Samantha Garcia Cruz receives FPG's Barbara Davis Goldman Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research
When Samantha Garcia Cruz transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill from Alamance Community College two years ago, she was looking for research experience to complement her studies in psychology.
She connected with Cathi Propper, PhD, in the UNC Brain and Early Experience (BEE) Lab and found a lab that not only fit her academic interests but also made her feel supported as a student and recognized as an emerging researcher with a natural talent for community-based research.
Garcia Cruz, who graduates this spring with a bachelor's degree in psychology and minors in education and Latina/o studies, is this year's winner of the Barbara Davis Goldman Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, which acknowledges an outstanding undergraduate student who has participated in research activities at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.
Garcia Cruz has been a student researcher in the BEE Lab since the summer of 2019 where she has been extensively involved in data collection, acting as a research assistant on prenatal lab visits, two-week MRI visits, and six-month home and remote visits for the BEE study. Since remote data collection began last summer, Garcia Cruz has been a visit lead, requiring her to be in communication with mothers and coordinate visits both with the family and the rest of the team.
"As a first-generation college student, I never really had an awareness of or introduction to what research could actually look like," says Garcia Cruz. "I've learned a lot of new skills from the lab, but I think what I really learned is that I really like being with and talking to participants, actually getting to interact with them and finding out what they need and what we can provide for them."
The award is named for Barbara Davis Goldman, PhD, a retired research professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, in recognition of her commitment to empowering, mentoring, and teaching Carolina's talented future investigators over her nearly four-decade career. Goldman, a retired senior research scientist at FPG, played a pivotal role in bringing meaningful research experiences to many of Carolina's undergraduate students by offering the opportunity for students to experience valuable autonomy and creativity as they learn to ask important questions and seek answers.
In her nomination for the award, Propper, director of the Developmental Biobehavioral Core and advanced research scientist at FPG, praised Garcia Cruz’s love of research, hard work, and experience. Her commitment and reliability have been noted by both supervisors and peers as she often made herself available for lab work even during school breaks, Propper wrote.
"Samantha has been a pleasure to work with since she joined our team almost two years ago. She is eager, energetic, and an extremely dedicated student and researcher," wrote Propper. "Most recently, she has been an integral part of our data collection team, conducting visits remotely since last summer. She is always warm and welcoming with not only fellow members of the BEE team but with our participants, making their time with us more enjoyable."
Garcia Cruz says she would one day like to get a PhD in developmental or community psychology, and she's currently seeking opportunities in labs that have a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach, which is research that seeks to equitably involve community members, researchers, and other partners in all parts of the research process.
"CBPR works with participants to come up with the topic question that is important for the community and then also be able to analyze and gather data together. It's about what is important to them and what we need to look at in order to help them in their communities," she says. "This is what I have really loved about the BEE lab, seeing people in their homes, learning about their communities and how they live, and the differences in socioeconomic statuses—just having connections with them and being able to see their interactions with their babies."
She says receiving the Barbara Davis Goldman Award showed her that she'd made a difference in the lab as much as the lab has made a difference in her life at Carolina.
"The lab staff and graduate students have always given me good feedback and made me feel appreciated. But receiving this award was something that let me know I was really doing a good job in research," she says. "They said that I was going above and beyond, but I'd never really thought about it that way—I was just doing something that I really love."