University Honors Program Provides Students with Opportunities to Present Research, Perform Service


MACON – Students in Mercer's University Honors Program this semester participated in the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as a spring break service trip to Puerto Rico.

NCUR, which is the largest and most prestigious undergraduate research conference in the country, was held this year at the University of North Carolina Asheville on April 7-9. Eight students represented the University Honors Program by presenting work in a wide range of academic disciplines.

Natalie Biel, a senior from Cumming, presented “Regulation of the Function, Expression, and Localization of SENP2, a SUMO-protease, by Epstein-Barr virus Latent Membrane Protein-1.”

Maggie Callahan, a junior from Social Circle, presented “Finding Civil Society in Post-Soviet Georgia.”

Austin Harrison, a senior from Winder, and Aaron Scherf, a junior from Acworth, co-presented “Collect to Connect: Bloomfield Community Asset Analysis.”

Kaydren Orcutt, a junior from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, presented “Characterization of Biosurfactants Produced by a Strain of Bacillus.”

Justis Ward, a junior from Douglasville, presented “Discovery of Robust Biosurfactants for Diverse Environmental Applications.”

Rachel Wilson, a senior from Charlotte, North Carolina, presented “Effects of Positive Media on Transgender Implicit Attitudes and Petition-Signing Behavior.”

Nick Wooten, a junior from Augusta, presented “Opposing the Orgy Pragmatically: W.T. Anderson and The Telegraph's Coverage of Lynching, 1916-1922.”

Additionally, March 5-11, six students participated in a spring break service trip to Puerto Rico alongside Dr. C. Jay Pendleton, vice provost for academic and advising services who heads the University Honors Program, and Dr. Tom Scott, professor of history and one of the track directors in the program.

“The service trip to Puerto Rico was a very enlightening experience, and allowed me to see many things that I normally would not have had the opportunity to,” said Kiley Walker, a freshman chemistry major from Gary, Indiana.

An organization called Community Collaborations International connected the students and professors with service opportunities at the Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico.

“The trip was a welcome alternative to a traditional spring break,” said senior David Wildes, a Spanish, international affairs and political science major from Valdosta. “By spending time doing service work, instead of simply going home or to the beach, I was able to experience a different culture, help make an impact in a community in need of aid and receive the satisfaction of seeing a job completed.”

At the nature reserve, the volunteers spent two days clearing ground near the visitor's center. This work involved removing an invasive plant species so that several native species could be put on display for visitors, as well as creating several raised garden boxes.

“The flourishing wildlife and exotic culture made my trip one that I will never forget,” said Radhika Kamath, a sophomore chemical commerce major from Cumming.

At the Boys and Girls Club of San Juan, the volunteers organized supplies and interacted with children in an after-school program.

“My favorite moment was meeting an 8-year-old girl at the Boys and Girls Club who I immediately bonded with. I loved getting to know her, reading Spanish to her and hearing about how she had learned English only by watching movies and listening to music,” said Kristina Pavlova, a junior biology major from Atlanta.

“My experiences in Puerto Rico really opened up a whole new perspective on the island and the world,” added junior Aaron Scherf, an international business, finance and economics major from Acworth. “As a U.S. territory, it was very interesting to see the political and economic impacts Puerto Rico's history has had on its people, and in turn, the connection that has had on the ecology and conservation efforts that we took part in.”

The University Honors Program, reserved for Mercer's most talented and promising undergraduate students, adds value to the campus experience and enhances students' preparation for life after graduation. It provides academically advanced students with the supportive environment needed to pursue their intellectual interests through research within distinctive paths of enrichment. For more information, visit