As a part of the Undergraduate Research Peer Mentor program, four Virginia Tech students dedicated this summer to working with fellow students doing research projects. The peer mentors help provide a cohesive experience for the roughly 200 students working in eight summer research experiences on campus.

The peer mentors were selected after an application process and come from a variety of academic backgrounds:

  • Kristen Fread, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in biochemistry from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with minors in Spanish and chemistry
  • Joshua Kim, a senior majoring in biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and German in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, with minors in computer science and chemistry
  • Ki Lee of Oak Hill, Virginia, a senior majoring in biology and psychology in the College of Science
  • Shelbie Turner of Franklin, Virginia, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in human development from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, with minors in psychology, medicine and society, and leadership and social change

Each peer mentor previously completed undergraduate research at Virginia Tech and is available to assist, answer questions, and acclimate students from the eight research groups.

“I think our goal and role is to foster this community feeling among the students and to help create not only professional bonds with their mentors and their advisors, but also among the other students,” Lee said. “We have students from everywhere. It’s really amazing to see how research brings all of these people together.”

Lee helps with the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) and the Interdisciplinary Water group, which each includes about 20 students. She participated in SURF last summer, researching mosquito-born diseases. 

“It was 10 weeks of full-on research experience, and I worked closely alongside my professors and everything,” Lee said. “That was definitely one of the reasons I decided to become a peer mentor this year, because I thought that there was something that I could contribute from my personal experiences.”

Fread also mentors SURF students, who all come from Virginia Tech. Several other research groups, such as biomechanics and microbiology, include students from universities across the country.

The peer mentoring program "is effective because the students have a designated resource if they do have questions. They interact with students from different places – not only Virginia Tech – that are interested in the same things or interested in different things, so they get a new perspective, and I think that’s really important,” Fread said.

The mentors facilitate weekly professional development meetings on topics such as graduate education and effective poster presentations. They also chaperone students on resource-based Friday field trips around campus and Blacksburg, and host socials so the students can meet each other. 

“We do all-inclusive things,” Fread said. The students "get everything. They get the academics. They get to work in their labs. They have a resource if they need it, and then they get to know the people around them.”

Fread will start graduate school at the University of Virginia in the fall, focusing on biomedical engineering. 

Fellow mentor Turner will be starting in the Master of Public Health Program at Virginia Tech in the fall.

“I think the initial point of contact is important,” Turner said. “Some of the Tech students have friends already here, but some of them don’t, so we also provide that liaison to connect the Tech students to the non-Tech students. We work to bridge that gap.”

Turner did not participate in a research group as a student but came across the mentoring position after her own research experience in the Department of Human Development.

“I’ve always thought that when you’re in school you are the recipient of knowledge, but when you do research you really create the knowledge,” Turner explained. “You’re not only creating it, but you also have the opportunity to teach other people about what you’re doing and what you’ve learned and what the field has gained from what you’ve been working on – but also what you’ve personally gained.”

“The peer mentors serve as not only role models, but also as a connection to different researchers throughout campus,” Lee said. “We’ve met all different types of people on campus, and we can point the students in the right direction toward those people. It’s been really effective this year. All of the groups seem to be harmonizing and it’s wonderful to actually see that.”

“The peer mentors have really added to the complete summer experience for the undergraduate researchers here at Virginia Tech,” said Keri Swaby, coordinator of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “Having been involved in research themselves, they have the inside understanding of how to be successful and overcome common hurdles, so they are able to advise and help students in a unique way. More significantly, they have been truly instrumental in creating a community for the summer researchers, and helping to make their summer research a memorable and fulfilling experience.”

The peer mentors worked with students from the following programs and institutes: REU in Cognitive Communications, Space@VT, Translational Obesity Undergraduate Research Scholars, REU in Biomechanics, Microbiology in Post Genome Era REU, Interdisciplinary Water Science and Engineering REU, Fralin's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) and Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Undergraduate Scholars Program. 

The Office of Undergraduate Research will host students from those programs at the Virginia Tech Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium on Thursday in the atrium of Goodwin Hall at 635 Prices Fork Road. 

Written by Leslie McCrea, a senior University Honors student majoring in multimedia journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.