Getting To Know the 2016 P2EP Interns

June 01, 2016

Corey Kennedy is a rising junior and chemistry major at UNC Charlotte. He’s still weighing his options per what path he’ll take after graduation. In the meantime, he’s flourishing during his summer with the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project, studying beta glucan in oats under the guidance of his graduate mentor, Scott Smith.Getting to know (10)

As a chemistry major, Kennedy says he is a hard-data, “facts person,” and his introduction into the research environment this summer with P2EP has completely opened his mind to the theoretical, trial-and-error aspect of science. Kennedy has spent the first half of his undergraduate education wondering what career path he should take, and after his experience with P2EP, he’s finally thinking that graduate school and research could be a legitimate option for him after graduation, focusing on chemistry as opposed to biology, of course.

The camaraderie between Kennedy, his peers, and their mentor, Smith, is undeniable. Kennedy feels lucky to simultaneously experience academic enrichment and the building of long-lasting friendships this summer at the NC Research Campus.

In addition to learning about beta glucan in oats from Smith and making friends with his research group during his time at P2EP, Kennedy also appreciates the opportunities to improve his professionalism. Kennedy specifically mentions when he and his group present their findings from the week at “Five-Minute Madness” on Fridays as well as the other opportunities sponsored by P2EP such as the “Professional Development Workshop Series” that included a talk from Dr. Larry Blanton, the Plant Biology Graduate Program Director, Professor of Plant Biology, and Director of University Honors Program at North Carolina State University, on graduate school, fellowships, and other important post-grad opportunities.

Whatever road Kennedy decides to take after graduating from UNC Charlotte, he says “P2EP will definitely help me decide what’s best for me.”

Many aspiring doctors and scientists end up spending their summers as part of the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project, but Bryan Morris has something else in mind for his future. As a biology major with a minor in secondary education at Catawba College, Morris has his heart set on a career in academics, spreading his knowledge of science to others, potentially at the university level.

Getting to know (9)“A lot of teachers don’t get the chance to go out and participate in research,” Morris said. “This summer with P2EP, I’ve gained the unique experience of learning what the field is like so I can bring it to the classroom some day.” Morris hopes his passion for teaching and his experience conducting scientific research of his own will help bridge the gap between the classroom and the lab, while acting as a liaison between the two and helping students find a career path that suits their skills and personality.

He didn’t always want to be a teacher, though. In his first semesters at Catawba as a biology major, his professors soon realized his ability to stay connected to the core foundations of science in order to excel in more advanced courses. They asked him to help his peers do the same, and soon his love for teaching became very evident.

Morris participated in other internships in summers past at local high schools and other programs related to teaching, but he says this summer at the NC Research Campus studying the antioxidant capacity of blueberries with graduate mentor Samantha Case has been truly unique. “It’s amazing the collaborative spirit that exists here,” he said. “There are so many people willing to help you with a project or lend some expertise to help you get the results you want.”

As he goes into his senior year at Catawba, Morris is preparing both for graduation and for his licensure exams for teaching. He says he’ll always value his time as a P2EP intern as quintessential for his teaching career. “P2EP is for sure a unique program supportive of students with diverse backgrounds and aspirations,” Morris said.

Zoe Cantu-Backhaus is one of the younger interns at the NCRC this summer; she’ll be starting her sophomore year at UNC Charlotte this fall, majoring in biology and minoring in bioinformatics. During her first summer as an intern, she lucked out with P2EP veteran Claire Thetford as her partner under the guidance of graduate mentor Kelsey Zielinski.Getting to know (8)

As part of Zielinski’s project studying the antioxidant bioavailability of blueberry compounds, Zoe and the rest of her group travel regularly to the Piedmont Research Station to pick blueberries. Zoe says that there are so many blueberries that she is often able to take a bunch home with her. “I’m slowly but surely getting sick of blueberries,” Zoe jokes.

Although she’s only a rising sophomore, Zoe already looks ahead to potentially attending medical school after she finishes her undergraduate work. Another option she’s considering is going to graduate school to study infectious diseases. P2EP will be her first real experience in the lab conducting research.

“Ever since I was really young I’ve wanted to be a doctor,” Zoe says. “I’ve always had a drive to help people, maybe even by joining Doctors Without Borders.” She also anticipates practicing surgical medicine if medical school ends up being the path she takes. “I enjoy dissection, discovering things within the human body.”

With just over a week left until the Summer Research Symposium, Zoe weighs her odds on winning the esteemed poster competition. With Thetford as her partner, winner of the 2015 poster competition, Zoe considers her chances of winning to be pretty good. However, she says that “everyone is doing such an amazing job, working really hard on some fascinating research.”

One of the best aspects of the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP) is its openness to budding scientists of all experience levels. For Jessica Williams-Wilborn, a biology/Spanish double major from UNC Charlotte, this was exactly what she was looking for.

Getting to know (7)Outside of the biology labs she completed as part of her degree, Williams-Wilborn had never experienced what it was like to be in a real research lab. After receiving encouragement from UNC Charlotte friends who were also alumni of the P2EP internship, she applied to the program and is now just weeks away from her first summer research symposium.

“Working in a lab with PhD students and accomplished scientists opens up so many doors – networking, learning new skills, and just gaining exposure to what daily life is like doing research,” she explains. Williams-Wilborn is prepping for physical therapy school, touring campuses and getting ready for applications in August. “I like to be active, and I believe being active and healthy is so important,” she said. “As a physical therapist, I want to help people become active again.”

Alongside her partner Katelyn Dezego under the guidance of graduate mentor Weston Bussler, Williams-Wilborn finally received the research experience she had been looking for during all of her years as a biology major. Although Williams-Wilborn had no previous experience herself, her partner Dezego was able to help a lot throughout the summer. “Together we learned things like pipetting, passing cells, and more lab techniques I wasn’t familiar with,” Williams-Wilborn said. “These skills may seem very simple, but I feel so fortunate to have learned things like that this summer.”

Although not all students who come to P2EP are bound for graduate programs centered on research, including Williams-Wilborn, she still considers her experience this summer to be invaluable. “Definitely give research a chance,” she advises. “You never know what will spark your interest.”

Stefy Castro-Vazquez joins P2EP all the way from Raleigh, where she attends N.C. State University (NCSU) with a double major in plant biology and communications with a concentration in media. She wants to talk to people about science, fulfilling a very important and very unique niche in the scientific community.Getting to know (6)

Specifically, Stefy sees herself working at a science museum, designing and developing programs for visitors so they can get hands-on experience with scientific concepts. Stefy is getting some hands-on experience of her own this summer with P2EP – she’s been studying blueberry anthocyanins with her graduate mentor, Samantha Case.

Stefy works for The Technician, the official newspaper of NCSU. She’s dabbled in both news editing and media editing, and she believes communication is vital for the scientific community to keep the public engaged and invested in the latest research findings.

For children, she says, it’s “important to explain concepts and processes as clearly as possible.” She plans to work plenty with children if she does end up at a science museum. “I think they should be exposed to the steps you take to become a doctor, scientist, etc. before they start to make decisions.”

Scientific communication is just as important for adults, Stefy says, both inside and out of the field. “Help a farmer grow his crop better, and that’s a more nutritious meal on someone’s table,” she explains.

With just one month away from the Summer Research Symposium where Stefy and her peers will talk about and present their research, there’s a lot of reflection on the opportunities P2EP has already provided her. Last week, the NCRC Catalyst Group joined the P2EP interns to share a meal and talk about career and research insight. “It is so beneficial to hear about how people ended up where they are,” Stefy reflects. “It’s okay if you don’t land your dream job right away.”

Ashley Buige just finished her junior year at Carolina, and she’s gearing up for her first semester at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy this fall. For the summer, she’s one of our #P2EP2016 interns, learning about inflammatory bowel disease and gut health.
Getting to know (5)
“What’s great about P2EP is that we’re studying the local components of nutrition, and I’m from Concord,” Buige said. “These are really important studies for my home town.”

Making connections to nutrition research that are both literally and figuratively close to home is an important aspect of P2EP for many interns who are from the area, whether it’s Charlotte, Salisbury, or Concord, like Buige. The P2EP experience then provides an additional opportunity for these local students to bring what they learn over the summer back to their hometown.

“Our group is really looking at human health and food, but also in the context of disease. It’s important because of the high prevalence of inflammatory bowel disease, and gut health in general is really important,” Buige said. “We’re looking at the therapeutic properties of oats and how certain components can interact with the intestinal lining. Maybe our research could lead to recommendations for people to improve their gut health.”

Although Buige will head back to Chapel Hill for school in August, her current experience with P2EP in her local community is helping her decide what kind of pharmaceutical studies she’ll want to specialize in. This future pharmacist will leave P2EP with a new understanding of nutritional studies, a heart for research, and fond memories of a summer of science.

For a nutrition and chemistry major like Mikayla Bowen, the NC Research Campus is the perfect place. She’s from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and she just finished her first year of her undergraduate degree. This summer she’s been studying oats and digestive health under her graduate mentor, Weston Bussler.
Getting to know (4)
“My experience with P2EP has really opened up my mind to different possibilities for my future. PhD and MD programs, research opportunities,” Bowen said. “There are so many different directions I could take.”

This summer with P2EP is Bowen’s first dip into the waters of the research lab, and she is grateful for the help of Bussler as well as fellow intern and partner, Ashley Buige, also from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While she is a novice, Bowen already has a huge passion for their project, and she says that her experience already “definitely confirmed my love for nutrition research.”

P2EP also offers Bowen exposure into different topics of nutrition research that she’ll use as guidance for a nutrition research project she’ll complete upon graduation as required by the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Additionally, Bowen is already looking forward to returning to Chapel Hill in search of a nutrition research project she can get involved with on campus.

Getting to know (3)Beverly McLaughlin is a mathematics major from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), and she’ll graduate this December. Just before her last ever semester of undergraduate studies, she’s here at the North Carolina Research Campus for a summer of science with the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP).

McLaughlin is in Richard Linchangko’s group this summer, focusing on Knowledge-Based Discovery development across all platforms. Linchangko is a PhD candidate in bioinformatics at UNC Charlotte, and he plans to someday study health and nutrition in the food industry. McLaughlin’s plans after graduation include returning to school to obtain a Master’s degree. After talking with and getting to know Linchangko as a mentor, Mclaughlin is considering bioinformatics at UNC Charlotte, but also pharmacy school and veterinary school.

“I want to get better at programming, get more comfortable with scientific concepts, and take away as much as I can to help me achieve my goals later in life,” Mclaughlin said about her personal goals for the summer.

P2EP provides an opportunity to network with graduate students and scientists, as well as learn about the career opportunities in Kannapolis and surrounding areas, McLaughlin said. In addition, she looks forward to practicing her public speaking every week during the 5-Minute Madness research presentations as well as the end-of-the-summer Research Symposium.

“From the beginning of P2EP up to now, I’ve already come across so many resources and met so many people that I wouldn’t have if I stayed near NC A&T this summer,” McLaughlin said. “For me, this internship is definitely an opportunity for growth.”

Delaney Dunlap is a rising senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, and she’s already thinking what insight P2EP could give her as sheGetting to know (1) makes plans for the future.

“I’m hoping to get an idea of whether I really like being in a research lab or not,” Dunlap said. She has a wide range of academic interests that include nutrition, biology, engineering, and robotics. She’s spent the past few weeks with her graduate mentor, Scott Smith, learning about and working with a common model organism: Arabidopsis thaliana.

During her time this summer with P2EP, Dunlap hopes to gain public speaking skills from weekly presentations called “5-Minute Madness.” She is still unsure what career path she will choose after high school and college, but she appreciates the opportunity at hand with P2EP to work in a team, understand more complex biological topics, and to help choose a school and college major for the future. “P2EP is giving me the opportunity to do real research,” she said. “I am already beginning to understand how the scientific research process works.”


Getting to know

Nikhita Vemulapalli just finished her junior year of high school at Lake Norman Charter, immediately jumping into the P2EP summer internship program. Vemulapalli also takes online courses at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, and she heard about P2EP through their summer research internship program.

Science, mainly biology, is a passion for Vemulapalli. She looks forward to attending medical school one day, partly because she enjoys interacting with people, and partly because she is interested in biomedical research.

“I just want to learn as much as I can and have fun doing it,” she says. A summer of hands-on laboratory experience awaits this ambitious students, and she’s definitely excited to interact with her peers and graduate mentors.

“As opposed to the teacher performing all of the experiments and the students watching from a distance, as interns with P2EP we actually get to do the experiments ourselves,” she explains. Vemulapalli is considering several North Carolina universities, thinking she’ll major in biology. As for P2EP, she’s already diving into her summer project; today she’s peeling blueberries to make samples for analysis. She can also see herself returning to P2EP for future summer programs like many interns do. Needless to say, there is a bright future ahead.

Sydney Corbin will begin the second year of her biotechnology program at Rowan Cabarrus Community College this fall, and in the meantime she is working with graduate mentor Scott Smith in the P2EP internship program. Corbin does plan to stay in the science field after graduation, but she’s not sure yet what she’ll be doing.Getting to know

“I’m excited to get hands-on lab experience,” Corbin said. “Any insight I could get from P2EP that would give me some direction for a future career would be great, even if it is something I didn’t expect to be doing.”

Corbin is especially interested in UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Services Division at the NC Research Campus as a unique integration of biology and computer science.

“I think it’s a fun way to combine the two,” Corbin said.

With just a few weeks of P2EP under her belt, Corbin is already weighing her options for post-graduation plans; she is currently considering a certificate program at UNC Charlotte for Bioinformatics. Regardless of her decision, Corbin knows she wants to spend her time in the lab, and she hopes to learn all that she can from her time with

To stay updated on all of the P2EP research, community outreach and field trips, follow the P2EP interns on Facebook, Twitter @PHHI_NCSU,  and Instagram @P2EP_Internship or visit

Comments are closed.

Connect With Us