How Carolina became a research university
for everybody — not just for graduate students.
by Mark Derewicz
Spear in hand, Serena Hackerott plunged into the warm Caribbean water in search of a venomous predator that might not deserve to die, but die it must. Fifty feet below the surface on a colorful coral reef vibrant with grouper and snapper, urchins and sea stars, she spotted her prey — a lionfish, an orangey foreign invader from halfway around the world with sheathed venomous spines along its back.
Hackerott approached slowly, set the rubber-band trigger of her three-pronged spear
and took a shot.
The lionfish, a slow, meandering swimmer, never had a chance. Hackerott rose swiftly
to the surface, the fish stuck like a hot dog on a fork. It was a big one, about 15 inches
from lips to tail. Into a bucket it went with 10 others.
Hackerott wasn’t hunting lionfish for kicks. She was on a research mission to collect
otoliths — parts of a fish’s inner ear. She hoped she could measure otolith rings to determine the age of the fish, sort of like counting rings in a tree.
“I wanted to see if environmental factors, such as the amount of predators or the health
of the reef, affected the growth rate of lionfish,” Hackerott said. “I thought this informa-
tion could be useful for management decisions aimed at controlling the lionfish invasion.”
Other researchers had done the same thing with other fish, but there was no guarantee
the approach would lead to new knowledge about the lionfish problem.
Hackerott, back in the summer of 2012, was a rising senior. She had been part of a lab
run by biology Professor John Bruno, whose team of graduate students had been monitoring lionfish populations since 2009. Hackerott came aboard at the start of her sophomore
year, when she thought she’d try her hand at research.
At the end of her senior year, she’d have a diploma in one hand and a scientific paper in
the other. She was a published scientist in the field of her choosing by the age of 22.
Though it’s rare for a UNC undergraduate to spend her summers spearing venomous
fish off the coast of Belize to collect tiny ear bones, Hackerott’s story of how she found
herself on a prominent research team at UNC, and the lead author on a published journal
article, isn’t unique.
She’s one of thousands of UNC students — more than half of all undergraduates —
who take up the mantle of research every year. We’re not talking about writing a term
paper with a few citations or latching onto a lab that needs someone to make coffee and
get the mail. We’re talking about forming hypotheses and conducting original research to
answer a question. Real research.
Serena Hackerott ’ 13 off the coast of Belize