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February 12, 2003

Web site supports hands-on research, faculty efforts to turn undergraduates into scientists

Carolina's undergraduates are building on the university's history of innovative, hands-on science education through their research endeavors.

They learn about research opportunities from their faculty members, the Office of Undergraduate Research and a newly launched Web site, sciencecarolina.unc.edu. As a result, the science programs train some of the nation's most promising young scientists.

"At Carolina, students can participate in research programs at the frontier of science through close, one-on-one interaction with many of the world's great scientists," said Dr. Holden Thorp, chemistry professor and director of the university’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. As a Carolina alumnus, Thorp's praise comes from first-hand experience. "Being able to do these things in the rich, overall undergraduate environment is an opportunity available nowhere else."

These students work with faculty members across campus in a variety of disciplines.

Rohit Prakash, a sophomore physics major, studies carbon nanotubes with Dr. Michael Falvo, Dr. Richard Superfine and Dr. Sean Washburn, in the physics and astronomy department's nanoscience research group. Prakash's work exemplifies the interdisciplinary approach to research.

"What I enjoy most about the lab is the wide variety of specialties we have here," he said. "There are all kinds, from physicists to chemists to computer scientists at every corner. I'm encouraged to think freely and try things that I think may work, as opposed to being told what must be done."

Undergraduates conduct research on campus and around the world. Senior environmental science major Liz Veazey traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands with classmates from her coral reef management course and their professor, Dr. Greg Gangi. She later spent a summer with the Manomet Conservation Science Center in Maine. This year she'll journey to New Zealand, thanks to a Morris K. Udall Scholarship, where she'll study conservation and biodiversity with the School for International Training.

This educational formula generates scientific breakthroughs, such as the three-dimensional force microscope. This invention will allow researchers to actually touch the organelles of living cells. For the past two years, junior computer science major Ben Wilde has worked in Superfine's physics laboratory creating the microscope under the guidance of his adviser, Dr. Russell Taylor in the computer science department.

"I look forward to every minute I spend in the lab," Wilde said.

Carolina's science programs also offer excellent preparation for medical school.

Senior biology major Kristin Benjamin looks forward to working directly with patients, but for now she's helping people through her research with mutant flies in Dr. Stephen Crews's neurogenetics lab. Eventually, Benjamin's findings may further the development of treatments and cures for diseases resulting from abnormal central nervous system development.

Jasper Harris got his first taste of research through the School of Medicine's Research Apprenticeship Program. Now a senior biostatistics major and research assistant in Dr. Shawn Ahmed's genetics lab, Harris studies microscopic worms with a similar genetic makeup to humans. One day his findings may contribute to cancer cell research.

Hundreds of Carolina undergraduates are taking advantage of the opportunity to conduct research with world-renowned scientists. This legacy grows with every incoming class. One day, these students will turn their Carolina education into careers in science, technology or engineering

Through the new Web site, sciencecarolina.unc.edu, high school students also can learn about Carolina graduates who already have succeeded like Heidi Schweiker, site manager of one of the telescopes at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

"The knowledge I gained while obtaining my degree in physics helps me understand the science being done with the telescope and helps me determine what effect a system may have on the quality of the data collected," Schweiker said in an interview posted on the site.

The Web site aims to show high school students how to immerse themselves in the physical sciences and technology at Carolina. It focuses on how undergraduates and the faculty work together in the classroom and in research settings. It showcases Carolina’s leading programs in science, engineering and technology and illustrates how a liberal arts foundation can prepare students to better communicate in their careers.

The new technology tool is part of a larger initiative that includes faculty scientists and counselors from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. They are telling high school students about what Carolina offers in the study of science, research opportunities for students and preparation for science careers.

The admissions office is arranging for Carolina faculty members and students to meet with high school students in select North Carolina cities, contacting outstanding students throughout the state and nation and hosting a variety of campus events for science teachers and their students. The initiative includes work with academic departments, the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and many other offices.

Visitors to the site will find a featured story on a student, faculty member, alumnus or academic program. Other selections include:

· Majors: information on areas of study such as biology, bioinformatics, biomedical engineering, chemistry, computer engineering, genetics and pre-medical.

· Goodies: fun and interesting items such as computer screen wallpaper, T-shirts or contests.

In talking with high-achieving students with an interest in physical sciences, the site development team found that students also want to know about extracurricular activities, scholarships, research opportunities, study abroad programs, and more. The site contains links to other Web pages describing those opportunities.

To learn more, check out sciencecarolina.unc.edu or contact admissions officer Sue Klapper, (919) 966-3987, skapper@email.unc.edu.