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Summer Undergraduate Research Experience draws record participants in return to in-person program
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Lucy Amirani, a rising junior with a double major in biology and philosophy, politics and law, delved into archival records for her research on an American physician who played a critical role in the prosecution of Nazi physicians for their lethal medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners.

— Emory Photo Video

A record number of undergraduate students delved into intense research this summer across Emory, examining everything from the questionable history of a U.S. physician who helped create modern medical ethics to clarifying Aristotle’s definitions of justice and their implications today.

More than 120 Emory undergraduates, plus another two dozen from nearby partner institutions, conducted research and built their professional networks with world-renowned researchers and peers from all disciplines through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program.

Based in Emory College, the 10-week program, held in-person for the first time since 2019, typically draws about 95 student researchers. In addition to conducting independent research with faculty mentors, students live on campus and take weekly professional development workshops. Many go on to publish their research and expand it into larger projects such as honors theses.

“I am thrilled with all of the opportunities I’ve had from this research, because I am getting to see bioethics in action,” says Lucy Amirani, a rising junior and double major in biology and philosophy, politics and law, who spent the summer digging into digital and in-person archives for information about Dr. Andrew C. Ivy.

Ivy’s testimony played a critical role in the prosecution of Nazi doctors for their lethal medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners — which in turn influenced the creation of the strict medical ethics rules known as the Nuremberg Code — despite his own dubious research on American prisoners.

Amirani’s faculty mentor, Emory School of Medicine professor Jonathan K. Crane, is working with her to create a narrative of Ivy’s work. Crane will use the narrative in an updated university-wide bioethics course next spring, with Amirani serving as his teaching assistant. 

Lucy has been an extraordinary research assistant to organize what we collected and fill in gaps we identified,” says Crane, who is also the Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in Bioethics and Jewish Thought at the Emory Center for Ethics. “She has been invaluable as a researcher and as a creative partner.”

‘Ownership of discovery’

SURE is an outgrowth of an Emory initiative started more than 30 years ago to allow students to conduct full-time research in the natural sciences. 

By including research in the social sciences and humanities, the program has helped imbue students with the ability to craft an argument, solve problems and think critically — all hallmarks of Emory’s liberal arts excellence, says Cora MacBeth, an associate dean in the College’s Office for Undergraduate Education.

“SURE is an opportunity to take ownership of the discovery process and hone these fundamental skills they will take with them as directly translatable skills in any career,” MacBeth says. “We know that undergraduate research really empowers students.”

With a major in anthropology and human biology and minor in global development, rising senior Tommy Davis was looking for research in the global health sphere. Having volunteered with the health nonprofit Global Brigades in Panama, he also knew he wanted to focus on developing nations.

Davis found it as part of a larger study examining nonpublication of abstracts, led by Chris Rees, an emergency department physician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and pediatric research scientist with the Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS) network.

Davis’ project was to see whether abstracts, or summaries of ongoing or completed research, reporting on work in low- and middle-income countries end up in peer-reviewed publications. 

He found that roughly half of the abstracts were not published, meaning countries with the most need are left without the official findings to help them secure aid, information or plans for help.

Rees says he plans to examine those findings for further study, to see what sets apart the work that did get published. For Davis, the research confirmed his plans to pursue a dual master’s degree in public health and physician assistant studies for eventual international work.

“With all of this work not being shared in publications, it means at the end of the day there are a lot of people not getting the care they need,” says Davis, who launched an online campaign to raise funds for the World Food Program after reading more about the lack of health programs for the famine in Somalia. “This is the kind of research that can create that awareness.”

‘Stand out’ research 

Research can also continue conversations started thousands of years ago. At least, that’s what Bethany Williams learned from her analysis of Aristotle’s concept of justice — and hopes that others do, too.

Williams, a rising senior with a double major in political science and psychology, first identified each individual form of justice Aristotle presents and showed how they connect to one another. Then, she focused on modern problems that raise issues of corrective, distributive and reciprocal justice.

Distributive justice, for instance, is awarded based on merit. But conflicts rage without agreement on what merit is, like whether being human is enough to warrant health care.

“I came into college wanting to work into politics but realized what really interests me is helping people secure justice,” says Williams, who is now planning to become a social worker. “My project is all about making an ancient concept more accessible because the questions are still relevant.”

The work is a continuation of Williams’ directed study with Judd Owen, an associate professor of political science who is working on a book linking Aristotle’s ethics and politics to his natural sciences.

A political theorist by training, with a background in Aristotle’s politics and ethics, Owen was initially reluctant to have his first SURE undergraduate researcher tackle the philosopher’s more complicated writings.

Now he says Williams was his first SURE researcher, but will not be his last.

“Her project stands out as a kind of research you don’t often see but I wish we would,” Owen says. “Bethany has created a visual breakdown of these types of justice and where the problem areas are, which means anyone can review and discuss it.”

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