Each summer, students at the College of Charleston gain hands-on experience through Summer Undergraduate Research with Faculty (SURF) grants, which pair students with faculty mentors to pursue experiential research that tackles real-world problems. For summer 2023, a total of 22 student projects have received grants of up to $6,500.

“Faculty-student collaboration in a challenging, scholarly project can be the single most transformative experience that a student will have in college,” says Beth Sundstrom, director of the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URCA) Program and associate professor of communication. “In addition to technical skills, students develop professional skills, including problem-solving, communication, teamwork, leadership and creativity. These transferable skills apply to any future educational or career goals.”

RELATED: Find out how to apply for SURF grants and other URCA programs.

And those professional skills give students more leverage after graduation. According to a 2021 survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, 41% of employers were much more likely to consider hiring a college graduate who had completed a research project done collaboratively with faculty.

Check out how three students are using their SURF grants to expand their horizons this summer.

two men run tests on water from a nearby pond

Harrison Caspino works with another student to test a water sample collected from marshlands near Charleston harbor.

Charleston is known for being flood prone, which causes plenty of challenges for the city and its residents. But it’s an issue Harrison Caspino, a double major in chemistry and environmental geosciences with a minor in international studies, is perfectly happy to wade into this summer, as he chases rain and tidal flooding across the Lowcountry for his SURF research, “Floodwater as a Vector for Contaminant Discharge into Charleston Harbor.” 

“It’s important to do this research because flooding is just going to get more common in Charleston,” says the recipient of the International Scholars Program Scholarship. “Everybody knows that flooding is a problem on the Charleston Peninsula, but I think it’s more important to know what’s in the water and how we can get [contaminants] out of the water.” 

Focusing on bacterial and chemical contamination, Caspino, with mentorship from Vijay Vulava, professor of geology and environmental geosciences, collects samples from puddles caused by precipitation and/or urban tidal flooding. He then takes them to labs at the College where he works with other students to prep and test the samples for bacteria and chemicals, such as nitrates and phosphates. 

“I’m learning a lot more than I bargained for, which is awesome,” says Caspino, who is a rising sophomore in the Honors College from Columbia, South Carolina. “I’ve gained a lot of technical training on the instruments we use in the labs as well as the basic principles of calibration. And I’ve learned some statistics through analyzing the data. I really feel this is something that will shape my future because now I want to go into a career involving this.” 

And preparing future scientists to tackle water pollution and find solutions that support the health of coastal ecosystems is the goal. 

“We want to educate our students, not just in the classroom, but in an experiential manner,” says Vulava. “These are real issues that we’re all encountering, and this is our next generation of scientists who will go out and study these problems.” 

man and woman sitting at a table with books on it

Francesca Gibson and Jason Coy (Photos by Catie Cleveland)

Investigating historic documents, trial records and confessions of convicted witches may not sound like an ordinary undergraduate research project, but Francesca Gibson has spent the last two years immersing herself in this unusual time in medical history. A double major in history and psychology in the Honors College, Gibson’s research is supported by her second consecutive SURF grant. She was drawn the topic after taking an Honors class about witchcraft in early modern history with Jason Coy, professor and chair of the Department of History.  

“One of the things that made this project really exciting was when Francesca came to me at the end of the class and said that she wanted to continue to pursue these topics through this SURF grant,” says the recipient of the Swanson Family Scholarship and the Simonds Special Merit Award in History Scholarship. “It was the interdisciplinary aspect of her research that I found so interesting and I think it’s allowed her to break new ground.” 

RELATED: CofC Podcast: The Frightening History of Witchcraft and Sleep Disorders

After a summer of studying witchcraft and sleep disorders, Gibson, who is from Charlottesville, Virginia, shifted her focus to the 17th and 18th centuries, a time when fears of the unknown and changes in the medical field were heightened. This time her primary sources included recipe books, medical treatises, witchcraft treatises, court testimonies and alchemical texts. 

“I’m fascinated by the upheaval of the early modern period in England,” she says. “The Reformation period impacted religious structures, the English Civil War created social and political turmoil, and the introduction of chemistry was introducing new debates to medical scholarship. It was a tumultuous time, and I was really interested in understanding how fears of the unknown, which were also heightened by the growing globalization of trade, manifested in the materiality of medicine.”  

Gibson explains that debates raged between scientists and philosophers who cast doubts on other practitioners of medicine, especially women. These doubts and debates over who should be allowed to practice medicine led to social divides and power struggles. 

“I discovered that witchcraft treatises from the educated elite began to note that different medical materials, which often included anonymous oils, ointments and powders, were telltale signs of a witch. These beliefs created a growing concern over female healers in early modern England,” she says.   

The field continues to intrigue her, and she is in the process of applying to doctoral programs and fellowships with hopes of pursuing a career in academia. 

Jacob Steere-Williams, associate professor of history has mentored and acted as a sounding board to Gibson throughout the summer. Cara Delay, professor of history, is another mentor who is offering guidance on the final research paper. Gibson plans to present her work at the annual EXPO in spring 2024.  

woman and man sitting at a laptop computer

Whitney Kitchen and Alexander Brummer

Whitney Kitchen is using an unusual tool to discover a cure for a deadly form of brain cancer – math. Working with Alexander Brummer, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, Kitchen is spending the summer using applied mathematics and dynamical systems theory to study how genetically engineered T-cells interact with cancer cells. The hope is that these T-cells will be able to work with a person’s immune system and kill human brain cancer cells as a new therapeutic approach. Meanwhile, Kitchen and Brummer are using cutting-edge mathematics to understand the basic biology at play from highly controlled experimental settings. 

And this kind of in-depth research experience is one of the reasons why Kitchen, who is double majoring in physics and math, says she came to the College.

“I really value the close interactions I have with my professors,” says the recipient of the Boyce Memorial Scholarship. “I think that one on one relationship is really valuable.”

Kitchen, who is a student in the Honors College, is using calculus and a data-driven computer algorithm called Sparse Identification of Nonlinear Dynamics (SINDy) to match and test experimental data against a library of different possible mathematical functions to assemble a biologically interpretable mathematical model. A recent publication by Brummer in Frontiers in Immunology lays the groundwork for using this technique, and Kitchen was awarded a SURF grant to continue the work over the summer.

“The way in which these T-cells are engineered is still quite new, with a wealth of work being done to understand the basic biology that is present,” says Brummer. “This work represents the first use of the mathematical modeling approach that we implemented being applied to real biological data as opposed to simulated data.”

It is no surprise that Kitchen, a sophomore from Spartanburg, South Carolina, is attracted to science and mathematics. With a mother who is a biology and chemistry teacher and a father who is a physicist, mathematics is in her blood.  “I knew pretty young that I liked STEM and wanted to do that,” she says.

“I like understanding how things work and how it is all derived,” she says. “I enjoy the way that physics gets to the very core of how things work.”

“It’s a really exciting time to be working at the intersections of biology, physics, and mathematics,” adds Brummer, “and more so, to work with and inspire the next generation of talented and enthusiastic students, like Whitney, in exploring these emerging and interdisciplinary fields.”