With a message centered on trust, determination and the transformational role research experiences have played in her life, keynote speaker Raven Pierce ‘23 opened the fourth annual, day-long William & Mary Undergraduate Research Experience (WMSURE) Research Conference in Sadler on April 12.

“Experience is the best teacher,” Pierce told the audience of students, staff and faculty, as she described lessons learned from years of research and faculty mentorship in WMSURE – first as an undergraduate and now as a graduate assistant for the program and master’s candidate in the School of Education.

More than 30 undergraduate presenters followed Pierce in highlighting the role of mentored research in inspiring and driving their self-evolution, the theme of this year’s conference.  Throughout the day, individual and group oral presentations, as well as digital poster presentations in the Sadler Chesapeake rooms, covered topics spanning law, conservation, linguistics, psychology and more.

Allison Nkansah ’26, a WMSURE scholar seeking to double major in kinesiology and health sciences with a concentration in public health and economics, presented on her conservation research focusing on ecotourism potential in Mbashe Municipality of Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.

WMSURE scholar Allison Nkansah ’26 explains her conservation research.
WMSURE scholar Allison Nkansah ’26 explains her conservation research focusing on ecotourism potential in Mbashe Municipality of Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. (Photo by Tess Willett.)

“Ecotourism is a version of tourism that preserves the environment, supports the local economy and maintains local culture,” Nkansah explained.  “My project specifically investigated how the ecotourism of Cape vultures, a bird native to southern Africa, can be implemented in the municipality. I hope that presenting at the conference encourages some students, particularly those interested in conservation and public health, to work on this research project,” she said.

Nkansah hopes to inspire incoming students to pursue research during their first year on campus. She believes undergraduate research gives students unique opportunities to engage in their interests in new ways. 

“When I was in their shoes, hearing upperclassmen talk about research made it feel possible for me to also do research,” Nkansah said.  “I want to show students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, that research is accessible and a very impactful experience.”

The research journey holds special power, especially for those who may have never seen themselves as researchers or who were unaware of how to get started in the process. 

“I think conducting research is really important because it changes your worldview,” Nkansah said. “My research was particularly transformative for me because I got to travel to a country I had never been to, stay there for three weeks and have deep conversations with locals about South Africa’s history and hopes for the future.”

Isaiah Speight, assistant professor of chemistry sitting in the audience, addressing conferencegoers.
Isaiah Speight, assistant professor of chemistry (center) challenged conferencegoers to “go make your community” in the event’s concluding keynote address. (Photo by Tess Willett)

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Isaiah Speight was the conference’s concluding keynote speaker. Speight recounted a time while an undergraduate when his mentor asked him if he was pursuing chemistry because he loved it or because he could use chemistry as a vehicle for success. He realized it was the latter.

“Research gives people the opportunity to grow,” Speight explained. “It allows one to evolve through thought, beliefs, and how one understands the world. It shapes how you solve problems, changes your perspectives and ultimately challenges yourself and relationships with things around you.”

When asked why he believed research undergraduate research was important, Speight said that it is often the first time students are put into an environment in which they don’t know the answers.

“There are no bounds to the questions you can ask. There’s freedom to grow in uncharted space, challenging everything around you,” Speight said. 

The conference offers all attendees new opportunities to learn, grow and connect, he noted.  “It’s easy to assume I can only learn from my peers, but this allows me to step outside of my traditional world.”

Kaleea Korunka ’25, a chemistry major and Sharpe Community Scholars fellow, presented on her eviction research with computer science major Ye Xiao ‘25.

“I took an eviction class in sociology freshman year,” Korunka said. “I will always pursue research, because I’m a chemist; but also, the research I’m doing now with eviction impacts the communities I’m a part of and care about.”

Like many other student researchers presenting their research at the WMSURE conference, this was not Korunka’s first time doing so.

“I have been to research conferences before. My first experience at W&M was wonderful. I was around my favorite professors, was able to talk about my findings while feeling safe and comfortable, and it prepared me well for presenting at other conferences,” she said. “Research is important to get into because it brings about new perspectives, expands your horizons, and introduces new subject matter. It allows you to dig deep.”

Iyabo Osiapem, teaching professor of Africana studies and linguistics and co-director of WMSURE.
Iyabo Osiapem, teaching professor of Africana studies and linguistics and co-director of WMSURE, is an expert in Caribbean linguistics. (Photo by Tess Willett.)

Iyabo Osiapem, teaching professor of Africana studies and linguistics and co-director of WMSURE, is an expert in Caribbean linguistics. She explained that students got to show off their own skills and their findings at the WMSURE conference, something many hadn’t yet had a chance to do.

“Students underestimate how good they are. They don’t understand that, even if it’s their first, second or 50th time doing research, it’s theirs, and what they have to say will always be important,” Osiapem said. “We’re interested in what other people are doing and the different topics and approaches they use. As we do research, it tells us about ourselves. We research about what affects us and the process illuminates who we are as people.”

According to Osiapem, research can be pursued by anyone and at any time, but you must be willing to actively engage in your interests and accept that there will always be more to learn and discover about the world and yourself.

Interested in WMSURE? Learn more about the program here.

Interested in the Charles Center and options for funding your own research? Check here.