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Student research at UNCP focuses on treatment for individuals with diabetes


PEMBROKE, N.C. – The scope of research being conducted inside Dr. Conner Sandefur’s lab at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke is comprehensive, cutting edge, and wide-ranging.

On any given day, you will find students looking for plants that might provide a therapeutic benefit to diabetes patients, while other aspiring scientists are investigating the diet of fire ants and colony dynamics.

A third group of Sandefur’s assistants are using mathematical modeling to determine how cells respond to stress. Research is also being focused on identifying bacteria in the Lumber River.

“There are several areas of research happening simultaneously,” said Sandefur, an assistant professor of Biology. “We have 10 undergraduates currently engaged in various research in my lab. Some are volunteers, some are doing independent research, some are grant funded and some are receiving course credit.”

For the past year, his students have been testing antimicrobial properties of Lumbee medicinal plants, such as Pokeweed and St. John the Worker. The gut microbiome, the community of bacteria that live in the digestive system, is different in the digestive system of someone with diabetes.

“They are researching ways to adjust the microbiota in order to help individuals with diabetes recover normal function,” he said. 

“The idea is these plants provide a protective benefit and they can have antimicrobial properties that might have helped people before and they don’t anymore because they are not being used as much. Maybe that is why we see a health disparity with American Indians.”

Future research plans include examining plants used by the Chickasaw Tribe, of which Sandefur is a member. The lab members are Anthony Arrington, Frederick Feely, Lonzie Hedgepeth, , K’Yana McLean, Uvina Allen, Kamaria Elliot, Austin Locklear, Whitney Pittman, Dakota Lee and his twin sister, Cheyenne.

While this semester of research is coming to an end for most students, Cheyenne Lee will continue her studies during a summer research internship at Yale University.

Lee, a sophomore majoring in Biotechnology, has been accepted into the prestigious Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). She was among 400 students nominated for the 10-week, paid program. Only 67 were selected. 

Lee may be the second UNCP student ever to be accepted into the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s EXROP program, according to Sandefur. Lee will receive a stipend and participate in a research program with other undergraduate researchers.

She is looking forward to linking up with renowned scientist Dr. Christine Jacobs-Wagner, director of the Microbial Sciences Institute.

Her research internship will focus on cell regulation and intracellular processing.

Cheyenne Lee“This is an exciting moment for me but I never thought this would be happening so soon,” said Lee, a Cheraw, S.C. native. “I expected to do some big research somewhere, but not in my sophomore year of college.”

Lee is a member of UNC Pembroke’s RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) and COMPASS programs.

“I have loved science since I was a child,” she said. “My grandmother used to call me Inspector 12 because I used to pick at little fibers on everything. Every child begins as a scientist, because we are naturally curious. I guess I held my curiosity a lot longer.”

The EXROP program is designed for talented undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have potential to both excel in graduate school and in academic science.

Lee’s acceptance into the Yale summer internship speaks to the types of students enrolled at UNCP, Sandefur said.

“We have some really bright students who work really hard, but this also shows we have opportunities for those students to do great things,” he said. “This is a big deal in the world of undergraduate science.”

“This is going to be an amazing experience for her. I think it will really challenge her and she will return to UNC Pembroke with a renewed passion.”

More about Dr. Sandefur and his lab can be found on the web at and on Twitter @oshehoma.