Grants let undergrads turn summer into a research experience

Sanjana Basak in lab

Ten University of Oregon undergraduates had the chance to spend part of the summer honing their research skills through programs that offered a chance to pursue their own scholarly projects.

The students were chosen for one of two types of research grants: First Year Research Experience and Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. The ​​Center for Undergraduate Research and Engagement, which hands out the awards, provides comprehensive support to undergraduate students participating in undergraduate research, with a particular focus on fostering a culture of academic inquiry and faculty engagement.

“It is such a privilege to have the opportunity to work with such highly skilled and motivated individuals,” said Lanch McCormick, director of student engagement at the undergraduate research center. “Beyond the summer research funding support, we aim to build a community of undergraduate research scholars by providing advising support and professional development opportunities that will enable them to continue to strengthen their academic portfolio.”

Grant recipients Sanjana Basak and Jazmin Hernandez said they were elated to be able to do research during their first year at UO. The First Year Research Experience “provided me my first experience with directing my energy to a single, specific research project,” said Basak, a biochemistry major researching a form of corneal dystrophy. 

“The excitement and responsibility of being an active collaborator motivated me to tackle more scientific papers and initiate more discussions with my mentors,” Basak said. “It’s an amazing experience to witness an experimental process at any stage, but especially at the beginning when a researcher is exhilarated by the prospect of diving down the experimental rabbit hole.”

Hernandez, who is leaning towards a global studies major, is researching perspectives of the Braceros between 1942 and 1964. She is specifically researching Bracero men, who left their homes and families in Mexico to come to work in the United States.

“Uncovering hidden parts or unknown pieces is what excites me most about research because it means you looked deeper through different eyes to find something you didn’t know existed,” she said.

Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship recipients Audra McNamee and Ashia Wilson also seized on the opportunity to research during their time as undergraduates. McNamee, a math and computer science major who plans to graduate in 2022, is researching an innovative neuroscience outreach effort using comics. 

“I really believe in science comics as a form of scientific communication. I think they’re a good way to grab a reader’s attention, and that their visual presentation is a natural way to clearly explain tricky scientific topics,” McNamee said.

She feels grateful to continue making the comics for her research, as well as for other science topics. She is working with biology professor Luca Mazzucato to create a comic explaining psychedelics and the ramifications of Oregon’s Measure 109, which establishes a pathway for legal psilocybin therapy.

Wilson is going into her junior year and plans to major in environmental studies and double minor in legal studies and Native American and Indigenous studies. Wilson’s research experience has provided her an opportunity to look into methane emissions in hydropower reservoirs.

“Although hydropower energy, specifically dams, are marketed as clean energy through corporations and governments, they are not clean energy and should not be considered solutions,” Wilson said. “My research focused on the relationship between dams and methane, which alone promotes and creates so many detrimental impacts on our ecosystems, public health and the global warming crisis.”

She said she feels her research provides audiences with a wake-up call about the downside of those energy sources.

Both the summer programs provide students with opportunities to further research they are already doing in their field.

“Connecting with other students was a really good grounding experience, especially during the pandemic,” McNamee said. “Because so much of my work is done alone, often in my house, it is nice to have a group of peers who can remind me that everyone is experiencing both frustration and excitement on their research topic.”

Wilson said the grant allowed her to feel more ownership of her work.

“I was nervous and unsure about fulfilling my research project, like I was not smart enough, but it is just a learning experience that offers so much room for development,” she said.

The 2021 winners of the First Year Research Experience award are:

  • Nayantara Arora, neuroscience; mentor: Ulrich Mayr
  • Sanjana Basak, biochemistry; mentor: Balamurali Ambati
  • Jazmin Hernandez, exploring global studies, double major; mentor: Julie Weise.
  • Eliza Lawrence, biochemistry and journalism; mentor: Ellen Peters.
  • Sera Lew, psychology and global studies; mentor: Dare Baldwin.

The 2021 winners of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship award are:

  • Mashal Rahmati Copperman, environmental science; mentor: Brendan Bohannon.
  • Isabelle Cullen, neuroscience; mentor: Matt Smear.
  • Nathan Malamud, math and computer science; mentor: Stilianos Louca.
  • Audra McNamee, math and computer science; mentor: Luca Mazzucato.
  • Ashia Wilson, environmental studies; mentor: Alai Reyes-Santos.

For more information on this year’s award winners and their research, visit the CURE award recipients page. Anyone interested in applying for one of the grants should continue to check center’s website for application information starting in winter 2022.

—By Alyson Johnston, University Communications