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The mentor’s message: ‘You belong here’

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UD hosts 10th gathering of Regional Undergraduate Student Research Conference

Emmanuel Ortiz

Emmanuel Ortiz, a sophomore engineering major at the University of Delaware, explains the catalysis research he did as part of an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program at Purdue University last summer. He studied catalysts that could be used to produce diesel fuel from shale gas.

If you’ve ever wondered about the power of great mentors, you might want to put the 2025 Regional Undergraduate Student Research Conference on your calendar.

At this year’s conference, hosted by the University of Delaware in April, evidence of this power seemed to be everywhere.

Mentors were in every room and listed on every poster. They were there in person as organizers, keynote speakers or cheerleaders for young protégés. Others were named by students as they explained details of the research they were doing.

Research — and the scientific method itself — is built on shoulders such as these, with generations of experts building on the work of others and passing new questions along to the next generation.

Effective mentors know that good connections and partnerships can lead to great new opportunities. But many students do not see themselves in research-related roles. The RUSRC, which includes member schools UD, Delaware State University and Rutgers, with Lincoln University as an affiliate, focuses on supporting students from minority populations and aims to give them new perspectives on their own potential.

The conference has significant importance for UD, said Rosalie Rolón-Dow, faculty director of UD’s Undergraduate Research Program and the McNair Scholars Program.

“We’re a big university in a little state,” she said. “Participating with other institutions helps us grow and learn as a university and extends the networks of our participants. Who knows what new connections may shape your future?”

Rolón-Dow said each participant had valuable contributions to make.

“Maybe you are the only one of color, the only woman, the only first-generation student or the only one of some other identity,” Rolón-Dow said. “We hope you feel a more acute sense of belonging and recognize that who you are and the identities you bring really do matter. You bring something unique to the table.

“You are here,” she said, “and you belong. We need you. You have much to contribute as a researcher.”​

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Michael Earley

Michael Earley, an engineering major at UD, explains work he did with other students to develop low-cost water filters and water purifiers for UD’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The items were developed for the people of Malawi in Southeastern Africa, which was struck by the deadly Cyclone Freddy in March 2023 that killed hundreds, displaced thousands and left many vulnerable to cholera and water contaminated by E.coli​ bacteria.

About two dozen students participated in this 10th gathering, sharing their work in chemical engineering, sociology, Africana studies, health sciences, agriculture, environmental science, neuroscience, education and more.

Megan MacWade, a UD sophomore from Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, said she was excited to present her research on how feminine depictions of nature change human behavior, but wasn’t sure she would even be considered.

Her professor, Jeffrey Richardson, urged her to try, she said. “He told me, ‘You’d be really good at it.’”

And he was right. MacWade won the top prize for papers presented.

“These new scholars will be intelligent leaders,” said Richardson, an expert in environmental justice. “They’re looking at different issues with their presentations and they’re thinking through solutions. They have a level of passion about social change and intelligent inquiry is part of that. It’s exciting to see the growth and development and confidence. They are inspiring each other.”

Professor Myrna Nurse of Delaware State University was delighted to see the revival of the conference she co-founded in 2010 with Carol Henderson, who was professor of English and Black American Studies at UD at the time. The conference was suspended for several years during the coronavirus pandemic and returns at a critical juncture.​

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​Myrna Nurse

​Myrna Nurse, a University of Delaware graduate who now is a professor at Delaware State University, was a co-founder of the Regional Undergraduate Student Research Conference, hosted by UD this ​year.

“This is a new post-COVID generation, dealing with their own issues and mental health stresses,” Nurse said. “This provides a continuing, safe space to still grow and still flourish.”

Nurse said good mentors were key to her academic trajectory. She mentioned two faculty members — Michael Cottsell (English) and Lucia Palmer (philosophy) — who were especially helpful as she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at UD.

“They saw my potential as an undergrad,” she said. “They both nurtured me.”

And she went on to earn her doctorate at Temple University.

Henderson served as UD’s vice provost for diversity from 2014-2019 and now is the chief diversity officer and vice provost for diversity and inclusion at Emory University in Atlanta.

She returned to UD as a keynote speaker for this 10th gathering and savored the reconnections with former students and colleagues in attendance.

Raised in South Central Los Angeles, Henderson was a first-generation college student who lived the kinds of struggle she now works to help others navigate.

Henderson said she changed majors four times during her undergraduate studies.

“Education is about exploration,” she said, “and that’s OK.”

Research is an important discipline to develop, she said, because diverse voices, backgrounds and perspectives are needed in the quest for knowledge. Without diversity in research, much of history will remain buried or obscured by bias, disinterest or ignorance.

“Until the lion learns to write or tell their side of the story, every story will glorify the hunter,” she said, citing an African proverb.

“Education is about discovery,” she said. “Am I who you say I am? I didn’t see myself in the material in the classroom. Or if I did, I was relegated to 1619, 1863 or 1960. There was the Civil Rights Movement and then nothing else.”

A multigenerational lens is needed to fill in the gaps, she said, and now many historians and other researchers are uncovering stories that had long been hidden.

“That is your legacy, your responsibility,” she said. “I hope you will take that charge. You come from a community that believes in the brilliance of who you are.”

And each student carries the power to enlighten the world.

“Research, write and repeat,” she said. “Do the research. Get your research published. And repeat that cycle.”

Henderson urged students to savor the connections they now have with each other and to share their gratitude with those who have supported them along the way.

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​Carol Henderson

​Carol Henderson, keynote speaker at the Regional Undergraduate Student Research Conference, urged students to savor the connections they have and to share their gratitude with those who have supported them along the way. A former UD faculty member and vice provost for diversity, Henderson now is the chief diversity officer and vice provost for diversity and inclusion at Emory University in ​Atlanta.

“When you go home, thank the community that birthed you — your mother, your other mother, your pastor, your professor,” she said. “They will feed your soul when the academy drains it.”

One of the students Henderson mentored while at UD — Brooklynn Hitchens — was among the first students to participate in an RUSRC conference.

Now a professor at the University of Maryland, Hitchens was one of the keynote speakers at the 2024 conference.

“I sat in the same chairs as you all,” she told the students. “I remember being terrified, feeling the pressure and terror. Little did I know that conference would shape the direction of my life.”

She urged the young researchers to consider three things:

  • “You deserve to be here.” Hitchens said she has often needed such reminders during her journey and studying at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) such as UD can make the need for such reminders greater. She remembered receiving much support from the Center for Black Culture, the McNair Scholars program and from some faculty members. “At a time when people are actively threatening diversity, equity and inclusion in education, your research matters. You are value-added.”

  • “Move beyond research for research’s sake,” she said. Research can carry impact far beyond its findings and the data analysis it produces. It can change policy, fuel social activism, increase awareness and insight of the broader community. “Constantly consider research as how it affects lives. What are the implications of your work?” Hitchens quoted the poet Toni Morrison to underline the importance of passing the torch: “If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then you have the job to empower somebody else.” Research and scholarship are not just keys to personal upward mobility, but also can carry great social value for others.

  • “Take care of yourself.” Hitchens urged students to make their health a priority — their physical health, emotional health and mental health. “Carve out space for yourself to mitigate the exhaustion that comes. Surround yourself with people who will pour into your cup.”

Two UD faculty leaders — Regina Wright, professor of nursing and associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Health Sciences, and Kimberly Blockett, professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies — were central to reviving the conference and managing UD’s role as host this year.

They, too, pointed to mentors as essential guides during their academic journeys.

Wright, a UD graduate, was not aware of anything like this research conference when she was a student.

“I worked in a few psychology labs to get the experience I needed to get into graduate school,” she said, “but I never presented research until I was a graduate student.”​

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​Afua Ofori-Agyekum

​Afua Ofori-Agyekum talks with UD’s Jeffrey Richardson of the Department of Africana Studies about her research on persistent racial inequities in Delaware’s public ​schools.

Blockett said faculty involvement is essential to helping students see these opportunities and act on them.

“Very few undergraduates have the wherewithal to seek something out, follow up on it and then do it,” she said. “This is not part of their world. It’s not something you would necessarily do even if you knew about it.”

Blockett said her academic journey started at Highland Park Community College, where advice from a professor changed the course of her life. He pushed her to start presenting her research and she agreed to give it a try.

“I was not jumping to take on extra work,” she said. “I didn’t understand what the long-term and even the immediate benefit could be. But he was constantly forcing me to do things I didn’t want to do that he knew would be good for me.”

She transferred to the honors program at Eastern Michigan University and by the time she finished her undergraduate degree she had done research presentations in Michigan, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.

“I must have presented at least four or five times as an undergraduate,” Blockett said. “It’s not something I would have done, but then I got it. It was interesting to get feedback on my work and have the opportunity to do that. And it made sense. You were presenting on work you already had done or were in the process of doing, so it wasn’t on top of all the other things I was doing.”

Wright said such experiences are valuable for the rest of your life.

“It’s great training for anything you want to do,” she said. “If you’re going directly into a professional field, you need to know how to talk to people you don’t know and explain what you’re doing in terms everyone can understand. These are critical skills that should be practiced before you step out to that first job or even that first job interview.”

A sampling of student presentations:

  • Afua Ofori-Agyekum of Claymont, Delaware, presented research on how racial inequities persist in Delaware’s public schools. She said she pursued this topic first as part of a class she had with Jorge Serrano, professor of Africana Studies.

  • Natalie Sierra, also a student of Serrano’s, presented research on the Puerto Rican identity crisis and how environmental disasters and economic instability have influenced Puerto Rican identity over recent decades.

  • Michael Earley presented work from a project he did as part of UD’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. He and other students worked to develop low-cost water filters and water purifiers to help residents of Malawi after Cyclone Freddy devastated the East African region in 2023 with catastrophic flooding, leaving many vulnerable to cholera and water contaminated by E.coli bacteria.

  • Emmanuel Ortiz, a sophomore engineering major at UD, studied catalysts that could help produce diesel fuel from shale gas. His work was part of an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program he participated in at Purdue University last summer.​

Article by Beth Miller

Photos by Maria Errico

June 04, 2024

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