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Showcasing research around our state

How do extraction methods of ancient DNA and contemporary DNA compare—and which method prevails when solving cold cases? That’s the central question Emily Deem, a biology graduate student at Western Carolina University sought to answer with her research—a question for which she received the top prize in the second annual Tar Heel Three Minute Thesis competition.

A woman wearing a blazer and top smiles.
Emily Deem

Deem said she learned valuable skills that will enhance her future career—and that it’s validating to know she can communicate her research to a general audience. 

“I will use this experience to encourage me to continue following my passions, knowing I can get others who may not have the same background to feel passionate about my work,” Deem said. “I can clearly see my growth in communicating with a general audience, which is so important for my career as a forensic scientist.” 

A woman wearing a jacket who also has long hair
Briana Cook

The Tar Heel Three Minute Thesis is hosted by The Graduate School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and supported by the North Carolina Council of Graduate Schools, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund 

“The ability to communicate research that quickly engages and inspires an audience is a talent all scholars should have,” said Lou Muglia, president and CEO of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. “The presentations by these students capture the minds of the audience whether scholar or community at large.”

Briana Cook, a graduate student studying biology at Appalachian State University and Jeliyah Clark ‘18, a graduate student at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, tied for second place. Cook, Clark, and Deem received monetary awards. 

A woman wearing a black tank top poses for a portrait
Jeliyah Clark

Clark said she chose the field of public health to serve her home community, so it became necessary for her to make sure the value of her research is relayed in an easy-to-understand way. 

“Though developing this elevator pitch, a lot of my family members now understand what arsenic is and how it influences birth weight. … It’s been really valuable to invite my community and the people I love into my graduate school experience,” Clark said. 

Richmond Djorgbenoo, a graduate student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, received the Peoples’ Choice Award. Djorgbenoo also received a monetary award.

A man wearing glasses and a suit and white shirt
Richmond Djorgbenoo

“We are thrilled to have graduate students from around the state of North Carolina participating in this second annual Tar Heel Three Minute Thesis competition,” Suzanne Barbour said. Barbour is dean of The Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

“This is a skillset that’s going to serve them well, no matter what career path they choose. It’s also an outstanding way to showcase the important work that graduate students do around our state.” 

This year, the competition brought together ten graduate students from public and private universities across North Carolina. Participants had three minutes to distill their complex research for a lay audience. 

The panel of judges included the following:

  • Andrea Breazeale-King, MBA 
  • Lou Muglia, MD; Ph.D. 
  • Roger Ladd, Ph.D. 

As per the judging criteria of Three Minute Thesis competitions, the judges had to evaluate each of the presentations based on two categories: comprehension and content, and engagement and communication. Leadership at The Graduate School grateful for the judges’ time and input to determine the winners.  

As part of Graduate Education Week, the North Carolina Council of Graduate Schools hosted several events, including an advocacy day at the North Carolina General Assembly with legislators. The week, also noted by a proclamation from the governor, is intended to raise awareness about the contributions graduate students offer to our state in terms of their research and their impact in solving humanity’s greatest challenges. 

Brian Rybarczyk, associate dean of professional development and funding at The Graduate School, said the competition brings graduate students together by way of showcasing research across a variety of disciplines and as a professional development opportunity for them to communicate the importance of their research to a broader audience. 

“It’s exciting to hear from our best and brightest scholars from different disciplines sharing their innovative research, all of which can be impactful to North Carolina and its citizens,” he said. 

Using DNA to solve cold cases

Deem’s research focuses on investigative genetic genealogy (IGG), a popular tool in forensics for solving cold cases. Investigative genetic genealogy uses DNA to help determine perpetrators of crimes and to identify remains of people whose are unidentified. In North Carolina, Deem said there are more than 120 people whose remains are unidentified. 

To conduct IGG, scientists must extract DNA from bone samples—but this presents a challenge to researchers as they need to maintain the integrity of the DNA during the process of extraction. Deem researched DNA extraction methods and researched how well the methods fared at extracting ancient DNA when compared to DNA from more modern times. She compared the two extraction methods and found that methods applied to ancient DNA performed the best. Deem said she hopes that her research will contribute to the growing knowledge of forensic techniques for identifying skeletal remains and solving cold cases. 

Clay Gloster, president elect of the N.C. Council of Graduate Schools, said the future of innovation and knowledge in North Carolina is dependent on our state’s graduate students and their drive to impact our state and beyond. Gloster is dean of the Graduate College at N.C. A&T. 

“I’m most grateful to our participants,” Gloster said. “I commend you for your hard work in not only in preparing for this competition, but also in competing your thesis or dissertation.” 

Graduate students’ research spanned a range of topics, including counseling, mental health and well-being, and the future of human organ development. 

Participants included the following:

  • Jeliyah Clark ‘18 (environmental sciences and engineering; UNC-Chapel Hill) 
  • Breana Cook (biology; Appalachian State University) 
  • Emily Deem (biology; Western Carolina University) 
  • Richmond Djorgbenoo (applied science and technology; North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University) 
  • Emma Erickson (counseling; UNC-Pembroke) 
  • Samantha Hall (integrated toxicology and environmental health; Duke University)
  • Samantha Harvey (criminal justice; Fayetteville State University)
  • Lesha Rouse (nursing; Eastern Carolina University)
  • Amanda Sargent (software and information systems; UNC-Charlotte)
  • Shohanuzzaman Shohan (industrial and systems engineering; NC State University) 
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