Past the lush lawns, blooming flower beds, and Hokie Stone buildings are thousands of people conducting world-class research. Among them are undergraduate students who are learning to be the research scientists of tomorrow.

This summer, nine undergraduate students were paired with Fralin Life Sciences Institute-affiliated faculty mentors from May 20-July 26 as part of the Fralin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.

In addition to the 15 undergraduates overall who participated in the SURF program, four others conducted research outside the SURF program with the Translational Plant Sciences Center and GlycoMIP – both supported by Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

This 10-week training program is designed to give motivated undergraduates full-time research experience that mirrors real-world graduate work. For a stipend of $5,350, selected students also attended weekly research and professional development seminars, periodic social events, and a final symposium in which they presented their research.

“I feel like we are providing a very important opportunity for undergraduate students to get into research to develop their interests and get a feel for what research is like," said Lijuan Yuan, professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.

Although the program is designed for the students, both the students and the faculty have much to gain.

“Building an undergraduate’s skills in the scientific process takes time and mentorship - so it is important for the student to be just as willing to put in the work,” said Kylie Allen, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry. “There has to be the commitment there for it to work both ways. Ideally, the student gains valuable experience and mentoring while making significant contributions to research in the lab.”

Below are a few of the students who participated in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute SURF program this summer.

Elizabeth Gilbert mentored Reagan Vaughan. Photo by Felicia Spencer for Virginia Tech.

Reagan Vaughan

  • Year: Senior  
  • Primary major: Animal and poultry sciences
  • Mentor: Elizabeth Gilbert, professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences
  • Project: Effects of Embryonic Heat Conditioning on Hypothalamic Responses to Stress, Appetite, and Thermoregulation in Broiler Chicks

"I approached Dr. Gilbert after class after I looked into her research a little bit and I was really interested," Vaughan said. "I love learning, and research is an avenue for me to continuously learn. It kind of sparked a passion inside of me that I didn't know I had, which was very awesome."

Logan Peters

  • Year: Senior  
  • Primary major: Biochemistry
  • Mentor: Kylie Allen, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry
  • Project: Biochemical Characterization of Non-canonical Folate Biosynthesis Enzymes

"It’s a really good opportunity for people who are looking to do research stuff in the future," Peters said. "I’m planning on going to grad school, so having a little bit of experience and an understanding of what goes into the research process is very helpful. And it definitely helped to learn time management and the steps of planning research."

Logan Peters and Kylie Allen in Allen's lab. Photo by Felicia Spencer for Virginia Tech.
Lijuan Yuan and Alice Leruth in Yuan's lab. Photo by Jenise Jacques for Virginia Tech.

Alice Leruth

"Being directly involved in all the parts of the research process is something new, and that's a valuable experience when you're working on projects independently and need to put it all together yourself," Leruth said. "The hands-on direct human contact of working in a lab environment is something I really enjoy."

Cleo Orlando

  • Year: Senior 
  • Primary major: Microbiology
  • Mentor: Erin Hotchkiss, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences
  • Project: Exploring nutrient cycling and microbial activity in retention ponds and surrounding waterways

"The amount of field work that we do in the Hotchkiss lab helped with a lot of skills that I didn't really have," Orlando said. "I was surprised with how much leeway I was given to make decisions. It was nice because if I had questions they would answer since I had never done anything like this before."

(From left) Erin Hotchkiss is with Ph.D. student Katherine Perez Rivera and Cleo Orlando in Hotchkiss' lab. Photo by Felicia Spencer for Virginia Tech.

While the SURF program is competitive, selected undergraduate students considering graduate research are able to experience hands-on learning in a lab environment before committing to graduate school.

"This is a place to explore and try something you've never tried before," said Elizabeth Gilbert, professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. "Maybe you're good at it and we have the resources, the expertise here to help you master it if it is something you are interested in." 

In addition to the full time lab work, students also receive help with professional development, which includes creating a resume, writing a personal statement, and building communication skills.

"There’s this growth in early career scientists where you can see that they’re thinking critically and asking questions and coming up with cool stuff on their own," said Erin Hotchkiss, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. "When you find that, and you are able to just hand over the keys and just advise, it’s really exciting."

Below are photos of all the Fralin Life Sciences Institute SURF student and mentor pairs. If you want to keep surfing, there are more profiles on the institute's homepage.

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