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The Honors College Living & Learning Blog
The Honors College would like to extend warm wishes for a safe and restful holiday season. Thank you for being a member of our Honors College family, and we hope you enjoy the video!
By: Erika Dietrick, Honors College Junior
Applying for the ECU Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement (URCA) award was similar to every other “first” I have had as a student new to research—confusing, overwhelming, and in the end, extremely rewarding.
I began my research on the endangered plant species Thalictrum cooleyi Ahles, or Cooley’s meadowrue, this fall after a semester of volunteering in the laboratory. Volunteering consisted of learning laboratory protocol, listening to and participating in group meetings, gaining familiarity with commonly used equipment, and assisting in any hands-on or data-related tasks that needed to be completed. It was difficult to be at ease at times in the laboratory because I started with almost zero knowledge of plants, but I had been interested in Dr. Claudia Jolls’ lab because she was a patient, helpful, and effective instructor in the Honors Research Colloquium.
By the end of that semester, I had signed up for Field Botany and Plant Biology for the fall, sketched out a rough plan for my Senior Honors Project, and agreed to work as a Field Assistant for graduate student Renee Fortner. Suddenly, my life was plants, and I had no idea what I was in for.
Working in the pine savannas of Pender and Onslow counties is what solidified my confidence and interest. Every week or so, Renee and I would make the 2-hour drive to the site of Cooley’s meadowrue to gather information on sex ratios, pollination limitation, and density. With each trip, I gained a newfound appreciation for the species and the protection of the pine savanna ecosystem in general. There were so many memories made, from accidentally shattering a window of the biology truck to touching a venus fly trap for the first time. The savannas were gorgeous and made working in the blazing heat of a North Carolina summer worth it.
Despite the experience gained up to that point, this semester in the laboratory was still very much a challenge. I quickly realized how much thought, care, and work went into a quality research project. There are things professors will tell you in your required lab courses, such as keep a detailed lab notebook or read and plan the experimental procedures ahead of time, that you think aren’t a necessity. I couldn’t have been more wrong! It’s the attention to detail (along with several other admirable qualities) that make answering such significant scientific questions possible.
In addition to learning through experience what I should have learned the first time, I was also encouraged to apply for an URCA award by Dr. Jolls. (Follow link for more info.) Through many revisions, I attempted to convey in very few words the essence of my project: I wished to use stereo- and scanning electron microscopy to view seed embryos under different environmental conditions and determine the plant’s potential for a seed bank. This would accomplish three things: a) help us to determine what causes this mystery species to germinate b) possibly save this endangered species and c) protect the integrity of the pine savanna ecosystem.
I have to admit that I was not optimistic. I knew that the attitude towards plants was generally negative, so I thought they may think my project less worthy of funding than say, something in chemistry, medicine, etc. However, I can’t describe in words the excitement and pride I felt when I received that e-mail—I would be receiving a $1,000 stipend for the spring semester and a $625 materials budget. I was ecstatic!
I have been hard at work ever since, and I hope to present my research findings thus far at the Association of Southeastern Biologists Conference in April. I am extremely grateful to the URCA committee, Dr. Jolls, Dr. Fink (who manages the microscopes) and the ECU Honors College for where I am today and where I am headed. If it weren’t for the Honors College, I never would have even considered conducting research; and now I’m getting paid to do it!
I am a freshman at ECU, and I am a paid undergraduate researcher in the Department of Cell Anatomy and Biology at The Brody School of Medicine. I first learned about this position from an email sent to all of the EC Scholars about research opportunities. In high school, I did not have much exposure to research, so I knew that I definitely wanted the opportunity to work in a research lab in college. In fact, the Brody School of Medicine’s proximity to the ECU campus is one of the reasons I chose to attend ECU — I knew that there were so many professors there conducting fascinating research. When I saw the email about an open position in Dr. Sperry’s lab, I contacted her and asked for an interview. She agreed to the interview and offered me the position later that week, so I have been conducting research in Dr. Sperry’s lab for the past couple of months.
From the short time I have been involved in research thus far, I have already learned that
I immensely enjoy working in the lab. As an undergraduate researcher, Dr. Sperry and
her assistant helped me work around my schedule to find time to come into the lab every
day. I usually work around 10-11 hours per week. The mornings I spend in the lab are
actually my favorite part of the day. I love learning something new each day and
anticipating the work that will lead to an exciting discovery.
Dr. Sperry’s team is mainly studying PPP1R42, a protein she discovered. We are
conducting research on the effects this protein, R42 for short, has on cell functions. R42
is found in lots of different cell types, such as photoreceptor cells and sperm cells, and
plays a role in the regulation of the centrosome. When centrosomes do not function
correctly, it can lead to genetic mutations related to cases of genetic diseases and male
infertility. Dr. Sperry, Rong Wang (Dr. Sperry’s Research Technician), two other
students and I are conducting research in order to discover whether R42 could possibly be
used as a marker for these types of diseases in the long run.
So far, I have mainly been observing the different procedures for the multiple
experiments conducted in our lab. I have also gotten the chance to complete several
experiments on my own here and there, but I will start working on my own experiment
soon. I feel like I have learned so much already, and I am really looking forward to
working alongside Dr. Sperry’s team for the next several years. I have highly enjoyed
learning various research techniques and conducting research on my own as part
of a team.
I truly believe that without the Honors College and the email about the
position, I would never have learned about the opening in Dr. Sperry’s lab. There are
many professors on both ECU’s main campus and the Brody School of Medicine
conducting interesting research, and I encourage any and all undergraduate students to pursue open research positions in order to expand their knowledge base and learn more
about the research process.