The thing about research is you never know what you’re going to find. Study inevitably leads to insight, experiments to realization. When we research, we open up the possibility for all kinds of discovery – and, for the recipients of the College’s Summer Undergraduate Research with Faculty (SURF) grant, it’s what they discover about themselves that is most unexpected.
That was the case for theatre major Carrie Ferrelli and biochemistry major Mason Huebsch, who undertook ambitious research projects this past summer through funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities’ SURF grant program.
“This summer was my first experience outside of the academic setting. The professional setting is definitely a lot less structured: There’s a lot more self- policing and self-editing,” says Ferrelli, whose research focused on the scene design process. “It was so nice to live like it’s a real-world, 9–5 job – and to get paid a livable wage focusing just on what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Huebsch also found that the research process reaffirmed his career aspirations and that he’s on the right track.
“I think the most valuable thing for me was just figuring out what actual scientists do and how I’d like it as a career choice,” says Huebsch. “I found out I’d like to do this for the rest of my life.”
The SURF program is designed to offer students a chance to explore a subject of their choosing, and give them the opportunity to run with it.
“The SURF grant is an immersive experience that gives students 10–12 weeks over the summer to dedicate to their research without any kind of outside distractions,” says Elizabeth Meyer-Bernstein, associate dean of the Honors College, associate professor of biology and director of the College’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URCA) program, which provides competitive grants like the SURF grant to support students’ scholarly projects.
Open to students in any discipline, the SURF grant funds the stipends and project costs for 30 undergraduates every summer.
“It’s a life-changer for them because it gives them the chance to grow not just as students, but to experience what life would be like in this career,” says Meyer-Bernstein. “For most of them, this is the most impactful experience of their college experience – it can change their course of study or validate that they’re doing what they love.”
As part of the URCA program, SURF grant recipients must work with a faculty mentor, give a presentation of their project at the end of the summer and continue their research with their faculty mentor the following semester.
“The mentoring experience is a huge part of this,” says Meyer-Bernstein, noting that this year the SURF program was able to fund two additional students thanks to Greg Padgett ’79, who made the first significant private donation to the College of Charleston URCA Fund. “It’s my hope that this gift will stimulate more people to donate to the URCA Fund and to value this experience that students are getting,” says Padgett.
As past president of the College of Charleston Foundation who now represents the Alumni Association on the College’s Board of Trustees and serves on the School of Business’ Advisory Board, Padgett certainly sees the value: “I am always encouraged by what our students can accomplish when they’re working hand in hand with faculty, and I wanted to support our faculty and the research relationship between faculty and students,” he says. “Having students experience research work as undergraduates is one of the many things that makes the College unique. I’m happy to support that.”
Meyer-Bernstein chose Ferrelli and Huebsch as the recipients of Padgett’s gift based not only on the outstanding quality of their project proposals, but also on the exceptional mentoring record of their faculty advisors.
“These students’ proposals really stood out,” she says, noting that part of the application is the students’ statement of intent, which explains how this will set them up for success. “It’s important they show that they’re aware of the impact this could have – that the students themselves understand the value of this experience.”
That value is certainly not lost on Ferrelli, whose project, “Developing the Scene Design Process,” allowed her to collaborate with not just her mentor from the theatre faculty, Charlie Calvert, but also with the production staff at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
“This summer was the best thing that I could do for my career,” says the senior, noting that – as lead draftsman and model builder for the set of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Show – she was involved in everything from research and analysis to laser cutting and 3D printing. “Just learning the techniques and the different skills really diversified my tool belt and built my portfolio.”
On the other end of the disciplinary spectrum, Huebsch joined chemistry professor Jennifer Fox in her lab, where they researched “Proteins Important for Mitochondrial Function.”
“It really taught me what actual scientific research is like. Before this, I didn’t know what all was involved and how much begins in the lab,” says the sophomore, who before getting involved with this research, didn’t have a clear idea of what his future would hold. “I thought maybe I wanted to go to medical school, but I’m not good with blood. After working with Dr. Fox, I realized I really like this stuff. It pointed me in a different direction.”
That’s not an uncommon result of SURF.
“It turns a lot of students into researchers,” says Meyer-Bernstein. “In the sciences, in particular, it shows them the value of primary research.”
It’s a revelation that Huebsch is grateful to have had so early in his college career.
“It was a huge change of pace for me,” he says. “It made me really appreciate the College of Charleston so much more. Now that I’ve had this opportunity, I realize how great this place is and how valuable the education it provides really is. I don’t know if there are many institutions that get students so involved in research and show them down the path of success the way the College does.”
Now that their research projects have led them down that path, both Ferrelli and Huebsch have discovered some pretty big things.
“I found that I’m a hard worker and I have what it takes to do this in real life,” says Ferrelli, who has since been named the season designer at What If Productions in Charleston. “That confidence in myself is huge.”
“It was empowering for me to realize that we were studying something that no one knew anything out before,” says Huebsch. “I realize now that I like the idea of finding new stuff – and it never ends with this kind of work. There’s always more to learn.”
Indeed, when it comes to research, you never know what else you’re going to find.
Article by Alicia Lutz
Photos by Reese Moore