Select scholar research

Whether it's getting your hands dirty in an estuary along North Carolina's Coast to find solutions to erosion or discovering how the inflammation of different proteins attribute to neurodegenerative disorders our scholars engage in research early on during their undergraduate career. Check out some of our scholars below and the work they are doing in the lab.

Diana Lopes

DIANA LOPEZ

As a certified lifeguard and a sophomore in high school, I recognized the symptoms of a stroke while I observed that my 80-year old Cuban grandfather was having trouble folding his newspaper. Research on his condition and a restless zeal to find ways to improve his quality of life led me to the fascinating field of Neuroscience. Neurobiology and the reasoning behind how biological events impact our central and peripheral nervous systems enthralled me as I began my undergraduate career as a Chancellor’s Science Scholar, CSS, at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I am now pursuing a double major in Biology and Hispanic Literature and Cultures, as well as a Neuroscience minor.

Through CSS, I received a grant during the summer of 2015 to perform scientific research in the Bianchi Lab at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Department of Biophysics and Physiology. The Bianchi Lab studies the effects that stroke–like conditions - such as drastic reductions of pH - have on the brain through the use of a C. elegans model. Back on campus during the fall of 2015, I had the opportunity to participate in a project titled, Concussion Management Practices in Emergency Departments: An Intervention Study, an investigation of medical professionals’ treatment of patients who present symptoms of brain injury in the Emergency Department, under the mentorship of Kevin Guskiewicz, Ph.D., ATC.

In 2016, I was offered acceptance to the highly selective Brigham and Women’s Hospital Summer Training in Academic Research and Scholarship (BWH STARS) Program, an eight-week summer research program. As a member of the 2016 BWH STARS cohort, I am one of ten underrepresented minority students from across the nation participating in leading research performed at BWH laboratories. I am conducting cardiovascular research under the mentorship of Harvard Medical School (HMS) faculty. The BWH STARS program closely resembles the values of my CSS cohort. During this invaluable summer, I am not only exposed to cutting-edge investigations, working to present my own research at one of the most distinguished medical facilities in the country, but I have also had the opportunity to network with HMS faculty and fellow students who may one day become my counterparts and colleagues.

My experiences as a Chancellor’s Science Scholar underscore my academic and professional interests in scientific research, especially within the neuroscience field. The relationship between my grandfather’s human perspective of a stroke, ranging from clinical symptoms and underlying cultural barriers to rehabilitation and knowledge of the nervous system machinery highlights the interdisciplinary and translational research on which I want to focus my career. I plan to pursue a M.D./Ph.D. degree with the goal of translating the discoveries made in a laboratory using models to human needs geared especially towards underserved Latino/a populations.

In addition, while at UNC I pursue various other interests that help define who I am through my involvement in the Carolina Style Ballet Company, CPALS support group for pediatric oncology and hematology patients, membership in the Phi Mu Fraternity, participation in the Familia Mentor for the Latina/o Mentoring Program, and service as a Kaplan Student Brand Ambassador.

The CSS program has exposed me to the training and work ethic of a scientific researcher, and to the tools that scientists have at their disposal to make impactful discoveries. With the necessary discipline, talent, and persistence to make significant contributions, I know I can derive great benefit from my experience at UNC Chapel Hill as I network and work with fellow students and scientists from different backgrounds collaborating in an interdisciplinary setting.

Noah Legall

Noah Legall

As a senior here at UNC Chapel Hill, I am studying Quantitative Biology and Computer Science, a curriculum built around training biologists for research environments that require extra emphasis on math, computer science, and statistics. I chose this field because I believe that life is governed by hidden principles and models that can be extrapolated if we just perform fine-tuned measurements of quantitative information. The fact that we can produce so much data is great for scientific discovery, and being well versed in how to parse these data and define meaning from all the numbers is very interesting to me. One day, I hope to make a career out of this work.

My research project focuses on the identification of novel RNA molecules that are produced in the human body. Currently, I am working to use advanced statistical and computer programming to delineate features of a widely studied, yet mysterious, RNA molecule known as circular RNA, circRNA. CircRNA is gaining a lot of attention in the molecular biology community due to the novel way it is formed, through intron-to-intron “backsplicing” that creates a covalently closed circular RNA construct, a procedure that is totally unlike linear mRNA creation. We don’t know what circRNAs are ultimately meant to do, but they are prolific in the human genome and exhibit features that would make the treatment of certain protein-mediated diseases more interesting and worthy of application. Through the application of Machine Learning algorithms on multiple features associated with circRNA formation, such as intronic composition, total length, and many other features, I hope to uncover the true hidden model that governs the creation of circRNA. This work will help researchers all over the world create synthetic circles that can contain protein-making instruction, and ultimately, maybe even precision gene editing to target the faulty genes that may cause diseases like cancer.

Although I spend a majority of my time and passion in Computational Biology, I have also had the opportunity to create computer software that can help people with disabilities. I collaborated with two fellow UNC undergraduates to build a program that allows users to surf the web with just their voices. This functionality will make web technologies more accessible to individuals who are able to speak, but who do not have the dexterity or the ability to use a computer keyboard.

I moved to North Carolina from the outskirts of Washington, D.C. when I was 11. Although I was a Duke sports fan for most of my life, I willingly “traded blues” when I was accepted to UNC and offered the CSS scholarship. Being a Chancellor’s Science Scholar has meant a great deal to me, providing me with an instant community, access to brilliant researchers, and a litany of support. I came into CSS without an extensive background in STEM, but all the resources provided by the faculty and staff, plus my own will to succeed and seek out opportunities, have made the program an awesome fit for me. As I prepare for graduation, my time as a CSS scholar at UNC has given me the necessary skills to pursue my goals of going to graduate school, working in a biotech startup, and teaching as a research professor on the collegiate level.

Kristen Gardner

KRISTEN GARDNER

DNA is the body’s building blocks; it codes for everything. But what happens when our DNA is damaged? When the code is ruined? Organisms have different ways of repairing DNA damage to protect genome integrity. A repair mechanism for single base pair damage is known as base excision repair and is initiated by an enzyme known as a DNA glycosylase. This summer I did research on a DNA glycosylase called AlkC to further investigate a key structural determinant in the enzyme for DNA binding. I worked in the Eichman Lab, which is a structural biology lab, at Vanderbilt University as part of a 9-week summer research experience.

This summer was my first real research experience, and it was wonderful. I took the basic biology and chemistry concepts I learned in my classes and applied it to work in the lab. Dr. Kelly Hogan, who taught me bio 101 and also helped me get to Vanderbilt, used to stress that structure dictates function. I was mutating a protein’s DNA to see how changing its structure would affect its ability to excise damaged bases from the DNA helix. The simple phrase “structure dictates function” came to life this summer. My project included mutagenesis, running DNA and SDS page gels, protein purification, and biochemical assays—techniques that had been foreign to me before this experience. I am an aspiring biochemist that spent her summer in a biology lab; however, this experience taught me how biochemistry and molecular biology relate to one another and I have fallen in love with DNA research.

Last summer I was completing Summer EXCELereator and learning about research for the first time, and this summer I learned about DNA repair, lab techniques, and gained experience doing actual research at Vanderbilt. I, in part, owe the great opportunities/experiences I’ve had to CSS. Before this program, all I knew was medical school. I had no idea what research was or how I could continue to learn and apply my chemistry knowledge in a different way. CSS changed that all for me and has exposed me to a world of new possibilities. The program has given me the tools and support I need to be successful. From exposing me to research to actually helping me find research opportunities and apply for summer programs, CSS has been there for me every step of the way. In my first year at UNC I was pushed outside of my comfort zone to interact with faculty and staff, but this helped me in interacting with grad students, leading group meeting with my progress update, and presenting my research at the poster presentation on the final day of the program. I am extremely appreciative of CSS and its push for collaboration, diversity, and excellence in the research world.