Honors students give summer a new purpose
July 1, 2019

While most students are basking in the sun with their toes in the sand, or remembering what it is like to get a full night’s (and sometimes day’s) rest, a group of 22 honors students is foregoing their summer vacations for some good, old fashioned research. Whether it be in a science lab or out in the field scouting for a specific breed of songbird to study, these students are spending a truly unforgettable summer conducting all kinds of research through the nine-week long Honors Undergraduate Research Program (HSURP).

From researching how spirituality, values, and culture intersect in Ghana, to analyzing the role of companion animals in the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youths, our HSURP students are covering a wide array of research topics in their quest to discover the hows and whys of our world. One such student is rising Sophomore and pre-med biochemistry major, Henry Childs. As a participant in Dr. Paul Wetzel’s lab Quantifying the Effect of Neurological Movement Disorders, Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and Other Deficits Through Eye Movement Recording and Analysis, Henry doesn’t consider himself to be taking away from his summer, but rather adding to it.

A guy looking at a computer screen (Henry Childs)

“I love problem solving,” explains Henry. “I see HSURP as an opportunity to make a difference in the scientific community while taking full advantage of my summer. I chose to work with Dr. Wetzel because he is willing to work alongside us in the lab, which allows me to learn from his many years of experience.” Moreover, he has enjoyed working through challenges in the lab and finding ways around obstacles that have arisen over the course of his research. “There have been a plethora of challenges that have stumped us for days,” he shares, “but we always push through and progress the project.”

Similarly, Jordan Rasure, a biology and Spanish double-major about to enter her Senior year at VCU, has been enjoying her time researching, despite some complications along the way. Having previously worked on a Prothonotary Warbler (PROW) project in Panama two years ago, Jordan knew she wanted to work in Dr. Lesley Bulluck’s avian lab studying Parental Care and Aggression in a Mutually Ornamented Songbird.

Girl holding a small yellow bird by river (Jordan Rasure)

“There have been some struggles as we go,” Jordan says. “Birds are not always predictable, there is plenty of poison ivy on the shores, and some days require very long hours. But these are all things that I signed up for in the beginning and so [I] cannot be upset that they are happening now. I have finally fallen into a sort of rhythm with the field work, and as we begin laboratory analysis I believe the new challenge will be shifting to an indoor mindset.”

Additionally, Jordan continues, having the opportunity to work alongside graduate students has allowed her to better realize her future career goals and aspirations, and to receive guidance and advice on how to accomplish them. “It is one of my biggest hopes to continue my relationship with Dr. Bulluck and her graduate students, Elsa and Sam. I look up to them more than they know, and I hope that I will be able to continue to soak up all of the little pieces of advice that they drop for me.”

Biology major and chemistry minor Amulya Kotha, a rising Senior, shares the same feelings of highs and lows as both Jordan and Henry. In the hopes of helping future generations better understand the effects of vaping on babies while still in their mothers’ wombs, she has been participating in Dr. Amanda Dickinson’s lab to answer the question “How does e-cigarette exposure affect jaw development?”

Student looking through a microscope (Amulya Kotha)

According to Amulya, who plans to continue in this lab through her senior year, “this project is one that has many stages. So far, I have completed the first stage of staining 12 stages of untreated [frog] embryos and am now working on constructing a timeline of jaw muscle development from the images I have taken. Once that is done…I will…begin treating [the] embryos with E-cig solution to observe the impact… The biggest challenges so far have been mounting the frog embryos ventrally and frontally and taking images of their musculature. Since the embryos are usually very small, they often do not sit still and take a long time to position and image.”

Despite how serious our HSURP students are about their research, they are still making time for at least a bit of fun. As the Honors College Graduate Assistant, Laura Blunt serves as the main point of contact for the HSURP students. In her role, she also “[sets] up professional development workshops and social events for our HSURP undergraduate researchers to help them grown academically and socially.” Such events have included setting up a scavenger hunt on Monroe Park Campus, for which the students were divided into two teams and were guided to each location through a series of clues and silly tasks, such as filming themselves playing leap-frog in a corridor or reciting Harry Potter spells with wands. At the final location, Laura greeted the students with a Chipotle buffet and an iMovie compilation of each team’s scavenger hunt adventures using the real-time photo and video updates they sent her along the way.

Overall, Laura says, “Working with HSURP has been a blast! I enjoy getting to know the HSURP undergraduate researchers as well as [hearing] more about their research experiences.” Henry, Jordan, and Amulya couldn’t agree more. “Absolutely and without hesitation” Jordan recommends HSURP to her fellow students, as does Henry, who is “very happy to not be at my usual summer fast food job. Better yet, I feel more prepared for my future academic pursuits.” Plus, they concur, getting free Chipotle and Charm School ice cream hasn’t been too shabby either.

To learn more about participating in HSURP as a student researcher or as a faculty mentor, or to read more about all of our students’ projects, visit our HSURP page. Also, don’t miss the chance to stop by the annual Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program Poster Session from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. on Friday, July 19 in the Honors College building, where each HSURP student will be presenting a poster on their summer research projects.

Congratulations to our HSURP students on their hard work and dedication, and on the continuation of their studies and research going forward!