Undergraduate Research Opportunities for Summer and Fall 2021

Three applied ecology students look into a insect bin to see what they collected in their sweep nets.

Updated: March 12, 2021

Below are research opportunities for undergraduate students looking to gain additional experience in their fields of study.  These opportunities fulfill the AEC 492/493 Learning Experience requirement for Applied Ecology minor students.

All below opportunities are available to any undergraduate students (not just AEC minors).

For Summer and Fall 2021

Topic: Ambassador program for Crowd the Tap, a project within the NCSU Citizen Science Campus Program.
Supervisor/Lab: Deja Perkins and Dr. Caren Cooper
Email: crowdthetap@ncsu.edu and copy eamckenn@ncsu.edu

Scope: NC State students can participate in the Ambassador program (NR294-002) for research credits. (**Note: if you participate in the Ambassador program as part of the Applied Ecology minor,  you will attend NR294-002 but enroll in AEC 493 in fall 2021 to receive “retroactive” credit toward the AEC minor.**)

More details on the ambassador program can be found below or at crowdthetap.org/ambassador

NR294-002 Class Description: “Lead in water is a toxin that people cannot see, taste, or smell. Leaded pipes and plumbing are the biggest source of lead in water, and as a part of NR294-002, you can help Crowd the Tap build a model to make reliable estimates of whether a home is high or low risk. Crowd the Tap is an EPA-funded citizen science project that promotes access to safe drinking water by assisting individuals and groups with investigations of pipe materials that deliver drinking water to homes. This class is ideal for off campus students who want to gain skills in science communication, research and data collection, and community engagement. Students will be required to serve as liaisons between their community and the university; develop and implement a research question; attend weekly in class training workshops and check-ins; recruit 12-24 households to receive free water testing; and present a final presentation to their community during a class symposium. This class is a great opportunity for students interested in public science, citizen science, and water safety.”


Topic: Falls Lake Water Quality Forensics: Safeguarding the Drinking Source-Water Depended Upon by the City of Raleigh and NC State University
Supervisor/Lab: JoAnn Burkholder
Email: jburk@ncsu.edu

Scope: Watershed development is adding pollution to many lakes used for drinking water, such as Falls Lake which is the major drinking source-water for Raleigh and NC State University. In this project you’ll join a partnership between the Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology (CAAE) and the City of Raleigh to safeguard the City’s most important water supply. The CAAE has “wired” Falls Lake with an automated real-time remote monitoring network to track water quality changes 24/7 for Raleigh’s water treatment plant operators. The data allow us to map features important to fish health across the lake length and depth from surface to bottom waters, such as dissolved oxygen, temperature, and pH, as well as developing algal blooms. We’ll guide you in developing a research project about Falls Lake―such as comparing phytoplankton communities in lake areas with better versus poorer water quality; or mining the CAAE’s long-term (15-year) dataset to assess effects of weather events like major storms on water quality; or comparing how the frequency of sampling can greatly influence interpretations about lake health; or examining how adjacent land uses are related to water quality. This project will provide hands-on experience in both lab and field freshwater science, and you’ll present your findings in forums such as the AEC minor symposium. The research will be completed at the CAAE (off-campus near the fairground) and at Falls Lake.

Requirement: Undergraduate researchers on this project will need a computer with internet connection. 


Topics: Environmental Health & Risk Assessment
Supervisor/Lab: Khara Grieger
Email: kdgriege@ncsu.edu

Project 1. Top Environmental Risk Priorities for North Carolina and Beyond: A Literature Review  

  • Scope: We are currently facing an unprecedented number of key environmental challenges and risks, including e.g. biodiversity decline, air and water pollution, climate change, managing emerging technologies used in food and agriculture, and preserving ecosystem services. Scientists, researchers, policy-makers, industry, and other stakeholder groups are actively grappling with developing and implementing strategies and approaches to address these environmental challenges. However, at the same time, there are often limited resources and time to address the long list of environmental risks. This undergraduate research project aims to conduct a literature review of the top environmental risk priorities relevant for North Carolina, based on peer-reviewed literature and in conjunction with collaborative engagement work with the Center for Human Health and the Environment (CHHE) at NC State. More specifically, the undergraduate researcher project will identify, compile, and collate peer-reviewed manuscripts and reports published in recent years that identify top environmental risks for North Carolina as well as the US more broadly. Outcomes from this step will include the identification of top environmental risks reported in the literature, as well as those that may be particularly relevant for residents and policy-makers in North Carolina. Next, the research project will communicate and collaborate with CHHE researchers at NC State, including Dr. Grieger, who are developing and launching a survey in the summer of 2021 that gauges public and NC State Extension agents’ views of top environmental health risks. These key outcomes will then be compared to the outcomes of the literature review, in order to compare and contrast the top environmental risks identified in the literature with those identified by public and Extension respondents in the CHHE survey. Finally, all findings from the research project will be compiled and synthesized in a written report, that includes background information on the need to identify top environmental risks, synthesis of the literature search conducted and key outcomes, as well as comparisons to results derived from the CHHE survey of respondent views of top environmental risks for North Carolina. The undergraduate researcher will also have an option to draft a manuscript for peer-review publication based on the key findings of the report. All research and communication will be conducted remotely until further notice due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Requirements: All undergraduate researchers on this project will need a computer with internet connection. 


Topic: Ponds and Lakes in Wake and Durham Counties
Supervisor/Lab: Sustainable Health Ecology Lab (Dr. Skylar Hopkins)
Email: skylar_hopkins@ncsu.edu

Scope: Ponds and lakes are important wildlife habitats. These habitats vary in size, water quality, distance to human population centers, and other characteristics, all of which can influence which species can survive and reproduce in these water bodies. In the Sustainable Health Ecology Lab, we want to develop a detailed understanding of the ponds and lakes in our area. How many are there? How big are they? Where are they? This information will help us to design wildlife surveys that capture a representative sample of our local diversity. Therefore, we’re looking for undergraduate researchers who are interested in choosing a relevant research question that interests them and doing an independent project using ArcGIS to answer that question. We have one paid summer internship and 1-2 fall research-for-credit positions available. All students will have the opportunity to present their results at the AEC research symposium, as well as potential opportunities to present at scientific conferences and/or contribute to writing a peer-reviewed paper based on their findings.

Scope of Paid Summer 2021 Internship: We’re hiring one full-time paid undergraduate researcher for Summer 2021 (May – August). This position will be for 35-40 hours per week and pay $15/hour. This project may be fully remote, consisting entirely of analysis on a computer. However, depending on vaccine roll out, there may also be opportunities to visit some local ponds to collect aerial imagery via drones and/or to assist with laboratory projects. Therefore, the student intern should be located in the Raleigh/Durham area for the summer. For this position, we will consider students with limited prior ArcGIS experience, as long as the student has a strong interest in putting in the time and effort to learn ArcGIS at the start of the summer.

Scope of Research-for-Credit Positions (Fall and/or Spring): We can support up to two undergraduate students who want to work on this project as part of a research for credit requirement, such as a Research Learning Experience for an Applied Ecology minor. These positions can be for 1-3 credit hours per semester. (Research Learning Experiences require a total of 3 credits, which could be spread over two semesters.) Due to the limited time that students in these positions will have to complete their projects, students must have prior ArcGIS experience.

Requirements: Undergraduate researchers on this project will need a computer with internet connection and previous experience using ArcGIS.


Topics: Piedmont Prairie Restoration, Plant identification, Rare Plants
Supervisor/Lab: Rachel Jessup with Dr. Jodi Forrester
Email: rajessup@ncsu.edu

Looking for a student interested in plant identification, ecology, and getting experience in outdoor field research. Rachel Jessup is a Masters student in Dr. Forrester’s lab working on a project studying the restoration of Echinacea laevigata, a federally listed, endangered plant species. The site of the restoration and the summer field work is at a unique site in the North Carolina piedmont that is a convenient 45 minutes from campus. Rachel is looking for a highly motivated and enthusiastic student to assist her with her research, but also develop an independent research project. 

Experience will involve learning how to: 

  • Identify plants to species
  • Measure light intensity
  • Measure soil moisture
  • Estimate cover percentages of plant species within plots
  • Hike into the site over rough terrain (brambles and bugs inevitable)

Must have:

  • At least basic knowledge of plant identification, having taken dendrology, local flora or another similar class. 
  • The ability to prepare for and be outdoors in the elements for a full day. 
  • The ability to drive their own vehicle to the site (talk to us if this is an issue, it is possible to figure out solutions)

Student will also have the opportunity to design and implement their own research project either directly adjacent to Rachel’s project using the data they collect or a separate project that they will work with Rachel to brainstorm and make sure is feasible in the amount of available time. 


For Fall 2021

Topics: Environmental Health & Risk Assessment
Supervisor/Lab: Khara Grieger
Email: kdgriege@ncsu.edu

Project 1. What are the Potential Ecological Risks of Nanomaterials used in Agriculture? A Literature Review  

  • Scope: Food and agricultural systems are under enormous pressure to increase crop yields and develop more efficient nutrient uptake by plants, while also minimizing environmental pollution. The use of engineered nanomaterials in agriculture, such as fertilizers (nanofertilizers), can help achieve these goals and contribute to smart agriculture by utilizing their nano-size dimensions (i.e. 1 to 100 nm) and unique physical-chemical properties. There are currently several commercially available fertilizers that claim to use nanomaterials and/or nano-scale ingredients, and agrochemical companies are actively investing in and patenting nanofertilizers, among other agricultural applications. However, concerns have been raised regarding the potential impacts of nanomaterials on health and the environment, including adverse effects on ecological systems. If nanomaterial applications in agriculture, including nanofertilizers, are to be considered as a viable contribution to more sustainable food and agricultural practices in the United States, additional research is critically needed on their environmental impacts. This undergraduate research project focuses on the conduction of a thorough literature review of peer-reviewed publications and reports of ecological risks and impacts of selected nanofertilizers, such as the use of e.g. CuO nanoparticles (NPs), TiO2 NPs, and ZnO NPs. The selection of these NPs is based on literature that has reported on their potential beneficial effects on plant growth and development. In this undergraduate research project, peer-reviewed manuscripts and reports on potential ecological risks and impacts on nanofertilizers (such as the selected three NPs) will be compiled and synthesized in a written report, that includes background information on the use of nanofertilizers, synthesis of peer-reviewed studies and reports on potential ecological risks and impacts, key findings, and research gaps. The undergraduate researcher will also have an option to draft a manuscript for peer-reviewed publication based on the key findings of the report, as well as be able to present key findings at upcoming workshops or conferences focused on ecological risks of nanotechnology/nanomaterials in food and agriculture production. All research and communication will be conducted remotely until further notice due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Requirements: All undergraduate researchers on this project will need a computer with internet connection. 

Project 2. What are the Potential Ecological Risks of Gene Drives Used in Agriculture? A Literature Review 

  • Scope: Technological advancements have been made in recent years to develop gene drive applications for use in agricultural settings. A gene drive is a genetic engineering technique that relies on gene modifications to intentionally propagate a select suite of genes throughout a population by enhancing the probability that a specific allele will be transmitted to offspring. Gene drives are being developed for use in agriculture to minimize or eliminate insect damage, for example, including gene drive models for Drosophila suzukii or Diaphorina citri that feed on soft-skinned and citrus fruits. However at the same time, potential risks to ecological or environmental systems are not fully understood, especially given the new and novel nature of gene drives for use in field settings. This undergraduate research project focuses on the conduction of a thorough literature review of peer-reviewed publications and reports of ecological risk assessments of two gene drives for agriculture (Drosophila suzukii or Diaphorina citri). More specifically, peer-reviewed manuscripts and reports on potential ecological risks and how risk assessment frameworks address potential ecological risks of these gene drives will be compiled and synthesized. Key outcomes from this research project include the development of a written report, with background information on these gene drive case studies, their current development and use, reported or published ecological risk assessments, key findings, and research gaps for conducting ecological risk assessments in future work. The undergraduate researcher will also communicate and collaborate with other students and researchers at NC State on this topic. The undergraduate research project has the option to present key findings at an upcoming stakeholder expert workshop focused on identifying key research gaps to conducting ecological risk assessment of these gene drive case studies, through a USDA/NIFA-funded conference grant (held in fall of 2021). All research and communication will be conducted remotely until further notice due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Requirements: All undergraduate researchers on this project will need a computer with internet connection. 


Topics: Insect community, ecological restoration
Supervisor/Lab: Erin Eichenberger, Dr. Rebecca Irwin
Email: egeichen@ncsu.edu

The impact of restoration efforts on the insect community of a remnant North Carolina prairie

Though today mixed deciduous forests dominate natural areas in the Piedmont of North Carolina, much of the region was once an open grassland community called the Piedmont prairie. Like the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest, a diverse community of sun-loving herbaceous plants thrived under frequent burning by indigenous peoples as well as natural fires. The pressures of urbanization, agriculture and fire suppression have led to the decline of this fascinating community. 

At a Piedmont prairie remnant in central North Carolina, land managers have imposed restoration treatments of burning and tree-thinning to promote the growth of rare and endangered prairie species. Researchers are monitoring the responses of the plant and insect communities to these treatments to understand the impact of restoration efforts. 

A student joining this project would have the opportunity to learn about native insects in an imperiled North Carolina plant community. They would gain experience with insect pinning and identification, and could ask questions about insect abundance and diversity through the lenses of management treatment, time, surrounding plant community, or other factors that interest them. 

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