From undergraduate researcher to PhD student

Posted on June 08, 2021

Portrait of student holding clipboard in clinical setting
Portrait of student holding clipboard in clinical setting
Aran Garnett-Deakin ’20 works on the iGrow project as a research assistant.

UNC Greensboro stands out for its commitment to undergraduate research. 

Students build close relationships with faculty and work alongside them in their labs, in the field, or in archives. 

It’s a transformative experience that opens up countless opportunities. Just ask Aran Garnett-Deakin. 

A 2020 human development and family studies graduate, Garnett-Deakin worked on multiple research projects in several labs throughout her undergraduate career. After her graduation last May, she was hired to work as a research assistant on some of the most important research projects taking place on campus. And now, she’s gearing up for a PhD in human development at Virginia Tech. 

Originally from Blacksburg, Virginia, Garnett-Deakin participated in research as a high school student, given her proximity to Virginia Tech’s campus. She landed at UNCG because of the reputation of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, as well as the focus on undergraduate research and the access to faculty. 

As a sophomore, she began working with Dr. Esther Leerkes on the Noise, Emotion, and Thinking (NET) Study, in which she helped examine the impact of infant cries on college women’s functioning. She prepped study materials, fitted participants with electroencephalogram caps and heart rate monitors, and assisted with data collection. 

Garnett-Deakin later worked with Leerkes on the Infant Growth and Development Study (iGrow), a project funded by the National Institutes of Health. iGrow follows approximately 300 pregnant women and their children for two years in an effort to identify the earliest predictors of risk for childhood obesity. Since graduation, she has served as a part-time research assistant for the project, helping to continue operations during the pandemic. 

“I do a lot of data collection and coding,” she said “I have a lot of face time with the participants – the moms and their babies. I also mentor undergraduates, which is really awesome.” 

“Aran has been an amazing asset to this study,” said Leerkes. “I’ve seen her grow in confidence, clarity of her interests, and in leadership, from being an undergraduate on our project to helping lead undergraduates the following year. I am certain she will thrive in graduate school and go on to be a successful researcher, teacher, and change agent.”

Garnett-Deakin also works alongside Dr. Jocelyn Smith Lee in the Centering Black Voices Lab, which explores the unequal burdens of trauma and grief in the lives of young Black men. She began work in the lab as a junior, and wrote her undergraduate thesis, “‘All I Want Out of Life is a Family’: Examining How Violence and Masculinity Informs Fathering for Young Black Men,” under the supervision of Smith Lee.

Now, Garnett-Deakin is assisting Smith Lee with her new Gates Foundation-funded research project, “Disrupting Dehumanizing Narratives of Black Men in Poverty.” The research team is working to equip young Black men in Baltimore with skills in ethnography and photography so they can create and share a more complete and nuanced narrative about their lives. 

“Undergraduate researchers are an instrumental part of our Centering Black Voices research team, and Aran has played an essential role from the beginning,” said Smith Lee. “Aran does not shy away from challenges. She is a brilliant thinker who is humble, teachable, and welcomes the opportunity to learn and to lead. She is a joy to mentor. Virginia Tech is gaining a treasure.”

Working on both projects has been perfect preparation for the PhD program. As a doctoral student, Garnett-Deakin will focus on telling the stories of Black families – and specifically Black fathers – in Appalachia and other rural areas.

“There’s this huge history of Black Appalachian families that is barely tapped into. I would like to start looking at family structures and find people who are willing to share about their family histories,” she says. 

Garnett-Deakin’s ultimate goal is to work as a university professor, engaging in both teaching and research. 

Her advice for fellow Spartans interested in undergraduate research?

“Email as many faculty as possible. Professors are really excited about their research. They want to give undergrads access to these experiences, and they want to help you develop skills for graduate school,” she said. “It’s OK to ask people for things and advocate for what you want. Everyone here really wants the best for you.”

To learn more about undergraduate research opportunities at UNCG, visit

Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications


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