Research as Learning

Research and Students

Zena Cardman, an undergraduate biology student, received funding from the UNC Burch Fellows Program and the North Carolina Space Grant to conduct research in British Columbia and the Canadian Arctic, where she also filmed high-definition footage for the PBS television series NOVA.

At Carolina, research is first and foremost a way of learning. Training graduate students is a primary reason for university research, and undergraduates—including Diana Gergel—learn by experiencing firsthand the process of discovering new knowledge.

Gergel won a competitive $5,000 John W. Pope Summer Research Fellowship her sophomore year. It funded her work for a summer, during which she worked for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and conducted research at the Library of Congress on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The next summer, she went to Cape Town, South Africa, to complete her research on survivors’ memories of apartheid and their experiences with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the topic of her honors thesis.

In May 2011, more than 62 percent of graduating seniors conducted original research as part of their coursework at Carolina. And many students such as Gergel publish their findings in top-rated journals, and faculty report that pilot projects by students often lead to external research grants. In 2010, Carolina received a $1.3 million award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to create even more undergraduate research opportunities, specifically in the field of biomedical research.

Graduate Education and Research

Devin Barrett, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry, is exploring unconventional ways to offer hope and alternatives for patients who need tissue or organ transplants. While more than 100,000 people in the U.S. need these lifesaving surgeries, most—including 3,000 in North Carolina alone—are forced onto waiting lists. Barrett’s research on tissue engineering and the biodegradable polymers he designed from naturally occurring molecules may lead to a new way to create artificial organs and save thousands of lives.

At any research university, graduate students such as Barrett are a critical part of the workforce for research. In 2010, 1,856 Carolina graduate students were employed as research assistants, working in labs, conducting field work and collecting data. Carolina competes with its peers for talented graduate students. To maintain excellence in research, the university must offer competitive compensation for research and teaching assistants, including tuition remissions.

A few facts about graduate education at Carolina:

  • 8,325 graduate students and 2,486 professional students enrolled in fall 2010.
  • 89 graduate programs offer 66 doctoral and 102 master’s degrees.
  • Graduate and professional students make up 37 percent of enrolled students.
  • More than 10 percent of these students come from underrepresented groups.
  • 14 percent of graduate and professional students are international.

Visit the Graduate School website for more information.


Postdoctoral Scholars

Postdoctoral scholars—researchers who have earned doctoral degrees and are engaged in temporary mentored research—have a vital role in the research enterprise. Joseph Watts was a postdoc at Carolina when he, Kevin Weeks, and their colleagues created the first map of the HIV genome’s intricate structure in 2009. Their work will lead to a better understanding of how this virus grows and replicates. Watts and other skilled postdocs extend the value of senior scientists, greatly expanding the scope of faculty research programs. There are currently nearly 1,000 postdocs at Carolina, each contributing to the intellectual life of the university by making discoveries, inventing new technologies, and sharing new ideas. Visit the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs for more information.

– Adapted from the “Research Highlights”
Report, January 2012.