7 things learned from SURE-Oxford

With fall semester started, the Oxford College Science Building fills with activity in labs and other classrooms. But recent summer days provided a perfect opportunity for Oxford students Justin Burton, Min Ji Choi, and Eden Nitza to make progress on their professional research projects. They spent this past summer examining Georgia grasshoppers, black holes, and a new method for creating molecules found in medicines.

From left: Justin Burton, Eden Nitza, and Min Ji Choi. Photos by Billy Fan.

The 2018 SURE-Oxford (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience) program paired three students with faculty members who oversaw their work and mentored them in the methods and operation of research. They conducted research for 10 weeks as part of SURE-Oxford, an extension of Emory University's SURE program. Oxford’s commitment to experiential learning enables students to engage in numerous opportunities to conduct professional research in their first and second years of college. Here's what the SURE-Oxford researchers learned this summer:

1. Conducting research creates a different experience from taking a lab class.

Min Ji Choi from Suwanee, Ga. — As an Oxford sophomore, Choi was used to getting help during her usual lab classes from her lab partner or professors. "In the beginning of the program, I struggled to be independent in lab," recalls Choi, who is now a junior at Emory College. "I had to be more independent for the summer research, because the progress of the project depended on my efficiency in lab." The chemistry major couldn't rely on specific lab procedures or a curriculum. Instead, she planned her research work by relying on her own judgment more and discussing scientific literature and data with her SURE mentor Annette Neuman, assistant professor of chemistry.

Choi worked with Neuman on developing a new method to make a type of molecule called thiadiazoles. These molecules are important in medicine. The existing methods for making thiadiazoles have some drawbacks, so the research duo worked on a method using a powerful technique called C-H activation. "This summer, we were able to develop a new method for making thiadiazoles," says Neuman, who is participating in SURE-Oxford for the sixth year. "The next step will be to tinker with the reaction conditions to make it work even better."

2. A full-time research position provides a rare opportunity you can't pass up.

Justin Burton from New York, N.Y. — Burton, now an Oxford sophomore, plans on majoring in physics and mathematics/computer science. The New York native chose the SURE-Oxford program because the research of his research mentor Thomas Osburn, assistant professor of physics, covered a topic that had interested Burton for many years. "This gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about black hole astrophysics," Burton says.

3. You might get your research results published.

Working with Osburn, Burton's project involved developing a computer model to describe important astronomical systems at the forefront of astrophysics research. He investigated a common but extreme scenario where two compact celestial bodies encounter one another through a violent merger. Often these celestial bodies are black holes. "Through Justin's diligent efforts, the mathematical equations governing this system were successfully solved for the first time," Osburn says. Now, they're preparing these results for publication in a leading scientific journal.

Choi and Neuman also got some exciting results that they're looking forward to sharing at a fall conference. The Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society (SERMACS) recently accepted Choi's research poster for presentation at their gathering this November in Augusta, Ga.

4. Experiencing different types of research can prepare you for future academic work.

Eden Nitza from Fort Wayne, Ind. — Nitza, now a junior biology major at Emory College, worked with Biology Lecturer Michael Martin. The project Martin designed consisted of field work, lab work, and computational work. "I loved experiencing all three of those types of research," Nitza recalls. She wants to be a conservation biologist, and hopes to conduct field research most of the time. Her research project examined the population genetic structure of the lichen grasshopper on rock outcrops in the piedmont of Georgia. "The research project we worked on is also closely related to what I want to study in graduate school, so it was nice to get a taste of what that will look like," she says.

5. Doing summer research gives you the opportunity to work one-on-one with skilled faculty.

From left: Thomas Osburn, Justin Burton, Eden Nitza, Min Ji Choi, and Michael Martin

Since SURE-Oxford was Choi's first research experience, she appreciated the interaction with her mentor. "Communicating with Dr. Neuman helped me to stay on track and be efficient in lab," she recalls. Oxford faculty also appreciate the in-depth collaboration with students. "It's so much fun to work one-on-one in the lab with a motivated student," Neuman says.

Michael Martin agrees with Neuman. "The SURE program offers a great experience for students interested in research," he emphasizes. "It offers hands-on experience with lab equipment and experimentation, as well as science communication and research skills."

6. Research teaches you critical thinking and resilience.

"Science is at least 50 percent failure," Martin admits. The lecturer in biology believes failure teaches students to troubleshoot problems and not fear starting over. "We work especially hard to work these lessons into courses, but SURE does an excellent job teaching the lessons in a real-world context," he adds.

7. Presenting research is fun.

"My favorite part of the summer program was presenting my poster to all of the different people at the SURE symposium," Burton says. "I loved the challenge of adapting my explanation for my audience, whether math professors or undergraduate humanities majors."

In August, the students presented their research posters in end-of-session gatherings in the Oxford Science Building and on the Atlanta campus to share and showcase their results.


Photos by Billy Fan

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