June 26 , 2006
research program SUREly impacts undergrads
In a crowded lab deep within the Rollins Research Center, Emory College student Jim Zhong spends his summer surrounded by jars of fruit flies and larvae, doing the rudimentary work of breeding insects and preparing specimens for research.
But he also has spent a lot of time at the microscope working to document certain gene markers in fruit fly embryos that may help explain why our own genes sometimes fail at their jobs. It’s the type of exciting, hands-on research most young undergrads don’t experience.
“The research is fun—it’s new stuff, not just an experiment in a textbook,” said Zhong, a rising junior. “It’s been a good opportunity to get exposed to research and explore career opportunities.”
Zhong is one of 74 college students from across the country who are getting a taste of life in the lab through the University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience at Emory (SURE). For 10 weeks, rising juniors and seniors run experiments, document data and take advantage of the rare opportunity to work directly with leading researchers. From testing new antidepressant medication to studying the neuroscience of bird song, students are engrossed in labs across campus.
Nearly 400 students applied for 74 slots in the annual program, which was established in 1990 through the support of Emory and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant.
In addition to students from Emory and other major research universities, SURE actively recruits women and minorities and seeks to bring in students from smaller schools where research opportunities are not as comprehensive.
Zhong is working with Barry Yedvobnick, associate professor of biology, who uses fruit flies as a model system for higher organisms to study gene expression and function. Yedvobnick has mentored a dozen SURE students since 1991, many of whom have gone on to graduate or medical school to pursue science careers.
“An integral part of research is teaching the next generation of scientists,” Yedvobnick said. “SURE is a great opportunity to find out if you love science. My own undergraduate research led me to where I am today—it was the determining factor—so I feel it’s vital for undergrads to have such an experience so they can explore science research as a possible career path.”
Yedvobnick is one of several University faculty members who volunteer their time and resources every summer, said Pat Marsteller, director of the Center for Science Education, which oversees SURE.
“They are passionate about the program. Many love to have undergraduates in their labs, since it helps them to see their research through fresh eyes,” Marsteller said, adding that the dedication of SURE faculty has helped recruit hundreds of students into science fields.
Former SURE student Shana Kerr is one of them. Now an Emory graduate student in biochemistry, she worked in a biology department lab through SURE while a senior at Georgia Tech in 2002. Kerr now spends her days studying messenger RNA transfer in yeast cells as part of Associate Professor Anita Corbett’s lab in the Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology Program.
“SURE was a very positive experience. I really felt that I was part of the lab and was making an important contribution. I always knew I was interested in science but I wasn’t sure what direction to go in. The experience helped me make a decision to go on to graduate school,” said Kerr.
In addition to time on the bench, SURE students receive training in research methods and how to analyze their data and create written and oral presentations of their results. They participate in weekly ethics discussions that allow them to freely explore the ethical aspects of research careers and the questions that arise about authorship, funding, record keeping, misconduct and other issues.
At the end of the summer, each participant takes part in a formal research symposium during which awards for popular science essays and scientific posters are presented. This year’s poster symposium takes place Thursday, Aug. 3 in the Dobbs University Center.
A new aspect of SURE this year is a mentoring workshop for graduate students and post-docs who are working with the undergrads. Demand for such training is strong (only 50 percent of those who applied were accepted), and the Center for Science Education plans to offer it more often, Marsteller said.
HHMI recently awarded Emory a four-year, $1.9 million grant that will provide continued support for SURE as well as ongoing student research, mentoring and education initiatives at the Center for Science Education (see story). In addition to HHMI, SURE is supported by the National Science Foundation, Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences and individual contributions by research mentors.