Summer research program ignites passion in undergraduates from across the U.S.
College is a place of self-discovery, both in and outside of the classroom. Friendships are formed, new memories are made and each decision could have a potential impact on the future. While students are given their first glimpse of independence and are allowed to blossom as individuals, this newfound responsibility also carries a certain amount of pressure with a graduation date looming in what seems to be so far into the future. However, undergraduate students typically have just four years to decide the course on which they will steer their entire lives.
Sitting in a classroom for four years without gaining firsthand experience in a field is unlikely to ignite the passion that a student should feel for his or her future career choice. A bride wouldn’t want to buy her wedding dress without trying it on first, and most students wouldn’t want to wind up on career paths without testing the waters beforehand.
MUSC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) allows students who are interested in biomedical science and research to do just that. This innovative 10-week program combines laboratory research and professional development to provide a unique learning experience for students, teaching valuable skills such as proper lab conduct and scientific writing and, of course, offering opportunities to conduct a lot of research.
This highly competitive program consists of rising college juniors and seniors, chosen from a pool of 400 applicants from all over the United States, who will participate in independent, graduate-level research on MUSC’s campus. Each student chooses five research areas of interest, paired with a graduate faculty mentor and placed in a research lab that is as closely matched with these interests as possible. This year, 55 students were chosen based on their impressive grades, prior research experience and genuine interest in biomedical sciences.
Stephanie Brown-Guion, director of SURP and other summer programs in the College of Graduate Studies, noted that the participating faculty members are just as driven as the students. They volunteer their time and dedicate their summers to the students and genuinely want to see them succeed.
“I think we sometimes take our faculty for granted. We have a very distinguished faculty at this university who work really hard and will always give up time for their students.”
Brown-Guion also said it truly is the drive within the students selected that stands out the most in their applications. The personal statement portion of the application is considered just as closely as a student’s credentials, since it’s the only time each student is given the opportunity to express just how interested they are in a specific research area the program offers.
For one student, however, there wasn’t one specific area of research that stood out more than the others. Associate professor Christine Kern, Ph.D., and her student, Chiagoziem Ogbonna, are conducting research in regenerative medicine and cell biology. A rising senior at Wake Forest University, Ogbonna wasn’t sure where his heart was leading him in the field of research, but he now knows that he ended up exactly where he belonged.
“I didn’t have a specific preference, but I’m so glad I ended up in this lab. It’s been exactly what I wanted to get out of this summer, which was a true experience working in a lab steering my own project.”
The areas that he had expressed an interest in on his application didn’t quite align with the research in Kern’s lab, but Cynthia Wright, Ph.D., associate dean for admissions and career development for the College of Graduate Studies, realized his potential and knew that he deserved to be in the program. When she asked Ogbonna to look into Kern’s research, he readily agreed to participate.
Kern, who has been involved in the program for 10 years, was excited for the chance to mentor another student this summer and impressed with Ogbonna’s open-mindedness.
“You just need to be open to the type of research that you do,” she said. “If you can dive into a project, investigate a hypothesis, learn to critically think and do new things, the specific research doesn’t matter as much.”
The pair is focusing on a particular protease, an enzyme that breaks down proteins in the body, to discover the role it plays in the remodeling of hearts during development. They’ve hypothesized that the absence of the protease will have an effect on other cell populations in the heart during development that also play a role in the heart’s structuring.
Kern had previously discovered that mice without this protease, ADAMTS-5, have cardiac valve defects 100 percent of the time. Now, she and Ogbonna are working to trace this back to the origin of the cardiac valve defects by looking earlier in mouse development. To do this, they flag particular cells during development and trace the cell’s lineage so they can then observe how their behavior has changed, which conveys how they’re responding to the loss of the protease.
Just two doors down from Kern’s laboratory, associate professor Samar Hammad, Ph.D., and her student, Jasmyn Hardin, are also conducting translational research on the role of a special class of lipids, sphingolipids, in the well-recognized acceleration of cardiovascular disease in autoimmune disorders. Hardin made the trek down South for the summer from Dominican University, located just outside of Chicago, and is taking advantage of SURP to determine what her next step will be after graduating this December.
“It’s opening my eyes to research, because before this, I had never really thought about pursuing it. Dr. Hammad has introduced me to the M.D.- Ph.D. program, so I’ve been looking into that as a possibility now too,” said Hardin.
Together, Hardin and Hammad are looking at sphingolipid profiles, which consist of lipids other than cholesterol and triglyceride, in female patients with and without lupus. Their goal is to predict who is more likely to develop lupus symptoms and, more specifically, cardiovascular and kidney complications related to this autoimmune disease. Their goal is to pinpoint the disease markers to be able to predict which people are more prone to these complications, with their main focus on comparing African-American patients with Caucasian patients, since African-Americans are more susceptible to developing the disease.
Hammad is another long-term mentor in the program and said SURP is one of her favorite activities with which she’s involved at MUSC.
“Everyone involved in this program has passion. It’s so inspirational,” she said. “The students come for 10 weeks, and the amount of energy and enthusiasm they show is so contagious. They come here with a lot of thirst for science, and they truly want to gain more knowledge.”
In the end, this program focuses on the students and drives them to discover where their passions lie. Being an undergraduate student is about trying new things and putting themselves out there, and this program allows for that. In the past, Kern mentored a student who realized throughout the program that her heart just didn’t belong in research, or biomedical science at all for that matter. She completely shifted gears and is now an accountant at a major national bank, but had it not been for SURP, she may not have realized her true passion until much later in life.
Still, the vast majority of students involved in the program are dedicated to science and research and plan to attend either graduate or medical school after completing their undergraduate education. Students involved in the program will be presenting their research on Aug. 1. The morning session will run from 9 through 11:45 a.m., and the afternoon session from 1 through 4 p.m., both in the College of Health Professions on Rutledge Avenue and in the Colbert Library, first floor. All members of the MUSC community are invited to attend and learn more about the myriad research projects the students have been involved in.