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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 20, 2020 and close on February 17, 2020. 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 (Liu)

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

Research Supervisor: Dr. 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. Students are also welcomed 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.


Project Number: 2 (Liu)

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

Research Supervisor: Dr. 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 surface water of Research Triangle Area. Students are also welcomed 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.


Project Number: 3 (Marchetti)

Project Title: Marine phytoplankton and global change

Research Supervisor: Dr. Adrian Marchetti and Dr. Sarah Andrew, Department of Marine Sciences

Position Description: We are interested in understanding how changes to the physical and chemical marine environment will impact the ability for marine phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like organisms) to photosynthesize and take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The results will have important implications for climate modelling studies as well as providing a greater understanding of the Antarctic marine ecosystem. The student will assist in ongoing lab-based experiments to investigate these responses in specific scenarios (i.e. changes in iron concentration and light intensity). Work will include growing phytoplankton in the lab, collecting samples, preparing samples for analysis, and data analysis. Types of samples and analysis include taking photochemical measurements and measuring electron transport through the proteins involved in photosynthesis. We may also take subsamples from cultures to measure cell density, chlorophyll pigments, cellular carbon, nitrogen, and silica.

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 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.


Project Number: 4 (Coleman)

Project Title: Isotope geochemistry on NC surface water

Research Supervisor: Dr. Drew Coleman and Dr. Ryan Mills, Department of Geological Sciences

Position Description: Isotope geochemistry and sample collection

Science skills desired: At least one semester college chemistry

Fieldwork skills desired: Immunity to poison ivy, ticks-borne diseases, chiggers and mosquitos. Good taste in driving music.

Please feel free to contact Dr. Coleman via email (dcoleman@email.unc.edu) if you have questions before applying.


Project Number: 5 (Price)

Project Title: Coastal Management Externship

Research Supervisor: Dr. Carol Price, NC Aquariums

Position Description: This is an externship that will take place in the Beaufort/Morehead City, NC area. Student will work with Dr. Price to create a feasible research project that can be completed in 10 weeks. The student project will focus on conservation science that aligns with Aquarium priorities.

Fieldwork skills desired: Student must have their own transportation and find their own housing in the Beaufort or Morehead City area. (Local contacts may be able to assist with housing.)


Project Number: 6 (Pavelsky)

Project Title: Hydrologic controls on water color and quality in U.S. rivers using satellite remote sensing

Research Supervisor: Dr. Tamlin Pavelsky and Dr. John Gardner, Department of Geological Sciences

Position Description: Water color is used as an indicator of water quality (or concentrations of suspended sediment, algae, and dissolved organic carbon) in lakes, oceans, and coastal waters; however, we know relatively little about how water color measured by satellite remote sensing can be used as a metric for water quality, especially in rivers. We also know little about how water color changes with river flow. We developed a large database of water color in rivers and reservoirs across the U.S. from 1984-2018 using satellite remote sensing. This project will use that database to measure how color is related to river flow, to find patterns in water color-river flow relationships in rivers across the U.S., and to help build a global database of river flow measurements for expanding this analysis from U.S. rivers to global rivers. One way this work could be helpful is by figuring out what river flow conditions are most likely to have poor water quality in different rivers. This is a data analysis project and students will gain skills in basic computer programming, handling large datasets, statistics, and an understanding of satellite remote sensing.

Science skills desired: Interest and/or background in introductory surface water hydrology, water quality, and satellite remote sensing of rivers and lakes.

Technology skills desired: Experience in (or strong desire to learn) introductory statistics, data analysis/management, and coding in the R programming language. This project involves analysis of existing databases and generation of new databases.


Project Number: 7 (Seim)

Project Title: Processes driving Exchange at Cape Hatteras (PEACH)

Research Supervisor: Dr. Harvey Seim, Department of Marine Sciences

Position Description: We seek a student to help with analysis of a large dataset collected offshore of North Carolina as part of a NSF-funded project.  The dataset includes moored observations of ocean currents, temperature and salinity; buoy observations of winds and heat flux; coastal radar observations of ocean surface currents; and ocean glider observations of ocean temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and optical properties.  Ancilliary data include satellite ocean temperature and color imagery.  We are examining these data to establish characteristics of the Gulf Stream, the Hatteras Front, the shelfbreak front, and how these fronts interact and are impacted by meteorological forcing and lead to exchange between the shelf and deep ocean.  There is some flexibility in the area of focus for the student but the ocean surface currents measured with the radar are among the richest and least explored components of the dataset.

Science skills desired: Familiarity with basic oceanography.  Our focus will be on physical oceanography.

Technology skills desired: Familiarity with Matlab.

Fieldwork skills desired: None, though possibly an opportunity to go to the coast to help with radar maintenance


Project Number: 8 (Eidam)

Project Title: Measuring suspended-sediment fluxes in coastal or riverine environments

Research Supervisor: Dr. Emily Eidam, Department of Marine Sciences

Position Description: This position will be engaged with one of two research projects:

    • Arctic sediment fluxes – project will involve analyzing seabed sediment samples and acoustic measurements (of water currents and backscatter) collected during a recent fall survey near Icy Cape, Alaska. Project goals include characterizing seabed sediment distributions; thresholds of wave energy, currents, and upwelling needed to cause resuspension; and vectors of sediment transport. The Arctic is presently experiencing rapid coastal erosion and an intensifying wave climate, and we are partnering with a research group studying wave energy to evaluate processes of sediment transport. Ultimate goals are to better understand how mass is transferred from land to sea and then redistributed.
    • Sediment fluxes in North Carolina coastal plain rivers – we are working on a long-term project to quantify sediment storage and transfer through the low-gradient section of rivers traversing the North Carolina (and South Carolina) coastal plain. Sediment is critical to marsh health since it serves as the foundation that allows marshes to persist in spite of sea-level rise, and yet we have poor estimates of how much sediment is delivered to North Carolina coastal systems. We have a poor understanding of how much sediment is stored in the coastal plain section of rivers, when it is mobilized, and how much is transferred. In this study we will be conducting a series of small-boat surveys using acoustic, optical, and laser sensors as well as direct sediment measurements to build a dataset of sediment fluxes during different seasons.

Science skills desired: Students will be required to analyze a dataset of both physical samples and instrument files, keep detailed notes on analysis steps, interpret the findings in an environmental context, and prepare and present a professional report in the form of a poster. Students should be comfortable working in a lab setting independently to organize samples, keep detailed logs and notes on analyses, and process samples on lab equipment.

Technology skills desired: Students should have some coding experience in Python, Matlab, or R. Matlab will be used for instrument analyses (but skills are generally transferrable among platforms). Some knowledge of a GIS software (ArcMap or QGIS) is beneficial.

Fieldwork skills desired: Project (1) does not include fieldwork. In the case of project (2), students should be comfortable working a 12-hr day driving to a field site and collecting samples from a small boat in hot, rainy, or other inclement weather. Students should be willing to help organize and prepare for field work. Some field work may occur on weekends if conditions are suitable, but will be arranged to fit within the 30-hr week.


Project Number: 9 (Septer)

Project Title: Investigating bacterial competition between reproductive symbionts of the Hawaiian bobtail squid

Research Supervisor: Dr. Alecia Septer and Dr. Andrea Suria, Department of Marine Sciences

Position Description: In the Septer lab, we use symbiotic bacteria isolated from the Hawaiian bobtail squid as a model to understand the mechanisms of bacterial competition. Female bobtail squid possess bacteria in a reproductive gland, which are passed on to the eggs when they are laid. These bacteria produce antimicrobials that are necessary for protecting the eggs from fungal infections while they develop. The bacterial community in the reproductive gland is spatially separated, with different species housed in tubules separate from other species of bacteria. It is not understood why this spatial segregation exists, or if different strains could stably coexist in the same tubule. The IDEA student will compete bacteria previously isolated from female squid against each other to determine if they are compatible or kill each other in culture. The student will use genetic tools to determine what genes are required for killing. Through these assays, the student will answer the questions: (1) Is there competition between symbionts from different species? (2) Do the antimicrobial producing genes responsible for egg defense also cause competition between symbionts? Understanding how these strains interact in culture will help inform the spatial structure and function of the symbiosis.

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

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


Project Number: 10 (Sebastian)

Project Title: Community Flood Resilience in North Carolina

Research Supervisor: Dr. Antonia Sebastian, Geological Sciences

Position Description: In the Applied Hydrology and Flood Hazards Lab we use hydrologic and statistical models to map the impact of flooding on communities in North Carolina. We are particularly interested in exploring how these risks are changing under future conditions (like climate change). We then use this information to evaluate what policy and infrastructure alternatives help to offset or mitigate current and future risks. The student will assist in data collection and preparation, as well as the analysis of the model output and formulation of policy recommendations based on research results.

Science skills desired: Some background knowledge of geological sciences (e.g., GEOL 101) and political science. A strong desire to learn about flood policy and disaster mitigation.

Technology skills desired: Basic knowledge of MS Excel. Experience in (or strong desire to learn) introductory statistics and data analysis. Some knowledge of coding in R, Python, or other programming language as well as GIS software (ArcMap or QGIS) is beneficial.


Project Number: 11 (Pavelsky)

Project Title: Improving the measurement of lake water storage by citizen scientists

Research Supervisors: Tamlin Pavelsky, UNC Department of Geological Sciences; Grant Parkins, UNC Institute for the Environment

Position Description: The goal of this position is to improve our understanding of how the Lake Observations from Citizen Scientists and Satellites (LOCSS) project can best work with citizen scientists to measure lake water levels. LOCSS installs gauges (essentially big rulers) in lakes and asks citizen scientists to text in water level measurements. We then combine those measurements with satellite image observations of lake area to calculate how the volume of water in lakes changes over time.  The person working in this position will seek to improve our understanding of how to most efficiently automate the interpretation of text messages from citizen scientists. For example, many texts are sent in nonstandard formats, which our current software cannot read. Also, some of the texts contain data that is incorrect (e.g. due to typos), and we would like to be able to automatically detect these errors. We hope to develop guidelines for how the software can be improved by analyzing thousands of past messages; if there is interest, it may be possible to work on actually improving the software, but this depends on individual interest. The person in this position will also help to install more gauges in areas around the U.S. and to service existing gauges, as well as to better communicate the data and results of any analysis.

Science skills desired: Interest and/or background in introductory surface water hydrology and/or science communication.

Technology skills desired: Experience in (or strong desire to learn) introductory statistics, data analysis/management, and use of a data analysis platform or language such as Excel or R.

Fieldwork skills desired: The project will involve fieldwork in the U.S., likely including North Carolina, New Hampshire, and possibly Washington State. The fieldwork will involve using GPSes to measure water surface elevation and installing water level gauges. It involves carrying moderately heavy equipment, using tools, and wading in lakes (in chest waders). Enthusiasm but no prior experience required.