For the more than 270 undergraduates at William & Mary who received 2024 Charles Center summer research grants, May through August is a period of profound discovery, personal mentorship and meaningful connection.

Whether researching in a campus lab or conducting fieldwork abroad, William & Mary undergraduates are putting their liberal arts & sciences education into practice this summer.

Academic and hands-on learning

Breegan O’Hearn ’25, a biology and environment & sustainability double major investigating plastic toxicity, is pursuing an interest she first developed in high school.

Breegan O’Hearn ’25, a biology and environment & sustainability double major, received a Charles Center Summer Research Grant to investigate plastic toxicity. (Courtesy photo)

“The opportunity to experience lab work and execute my own project feels just as necessary as my coursework and satisfies my need for hands-on activities during my college career,” O’Hearn said.

O’Hearn credits her faculty advisor, Professor of Marine Science Bongkeun Song, with inspiring her to investigate the effects of various plastics on bacterial growth and their potential risks to human and environmental health.  Her research has led to a series of new connections – with data, ideas and communities of scholars at multiple levels.

Song introduced O’Hearn to Mara Walters, a third-year Ph.D. student at W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who in turn encouraged her to design and commit to this summer’s project examining several plastic polymer types found on Virginia beaches.

“Plastic pollution has been observed as a potential habitat for pathogenic species such as V. cholera and V. parahaemolyticus,” said O’Hearn.

In addition to contributing critical data to the effort to clean up Virginia’s water and beaches, the project “will also give me insight into whether I want to pursue research in my future career and inform my decision on future academic plans beyond graduation,” said O’Hearn.

Nonstop learning in the lab

Grace LaFrancois ’27, a chemistry and environment & sustainability double major, is working in the lab of her faculty mentor, Associate Professor of Chemistry William McNamara, researching ways to detect toxic metals in drinking water. 

Grace LaFrancois ’27 is researching ways to detect toxic metals in drinking water. (Courtesy photo)

LaFrancois also views her summer project as complementary to her W&M coursework and as a way to better understand her evolving academic interests and professional goals. 

“The research that I am doing this summer will help me to gain necessary skills and prepare me for future career opportunities,” LaFrancois said. “Beyond learning how to use a fluorimeter or synthesize a ligand, my work at the lab is teaching me how to quickly adapt to change, increasing my creative problem-solving skills, how to become a better researcher, and helping me gain confidence in the workplace.”

“I cannot go an hour in the lab without learning something new,” LaFrancois explained. “I am learning about different parts of chemistry I have not taken classes on yet. With the background knowledge I have gotten from the lab, it will be easier for me to learn the new information in these courses.”

Faculty mentorship

Faculty mentorship also drew Steven Henriquez Talavera ’27, a linguistics and international relations double major, to pursue focused and intensive research this summer. He is investigating language policies in public K-12 schools and their influence on various facets of language learning, such as English as a Second Language (ESL). 

Steven Henriquez Talavera ’27, a linguistics and international relations double major, is examining language policies in public K-12 schools. (WMSURE staff photo)

He points to the nurturing attention of WMSURE program co-directors Iyabo Osiapem, teaching professor of Africana studies and linguistics, and Katherine Barko-Alva, associate professor of ESL/bilingual education, as inspiration.

“Both of these professors have ignited the career path I wish to pursue with linguistics and language learning,” Talavera said. 

As his faculty advisor, Barko-Alva introduced Talavera to new concepts and approaches that connected his own experiences growing up as a bilingual speaker to critical issues facing public education today. Barko-Alva’s way of explaining “what it means to be multilingual in our society truly motivates me to follow in her framework and legacy, to also uncover and understand language education and how it pertains to identity,” he said.

Talavera hopes that his research, launched as an undergraduate at W&M, will one day “contribute something to the linguistics field at large.”

Micah Dill ’26, a philosophy and integrative conservation double major, discovered the possibility of summer research in the classroom of Mara Dicenta-Vilker, assistant professor of anthropology.

“I first met my faculty mentor, Professor Dicenta-Vilker, during an environmental anthropology class where we discussed topics like traditional ecological knowledge and its importance in conservation,” Dill said. “This class inspired me to pursue research in conservation that would allow me to use what I was learning to have an impact in an actual conservation project.”

Research with impact

By focusing on traditional ecological knowledge, Dill isn’t necessarily seeking to produce new knowledge, but rather to focus on creating new ways of understanding and communicating traditional knowledge that can inform fishery conservation in the future. 

“I want to tell untold stories in a way that causes people to question their assumptions about nature and conservation, resulting in lasting impact on the way conservation is conducted in the region,” he said.

Dill’s project is his first foray into the field of conservation outside of his coursework.

“My summer research is a great addition to my conservation major and allows me to take what I am learning in the classroom and apply it to the real world through an enriching experience that will enhance my perspective on what I am learning in my classes.”

Interested in learning more about undergraduate research at William & Mary?  Visit the Charles Center’s website for details and deadlines.