MTSU recently sent 16 undergraduates to participate in the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research and one student, Janna Abou-Rahma, was part of the team that won a highly competitive challenge putting her in the top 1% of hundreds of applicants.
More commonly known as NCUR, the annual conference took place this April at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Staff from MTSU’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, Jamie Burriss and Katie Medrano, accompanied students Abou-Rahma, Hunter Brady, Weston Williams, Ross Sibley, Brooke Busbee, Yaseen Ginnab, Greti Muller, Ariel Nicastro, Luke Gormsen, Foram Patel, Lindsey Tran, Benjamin Matthews, Casey Tomlin, Connor Prim, Leslie Gonzalez and Marzea Akter to the conference to present their research projects from a multitude of subject areas from science and math to music and more.
Abou-Rahma also participated in the prestigious, pre-conference Mayo Clinic Social Determinants of Health Challenge sponsored by the Mayo Clinic Health System and Medical College. According to its website, the challenge has participants focus on the nonmedical components of health care through a competition in which teams of students create and present a proposal for actions that address social determinants of health to improve health and health outcomes within Mayo Clinic — a series of medical clinics and hospitals in the U.S. often ranked as some of the best in the world.
Abou-Rahma said the acceptance rate to participate in the competition alone is only 4%.
“This year, 417 applications were received and only 20 were accepted to compete,” said Abou-Rahma, who will graduate this fall with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and minors in psychology and honors. “Within the 20 participants, four teams of five were formed to compete. In that sense, I competed against 15 individuals and worked with four other people in my team.”
The Carthage, Tennessee, native also presented her research on novel treatments for fungal infections that have or could become drug resistant and said MTSU and the ORSP have supported her academic work every step of the way.
“MTSU encourages and genuinely pushes for undergraduate research,” Abou-Rahma said. “We are not expected to just know all the techniques and never make a mistake. MTSU wants their students to learn how to adapt to changes in research in a mentored environment. Additionally, MTSU offers a great deal of financial assistance when traveling for conferences whether locally or internationally, whereas many universities do not.”
Abou-Rahma greatly credited her success and opportunities to her mentor Kevin Bicker, associate chemistry professor, saying he counseled her through lab failures, time management, project direction and applying to the health challenge.
“When my current assay would fail, we would just go back to the drawing board and solve the puzzle,” she said. “If I had a lot of exams, he would understand, so I never felt that my research was a burden. I was (also) given the freedom with my project in terms of its direction….
“I was a little hesitant to apply to the Mayo Clinic competition, but he always pushed us to get out of our comfort zone. Once I was accepted, he had no doubt that I would do amazing in the competition…. I truly could not have done anything without the support from Dr. Bicker.”
Bicker said her success in the competition is a remarkable accomplishment.
“She was one of 20 participants chosen from (almost) 500 applicants, and the only participant from the state of Tennessee,” Bicker said. “And then she was part of the winning team of five, meaning that from the 500 applicants she was in the top 1%….
“Janna’s success here elevates the profile of MTSU, demonstrating that the education and career preparation happening at MTSU rivals institutions across the country. The support for undergraduate research by SOAR (Student Organization for the Advancement of Research) and faculty mentors across campus is providing amazing opportunities for our students and equipping them for success in the next stages of their careers.”
Connor Prim, who just finished his junior year in instrumental music education, introduced and directed students who performed trumpet pieces he had composed to represent an exploration of musicianship.
“My research has …provided incredibly valuable skills that will aid me moving forward like successfully completing a large-scale project and presenting and communicating with a diverse collection of individuals,” said Prim, who is from Bell Buckle, Tennessee. “Communicating with a diverse collection of individuals is a vital skill for future educators like me, especially in the public-school setting.”
His first time attending the conference, Prim said the opportunities for undergraduate research at MTSU like traveling for conferences, funding from grants and more are unique.
“I have many friends at larger, more well-funded universities that don’t receive the support academically or financially that we have here,” he said. “MTSU truly is a special place to be, and it is a place I am proud to call home.”
To learn more about undergraduate research opportunities at MTSU, visit the Undergraduate Research Center website at https://www.mtsu.edu/urc/ or the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs website at https://www.mtsu.edu/research/.
— Stephanie Wagner (Stephanie.Wagner@mtsu.edu)