Enhancing an Education

Life-saving medication, innovative cancer treatments, and stem cell therapy are all amazing discoveries that began in a research laboratory. Some students may not realize that they can participate in research as early as their undergraduate years. Many students beginning their studies at UNC as natural science majors are often presumed to be bound for medical school. However, many science majors choose to spend their time preparing for a career in research and academia. The unique opportunities at many research-oriented universities provide invaluable potential experiences for undergraduates to supplement and enhance their studies in a variety of subjects. Every student should try research, whether as a potential career or as a way to gain a deeper understanding of scientific concepts.

Every semester Dr. Gidi Shemer, the Director of Undergraduate Research in Biology, holds an informational seminar on getting involved in undergraduate research at UNC. For incoming first years

Image 1 - Brittany Simpson pipettes a few microliters of broth-cultured S. aureus into a microcentrifuge tube in preparation for making diluted solutions of bacteria.
Image 1: Brittany Simpson pipettes a few microliters of broth-cultured S. aureus into a microcentrifuge tube in preparation for making diluted solutions of bacteria.

and others unfamiliar with the research field, it can be ambiguous as to what research entails. During the seminar, Dr. Shemer explains:

  • how to find a lab
  • how to get class credit for doing research
  • availability and variety of different projects going on in various departments
  • value in and opportunities present when pursuing a career in research

For Brittany Simpson, who has worked in Dr. Tony Richardson’s microbiology lab since the summer of 2014, applying biological concepts and techniques in the lab has greatly enhanced her appreciation for active learning (Image 1). Although admitting lab work is a “rather large time commitment,” Simpson shares that it is “cool to get to do the stuff you learn about in your biology classes.” Many students find lab work a helpful supplement while learning material in their science classes. Thus, involvement in research not only prepares students for their future (if pursuing graduate studies), but also enriches their current learning. One of the projects Simpson works on in the Richardson lab involves testing the anti-microbial properties of cancer drugs on Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) (Featured Image).

Simpson’s inspiration for pursuing research stemmed from curiosity and uncertainty about post-graduation plans. Another undergraduate, Cory Breaux, joined a lab in the UNC Neuroscience Center after finding it as an option for work study jobs.  For two years, Breaux developed skills in DNA sequencing, immunochemohistory, tissue preservation, and animal care. Breaux appreciates his experience for “learning more about the academic scientific process and how researchers take ideas to reality.” In his statement, Breaux touches on an important aspect of engaging in research in addition to attending lectures for class. Application of ideas cannot be adequately learned and practiced through reading a textbook or flipping through a PowerPoint – rather these connections can be made through conducting experiments and facing the tribulation of trial and error techniques. Like Simpson, Breaux recognizes and appreciates this enhancement of learning.

Savannah Nunnery, a junior biology major preparing for Physician’s Assistant (PA) school, decided to get involved with undergraduate research at UNC to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that come with attending a major research university. She utilized the research directory available online to search for available student positions in genetics and molecular biology labs. Nunnery emailed a few professors explaining her background in biology and her interest in their lab’s research. She found a match and joined Dr. Gregory Copenhaver’s lab in the biology department. Currently, Nunnery is in her second semester involved in research. She works with plant model organism Arabidopsis thaliana while

Image 3: A. thaliana plants, a model organism for meiotic recombination used by Nunnery's lab.
Image 2: A. thaliana plants, a model organism for meiotic recombination used by Nunnery’s lab.

researching meiotic recombination and regulation (Image 2). Specifically, Nunnery extracts DNA, runs Polymerase Chain Reactions (PCR), and genotyping of A. thaliana. She mentions learning about PCR and gel electrophoresis techniques initially in a genetics lecture before conducting these procedures on a daily basis in the lab. “It’s an entirely different way to think and learn about biology,” Nunnery explains. “My daily research broadens concepts I learn in class from something I memorize to something I understand how to use.” As Nunnery explains, it is typical of a biology major to learn in class the steps of and probably to draw the process of meiosis, the cell division process all eukaryotes use to reduce the number of chromosomes by half. It is not as typical to extract DNA from plants to directly assess their fertility qualities based on molecular tests of a specific protein involved in meiotic recombination, which is part of Nunnery’s project.

Often the skills that make a student successful while pursuing research go past acing lecture exams. Many students find a knack for navigating the scientific process and enjoy the potential to discover new metabolic pathways or enzymatic activities beyond the classic models we learn in class. The ability to make a career out of growing our knowledge is exciting for students who enjoy understanding how life works. Many research opportunities also have clinical aspects, which might interest students who are interested in seeing the connection between research and a medical application. Simpson found value in active learning during her time in the lab, Breaux appreciated learning deeper about the scientific process, and Nunnery enjoyed the synergistic learning experience of learning in class lectures while conducting the experiments herself in lab. Ultimately, there is large value in a research career. A researcher is creative, innovative, patient, and appreciative of discovering the truth. Students should take the opportunity to partake in research as an undergraduate if possible, for no matter what career path they choose, they will always appreciate the depth of knowledge they gain from conducting their own research.

UNC students: No matter what your major is or what your career interests are, consider getting involved in research! There are so many resources available to us while attending a university with such top-notch research projects being conducted. You’ll never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll learn. See for yourself!


  1. Interview with Brittany Simpson. 9/30/14.
  2. Interview with Cory Breaux, 9/29/14.
  3. Interview with Savannah Nunnery. 2/9/15.

Image Sources

  1. Photo by Brittany Simpson
  2. Photo by Kara Marker
  3. Photo by Savannah Nunnery

This article was previously published in Carolina Scientific Magazine, Spring 2015. 


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