ECU provides meaningful research opportunities for undergraduates

Cooley’s meadowrue, shown above, is the subject of an ECU undergraduate’s research.

ECU students present at symposium 

East Carolina University students presented their research at the annual State of North Carolina Undergraduate Research & Creativity Symposium Nov. 15 at High Point University. 

“As a first time attendee, I was really impressed with the event,” said Dr. Chris Balakrishnan, assistant professor of biology and faculty mentor. “My student really seemed to love the experience.” 

This year’s ECU participants included undergraduates Ibrahim Abdeally, Sana Bharde, Corrie Hansen, Sydney Hendricks, Joseph Henry, Julia Horiates, Brianna Horton, Clare Howerton, Jasmine Hughes, Richard Ketchum, Ariel Pinkham, Nicole Salonia, Courtney Stewart, Gabriella Villalon and Hannah Woolard. 

The event is an undergraduate conference for all areas of mentored research, creative scholarship and performance. Each year, colleges, universities and community colleges in North Carolina host the symposium, where students share the results of their work through posters, presentations, performances and works of art. 

“Undergraduate research has several important components: collaboration with a mentor, carrying out an original research project and dissemination of the results,” said Dr. Mary Farwell, interim assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate research in the ECU Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement. “A research showcase such as the State of NC Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium is therefore an important part of the entire process of undergraduate research and creative scholarship.” 

ECU has participated in the symposium since its incorporation as a statewide event 11 years ago and served as the host in 2011. Farwell, who also serves on the statewide organizing committee for the symposium, said ECU has a fairly large contingent of students attending the conference each year. Last year, 31 students from ECU presented at the symposium. 

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East Carolina University Honors College student Erika Dietrick discovered her passion during an honors research colloquium featuring ECU biology professor Dr. Claudia Jolls.

As Dietrick listened, she knew she wanted to conduct research in the professor’s plant ecology laboratory.

“At the time, I knew nothing about research and had never considered conducting research myself,” said Dietrick, a senior biology major and Hispanic studies minor. “I didn’t know how… or what it entailed.”

It’s a foreign concept for many students, but research for undergraduates at ECU provides an opportunity for expanding knowledge and gaining skills applicable in future careers.

Undergraduate research provides ECU students with distinct advantages, said Dr. Mary Farwell, ECU director of undergraduate research. While the university is large enough to offer multiple opportunities, students still get the personal attention they need, she said.

“That means that undergraduates can work in top-level research laboratories, for example, but still have the opportunity to interact with faculty directly,” Farwell said.

Protecting a fragile ecology

Dietrick began her research in 2014, examining the germination and conservation of Cooley’s meadowrue (Thalictrum cooleyi), a federally endangered species of plant native to eastern North Carolina. Understanding the species’ germination requirements is essential to helping the species multiply, Dietrick said.

“Very little research has been conducted on the species, which makes implementing conservation efforts difficult,” she said.

Dietrick is also investigating the plant’s ability to form a natural seed bank – storage of seeds in the soil until they are ready to germinate – and whether or not high heat will induce germination.

“This research is important to me because I am having a direct impact on environmental conservation efforts in eastern North Carolina,” said Dietrick. “I am helping to protect the biodiversity of the wet pine savanna ecosystem, particularly in Pender County, which is home to a number of rare and endangered plant species.”

Dietrick said her research has given her the confidence and skills needed for wherever her future may lead.

“By engaging in research, I have developed a number of professional skills that will benefit me regardless of my future career. I have gained critical thinking and problem-solving skills,” she said. “Above all, I have gained a tremendous amount of confidence in my scientific and leadership abilities.”

Focusing on skin cancer treatments

Senior biology major Rene Escobedo is focusing on research as well, investigating a novel prostamide and its activity against skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States according to the American Cancer Society.

Rene Escobedo

Under the direction of Brody School of Medicine professor Dr. Rukiyah Van Dross, Escobedo is learning what can happen to human bodies when cancer cells invade and just how costly treatment options are for patients.

One of the most important things, he said, is to develop a treatment that combats cancer cells effectively without damaging surrounding organs. He hopes that their lab will help develop new drugs to lower treatment costs.

“It’s one of those things you always hear about,” said Escobedo, who plans to pursue his doctorate at ECU, “but you don’t realize how bad it is unless you know someone who gets cancer.”

Promoting care for the Latino community

Public health studies undergraduate Sydney Hendricks focuses her research on the health infrastructure of eastern North Carolina’s Latino community. Her interest developed after she noticed many campus groups working to improve health globally, but she saw a need for health care at home.

“I couldn’t help but think of all of the people in our own community who do not have access to basic health care,” she said. “I was raised in a rural community, so rural health and health disparities are very real passions for me.”

Working with health education and promotion professor Dr. Essie Torres, Hendricks began her researching in the spring of 2015, conducting case study interviews and services on health quality and community readiness. She hopes to complete the information collection process within a few months, and then create a training institute for Promotores de la Salud (Promoters of Health), she said.

Sydney Hendricks

Her research should increase knowledge and access to care for future generations of the region’s Latino community, Hendricks said. Providing the data to local physicians will help them care for Latino patients, she added.

Hendricks said the research is preparing her for her future. After completing her public health studies degree, she plans to attend the Brody School of Medicine through the Early Assurance in Medicine program.

“It is exposing me to the issues primary care physicians are facing all over the nation,” she said. “How do they reach target populations and cater to the needs of those populations? What specific barriers are at the root of these issues? What programs would be beneficial in reducing the barriers themselves?”

A multi-disciplinary approach

Experiences conducting undergraduate research should help ECU students gain skills they can apply in their lives and careers.

“Research requires students to integrate knowledge from across disciplines and to focus that aggregate knowledge on a complex problem,” said Michael Van Scott, interim chief research officer and vice chancellor for research at ECU. “Through the activity, they develop approaches to solving problems, and those approaches can be applied to questions and problems encountered in all parts of life.”

“We have found that it is a significant confidence builder and helps our students gain important professional skills, such as teamwork, project management, and communication that are universally needed in the workplace,” said Dr. David White, dean of ECU’s College of Engineering and Technology.

“We believe that undergraduate research experiences contribute directly to ECU’s commitments of maximizing student success and leading regional transformation.”