NCSSM’s Summer Research and Innovation Programs Nurture Critical Skills Across Disciplines

The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) offers the Summer Research & Innovation Programs (SRIP) with opportunities in a wide variety of fields that are open to rising NCSSM seniors in both the residential and online programs. These programs, historically hosted at the NCSSM-Durham campus, will expand to include new offerings at the NCSSM-Morganton campus in 2023. 

Offered at no cost to students, SRIP aims to empower students to gain valuable experiences in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, computer and computational sciences, humanities, and entrepreneurship. 

While students may be working on a vast array of different research and innovation projects across these fields, every SRIP program focuses on building core skills that will last the students a lifetime: independence, critical thinking and scholarly risk-taking.

For many of the students, these experiences are the first time they embark on truly independent work. Students learn how to analyze and understand their specific field through research papers or learning directly from guest speakers before creating their own topics of choice. 

They are then responsible for designing and implementing their methods. While they have help from instructors, their research or entrepreneurship projects are their own. 

“We choose what we want to do, topic-wise. We do all the stuff ourselves,” said Spriha Manjigani, an NCSSM residential student from Charlotte, North Carolina. 

She is working in Summer Research in Chemistry on designing a nanoparticle that would aim to inhibit chemotherapy-induced alopecia, or hair loss. “It’s a lot more independence than I thought I would have. It’s been a very, very fun experience.” 

Because the students are conducting novel research, the instructors are learning alongside them to help train and troubleshoot where necessary. “The professors also had no idea how to solve our problems, so we were all working on it together,” said Arya Gupta, an NCSSM student also from Charlotte who took part in Summer Research in Mathematics.

“It was really fun because you’d see somebody, like, so much more experienced and educated than you stuck on the same thing you are. They treated us as equals, which I really liked… They wouldn’t hold our hands.” 

Fostering this independence is core to the work at SRIP because it enables students to have a foundationally different experience than typical school-year courses. As students work to troubleshoot new problems and encounter unexpected results, they must also engage in problem-solving and critical thinking that is unique to a research and innovation experience. 

“Most of [the students] encounter some obstacle where things don’t come out the way they intend,” said Dr. Tim Anglin, instructor of chemistry. 

“So that’s one of the things that they have to figure out – that’s most important during the summer – is that resilience. Where they get to problem-solve and figure out solutions instead of treating it like a failure.” 

Along with that critical thinking comes deep dives into learning new techniques, learning how to use new tools, and revisiting past research and methodologies. That means as the students learn the more nebulous skill of critical thinking, they are also gaining practical skills in the lab or in the library that they will carry with them through life. 

“I am just trying to understand one of the things Dr. Monahan told me when I was starting; ‘you’re not going to get this on the first try – it’s going to be difficult,’” said Makena Neale, an NCSSM student from Davidson, North Carolina. 

Neale is creating a potential early detection method for pancreatic cancer using a biological marker with the model organism C. elegans. “It’s more just coping and recognizing the fact that I just have to keep trying. It’s a lot of problem-solving, which I love doing, and I’m just learning new techniques for that in general.” 

The structure of SRIP also empowers students to take risks that they would not normally feel comfortable taking in an academic setting. 

“They understand it’s safe to take risks here,” said Chad Keister, instructor of economics and social science, who leads the How to do a Start-up: An Experience in Entrepreneurship program. “I try and make sure they understand that what we’re doing here is intentionally messy. That there’s going to be ambiguity and you’re going to potentially hit a roadblock and must decide what to do about the roadblock yourself. I try and set up the whole process as a safe place to play with ideas. To investigate, you don’t need the right answer.”  

This frees students to pursue work they are passionate about, to be curious, and to put in their best efforts. 

“You can put your all into something that you’re truly impassioned by, and there’s a lot of beauty in that,” said Clara Smith, an NCSSM residential student from Cornelius, North Carolina.  

Alina Yang, from Cary, North Carolina, is working in Summer Research in Physics on a computational biophysics project. She says that her proudest accomplishment from SRIP has been the growth she’s recognized in herself. “It’s nice to look back on your progress and just remind yourself of how far you’ve come,” she said. 

“Even if you started out with no clue with what you’re going to research – now I have a project, and even though sometimes each day I won’t feel like I’ve accomplished a lot or gotten much done, it’s nice to look back and see, oh, I have done a lot.” 

At the end of the program, students from across SRIP comment that their weeks on campus during the summer are transformative.

“This is an experience unlike almost anything else you have had or you are likely to have had in your academic career,” said Elias North, who is researching his connection to the Appalachian south in Summer Research in Humanities. “It is both freedom and expectation in great measure…it is fun, complicated and all too short.” 

Special thanks to NCSSM, the NCSSM Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and GlaxoSmithKline for funding the Summer Research & Innovation Program (SRIP).

Learn more about NCSSM’s SRIP programs

See this year’s SRIP projects showcase

Read more stories about students’ experiences in SRIP 2022: Glaxo Summer Research in Biology Summer Research in Chemistry Summer Research in Computational Science Summer Research in Computer Science Summer Experience in Entrepreneurship Summer Research in Humanities Summer Research in Mathematics Summer Research in Physics

Summer Mentorship