers. He’s pictured here working with mentor Megan Webster in summer 2017. In August, Rogers begins his doctoral studies in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When he entered his first year at Oakwood University, Keith Rogers thought he wanted to be a physician.

But two years later, Rogers came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his plans changed. He participated in the Summer of Learning and Research (SOLAR) program, which is one of more than a dozen summer research programs at Carolina that seek to interest diverse undergraduates in graduate research and careers in science.

“After I went to UNC, I realized research was exactly what I was looking for,” he said.

So Rogers came back the next summer, to continue his research into lung health. Again he spent his summer surrounded by experts in many different labs on campus and experiencing the collaborative environment. Rogers knew he wanted to come back again – this time, for graduate school.

In August, Rogers begins his doctoral studies in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program, where he wants to continue to study lung health.

“It was coming to UNC that cultivated the love for this research,” he said. “The methods that the lab used were very interesting to me and I want to keep doing things like that.”

The first person Rogers met on campus was Jessica Harrell, director of the SOLAR program. Harrell shared some important advice with Rogers: Sometimes science isn’t going to go the way you want. Part of being a scientist is understanding that things will go wrong.

Harrell said that students are used to thinking that if they are productive, they will be successful, so setbacks feel uncomfortable.

“Failed experiments and unexpected results are a natural part of doing research, though. This is why students have to be resilient and be self-motivated to continue to do experiments and keep digging for answers, even when they have setbacks,” she said.

As part of The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success program, the Summer Undergraduate Pipeline (SUP) brings together summer undergraduate research programs and holds an annual research symposium in which student researchers share their discoveries.

SUP complements the efforts of these programs by helping diverse undergraduate students train and transition to graduate school, said Kathy Wood, co-director of Diversity and Student Success.

“Since the Summer Undergraduate Pipeline was established four years ago, participation has increased significantly,” Wood said. “This means we are reaching more students who may not have access to these types of resources at their undergraduate university. Our goal is to show students that graduate school is within their reach.”

Harrell said there is a need to increase diversity in scientific leadership across the spectrum of science careers.

“We are working to spark undergraduate students’ interest in pursuing research careers so that they can build their skills and their confidence to be competitive applicants to graduate school,” Harrell said.

During the program, Rogers studied how e-cigarette cells affected lung epithelial cells. When epithelial cells get damaged, you are more susceptible to lung disease or cancer, COPD, asthma and other problems. He worked with and was mentored by Robert Tarran, an associate professor in the cell biology and physiology department, and postdoctoral fellow Megan Webster. Rogers’s poster presentation won first place in the Summer Undergraduate Pipeline Research Symposium in 2016.

Now, Rogers is considering a career as a researcher in government and industry. “I’m excited to start my next phase into this journey into the sciences.”

He said he’s really thankful for the opportunity to come to UNC, conduct research and realize his love for research.

“The internships that I had were valuable in shaping me as a scientist and will continue to be as I earn my Ph.D. here.”

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