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 process will open on January 29, 2019 and close on February 23, 2019. Applications will be reviewed by a selection committee and references will be contacted. If selected for an interview, you will be notified by mid-March. Interviews and final research position placement should be completed by the end of March.

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 interests 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

Project Number: 1 (Eidam)

Project Title:  Sediment fluxes through the North Carolina coastal zone

Research Supervisor: Emily Eidam, UNC Marine Sciences

Position Description:  This summer we’ll be deploying field instruments and doing boat-based sampling to measure the amount of sediment traveling through some North Carolina rivers into the coastal zone. Data on fluvial sediment fluxes (the amount of sediment transported by rivers) are limited for North Carolina, and sediment represents an important input to local estuaries and shore zones. Sands and muds eroded from the mountains and transported by rivers through the piedmont and coastal plain serves as a foundation for floodplain, marsh, and estuarine ecosystems, and also carries nutrients and pollutants from upland sources. We want to quantify the amount of material reaching the coast during periods of high and low river flow.

We’ll be using high-frequency acoustic current sensors mounted on a boat and/or deployed on the riverbed/seabed to measure water velocity and particle concentration. We’ll also use optical turbidity sensors and field samples of water and riverbed/seabed sediment to calibrate the concentration signals. Field work will include boat-based and potentially ground-based surveys to collect sediment, deploy sensors, and collect water-column instrument profiles. Lab work will include analysis of water and sediment samples (filtration, laser particle sizing) for sensor calibrations. Data analysis will include graphing instrument data, doing quick quality checks, and applying calibrations using simple regression equations.

This is the first stage in a long-term project to assess the timing of sediment transfer from coastal storage zones (floodplains, estuaries, bays, and sounds) to the continental shelf beyond the Outer Banks. Sediment is likely stored in sheltered coastal regions during non-stormy periods, and then flushed out of the sounds to the shelf during hurricanes, nor’easters, and other high-energy events. Our goal is to determine where and why sediment is stored throughout the year, and what type of event is required to move sediment to the shelf.

Science skills desired:  Lab work will involve preparing instruments for field deployments, preparing and running sediment samples through a laser particle sizer, filtering water samples, and evaluating instrument data for patterns and trends. Students should be comfortable doing basic benchtop lab work and using software like Excel. Introductory knowledge of rivers and coasts is desirable.

Technology skills desired:  Experience with spreadsheets and introductory data analysis skills (for example, using a software package to apply a best-fit line to a dataset). Coding skills are desirable but we are happy to provide training (we will be using Matlab, similar to Python, to process instrument data).

Fieldwork skills desired:  Willingness to help cast instruments off a boat for a full day and/or walk across muddy marshes, in inclement weather (rainy and somewhat windy)


Project Number: 2 (Marchetti)

Project Title:  Phytoplankton responses to different modes of nutrient delivery in their environment.

Research Supervisor: Dr. Adrian Marchetti (Department of Marine Sciences)

Position Description:  We are interested in understanding how different marine phytoplankton, microscopic plant-like organisms, respond to physical 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, changes in mixing intensities, etc.). 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) and physics (e.g. PHYS 101) would be an asset. 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 skills desired: Basic knowledge of Excel and computer usage. An interest in bioinformatics and experience with Linux and programming (Python, shell script, R) is not required but also welcome.

Fieldwork skills desired: None.


Project Number: 3 (Gifford)

Project Title: Bacteria as Biosensors of the Ocean’s Chemical Environment

Research Supervisor: Scott Gifford, Department of Marine Sciences

Position Description: Bacteria are the chemical engines of the ocean, driving the transformation of matter and energy as they flow through marine ecosystems. Bacteria have a particularly critical role in consuming the vast numbers of organic molecules found in the marine environment. Currently, our ability to characterize the carbon sources powering bacterial activities is hampered by the fact that the ocean’s network of substrates and microbes is extraordinarily complex (there are thousands of different compounds and types of bacteria interacting). In order to overcome this challenge and to better understand how microbes shape the ocean’s carbon cycle, our lab is using the bacterial cell’s responses (growth rate, transcription, metabolism, etc.) as a biosensor to identify of the organic compounds in the ocean.

In this project, the student will investigate a model marine bacterium’s response to environmentally-relevant organic compounds and seawater samples collected from coastal North Carolina. The work will include growing bacteria in the lab, flow cytometry, molecular assays, and data analysis.  The student will also assist graduate students in genomic and transcriptomic analyses of the bacterium.

Science skills desired: No previous skills in microbiology or marine science are required, although the student should have taken at least one previous chemistry and biology course. A familiarity with pipetting and bacterial cultivation is desirable, but not required. The student will be expected to keep detailed notes, learn to examine the scientific literature, and properly use and maintain cultivation equipment.

Technology skills desired: Familiarity with Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Fieldwork skills desired: The student will have the option of travelling with the lab team at least once to the field over the course of the summer (transportation will be provided). If elected, the student would need to comfortable working outside with others.


Project Number: 4 (Septer)

Project Title: Characterization of the Hawaiian bobtail squid and its bioluminescent bacterial symbionts

Research Supervisor: Alecia Septer (Marine Sciences)

Position Description: Our lab uses the symbiosis between bioluminescent bacteria and the Hawaiian bobtail squid to understand how bacterial symbionts interact with each other as they colonize a host. This symbiosis has been used for over 30 years as a model system to answer fundamental questions about how a beneficial host-microbe association is established. Each squid harbors multiple strains of the bacterium Vibrio fischeri in a structure called a light organ.  We recently published a paper that shows different strain types fight to the death to compete for a limited number of host colonization sites.  This study also revealed that each animal contains a mix of incompatible strain types (i.e. they kill one another in our culture-based assay and do not coexist).  We have recently received 30 wild-caught adult squid that are currently frozen and awaiting use. The IDEA student will use these squid specimens to isolate new bioluminescent strains and perform a series of experimental “modules” to answer the following questions: 1) How many strain types are found in each adult squid? 2) What proportion of strains from each adult have the ability to kill other symbionts? 3) What proportion of strains encode the genes that are required for killing competitors? 4) Is there a correlation between strain types and squid age? The answers to these questions will inform our understanding of the ecological function and evolution of interbacterial killing and its prevalence in a natural symbiosis. The IDEA student will also have the opportunity to assist with at least one trip to the coast to obtain brief squid from Bogue Sound.  Our lab will cover the cost of IDEA student travel to the coast.

Science skills desired: No previous molecular or microbiological techniques are required; however, attention to detail, excellent note-taking, and willingness to learn animal dissection will be essential.

Technology skills desired: Familiar with Microsoft Office, particularly Excel, for data analysis and graphing.

Fieldwork skills desired: No previous field work is needed.  The IDEA student will have an optional trip to the coast to assist the project mentor with field work.  This work will involve time on a boat in the sound, so being at ease on the water is helpful.


Project Number: 5 (Surge)

Project Title: Examining lifespans and growth rates of the bivalve Mercenaria spp. off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the U.S.

Research Supervisor: Dr. Donna Surge, Geological Sciences

Position Description: The student will be trained in techniques to examine lifespans and growth rates in shells of modern and/or fossil marine clam species collected along the Atlantic and/or Gulf Coastal Plains. To view growth patterns preserved in the shells, the student will embed, cross-section, and polish samples to be photographed with a microscope with digital camera attachment. In addition, the student will be trained to use a micromilling system to collect carbonate powder for oxygen isotope analyses. This project is part of a larger, ongoing project to understand the biological consequences of environmental change in modern and fossil Mercenaria clam shells.

Science skills desired: Experience with lab safety (willing to train), careful collection of data, attention to detail, desire to learn about isotope geochemistry and paleontology.

Technology skills desired: Basic computer skills, experience with R is a plus but not necessary. Willing to train.

Fieldwork skills desired: N/A


Project Number: 6 (Gittman)

Project Title: Assessing Enhancement of Coastal Ecosystem Services and Restoration Success through Plant-Bivalve Inter-specific Facilitation

Research Supervisor: Dr. Rachel Gittman, East Carolina University, in collaboration with Dr. Brandon Puckett, NC NERR, and Dr. Carol Price, NC Aquariums

Project Contact Information:  Dr. Rachel Gittman Assistant Professor Department of Biology Coastal Studies Institute East Carolina University gittmanr17@ecu.edu 252.328.9986

 Position Description: The position will involve assisting members of the Gittman Lab at East Carolina University, as well as Dr. Brandon Puckett, Research Coordinator, NC Coastal Reserve, and Dr. Carol Price, NC Aquariums, with field work associated with multiple experiments occurring within the Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort, NC, and the Theodore Roosevelt Natural Area in Pine Knoll Shores, NC. The student will be based primarily at the NC Coastal Reserve Office in Beaufort, NC, and will travel with members of the Gittman lab to and from field sites. The student will be expected to provide his/her own housing and transportation to the NC Coastal Reserve Office. Field activities will include, but will not be limited to the following: restoring oyster and marsh habitat (via reef building and marsh seedling planting), measuring and counting estuarine plants and animals, recording data in field notebooks, setting up field experiments, measuring abiotic parameters (e.g., conductivity, temperature, dissolved oxygen). Applicants should be comfortable working in shallow water and traveling (as a passenger) on small boats.

Science skills desired: coursework in ecology and biology, strong written and oral communication skills   Technology skills desired: proficiency in Microsoft Office products, familiarity with statistical computing program R and spatial mapping software, ArcGIS

Fieldwork skills desired: basic field data collection skills, including recording data in field notebooks, running transects, identifying marine plants and animals using field keys, and experience working in coastal habitats (e.g., marshes) or on small boats preferred.

Technology Skills: None


Project Number: 7 (Baumann, Castillo)

Project Title: Investigating the role of land-based nutrients and sediment pools in nearshore coral nutrition and energetics-implications for climate change resilience

Research Supervisor:     Dr. Justin Baumann, SPIRE Postdoctoral Fellow, Marine Sciences Department

Dr. Karl D. Castillo, Associate Professor, Marine Sciences Department

Position Description: Undergraduate research assistants in the Castillo lab are often engaged in various laboratory tasks aimed at studying the effects of climate change on coral reefs. This specific project builds on several years of research investigating the acclimatory capacity of corals to climate change. Previous research has revealed that nearshore corals in Belize can grow faster than their offshore counterparts in spite of environmental conditions that are generally considered to be more stressful.

We seek an undergraduate research assistant who will utilize stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis to quantify the roles of terrestrial and oceanic carbon and nitrogen sources in coral nutrition. Overall, we seek to assess if differences exist in coral nutrition between corals at nearshore and offshore sites. Should differences exist, they may play a significant role in our understanding of the energetic mechanisms underlying coral resilience to climate change.

The undergraduate researcher will:

  • Review current literature on stable isotope analysis and its relationship to trophic interactions and coral energetics
  • Prepare coral host and symbiotic algae tissue samples for stable isotope analysis (to be carried out at Duke or NCSU utilizing a Stable Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer)
  • Train on the SIRMS instrument if possible
  • Analyze resulting data using excel and R (Rstudio).
  • Present findings at the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium

Further information about the focus of our research can be found on our lab website: http://castillolab.web.unc.edu/ as well as Justin’s website: http://www.jbaumann3.wordpress.com.

Skills Desired:

  • Basic laboratory skills/ experience (isotope geochemistry experience is a plus but not required)
  • a willingness to learn new techniques
  • Excellent understanding (or interest in learning) of a range of basic computer programs including (Word, Excel, Rstudio)
  • Solid math and biology background
  • Ability to be detailed oriented and focused
  • Ability to work independently and as a team
  • A basic understanding or interest in marine ecology

Project Number: 8 (Gerald)

Project Title: Evaluating Contaminants in Local Sub-Watersheds in Durham County, North Carolina and the Effects of the water samples on Soil Dwelling Nematodes

Research Supervisor: Dr. Carresse Gerald and Dr. Porché Spence, NCCU Department of Environmental, Earth and Geospatial Sciences

Position Description: Students will collect grab surface water samples local streams within Durham County, North Carolina and expose them to the nematode C. elegans.

Science skills desired: Students will learn how to collect, prepare and store grab freshwater samples; create a map illustrating the sampling locations using ArcGIS and use a microscope to observe bacterial and nematode cultures.

Technology skills desired: Analyzing data and developing PowerPoint presentation

Fieldwork skills desired: Ability to collect water samples in hot, humid summer days and in presumably muddy conditions.


Project Number: 9 (Riveros-Iregui)

Project Title: Assessing nutrient loading along a rural to urban gradient to inform watershed management

Research Supervisor: Dr. Diego Riveros-Iregui (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 to learn 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.


Project Number: 10 (Liu)

Project Title: Major and trace elemental analyses in various types of rock, soil and water samples

Research Supervisor: Xiao-Ming Liu, Department of Geological Sciences

Position Description: Student will have opportunity to work in the geochemistry lab and use state-of-the-art instrument (ICP-MS) to perform elemental concentration analyses in rock and water samples. For example, we have collected rock, soil and water samples from the Island of Hawaii and Galapagos to investigate chemical changes occurred during weathering and understand the mechanisms of fluid-rock interactions.

Student are also welcome to come up with their own ideas and continuation of the project as honor thesis research is encouraged and undergraduate research funding from the Department of Geological Sciences are available for interested students to support future research effort.

Please feel free to contact Dr. Liu via email:xiaomliu@unc.edu to set up a meeting before applying.

Recent work of the IDEA student (in bold) in our lab:

Peer-reviewed scientific paper(s):

  • Smith C. and Liu X-M. (2018) Spatial and temporal distribution of rare earth elements in the Neuse River, North Carolina. Chemical Geology, 488: 34-43.

Conference presentation(s):

  • Brooker S., Liu X-M., Li W., and Chadwick O. (2018) Rare earth element analysis of a wet and dry soil weathering profile on the island of Hawai’i. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Indianapolis, IN.
  • Zabrecky J. and Liu X-M. (2018) Anthropogenic gadolinium in Triangle Area waters, NC: A case study of wastewater treatment plant. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Indianapolis, IN.
  • Larsen W., Liu X-M., and Riveros-Iregui, D. (2017) Dissolved load rare earth element analysis of springs on the island of San Cristobal, Galapagos. Fall AGU meeting, San Francisco, CA.
  • Smith C., Liu X-M., and Mills, R. (2016) Spatial and temporal analysis of rare earth elements in the Neuse River, North Carolina. Fall AGU meeting, San Francisco, CA.

Science skills desired: Curious, self-motivated, interested in reading and writing scientific papers.

Technology skills desired: Experience with wet chemistry is preferred but not required.

Fieldwork skills desired: Responsible and have common sense.


Project Number: 11 (Liu)

Project Title: Surface-water quality in the Research Triangle Area of North Carolina

Research Supervisor: Xiao-Ming Liu, Department of Geological Science

Position Description: Student will have opportunity to work in the geochemistry lab and use state-of-the-art instrument (ICP-MS) to perform elemental concentration analyses in surface water of Research Triangle Area.

Student are also welcome to come up with their own ideas and continuation of the project as honor thesis research is encouraged and undergraduate research funding from the Department of Geological Sciences are available for interested students to support future research effort.

Please feel free to contact Dr. Liu via email:xiaomliu@unc.edu to set up a meeting before applying.

Recent work of the IDEA student (in bold) in our lab:

Peer-reviewed scientific paper(s):

  • Smith C. and Liu X-M. (2018) Spatial and temporal distribution of rare earth elements in the Neuse River, North Carolina. Chemical Geology, 488: 34-43.

Conference presentation(s):

  • Brooker S., Liu X-M., Li W., and Chadwick O. (2018) Rare earth element analysis of a wet and dry soil weathering profile on the island of Hawai’i. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Indianapolis, IN.
  • Zabrecky J. and Liu X-M. (2018) Anthropogenic gadolinium in Triangle Area waters, NC: A case study of wastewater treatment plant. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Indianapolis, IN.
  • Larsen W., Liu X-M., and Riveros-Iregui, D. (2017) Dissolved load rare earth element analysis of springs on the island of San Cristobal, Galapagos. Fall AGU meeting, San Francisco, CA.
  • Smith C., Liu X-M., and Mills, R. (2016) Spatial and temporal analysis of rare earth elements in the Neuse River, North Carolina. Fall AGU meeting, San Francisco, CA.

Science skills desired: Curious, self-motivated, interested in reading and writing scientific papers.

Technology skills desired: Experience with wet chemistry is preferred but not required.

Fieldwork skills desired: Responsible and have common sense.


Project Number: 12 (Yang)

Project Title: Investigating correlation between MODIS AOD and ground PM2.5

Research Supervisor: Zhiming Yang (primary, Environmental Science)

Position Description: The goal of this project is to examine the relationship between MODIS AOD value and ground PM2.5 mass concentration in California and North Carolina in last three years. In this project, students will download Terra MODIS AOD data (Collection 6) collected at 1, 3 and 10 km levels in last three years from the Unites States Geological Survey (USGS) web site and hourly PM2.5 data for each PM2.5 station in CA and NC from the U.S EPA AirNow web site. Software ArcMap (ESRI Inc.) will be used to extract AOD values from MODIS images for each PM2.5 station in each State. Both spatial and temporal correlation between MODIS AOD value and ground PM2.5 concentration will be examined at daily, monthly and yearly levels for each State. Students will work on data processing and analysis for this project.

Science skills desired:  Applicants should have an interest in atmospheric and environmental science and have taken at least one natural science courses with a lab. Good communication skills, organized, detail-oriented, can work independently.

Technology skills desired: Familiar with use of Microsoft Excel and internet.

Fieldwork skills desired: None


Project Number: 13 (Riveros-Iregui)

Project Title: Monitoring gas evasion from North Carolina’s streams

Research Supervisor: Dr. Diego Riveros-Iregui (Geography)

Position Description: Field and laboratory assistant to help with a new project monitoring CO2 and CH4 gas evasion from streams around Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. Core tasks will include sensor deployment and weekly monitoring of air CO2 and CH4 concentrations, sample collection, routine maintenance of sensors, processing of 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 to learn new technologies. Tolerant of outdoor summer conditions in North Carolina. Ability to transverse difficult terrains during all field conditions, including heat and rain. Water sampling and field deployment skills will be valuable.