The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC hosted 20 undergraduate students this summer for a 10-week experience in two research programs that explore neurobiology and cutting-edge imaging technology to visualize living systems.

The excursions into the world of biomedical research are part of the institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) programs. NeuroSURF deals with fundamental and translational neurobiology research, and MolVisSURF explores Molecular Visualization imaging concepts and technologies used by life scientists to probe the fundamentals of biological processes in health and disease.

In addition, the undergraduates learn about preparing for a future career in science, receiving mentorship from Fralin Biomedical Research Institute faculty and Virginia Tech graduate students who themselves are carrying out research in various laboratories at the research institute. Both programs were founded in 2017 through funding from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology. The NeuroSURF program subsequently went on to be awarded additional funding from the National Institutes of Health.

“Undergraduate students have the opportunity to work closely under the guidance of some of the most innovative and productive biomedical research scientists in the world at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and the institute’s executive director. “It is mutually beneficial for the students, the faculty, and the other members of the lab teams to share the excitement, passion, and intellectual curiosity of these early career scientists – and physicians – in training.”  

Students attended virtual lectures by Virginia Tech research scientists and faculty in a variety of disciplines and were taught how to develop and foster creative problem-solving, science communication, and presentation skills.

The summer undergraduate research fellowship programs involve a full-time, 40-hour weekly schedule. Student awardees, including one or two high school students each summer, receive a stipend, and undergraduates receive housing if needed.

“It has been really rewarding to see that we are successfully recruiting applicants from other universities that do not provide the research experience available at institutions such as Virginia Tech,” said James Smyth, an associate professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, who founded the SURF program in molecular visualization. “We receive applications from far and wide — literally across the nation — demonstrating that the reputation of the program is growing as we train more fellows each year.”

The students presented posters illustrating their research findings at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Symposium in Blacksburg on July 29 as well as at the 2nd Annual Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium on July 30 at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, where they were judged by research institute faculty and Virginia Tech graduate students. This year’s winner, Simran Gill, is a 2021 graduate of Salem High School and the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School. Elena Hayday from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, Lilian Byer from Davidson College, and Airinés González Velázquez from the University of Puerto Rico, were runners-up.

Undergraduate research symposium
Participants in the NeuroSURF and MolVisSURF programs presented posters illustrating their research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s 2nd Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in the atrium of 4 Riverside Circle on Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke. (Matt Chittum for Virginia Tech)

“From their arrival early in the summer to the symposium 10 weeks later, these students do a remarkable amount of learning,” said Michael Fox, professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, director of Virginia Tech’s School of Neuroscience in the College of Science and founder of the NeuroSURF program. “The students come away from their summer here confident and excited to pursue careers in science. That’s really gratifying.”

The undergraduate research programs are coordinated by Alexandria Pilot, program and administrative coordinator for the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Center for Neurobiology Research.

The 2021 fellowship awardees, their home universities and assigned labs are:


  • Lucas Angles, Vassar College, Read Montague Lab
  • Vincent Bui, Virginia Tech, Zhi Sheng Lab
  • Lilian Byer, Davidson College, Michael Fox Lab
  • Andry Cantarero, Frostburg State, Stefanie Robel Lab
  • Fallon Curry, Virginia Tech, Shannon Farris Lab
  • Abraham Han, Virginia Tech, Sora Shin Lab
  • Elena Hayday, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, Zhi Sheng Lab
  • Gabriel Isaac, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Warren Bickel Lab
  • Ronak Kanodia, University of Florida, John Chappell Lab
  • Sydney Kehoe, College of William & Mary, Stephen LaConte Lab
  • Alia Korot, Kenyon College, Stefanie Robel Lab
  • Madison LaRoche, Virginia Tech, Warren Bickel Lab
  • Michelle Morris, Virginia Tech, Read Montague Lab
  • Rianna Zacharias, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Shannon Farris Lab
  • Simran Gill, Salem High School and Roanoke Valley Governor’s School (graduated), Michael Fox Lab 


  • Airines Gonzalez-Velazquez, University of Puerto Rico, James Smyth Lab
  • Rosalie Gude, Virginia Tech, John Chappell Lab
  • Kavya Iyer, Roanoke College, Brittany Howell Lab
  • Arya Malek, Virginia Tech, Scott Johnstone Lab
  • Ben Siedlarz, Virginia Tech, Carla Finkielstein Lab
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