Growing opportunities for research experience are transforming undergraduate education at Brown and advancing the University’s search for knowledge.
By Sarah C. Baldwin
When Deverick Anderson, director of the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network, got an email from a Brown student asking for information on MRSA infection among college athletes, he knew just the paper he wanted her to read. Then he realized she was actually one of its coauthors.
“I was amazed,” said Tori Kinamon ’17, the student who wrote Anderson, “that one of the leaders in the field had read my paper and called it ‘great.’”
No less amazing is how Kinamon came to be a published author in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical Infectious Diseases while still an undergraduate. A gymnast since the age of 3, the Georgia native was recruited to Brown’s gymnastics team in 2013. In her first semester, a mysterious infection landed her in Rhode Island Hospital. An MRI revealed an abscess deep inside her left hamstring. Eight surgeries and many months later she returned to Brown, a sophomore on a quest: to find out what had happened to her and why, and how to prevent the same thing from happening to other college athletes.
Kinamon reached out to Eleftherios Mylonakis, chief of infectious diseases at Rhode Island Hospital and the Miriam Hospital and professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School. Moved as much by her personal story as by her smarts and determination, he agreed to take her on as an undergraduate researcher in his lab.
“You’re going to learn this thing called meta-analysis,” he recalled telling her, “which will help your evaluation of the literature for the rest of your career.” Paired with a postdoc, Kinamon spent months reviewing medical literature on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium that left her with a two-foot scar. Her research revealed something “remarkable,” according to Mylonakis: the prevalence of MRSA among collegiate athletes is 13 percent—almost seven times greater than in the general population.
Kinamon went on to do clinical research in Mylonakis’s lab, repurposing drugs used to treat worm infections and looking at their potential to treat MRSA. She wrote and produced an educational video designed to raise MRSA awareness among athletes, thanks to a prestigious Royce Fellowship connected to Brown’s Swearer Center. She plans to go to medical school.
“My experience with MRSA was extremely painful and stripped me of a lot of things,” Kinamon said—including her identity as a gymnast. “But Brown gave me the confidence to be not just a victim but a victor over it through research. I was able to tap into the ethos of this place, the spirit of charting your own course of study, knowing that, if you want to change something, you can.”
Kinamon is one of many examples of how research is transforming undergraduate education at Brown and, in turn, how undergraduates are raising the quality of research. As research at Brown has grown in many academic areas, so has the infrastructure for undergraduate involvement.
Open door policy
While reaching out to a professor, as Kinamon did, is one path to collaborative research opportunities, Brown has also created a superhighway to such connections. The Karen T. Romer Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards, or UTRAs, enable students to engage with faculty as partners in their scholarship.
Created in the 1980s, UTRAs started small, but now number around 270 during the summer and 40 during the academic year. Associate Dean of the College Oludurotimi Adetunji, who oversees programs to aid undergraduate research, said projects give students much more than research experience and professors much more than research assistance. “It’s not just about a project, it’s also about a relationship,” he said.
Adetunji, a physicist, estimates that more than 1,000 undergraduates are engaged in research during the academic year, and between 600 and 800 undergraduates every summer, whether through grants, fellowships, or independent study projects. Every summer his office hosts a research symposium where some 165 students showcase their work—in the humanities and the social, life, and physical sciences—through poster presentations.
As a student, said Adetunji, early exposure to lab research “changed everything” for him. Supporting these partnerships now is a personal calling.
For Dean of the College Maud Mandel, it’s a mission. “Cracking open the door to real research” for undergraduates is a core Brown value, she said. “A university is about teaching and learning, and also about extending knowledge. The teaching becomes linked to knowledge creation when you include students in the research side.”
Mandel, an expert on French and modern Jewish history, stresses that undergraduates impact the research done university-wide. She has participated in many UTRAs, and “having a collaborator, even a young one, can be powerful. They’re looking at the same source material you are, but they bring fresh eyes to the project.”
‘Just come in’
Roboticist Chad Jenkins credits his UTRA partner, Nifemi Madarikan ’17, with such a contribution. “Nifemi was a first-year student when we began collaborating,” said Jenkins, “and he helped me work through some more experimental ideas for making robotics more accessible to broader populations. His contributions to my group helped lay the foundation for research that is now maturing into academic publications. And he helped improve my approach to teaching.”
Raised in Nigeria and educated in Italy, Madarikan had never done computer science before he met Jenkins. “Chad was committed to helping me figure out the things I didn’t know,” he said.
The summer after Madarikan’s first year at Brown, Jenkins (now at the University of Michigan) invited him into his Brown lab. “He told me ‘Just come in and try to figure things out,’” Madarikan said. “‘Tinker where you can, feel free to reach out to me and to people in the lab whenever you need.’”
That fall, they formalized their collaboration through an UTRA that aimed to develop network protocols for synching data uploads from multiple robots. Madarikan headed to a job at Microsoft after graduating last May, but only after leaving another legacy: the creation of Mosaic+, a student-led support network for students from historically underrepresented groups in computer science.
Like Madarikan with computer science, Xiao “Candy” Rui ’18, a double concentrator in public health and Egyptology, didn’t let a lack of experience—she had never done an excavation before—stop her when she asked archaeologist and Brown postdoc Brett Kaufman to let her work on his Yangguanzhai Archaeological Project in a Neolithic village outside of Xi’an, China.
Rui had been a regular at Brown’s Joukowsky Institute for Archeology and the Ancient World lectures and symposia, Kaufman explained, and “I could tell she had a curiosity that she had to satisfy through fieldwork.” Their UTRA enabled Rui to spend the summer learning in the trenches—literally. She and Kaufman excavated together, and he taught her “how to use a trowel, how not to break things.” By the end of five weeks, she had learned how to take elevations, make technical drawings, identify artifacts, do assemblage analysis, and write a full report.
“Candy knew what to expect in theory, but the UTRA grant let her get her hands dirty,” Kaufman said. Now an assistant professor at University of Science and Technology Beijing, Kaufman continued to mentor Rui through the writing of the report, which he has encouraged her to present at a future annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.
A virtuous circle
As it does for Kinamon, an urge to apply research to real-world practice animates Shelby Heitner ’18, one of more than 20 undergraduates at the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab (RIIPL). Founded in 2015 by Brown economist Justine Hastings, RIIPL is using data and science to improve policy, alleviate poverty, and increase economic opportunity in collaboration with government partners. Soon after transferring to Brown from Cornell, Heitner “cold called” Hastings, who took her on as a research analyst on the environmental team. Heitner has been analyzing data from the EPA and Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management on companies’ noncompliance with air, water, and hazardous waste regulations. She’s trying to show how the prosperity of a geographical area correlates with the ability of private entities to comply with environmental regulations. “This will give insight into how Rhode Island can improve compliance to better promote environmentally friendly practices,” she explained.
For Heitner, a double concentrator in economics and public policy, the combination of RIIPL research and Brown coursework creates a virtuous circle. “When I take econometrics, I’m then expected to apply that to my work at RIIPL,” she said. “It’s like a constant examination. It helps me take what I’ve learned and actually use it. I have a better idea of what to expect in my economics and public policy classes because I’ve done all this data analysis.”
She appreciates that Hastings pushes her to make her grow. “I’m treated like a colleague and like a student at the same time,” she said.
For Hastings, this circularity is the point. “Brown students are smart and keen to improve the world,” she said. “High-impact research is even more rewarding when it also helps students develop and discover their talents and passions.”
Mylonakis, the infectious diseases specialist, “always says yes” to undergraduates who want to work in his lab. Not only do students play a part in advancing his research, but collaborative student/faculty partnerships help to prepare the next generation of educator-scholars.
“When I was younger,” he explained, “I would go to my teachers and mentors, and I would ask them questions and stretch their patience. I thought there was no way to repay them. Then I said, ‘Hold on—when I’m in their position, I can help other people.’ I see it as something I owe and pay back through my students. What they learn here they’ll carry for the rest of their careers.”