20 years of celebrating undergraduate research

Carolina’s undergraduate students are making meaningful contributions to research every day, and their work was on full display at the 20th annual Undergraduate Research and Making Expo.

A student walks through a row of posters.
The Celebration of Undergraduate Research is a research symposium held at UNC-Chapel Hill each April. The goal of the Celebration is to showcase and encourage meaningful UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate research in all disciplines. Held at the Blue Zone in Kenan Stadium April 24, 2019. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When Rawan Ajeen was young, she didn’t see herself in the research world. Researchers, she thought, didn’t look like her — at least not in the posters that hung on the walls of her science classrooms.

“When you’re young, you’re taught that a researcher is someone like Einstein or Newton — those kinds of figures,” she said. “I never really viewed research as an area I could contribute to.”

That changed when she came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she found a community that challenged the stereotype of what a scientist looks like. Now a senior majoring in nutrition and psychology, Ajeen was among nearly 300 students who presented their research findings or makerspace creations at Carolina’s 20th annual Undergraduate Research and Making Expo on April 24.

“I really connected and related with the research community here early on, and before that, I didn’t see a space for me in this community,” she said. “I found a way for my research to reflect me as a person and my interests and passions, and now being able to present it, I view it as a platform for bigger conversations.”

While Ajeen’s research examined our psychological responses to food and dieting, other projects explored everything from the effects of sleep deprivation on college students’ heart health to the impact of community resources on resilience after a natural disaster.

Troy Blackburn, dean of undergraduate research in the College of Arts & Sciences, said the range of projects shows that any student can get involved in research at Carolina.

“One of our main goals is to get the message out there that any student on campus who has an interest can do research,” he said. “The students here today are from many disciplines and all GPA levels, all walks of life. We’ve got everyone from English and comparative literature to biochemistry and biophysics, and they’re all impressive. They’re fantastic.”

While Ajeen prepares to graduate and plans to explore research in graduate school, Kenan Poole, a first-year computer science student, is just getting started.

As part of a geology 101 class, Poole designed and conducted an experiment — his first — on strategies for finding clean ground water. He also used Carolina’s makerspaces to create custom containers to test water filtration with different types of rock.

He doesn’t currently plan to pursue a career in research, but the project has already changed the way he thinks about his own education.

“It’s really cool that they introduced this research aspect so early because research feels so much more accessible to me now,” he said. “Even as undergraduates, and even as beginners, we’re still able to do meaningful research.”