‘The real deal’: Students thrive and grow in summer hands-on research experiences
More than 30 undergraduate and high school students spent the summer working with world-class researchers at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC as part of fellowships aimed at training the next generation of scientists.
Hezekiah Emmanuel, a James Madison University junior, had an interest in scientific research but wanted to try it on and see how it fit.
So he earned a spot in one of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship programs — commonly called SURF programs — at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. The programs on Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences and Technology campus give high school and college students a taste of real life in a lab.
“I wanted to see how research was for me and I wanted mentorship, and I definitely got that here,” Emmanuel said, standing before a poster describing his summer research project during the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium in Roanoke. “It's the real deal. I got to do hands-on research that I don't think I could have gotten anywhere else.”
Emmanuel, who joined the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Early Identification Program, worked in the lab of Carla Finkielstein, professor at the research institute, where he investigated a connection between circadian rhythms – our internal body clocks – and colorectal cancer.
This was the seventh summer of programs aimed at engaging and training the next generation of scientists. This year, 34 students from colleges in Virginia, North Carolina, and as far away as California, and from five area high schools, participated in summer undergraduate research fellowship programs:
- NeuroSURF, for neuroscience, funded by the National Institutes of Health
- CardioSURF, for cardiovascular science, funded by the American Heart Association
- CUBE SURF, hosted by the Virginia Tech Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science
- Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Center for Health Behaviors Summer Research Program for area high school students
- Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Early Identifcation Program, to identify and help students from underrepresented groups attend medical school
The CUBE SURF and health behaviors programs also focus on groups underrepresented in science professions.
“All of these programs have the great advantage of allowing students from a range of backgrounds and experiences and an interest in science to get perhaps their first real cutting-edge research experiences,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “They often come to the program not having a concrete conception of exactly what they’re going to learn, what mistakes they will make, or what they might discover. That is an exciting, sometimes a little frightening but always energizing time in their lives that really have unlimited horizons to dream big and act on those dreams.”
Ronisha Upreti, a junior at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, was looking for a real research experience. She joined the health behaviors summer program, working in the lab of Wynn Legon, where she did research on how lifestyle factors such as sleep quality, caffeine intake and physical activity affect heart rate.
“I had a great experience,” she said. “I would recommend this to my friends and other people who are interested in research. This is a great experience for a high schooler to see what research is about.”
The five students in the CardioSURF program also traveled to Boston for four days with James Smyth, associate professor at the research institute, for the American Heart Association (AHA) Basic Cardiovascular Sciences Scientific Sessions, where they presented posters on their research. This international meeting represents the forefront of current cardiovascular research and encompasses oral presentations, dynamic poster sessions, and social events to foster networking and future collaboration. Students from similar fellowship programs at Oregon Health and Science University, the University of Houston, the University of Louisville, and the University of North Carolina at Chappell Hill also attended.
“Thanks to the support of the AHA, these students got to experience how the scientific community shares and discusses new, unpublished findings,” said Smyth, who directs the CardioSURF program. “Trainees typically don’t get such exposure, networking opportunities, and chance to build relationships with peers until much later, so I am delighted we were able to give our cohort an invaluable head start on their professional scientific careers.”
The summer programs culminate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium, where students explain their projects to faculty and graduate students who assess them.
“Everybody feels super involved, super interested in the work and the work of my peers,” said Maia Barrow, a student at Georgia Institute of Technology. “It's been great seeing how everybody's products have come together. It's been great to talk to other people at the program as well.”
This year’s symposium winners were:
- First place: Abigail Stiles, NeuroSURF, senior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying chemistry and psychology
- Second place: Hezekiah Emmanuel, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Early Identification Program, a junior at James Madison University studying health sciences
- Third place: Naija Barakat, NeuroSURF, a senior at Washington and Lee University studying neuroscience
Participants in the summer programs, their home schools, and the labs in which they worked included the following:
- Gia Baldo, Virginia Tech, LaMantia Lab
- Naija Barakat, Washington and Lee University, Shin Lab
- Maia Barrow, Georgia Institute of Technology, LaConte Lab
- Madison Doceti, University of Virginia, DiFeliceantonio Lab
- Chisom Ezigbo, Duke University, Farris Lab
- Zachary Hubshman, Virginia Tech, Bickel Lab
- Daniela Pereira, Virginia Tech, DeLuca Lab
- Razia Rahyab, Virginia Commonwealth University, Chappell Lab
- Edward Rygalski, Roanoke College, Fox Lab
- Daniel Sane, Virginia Tech, Bickel Lab
- Abigail Stiles, Virginia Commonwealth University, Legon Lab
- Zoey Wisniewski, UNC Chapel Hill, Sheng Lab
- Natalie Davis, Franklin County High School, Sheng Lab
- Diya Reddy, Cave Spring High School, Finkielstein Lab
- Christina Su, Cave Spring High School, DeLuca Lab
- Daniel Braxton, Virginia Tech, Yan Lab
- Dhanush Banka, University of Virginia, Sassi Lab
- Alicia Carvalho, University of Virginia, Johnstone Lab
- Alexander Kosolapov, Virginia Tech, Lamouille Lab
- Zain Quader, Virginia Commonwealth University, Smyth Lab
CUBE SURF, in the Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science
- Alicia Alvarez, California State University – East Bay
- Nhu Thieu, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
- David Henderson, University of Dayton
Center for Health Behaviors Research Summer Program
- Moyosoluwa Dinakin, Cave Spring High School, DiFeliceantonio Lab
- Clara Guo, Blacksburg High School, Stein Lab
- Jenny Nguyen, William Byrd High School, Bickel Lab
Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Early Identification Program
- Hezekiah Emmanuel, James Madison University, Finkielstein Lab
- Jana Adams, Virginia Tech, Parker Lab
- Nicole Acosta, Virginia Tech, Farris Lab
- Kali Holsinger, Virginia Tech, Mukherjee Lab
- Sydnee Harrison, Virginia Tech
- Deborah Thomas, Virginia Tech
Leaders and organizers of the summer programs are
- NeuroSURF: Michael Fox, former professor and director of Virginia Tech’s School of Neuroscience
- CardioSURF: James Smyth, associate professor
- CUBESURF: Alex Hanlon, director of the Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science
- Center for Health Behaviors Research Summer Research Program: Warren Bickel, professor and director of the Center for Health Behaviors Research, and Assistant Professors and center Associate Directors Alexandria DiFeliceantonio and Jeff Stein
- Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Early Identification Program: Melanie Prusakowski, associate director of admissions, and Katherine Murphy, Admissions Operations Manager
The summer programs are supported by Taryn Pelletier, health sciences and technology program coordinator, and Alexandria Pilot Chambers, assistant director of operations in the research institute's Center for Neurobiology Research.