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Summer research program sets CCU freshman up for early success

January 7, 2019
Olivia Shirley is a freshman biochemistry major who has already performed research at Brookgreen Gardens. Shirley came to CCU as a result of her participation in the Summer Coastal Research Experience program as a high schooler.Olivia Shirley started her collegiate career at CCU with a published paper and presentation credits already under her belt.

When Olivia Shirley, a freshman at Coastal Carolina University, walked into her first collegiate course and took a seat among her peers, the young Chanticleer felt that she belonged there among the glass laboratory equipment, black laminate top science tables and other accoutrements of scientific research.

While all her classmates also work toward advancing the academic and scientific research community, Shirley had a proverbial leg up before she even set foot on campus as a student. She began college in the fall of 2018 with a published research paper, presentation credits and a second-place award from the South Carolina Academy of Science under her belt. Achievements of this nature are typically only accomplished by a few junior- or senior-level undergraduate students and graduate students, not high school students or college freshmen, says CCU chemistry professor Paul Richardson.

“It is very rare for a high school senior to perform research and even more rare for one to have work published,” he said.

Shirley’s research started unconventionally early during the summer before her senior year at North Myrtle Beach High School. As a high school junior, she had no idea what she wanted to do or where she wanted to go to college. She received an email from Coastal Carolina University’s Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), addressed to students who might be interested in doing biomedical research over the summer with a college professor mentor. Her mother encouraged her to apply for the INBRE program. Shirley remembers writing the essay and doing the interview with one of the faculty research mentors.

“I thought there was no way I would be accepted,” said Shirley. “It’s a really awesome program.”

Despite her doubts, Shirley earned one of 12 spots in the Summer Coastal Research Experience (SCORE) program, which is funded through INBRE. Little did she know that before she would even walk across the stage to receive her high school diploma, she would publish a paper and discover her passion in research.

That summer with SCORE, Shirley’s faculty research mentor was Richardson, who offered Shirley different choices of projects in the field of biomedical research, which led her to Brookgreen Gardens in Georgetown County.

Shirley tested water samples at Brookgreen aviaries for coliphages, which are a type of bacteriophage (virus specific to bacteria) that attacks E. coli. Shirley said that their research indicated that the phages are caused by the birds in the aviaries that may have coliphages in their feces.

This project ultimately became the basis for her first published paper, “Identification of Coliphages in the Aviary at Brookgreen Gardens and the Factors that Might Influence Coliphage Population Dynamics in this Cypress Swamp Environment.” The paper was published in the Journal of the South Carolina Academy of Science in April 2018.

That same month, Shirley traveled to the South Carolina Academy of Science conference to present her research, where she won second place. “I had this incredible experience as a high school senior that a lot of first-year college students don’t get, and I feel really lucky,” said Shirley.

When it finally came to choosing where to go to college, Shirley said it was “hands-down Coastal.” SCORE had opened her eyes to the rigorous academic programs CCU has to offer.

“There are really good opportunities here at CCU,” said Shirley. “The fact that I’d already worked with faculty here and gotten published made me feel like I belonged here.”

Shirley is grateful for Richardson, and the for SCORE and INBRE programs. INBRE and SCORE strive to transform the culture of undergraduate research and provide access to resources that support that research. INBRE at CCU has been funded for five more years, according to College of Science Dean Michael Roberts, so students like Shirley can continue to receive the resources they need to conduct future research.

Now as a freshman at Coastal, Shirley has already begun more work with Richardson in conjunction with his ongoing research in bacterial and viral diseases. The researchers are now looking for bacteriophages in mosquitos, testing the insects for viruses that they may be carrying due to the human blood they ingest. The lab work for the project will start later this academic year, and Shirley is excited to start her new adventure.

“When you research stuff, you get new information that no one has ever seen before,” said Shirley. In addition to the thrill of new discoveries, she also recognizes the larger picture of research and its role in the scientific process.

“All of the research that we do today is built on stuff from hundreds of years ago,” she said. “And the research 100 years from now might build on what we’re doing here. It feels really cool to be a part of that.”

Now, in her biology lab this semester as a biochemistry major, Shirley’s mind is triggered when her professor announces that they will be looking at a type of coliphage in the class. Although she is still a freshman, Shirley feels comfortable after spending so much time in the lab already.

“I feel like I already know the ropes. It makes me more confident having faces of professors who I know and looking at content that I’ve worked with.”

While Shirley is already contemplating graduate school and a career in biomedical research in the future, she laughs when asked about what she plans to do next. As a first-year student, she wants to focus on the present and make the most of her time at Coastal Carolina University.

For more information about the SCORE or INBRE programs, visit ccuinbre.wordpress.com.