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Meet Emilia Mazzolenis, a Senior double-majoring in Psychology and Economics with a minor in Statistics and Analytics. She works in Dr. Bharathi Zvara’s laboratory in the Gillings School of Public Health as a Research Assistant and is an Undergraduate Research Consultant* with Dr. Jane Fruehwirth, Associate Professor in the Department of Economics and an affiliate of the UNC Carolina Population Center.

Tell us about your research. Under Dr. Fruehwirth’s guidance, I spent the summer researching the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on first-year UNC students’ mental health. I conducted research on the prevalence of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, as well as students’ help-seeking behavior. I worked on providing a breakdown of such categories based on students’ racial or ethnic groups, binary gender, sexual or gender minorities, and first-generation college status. Thanks to previous research that Dr. Fruehwirth had conducted, the team and I were able to isolate the impact of COVID-19 on mental health across student demographics, and I am using such data to provide recommendations to University officials.

What made you choose to work with Dr. Fruehwirth on this project? Ever since I met Dr. Fruehwirth, I knew we both shared similar research interests. Even if she is an Economics professor, she shares the same passion I do for psychological phenomena. Therefore, when she presented me the opportunity to study mental health through an economics lens, I knew it was the perfect fit for me!

What encouraged you to get involved in research? I have been interested in research from a very young age. Even though conducting research can be challenging, research findings have the potential to help people around the world. Witnessing that the pandemic was exacerbating preexisting disparities across certain demographic groups encouraged me to get involved in this research. I hope my findings can provide University Officials a clear picture of what is happening within our community so that they can help the most vulnerable groups.

Has this experience changed your ideas about research? Being involved with Dr. Fruehwirth’s research has shown me how interdisciplinary research can be! Before I joined the URCT*, I was unaware of the fact that other departments at UNC conduct psychology-related research. Additionally, this experience showed me that research goes beyond the typical laboratory setting: I conducted all of my research from the comfort of my house!

How has the University shut down has affected your research? Since the research we are conducting focuses on the effects of the pandemic, we did not start working on it until after the university had shifted to an online format! Therefore, the entirety of the research was conducted online. Luckily, our weekly Zoom meetings and the openness of all the team members allowed us to build a sense of community and thrive in spite of the challenges we faced.

*Undergraduate Research Consultant Teams (URCTs) are small “strike teams” of students from multiple disciplines who will execute well-defined, one semester projects guided by a faculty advisor. The goals of the URCT program are to (1) provide students with opportunities for inquiry and discovery in the context of real-world cutting-edge research, and (2) foster interactions between disciplines (e.g. Humanities and Natural and Social Sciences) that reflect the diversity of perspectives necessary to solve society’s problems. Students may register their interest to participate in the URCT Program by completing the online URCT Interest Form. This will place your name in the URCT Interest Database, where faculty may search for possible project participants.

Our Undergraduate Research Series features spotlights on our Psychology and Neuroscience majors and minors who are conducting undergraduate research with our faculty! We believe strongly that undergraduate experiences are greatly enriched by inquiry and discovery through undergraduate research. Research experiences allow students to better understand literature, determine areas of interest, discover their passion for research, continue on to graduate studies, and to jump start their careers as researchers. If you are an undergraduate who is interested in pursuing research experiences, we offer PSYC and NSCI 395 as an opportunity to work side-by-side with graduate students and faculty members on cutting-edge psychological and neuroscience research. We also recommend you visit the Office for Undergraduate Research to find research opportunities, apply for research funding, and for helpful tools and advice. Research opportunities abound at UNC – find one that works for you!

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