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Summer undergraduate research at Emory is a SURE thing

Emory College senior Kaela Kuitchoua spent the summer working at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, where she analyzed MRI scans of socially-housed Rhesus macaques to understand how early social experiences and maternal care affect the developing brain. Emory Photo/Video

Across Emory University, 96 undergraduates spent the summer taking a deep dive into the world of research through a renewed initiative known as SURE.

The Emory College-based Summer Undergraduate Research at Emory program, or SURE, provides those students with 10 weeks of full-time, mentored, independent research working directly with professors in disciplines from philosophy to psychiatry. Two dozen of the student researchers attend partner institutions such as Agnes Scott and Morehouse colleges, while six are Oxford College students.

The rest, like rising senior Kaela Kuitchoua, are Emory College of Arts and Sciences students who traded in a summer of flip-flops and beach reads for lab coats and access-card lanyards.

“Classes help explain previous research, but having the summer to devote to research is the real-life experience that makes what I’ve learned come alive,” says Kuitchoua, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major.

She has spent the summer working under an associate professor at the Emory School of Medicine. Her job is to analyze MRI scans of socially-housed Rhesus macaques that were raised naturally by good, competent mothers, or who received poor care from their mothers.

“It’s really allowed me to become more independent," Kuitchoua says.

Full-time focus on research

SURE is a continuation of an Emory initiative started 28 years ago to support students in the natural sciences. Last year, Emory College’s Undergraduate Research Programs (URP) merged a parallel program in the social sciences and humanities with SURE to encompass all fields, says Gillian Hue, SURE director.

Students accepted into the highly competitive program live together on campus, comparing notes across disciplines and schools. Weekly workshops help explain best practices such as how to navigate research literature and what to expect in graduate school.

Informal and programmed lunches and dinners also let the students discuss current issues in research, such as ethical concerns or digital work. But students spend the bulk of each week, at least 40 hours, conducting research. Work in the hard sciences tends to be tied more to the mentor’s research, while humanities and social sciences work tends to be more independent.

Cynthia Willett, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy, is helping direct Mike Demers’ project as she attends to her own work in Europe.

Demers, a rising senior majoring in philosophy and comparative literature, is conducting an extensive study of the classical philosophical question of knowledge, with attention to how it implicates efforts to understand the current political climate.

Using his readings of French philosopher Henri Bergson as a baseline, Demers aims to show how particular facts may only encompass part of a truth or reveal a bias of the user. For instance, the debate over crowd size at Trump’s inauguration centered on photos showing the Mall for that event compared to Obama’s inauguration.

While some on the political right dispute whether the photos themselves are accurate, Demers says the political debate moved from facts into the grayer area of what that number meant.

There was a conclusion some made that even if the crowd in the photo of Trump's inauguration is smaller, he still has a broader cultural mandate legitimizing, in an almost universal manner, every decision he makes while governing. And that is much harder to classify as simply a disinterested, logical appeal to fact,” Demers says. “That changes how we understand how facts are used and suggests that often they fail to achieve freedom from the influence of bias and incomplete understanding.”

The level of research needed to explore that topic is only possible on an undergraduate level because of the intensive nature of the SURE program, Willett says. Although Demers is unsure if he will continue to pursue the topic as an honors thesis, Willett says she wants to work with him to turn it into a conference paper.

“Mike is posing a timely question in the kind of precise and informed terms that would generate interest at professional conferences and journals,” Willett says. “He is investigating this question by studying both an underexplored early 20th century approach to the problem. And he is refining that approach by acquainting himself with contemporary research in psychology on biases that inflect our cognitive capacities.

“The goal would be to present his research at a conference normally attended only by doctoral students and professors in philosophy,” Willett adds. “This is very rare, but I suspect Mike is fully capable of doing this.”

Applying liberal arts skills to real-world work

The program recognizes that capability in all of the students, encouraging them to take ownership of their inquiries and further develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills they will need, regardless of their careers.

“Part of the value of a liberal arts institution like Emory is our ability to offer real research that can be outside your major,” Hue says. “The experience helps you learn how to fully engage in your learning.”

The highly competitive SURE program not only brings students from other institutions to Emory, it sends undergraduates to research labs and on projects across Emory’s nine schools.

Kuitchoua is working at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center under the guidance of Mar Sanchez, a Yerkes researcher and an associate professor in the Emory School of Medicine.

Sanchez’s lab works to understand the effects of social experiences on primate brains, specifically how early social experiences and maternal care affect the developing brain.

Part of that work calls for observation of the monkeys that live in social groups at the Yerkes Research Center field station, watching for the good and suboptimal care that monkey moms naturally provide their offspring. The monkeys are then trained to interact minimally with Sanchez’s team, whose members take blood samples and work with other center personnel to conduct MRIs to measure the developmental consequences of the monkeys’ experiences.

The work will translate into better understanding of maternal care in humans and could eventually help provide interventions for, say, helping foster children cope with early trauma.

“This is very difficult work for an undergraduate to do, with a very long learning curve,” Sanchez says. “It requires a significant amount of ethical thought and intense training, but it’s very rewarding for mature and motivated students.”

Kuitchoua fits the bill. She learned the research ropes in the URP’s introductory Research Partners Program, which helped her apply for a summer program. As an aspiring physician, she was drawn to Sanchez’s work because of its implications for humans.

Her research calls for 40 hours every week, examining the MRI results of 42 different macaques, taken at different ages. She is looking for structural differences in the brain’s reward and emotional centers, such as the ventral striatum, amygdala and hippocampus.

The work has launched Kuitchoua toward an honor’s thesis for the upcoming year, examining not only the structural changes but also the connectivity between the various regions. Sanchez has agreed to be her thesis adviser, and Kuitchoua is now considering a joint MD/PhD program, so she can continue conducting research.

“We get great students who learn so much more than research,” says Folashade Alao, the director of Undergraduate Research Programs in Emory College.

“SURE is designed to open all of the avenues available to them when they have developed the planning, writing and analyzing skills that the best research requires,” she says.

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