Riding a student wave of cool stuff on SURF Day at Elon

As I flipped through the local newspaper this morning (yes I still read the print edition page by page) I stopped — as I usually do, on the daily horoscope. Yeah, I read that, too. I am neither proud nor ashamed of this. Like the obituaries, it simply is.

Often these snippets of random fortune cookie-cutter wisdom don’t mean too much. It’s like consulting a Magic 8-Ball for critical life decisions. But on a few occasions a particular observation resonates with something going on around me in the moment. Today the horoscope for this Leo said:


Hmmmm, that sounds about right, I thought to myself, and like the old school fart I am, I clipped it to join a collection of horoscope entries scattered among the other detritus atop my desk at Elon University. My day was indeed likely to include participating in all of those things. That’s because today, April 30, 2019, is the annual celebration at Elon called the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum, or SURF. Most, or well, a lot of us, just call it SURF Day. It has absolutely nothing to do with Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, or the late surf guitarist Dick Dale but it has everything to do with student-achievement through hands-on learning. It annually falls on the last Tuesday in April and is part of a week of events geared toward academic excellence on campus. It’s a grand schedule of events noting the accomplishments of students, academic departments, faculty and organizations. For more about it read this story on the Elon website.

Nearly every day this week I will attend an even or activity geared toward learning where I will interact with like-minded friends and colleagues and support causes I believe in — namely, education and appreciation of cool stuff. On SURF Day I decided to attend a display of posters explaining and highlighting individual undergraduate research projects undertaken by Elon students under the guidance of a faculty mentor. The Great Hall, a massive space inside the Global Commons building, was jammed with students standing before their posters, which were perched on easels displaying about the widest variety of topics anyone could imagine. It was incredibly impressive by any measurement.


if nothing else, the SURF Day poster exhibition revealed that Elon students are dedicated to research — it is, after all, one of the five Elon Experiences all students are encouraged to undertake — and that their research is wide-ranging. All of the topics were interesting and more than a few daunting. One that caught my eye involved “Catalytic Cyclization of 1-Amino-1-Deoxy-D-Galactitol Towards a Renewable Alternative to Petroleum-Based Medicines.” In my time as a newspaper reporter I read press releases from LabCorp that were about that technical. But the student who explained it knew her stuff.


A few research projects hit closer to home. One hit upon tobacco farming, a part of life in North Carolina for decades now in rapid decline to the point where it seems to barely exist anymore. It was called: “To Farm or Not to Farm: A Cross-sectional Study of Tobacco Production Post-Federal Regulation.” Another research project was about “Fertility Preservation in Adolescents and Young Adults with Cancer.” On the political side, there was a study of gerrymandering legislative districts and another about how judges are appointed in the U.S. and other nations (hint, it’s not so different from one to the other). In sports, one study looked at the impact of NCAA reclassification of basketball programs impacted men’s basketball coaches.

For the past few months one of my work projects for Elon has involved expanding studies of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) at Elon, including a new facility focusing on STEM-related discovery and innovation. Tuesday Elon engineering student Justin Smoot presented his research “Exploring Flight Characteristics of Model Rockets.” His mentor is Sirena Hargrove-Leak, the chair of the Engineering Department.

And there were a few unique research projects that brought an academic eye to subjects that fall more into the area of cultural phenomena. One created an interesting look at the popularity of the “Great British Bake Off,” a TV program that features a baking competition. It’s among my wife’s favorite shows because it’s not only educational but relaxing to watch. It’s a competition without rancor, which was also a conclusion I reached with a couple of people reading that particular poster.


By far my favorite offbeat research project was conducted by student Leah Kay (faculty mentor L.D. Russell). It handled the decades-old question of: “How the Grateful Dead Developed a Religious Following.” Yeah, it’s about how Deadheads came to be. I stood there for a few moments marveling at her poster and its findings with William Moner, a professor in the School of Communications. Leah explained how she came upon her topic and then described going about finding Deadheads — relentlessly dedicated followers of the rock band The Grateful Dead — it has a Wikipedia entry (go figure). She reached out on social media sites and had tremendous response. I would be surprised if she didn’t hear from one my my cousins.

“You could probably turn this into a book,” I told her.

“You know it would sell,” Moner added.

Before I left for the next poster, I thanked Leah for making my day.

But really, my day was already made. Almost every student had an interesting story to tell. That’s what SURF Day is all about. More photos are below. Feel free to take a closer look. And happy SURF Day.





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