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Research Ripple Effect


How a Carolina junior found her way into the lab and how she’s giving back

In advance of the Celebration of Undergraduate Research (CUR) on April 25, presented by the Office of Undergraduate Research, we caught up with junior Aakanksha Gundu who will be presenting her work as part of the Strahl lab in the School of Medicine.

Before she ever set foot on Carolina’s campus, Aakanksha Gundu was certain of one thing.

“I knew I wanted to get involved in research,” said Gundu, now a junior. “I just wasn’t sure exactly what kind of research I wanted to do.”

To help figure it out, Gundu –– a double-major in biology and neuroscience with a minor in chemistry in the College of Arts & Sciences –– took advantage of IDST184 “Research Beyond Academia” through the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) during her second semester at UNC.

Taught by Bob Pleasants, associate director of the OUR and now a mentor of Gundu’s, the “Research Beyond Academia” course invites guest faculty speakers to share their best tips on how to break into the research realm.

“We learned how to reach out to professors, how to show your interest and where to find opportunities,” said Gundu, who was deciding how to narrow down her interest in studying DNA.

Her second semester, an opportunity arose to join the laboratory of Brian Strahl in the UNC School of Medicine’s biochemistry and biophysics department.

“I reached out to the lab manager and said, ‘I’m super interested in what you’re researching, specifically epigenetics and DNA biology,’” Gundu recalls. “I got really lucky. That was the first email I ever sent to a lab manager, and he got back to me right away.”

The official offer to join the Strahl lab came just days before UNC pivoted to remote operations in March 2020, but it didn’t stop Gundu from making the most of the opportunity while at home. She sat in on virtual lab meetings to become acquainted with her new labmates and to better understand the breadth of research happening under one roof.

When her first official day onsite arrived in fall of 2020, she was struck by the kindness of her mentors in the lab and how they took the time to encourage her: It was okay to make mistakes and to continue to learn as she went.

“I never felt scared to say I didn’t know something,” Gundu said. “I remember one time I was talking to my lab’s principal investigator, Dr. Brian Strahl, because I was confused about something. And he reassured me by saying, ‘I’m a PI, and I am still learning every day.’”

With guidance from her mentors, Gundu began diving into her research in earnest: the ways proteins interact with DNA to cause different gene expressions, specifically focused on the Taf14 protein in yeast.

“Depending on how Taf14 interacts with a specific complex, it dictates which genes are upregulated versus downregulated,” Gundu said, noting that upregulations and downregulations are like on and off switches in cells.

“From a broader view,” she continued, “this research has important implications for broadening our knowledge of cancer because many cancers arise due to an irregularity in transcriptional regulation and DNA repair.”

Gundu will be presenting her research at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research (CUR) on April 25, as one of nearly 400 students sharing their work on more than 250 research topics.

The event, which is hosted in the Blue Zone at Kenan Stadium, is the first in-person symposium since 2019 and an exciting opportunity for the community to explore the research being conducted across departments at UNC.

“I’m excited to see everyone on campus who is conducting research together in one place,” Gundu said. “It’s always so cool hearing about the research that other people are doing.”

Pleasants, who along with teaching the “Research Beyond Academia” course is organizing the event, agreed.

“Nothing beats the palpable energy of an in-person experience where you can walk around the Blue Zone and talk to undergraduates and hear about their great research,” he said.

As she prepares for her senior year, Gundu is committed to paying forward the mentorship that served as a catalyst to her success in the lab.

As an OUR student ambassador, she helps fellow Tar Heels tackle the toughest aspects of beginning research as an undergraduate, including writing introductory emails to lab managers and navigating those first few weeks in the lab.

“I think it’s great that students can talk to other students,” Gundu said about the ambassador program, “because sometimes talking to professors can be intimidating.”

Gundu was also recently awarded the Eve Marie Carson Memorial Junior-Year Merit Scholarship. Through the award, she is working toward expanding her role as a mentor by creating a program to introduce children to science concepts as early as possible. Her hope is to foster the same open-minded exploration and problem-solving skills that lead to success in research and in life.

By Jess Abel ‘19