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CURO... as in curious

UGA’s Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities expands the traditional parameters of the student experience by giving undergraduates a chance to conduct important research

by Josh Darnell (ABJ '04)

Melissa Cabinian’s eyes light up like the Fourth of July at the mention of parasitic protozoa.

“I’m essentially studying host and parasite interaction at the level of the immune system,” says Cabinian with a sudden surge of animation, as if the conversation has finally gotten interesting. Barreling into an excited mixture of plain-speak and science-speak, Cabinian details how imbalances between an individual’s parasite load and immune system can cause heart disease and painful intestinal conditions, adding that how or why these imbalances occur is a question yet to be fully answered.

“They don’t know exactly what’s happening at the chronic level, so that’s what I’ll be studying,” she adds.

The they-don’t-know part is what interests Cabinian, who describes research and the pursuit of new knowledge as her “passion.” But what may be of more interest to a layperson—or at least one who traffics in stereotypes—is that Cabinian is not clad in a white lab coat, as one might expect. Her hair is not secured in a lab-standard bun, nor do her eyes express the strained fatigue of one who has spent too many hours poring over microscopes or journal articles. The fresh-faced and fashionably dressed junior from Conyers with the thorough command of arcane scientific terminology defies most of the conventional standards of appearance for one who conducts research 20 hours a week in a top-notch microbiology lab. But CURO—UGA’s Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, a program of which Cabinian is a three-year veteran—has never been about accepting conventional standards.

CURO offers motivated students the chance to expand the traditional confines of the undergraduate experience by conducting extended research in their field of interest, all the while establishing one-on-one relationships with distinguished faculty members. It is an opportunity traditionally only afforded to students at the graduate level or higher. “Our catch phrase is, ‘creating a culture of undergraduate inquiry,’” says Pam Kleiber, associate director of the Honors program and chief CURO coordinator.

If students complete the weekly research requirements and learning outcomes laid out by their CURO-approved research syllabus, their work can earn them a chance to present at CURO’s annual symposium on April 11th and 12th at the Tate Student Center—an event so prestigious that students and faculty from Emory and Medical College of Georgia travel to Athens to present their work alongside UGA undergrads.

“We need to make sure that we are contributing to the development of the next generation of scholars,” explains Kleiber. “The world is moving too quickly to wait until graduate school.”

Born of a 1997 grant written to the Fund for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education, CURO began as a small-scale program with the nebulous goal of enabling faculty and students to establish mutually beneficial relationships through research. Kleiber took the CURO helm in 2000, toward the end of the university’s 10-year accreditation process.

“The (accreditation) self-study was on the undergraduate experience, and one of the sub-themes was research,” explains Kleiber. “Karen Holbrook took all the undergraduate research and put it under the CURO umbrella and made it the centerpiece during visitation of the accreditation team. We had the symposium while the accreditation team was here, and both CURO and Honors ended up getting commendations.”

The symposium testifies to the legitimacy of undergraduate research, as well as to the fact that research doesn’t necessarily involve test tubes and Bunsen burners. One such example at this year’s symposium will come from Janel Long, a junior music theory major from Knoxville, Tenn. Long became involved with CURO through the Summer Research Fellows program, which allows qualified students to conduct research through the summer in exchange for class credit and a cash stipend.

“I hadn’t really ever thought about researching in music, because it’s not something you hear much about,” explains the horn aficionado. Long’s project, devised with help from her faculty mentor, Dr. Jean Martin-Williams, involves an in-depth study of the natural horn—a valveless precursor to what is commonly known as the French horn.

“I started out with the general premise of natural horn and studying the technique of playing it and the history behind it,” says Long. But when she discovered the music of Franz Krommer, an early nineteenth century composer, her research blossomed into a time-intensive study of aging manuscripts. At the symposium, Long will present classical manuscripts which she modernized for contemporary horn players, as well as a performance of the music she has been studying and composing.

“It opened my eyes to the fact that you can research in music,” says Long, who now plans to study musicology in graduate school thanks to her CURO research.

Melissa Cabinian, who listed CURO as the main reason she attended UGA over Emory or Tulane, shared Long’s sentiments about CURO’s eye-opening effects.

“I think the way that I approach learning is different,” says Cabinian, who got her start as a freshman with the CURO Apprenticeship Program, earning a $1,000 research stipend. “It’s not just absorbing from the text book, but a questioning approach. Research has really helped me find my passion. I guess research is my passion.”

The prospect of taking on professional level research right out of high school can be daunting. Jonathan Grider, a freshman from Athens, began working on his research—a survey-driven attempt at ascertaining how African-American high school students choose colleges—during his very first semester. According to Grider, it’s been worth the effort.

“It makes the freshman experience different,” says Grider. “I’m diving straight in. I’ve gotten to meet so many people… getting to know the faculty and the people you’re researching, and understanding why things are the way they are {at the university}.”

When asked if faculty can recognize the benefits of CURO as well, Kleiber relates this anecdote: Dr. Steve Shellman received a National Science Foundation grant to study terrorist insurgency in foreign countries. He was offered job opportunities by UGA and William & Mary, one of the nation’s most prestigious and oldest schools. He couldn’t decide between the two, but after questioning Kleiber extensively about CURO, he made his decision.

“He’s coming here,” says Kleiber. “And he’s bringing his NSF grant money with him. He wants to have our students, through CURO, working with him.”

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photos by Nancy Evelyn (BFA '84, ABJ '86)

Click on image to enlarge

Melissa Cabinian began working with CURO as a freshman through the CURO Apprentice Program. Now, as a junior, she helps guide underclassmen through the often-daunting process of conducting research with some of UGA’s most distinguished faculty.

Through her CURO research, Janel Long, a junior from Knoxville, Tenn., has made an entire collection of natural horn music more accessible to modern horn players.

Jonathan Grider is only a freshman at UGA, but the Athens native is already conducting graduate-level research on how African-American high school students choose colleges to attend.