Guest post: Summer research programs offer a window to academic careers

To remove the cobwebs on this Sci-Ed blog, we welcome new poster Yoo Jung Kim, a recent Biology graduate of Dartmouth College and a post-baccalaureate research fellow at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. In addition to being a scientist and a science writer, Yoo Jung is also a cartoonist and author of the illustration below.

Scientific research is a laborious process, and many unsuspecting doctoral students may end up failing to complete their degrees. How can a student find out in advance if the realities of a science Ph.D. career is in line with their interests and future goals?

We believe getting students exposed to scientific research early on is a great help. And while many successful applicants manage to squeeze in significant research experience during the school year, their focus is often split by the academic and social demands of student life. Fortunately, a number of research institutions offer students–and in some cases, recent graduates–an opportunity to take the summer to conduct full-time research through programs called Research Experience for Students (REU), Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), or a variation thereof. These programs pair students with a principal investigator who also serve as a mentor, allowing participants to experience the day-to-day realities of STEM research.

Sarah Hammer, a current senior at Dartmouth College, was selected to participate in the 2014 Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) at the University of Michigan.

According to Sarah, “My goal was to engineer Escherichia coli for efficient cellulosic isobutanol production in co-culture with the fungus Trichoderma reesei. The project gave me the opportunity to learn techniques such as isolating and purifying DNA and RNA, genetic transformation and transduction, PCR, gel electrophoresis, and spectrophotometry. Overall, the feeling of being part of a scientific research group was rewarding and inspiring.”

Programs like SROP provide students free rooming and board, a modest stipend, and workshops to help participants apply to graduate schools. For instance, SROP arranged weekly seminars on topics such as personal and academic statements for graduate school applications, resumés and CVs, external funding, and networking. SROP also provided complimentary GRE preparation course, an opportunity for participants give oral presentations summarizing their research to the public, and a culminating poster symposium.

Sarah credits the University of Michigan SROP with helping her understand what a future in research would entail. “The program exposed me to a research environment typical of graduate school, confirming my desire to continue my education and pursue a Ph.D.”

While most summer research programs like SROP target current undergraduates, a few structured research programs provide research opportunities for recent graduates in addition to students from graduate and professional schools. For instance, Adam Lipson had been working as a clinical coordinator for two years and had already been accepted to Temple University School of Medicine when he began his stint on the Summer Internship Program (SIP), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Adam wanted to “get a feel for the NIH and to see how and to see where some of the world’s foremost medical research was conducted.”

As an undergraduate at Boston University, Adam had been fascinated by the complexity of brain sciences and the possibilities of clinical research, and he had always hoped to combine these dual interests into fulfilling career. Adam thought that he would take advantage of the new Masters in Clinical Translational Research program offered by Temple University. However, following his summer stint at the NIH and upon completing his first semester of medical school, Adam found that he wanted a more substantive research experience and applied internally into Temple’s M.D.-Ph.D. program, which would allow him to conduct research and earn a Ph.D. from Temple’s Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program in the middle of his medical training.

According to Adam, “I had always toyed with the idea of pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D–I knew that research was more than just a hobby, though I never really intended on becoming, solely, a bench researcher. This end, I suppose, was inspired–in part–by my time at the NIH–I saw how my mentor incorporated her research into her clinical practice, and attending advising programs and seminars hosted by NINDS highlighting the pursuits of physician-scientists helped to push me in my current direction.”

University of Michigan’s SROP and NIH’s SIP allowed Sarah and Adam to confirm the importance of STEM within the context of their future careers, and SROP and SIP are just two of the many organized summer research programs throughout the country. For many, these programs serve as a gateway to a lifetime of scientific discoveries, exposing students and recent graduates to the realities of STEM research–from the frustrations of failed experiments to the satisfaction contributing newly-uncovered knowledge to the scientific community and everything inbetween.

Related programs:

University of Michigan Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP): http://www.rackham.umich.edu/prospective-students/srop

National Institutes of Health Summer Internship Program (SIP): https://www.training.nih.gov/programs/sip


Featured image: A laboratory researcher dreams of becoming a PhD scientist. Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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