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Undergraduate Student Gains Research Experience

by Paul Mcdivitt

While most of her peers are enjoying a break from the rigor of academic life this summer, undergraduate integrative physiology major Carly Ratekin has other ideas.

"I'm somebody who has to stay busy," she said.

Ratekin is working on an IBS project with Dr. Lori Hunter this summer, thanks to an Undergraduate Research Opportunity (UROP) grant from the university. She took Hunter's introduction to sociology course, and was fascinated by Hunter's research studying natural resource-based livelihoods in rural South Africa. She reached out to Hunter, and they worked together to secure the UROP grant for her to work at IBS this summer. 

"UROP grants are a fantastic mechanism through which undergraduates can participate in faculty research and also create their own projects," said Hunter. "Supporting engaged, motivated undergraduates in this way deepens their educational experience, helps with critical thinking and potentially creates future researchers."

Hunter has been collaborating with Dr. Wayne Twine of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa for about the last decade on public health studies at the Agincourt Health and Demographic Surveillance Site. In addition to Hunter and Ratekin, graduate student Miriam Counterman also works on the project.

"It's been great to see the whole process," said Ratekin. “To see what it's like to do research.”

Ratekin is using statistical software to analyze survey data that Hunter and others collected in 2012. In addition, Ratekin conducted an extensive literature review related to the work.

"We're trying to better understand how households in rural South Africa combine a suite of activities to make ends meet," said Hunter. "By better understanding which combination of activities most enhance well-being, we hope to inform programs and policies aiming to increase household resilience."

Many of the households they study rely on their natural environment for food and materials that they use to make household items and products they can sell for income, such as baskets or reed mats. Categorizing these households based on factors such as how much land they own and farm, and whether or not they own livestock, could help government programs better target those who need assistance. 

"Hopefully we'll be able to get typologies of households," said Ratekin. "From there we'll be able to see which ones are more or less food secure, and then give that information to governmental agencies to help households."

The importance of the work keeps her spirits up while she's programming. 

"Being able to help people is my motivation," said Ratekin. "Hopefully we'll see some sort of outcome that will be able to get resources to people who really need it."

She hopes to do a related project for her honors thesis in integrative physiology, possibly looking at the effect of natural resource-based livelihoods on childbirth weight. 

In addition to her academic pursuits, Ratekin volunteers at Planned Parenthood on a regular basis, and recently spent a week teaching at a science camp for kids on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She also enjoys hiking, and tries to hike every Friday. She's summited two "fourteeners" (mountains with elevations higher than 14,000 feet) already this year. 

Ratekin, who will begin her junior year at CU-Boulder in September, is planning to apply to medical school or a master's program in public health after graduating. 

"Carly is curious, smart, motivated, hard-working, organized and all-in-all, an absolutely delightful collaborator," said Hunter. "She will succeed in whatever she chooses for her future."