The Application Process

Below you will find information on what documents and information you need when filling out the online application. Please read carefully so that you are prepared to upload the necessary documents.  Below you will also find descriptions of the research positions available this summer. You will be asked to select your first and second choice on the application.

The application deadline has been extended to Friday, March 24 at 11:59pm. Applications will be reviewed by a selection committee and references will be contacted. If selected for an interview, you will be notified by mid-April. Interviews and final research position placement should be completed by the end of April.

To Apply

To apply for the IDEA Undergraduate Research Program, you will need:

  • Cover letter
  • Current resume
  • Transcript (please scan your transcript and save as pdf before uploading)
  • Completed responses to the following essay questions
    1. List any previous research experience, the location and the name of the researcher under whom you worked.
    2. Describe your career goals and the degree(s) you hope to pursue after this bachelors degree.
    3. Describe your research goals and what you hope to achieve as a participant of the IDEA Undergraduate Research Program.
    4. Add any information that will provide a better picture of your capabilities, motivations and interests.
    5. Once you have reached your career goal, how will underrepresented minority students benefit from your presence and position?
  • Names and contact information for two faculty references (IDEA will contact these faculty directly)

Once you have these items, please complete the online application. At the end of the application, you will be asked to upload your completed essay questions, cover letter, current resume and transcript. 


Position Descriptions

Assessing nutrient loading along a rural to urban gradient and inform watershed management

Research supervisors: Joseph Delesantro (primary, CEE), Dr. Jon Duncan (IE), Dr. Diego Riveros-Iregui (Geography), Dr. Lawrence Band (IE, Geography)

Position description: Field and laboratory assistant to help with research on non-point source nutrient loading to local drinking water reservoir in the Chapel Hill-Durham-Raleigh area. Core tasks will include weekly field sampling, storm sampling, routine maintenance of field-deployed sensors, processing of water samples, data management and upkeep of laboratory space and materials.

Science skills desired: Candidates with expertise in laboratory and field experiments, good quantitative abilities, attention to detail, academic backgrounds in geosciences, engineering, environmental sciences, biological sciences, or related field

Technology and field skills desired: Field or lab experience in any of the following areas not required but will be valuable: surface hydrology, biogeochemistry, soil physics, data analysis, datalogger and computer programming (MATLAB, R, C++), and/or familiarity with geographic information systems (GIS). Interest and willingness in learning new technologies. Tolerant of outdoor summer conditions in North Carolina. Ability to transverse difficult terrain and maintain attention to detail during challenging field conditions. Water sampling and field deployment skills are a plus.


Monitoring groundwater dynamics in relation to drinking water quality

Research supervisors: Dr. Diego Riveros-Iregui (Geography), Dr. Jill Stewart (School of Public Health)

Position description: Field and laboratory assistant to help with research on groundwater dynamics and drinking water quality in response to changing environmental conditions on San Cristobal Island, Ecuador. Core tasks will include sensor deployment and daily monitoring of groundwater level sensors, sample collection, routine maintenance of field sensors, processing of water samples, data management and upkeep of laboratory space and materials.

Science skills desired: Candidates with expertise and interest in field experiments, good quantitative abilities, attention to detail, academic backgrounds in environmental sciences, geosciences, engineering, biological sciences, or related field

Technology and field skills desired: Field or lab experience in any of the following areas not required but will be valuable: surface hydrology, biogeochemistry, soil physics, data analysis, datalogger and computer programming (MATLAB, R, C++), and/or familiarity with geographic information systems (GIS). Interest and willingness in learning new technologies. Tolerant of outdoor summer conditions in tropical regions. Ability to transverse difficult terrains during all field conditions, including heat and rain. Water sampling and field deployment skills will be valuable.


Soil nutrient status in relation to native vs. invasive plant cover

Research supervisors: Dr. Diego Riveros-Iregui (Geography), Dr. Elizabeth Shank (Biology)

Position description: Field and laboratory assistant to help with research on soil nutrient composition in relation to native vs. invasive plant cover on San Cristobal Island, Ecuador. Core tasks will include soil surveys and analysis, plant cover surveys, sample collection, sample processing in the lab, data management and upkeep of laboratory space and materials.

Science skills desired: Candidates with expertise in laboratory and field experiments, good quantitative abilities, attention to detail, academic backgrounds in biological sciences, geosciences, engineering, environmental sciences, or related field

Technology and field skills desired: Field or lab experience in any of the following areas not required but will be valuable: biological sciences, ecology, pedology, surface hydrology, biogeochemistry, data analysis, and/or familiarity with geographic information systems (GIS). Tolerant of outdoor summer conditions in tropical regions. Ability to transverse difficult terrains during all field conditions, including heat and rain. Soil sampling skills are ideal.


Short-term climate variability along the Middle Atlantic Coastal Plain during the Pliocene – A story told by American glycymerids

Research supervisor: Dr. Joel Hudley (Geological Science)

Position description: The project will use procedures that incorporate sclerochronology and oxygen and strontium isotope sampling methods on fossil shells from the North Carolina coastal plain. Basic paleontological (paleoecology and modern analog technique), sedimentological, and geochemical methods will be applied. Pliocene fossils were collected during the summer 2014 from localities in the North Carolina coastal plain. The fossil specimens have been cataloged (location, date of collection, collector, etc.). They need to be cleaned, photographed, weighed and radially sectioned. Shell length, age, and annual growth increments width will be measured and recorded. Bivalve age will be determined by counting couplets of alternating patterns of translucent (dark = slow growth) and opaque (light = rapid growth) segments representing one year’s growth (similar to tree ring counting). Ages of modern species of Glycymeris commonly survive between 5 and 60 years. The growth trend due to species dependent growth will be detected and used to de-trend and standardize all the individual specimen’s growth patterns. Growth data will be used explore associations between western Atlantic shelf water patterns and larger internal climate mechanisms (NAO, SOI, AO, AMO, PDI, Gulf Stream velocity, etc.) by comparing mechanisms to shell increment growth indices using statistical dissimilarity procedures (correlation, dissimilarity, clustering, and spectral analysis). One (1) modern (calibration) and four (4) fossil samples will be micro-mill sampled, and these carbonate shell samples will be used for stable carbon and oxygen isotopic analysis. Stable carbon and oxygen isotope analysis is often used as a seawater temperature and primary productivity proxy.

Science skills desired: Experienced in lab safety procedures, microscope image photography, and fossil sample preparation; willing to train

Technology and field skills desired: Basic computing skills.


Multi-annual cycles in the Shell Growth Increments in Two Continental Shelf Bivalves

Research supervisor: Dr. Joel Hudley (Geological Science)

Position description: The project will use procedures that incorporate sclerochronology (similar to dendrochronology) on modern shells from the MAB. Shells have already been collected and each population counted separately. The IDEA student researcher will complete second counts on the populations, and then create two master chronologies using visual cross-dating and standard dendrochronology package software. Recent temperature variations in the western Atlantic have impacted the biogeographic ranges of benthic, infaunal organisms and industrial fishing practices have decimated the Northeastern US shell fishing industry. Evidence of this thermal shift is likely encoded in the shells of the harvested clams Arctica islandica and Spisula solidissima. Many thermal shift studies were completed in the intensively sampled regions around Iceland, the North Sea, and the Gulf of Maine; however, no dual chronologies exist for the Middle Atlantic Bight (MAB). Has recent warming in the MAB been recorded in the shells of these two species? Has this warming altered the age-distribution pattern of these species populations? Are the patterns of seawater variation and population shifts comparable between these two large, long-lived species?

Science skills desired: Specimen cataloging, comfort with computers, descriptive statistics, and frequency analysis; willing to train

Technology and field skills desired: image analysis software, MS Excel, Image J, R, MatLab, dendrochronology packages; willing to train


Changes in phosphorus fractions in soils across hillslopes in first-order watersheds

Research supervisor: Dr. Larry Benninger (Geological Sciences)

Position description: The student will work to understand how bedrock type, overlying vegetation, and vadose zone hydraulics affect the distribution and type of phosphorus species across small watersheds in the North Carolina Piedmont. This project will incorporate field and lab work, and will challenge the student to test and utilize methods to measure the amount and types of phosphorus species found within soils. Phosphorus dynamics within soils have important implications for ecosystem health, soil stability, and agriculture; on a larger scale, phosphorus leaching and erosion into waterways has resulted in too much of the nutrient entering estuarine environments, contributing to the eutrophication of these fragile ecosystems.

The student will be a part of a close-knit lab group and will receive research support from the PI and the graduate student working in the lab, while being a part of the dynamic geochemistry program within the Department of Geological Sciences. By the end of the summer, the student will have designed and conducted a field campaign, tested methods for analyzing different species of phosphorus, and will have a report on the amount and types of P found within soils in at least two watersheds.

Science skills desired: The undergraduate student must be able to review and discuss literature, formulate and carry out a sampling regime, and be comfortable with wet-bench chemistry.

Technology skills desired: The undergraduate student must be comfortable with Microsoft Office, and must be willing to learn how to use laboratory instrumentation as needed.

Fieldwork skills desired: The undergraduate student will need to be able to excavate soils for sampling, design and carry out vegetation and soil surveys, collect rock, soil, and water samples, and work well in a team.


Phytoplankton responses to changes in their environment

Research supervisor: Dr. Adrian Marchetti (Marine Sciences)

Position description: We are interested in understanding how different marine phytoplankton, microscopic plant-like organisms, respond to changes in their environment. The student will assist in ongoing lab-based experiments to investigate these responses in specific scenarios (i.e. coastal upwelling situations). Work will include growing phytoplankton in the lab, collecting samples, preparing samples for analysis, and data analysis. Types of samples and analysis include enumerating cells and measuring their chlorophyll, carbon, nitrogen, and silica. We are also sequencing the RNA and analyzing what genes these organisms are using.

Science skills desired: Some background knowledge of molecular biology and genetics (e.g. BIOL 202) and general chemistry (e.g. CHEM 101 & CHEM 202). A strong desire to learn about microbiology, ecology, and oceanography. Basic familiarity with pipetting and microscopy. Experience with cell culture and molecular techniques such as PCR and nucleic acid extraction is not necessary but very welcome.

Technology and field skills desired: Basic knowledge of MS Excel and computer usage. An interest in bioinformatics and experience with Linux and programming (Python, shell script, R) is not required but also welcome.


Assessing macrobioerosion within the skeletons of two massive reef-building coral species across the western Caribbean Sea

Research supervisors: Dr. Karl D. Castillo, Assistant Professor, Marine Sciences Department, UNC-Chapel Hill and J.P. Rippe, PhD Student, Marine Sciences Department UNC-Chapel Hill

Position description: The Castillo lab engages undergraduate researchers in various research projects with the ultimate goal of better understanding the status of Caribbean coral reefs and how they are responding to a rapidly changing climate. A critical aspect of this research aim is understanding the dynamics of coral growth via calcification. This project will investigate an important, but often overlooked process impacting net calcification on coral reefs: macrobioerosion within the skeletons of two abundant and widespread Caribbean reef-building coral species. The undergraduate student will use 3D computed tomography (CT) scans of coral skeletal cores to assess bioerosion rates across a cascade of ecological scales in the western Caribbean Sea and will formulate testable hypotheses regarding features of the environment influencing the observed patterns. Further information about the focus of our research can be found on our lab website: www.unc.edu/~kdcastil/.

Science skills desired: We are seeking a student who can work both independently and as part of a team. The student must demonstrate a keen interest in learning new skills and problem-solving, as he/she will be working closely with a graduate student mentor to promote a relatively new method of analysis to the lab. A basic understanding of geology, ecology, chemistry and statistics would be advantageous.

Technology skills desired: General competence in using Excel and in data management, as well as a willingness to learn and master new, more specialized software programs. Programming experience will be considered a major asset but is not required.

Fieldwork skills desired: Although fieldwork is not necessary for this particular research effort, the student may be invited to the field as part of the parent project that stimulated the idea for this side-project.


The Impact of Oil Extraction, Regulatory Policy, and Environmental Practice on Native Amazon and Afro-Ecuadorian Communities

Research supervisor: Dr. Gabriela Valdivia (Geography)

Position description: Undergraduate Research Assistant

Science skills desired: Familiarity with the process of social research inquiry, qualitative analysis, and archival analysis methods, though this would be a skill developed through the research project.

Most desirable skills:
1. Familiarity with databases and use of Excel or a statistical package like R, Stata, SAS, or SPSS; Use of spatial analysis and visualization software (e.g., ArcGIS, Tableau, etc.);
2. Language skills: high level Spanish reading skills (native Spanish-speakers or close to native Spanish-speaker highly desirable);
3. Familiarity with webpage creation and coding and other visualization programs (including audio)


Cumulative impacts of repeated fine sediment loading on streambed water exchange and filtration using a laboratory flume

Research supervisor: Dr. Jaye E. Cable (Marine Science/CEE)

Position description: An undergraduate student researcher is desired to assist graduate students and to develop their own research project related to streambed dynamics. The undergraduate student researcher will help prepare a series of experiments that will take place this summer in the UNC Joint Fluids Lab located in Chapman Hall. A laboratory flume will be used to create a model streambed environment where multiple riverine dynamics can be examined. This position will entail preparing and running a number of experiments on water exchange across the streambed interface with the water column and how this water exchange changes with sediment clogging of materials into streambed pore spaces. In addition, the student will collect and process data from these experiments.

Possible questions this student could address within the context of these experiments:
1. How well does heat exchange act as a proxy for water exchange across the streambed-water column interface?
2. What size particles effectively clog streambed pore spaces to inhibit water exchange?

Science skills desired: Has taken at least two undergraduate science courses; excellent organizational skills; ability to work productively as part of a team; problem solving skills; detail oriented; strong interest in geology, hydrology, marine sciences and/or ecohydrology; ability to follow written protocols and methods; willingness to learn sampling methods, measurement techniques, and data processing.

Technology skills desired: Data entry experience; knowledge of script-based software such as Excel, R, or Matlab is preferred but not required; willingness to learn sensor calibration and operation.

Fieldwork skills desired: Ability to lift up to 50 lbs. of sand; willingness to work in different laboratory environments on campus for long or irregular hours.


Horizontal Convection, a model for the ocean conveyor belt circulation

Research supervisor: Dr. Brian White (Marine Sciences)

Position description: We are looking for a student interested in fluid dynamics and oceanography to work on a laboratory model of the ocean conveyor belt, aka the Meridional Overturning Circulation. The student would set up our “ocean in a box” flow tank, assist with data collection using high-resolution cameras and image processing software, and help with data-processing using Matlab. This is a very visual project with applications both in fundamental fluid physics and our understanding of ocean circulation.

Science skills desired: some laboratory experience, problem-solving skills, ability to work both on a team and individually

Technology and field skills desired: Matlab and experience with digital imaging techniques a plus


Squid symbiont Vibrio fischeri as a model system to study how bacterial social interactions shape the evolution, structure, and function of microbial communities

Research supervisor: Dr. Alecia Septer (Marine Sciences)

Position description: Marine bacteria have genes that encode both cooperative and competitive behaviors, suggesting there is selective pressure in the marine environment to maintain these social genes. We are interested in understanding the mechanisms and ecological function of these interactions. Bacterial populations can use these social genes to coordinate multicellular functions or they can compete by directly attacking unrelated microbial cells. These behaviors are strongly influenced by environmental conditions. We use the squid-vibrio symbiosis as a model system to identify the environmental cues and genetic pathways that cause populations to switch between cooperative and competitive interactions. Our primary approach employs a culture-based assay using isolates from fish and squid from all over the globe to better understand how these social interactions evolved.

Science skills desired: Good organization and communication skills, and attention to detail. Previous bacterial or molecular experience is not necessary.

Technology and field skills desired: Basic Microsoft Office knowledge (Excel in particular)


Developing novel method of trace element analyses in natural rock and water samples

Research supervisor: Dr. Xiao-Ming Liu (Geological Sciences)

Position description: Student will have opportunity to work in the geochemistry lab and use newly installed state-of-the-art instrument (ICP-MS) to perform elemental concentration analyses in rock and water samples.

Science skills desired: Curious, self-motivated, able to read scientific papers.

Technology and field skills desired: Experience with wet chemistry, ICP-MS experience is preferred but not required.


Unlocking the forensic potential of soils

Research supervisor: Dr. Drew Coleman (Geological Science), Ryan Mills (Geological Science)

Position description: Student will measure the isotopic composition of minerals in soil to explore the potential of using Sr and Pb isotopes to distinguish soil from crime scenes as a forensic tool. Student will test the hypothesis that mineral isotopic compositions in soil will match those in bedrock from which the soil was derived.

Science skills desired: Basic chemistry skills. Familiarity with strong acids, safety and behavior in chemistry labs.

Fieldwork skills desired: Able to work in the heat/humidity during sample collection. Familiarity with GPS.


Tracking geospatial data visualization in the politics of mobile marine resource management

Research supervisor: Dr. Elizabeth Havice (Geography)

Position description: Undergraduate research assistant. As part of a larger project on the significance of marine geospatial data in the conservation and management of mobile marine sea turtles and tuna species, the student working in this position will use an information cycle framework approach to examine the production, transport and use of visualizations that have be generated about sea turtle and tuna movements in the oceans. The researcher will focus on the transport and use stages of the information cycle framework, identifying the rate, location and movement patterns of specified visualizations of marine geospatial data as well as measuring the consumption and impact of the information by key actors involved in sea turtle and tuna management processes. To generate these data, the student will conduct citation analysis, web analytics and content analysis.

Science skills desired:

  • Experience with content analysis
  • Experience with qualitative data coding

Technology and field skills desired:

  • Basic computer programming
  • Experience with citation analysis
  • Experience with web analytics