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Undergraduates will spend summer learning what it means to be biomedical research scientists in and out of the lab

June 13, 2017

The 2017 class of VTCRI Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows stand together at the VTCRI.

2017 VTCRI SURF students
The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute is bustling with the activity of young, undergraduate scientists this summer. The 2017 class of VTCRI Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows will spend 10 weeks studying neuroscience or molecular visualization techniques, while also gaining professional development skills. Directing the summer programs are James Smyth, an assistant professor {second from right), and Michael Fox, an associate professor {right}, both with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

School might be out for the summer, but class is still in session – at least for 20 undergraduate students who are spending 10 weeks under the mentorship of scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI).

VTCRI’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) are the latest addition to student research opportunities at the institute, which include offerings for students of a variety of ages and experience, from high school through postdoctoral training.

In the SURF programs, undergraduate students can either participate in a research-intensive, experiential learning program focused on translational neurobiology —  called neuroSURF — or they can have a similar experience in a parallel program focused on molecular visualization of living systems in what’s titled MolVisSURF.

“We’re bringing students from Virginia Tech and several other universities into an environment of trans-disciplinary collaboration and working relationships,” said Michael Fox, director of the neuroSURF program, and an associate professor at the VTCRI. He also directs the VTCRI Developmental and Translational Neurobiology Center. “We’re providing the students with hands-on, independent research at VTCRI in the laboratory as well as in special seminars that highlight cutting-edge neuroscience research at Virginia Tech.”

SURF students in both programs will complete independent research projects, with guidance provided by VTCRI faculty mentors, to be presented at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Symposia on July 27.

The students also attend lectures by leading VTCRI research scientists in different fields, and participate in professional development seminars.

“These programs offer integrated training experiences centered around hands-on science in the laboratory and other research settings," said Audra Van Wart, director of education and training at the VTCRI. “It is a great model for training in interdisciplinary biomedical research, showcasing what can be achieved when we move beyond the boundaries between fields and integrate state-of-the-art technologies.”

NeuroSURF students focus on understanding different approaches and techniques for brain research, while MolVisSURF students focus on how advanced technologies are used to aid understanding of various components of multiple living systems through several different research programs in cardiac, brain, cancer, and immunological research.

“The VTCRI houses an impressive array of imaging technologies, from functional MRI of human brain activity to cellular, sub-cellular and nanoscopic visualization of individual biological molecules with super-resolution and cryo-electron microscopy that allows for the direct visualization of macromolecular assemblies in living cells,” said James Smyth, director of the MolVisSurf program and an assistant professor in the VTCRI Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine. “Our goal with the MolVisSURF program is to provide undergraduate students with hands-on experiential learning in the application of these powerful techniques to answer biological questions pertaining to human health and disease.”

More than 80 students applied for the 20 SURF program spots, which, according Van Wart, indicates the need for this unique training opportunity for undergraduate students.

“Students would experience some of the elements we’re offering during their graduate school training, but the earlier we can instill the importance of collaboration and professional development, the better,” Van Wart said, noting that the mix of Virginia Tech and non-Virginia Tech students is particularly significant. “It’s a two-way street. We’re sharing the knowledge and talent of VTCRI researchers, and we’re bringing in the talent and creativity of these students to collaborate and assist in scientific research.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the program was the main attraction for neuroSURF student Kian Simpson, a rising junior majoring in neurobiology and minoring in economics at Harvard University. He’s spending the summer in laboratory of Brooks King-Casas, an associate professor at the VTCRI who uses economic models to study valuation and learning in social settings and how those things are processed in the brain.

“The SURF programs offer a wide breadth of different topics – not only are we studying a lot of science, we’re also learning about professional development,” said Simpson, who is originally from Lafayette, California. “Throughout each step, there are multiple levels of mentorship. We have peer mentors, lab mentors, faculty mentors. No one is going to fall through the cracks here.”

Simpson plans to use this summer’s research experience to help narrow down potential career goals. Other students are using the experience to learn how they might be able to expand their future professions.

Ravin Fisher of Hampton University and Joseph Teamer of Virginia Tech are part of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine – Early Identification Program. Upon the successful completion of their undergraduate degrees, they are guaranteed entry to VTCSOM. Right now, they’re gaining research experience and learning how basic science discoveries translate into patient diagnostics and treatments.

“I joined the program because I felt as though both the VTCRI and the VTCSOM could help me grow as an individual,” said Fisher, a Ramseur, North Carolina native who plans to become a medical doctor who also participates in biomedical research. She’s training under Smyth this summer. “The program also allows me to not only learn information with a clear understanding, but it also allows me to see I might be able to apply it to my training and future career.”

Students have contributed to the research at the VTCRI since the Institute’s inception, and their participation is set to grow in tandem with the VTCRI’s expansion on the growing Health Sciences and Technology Campus.

“We have had undergraduate students conducting research since the VTCRI opened its doors in 2010,” said Michael Friedlander, the founding executive director of the VTCRI. “Several undergraduate students have authored major peer-reviewed scientific publications and have gone on to positions at top graduate programs and medical schools throughout the United States.”

Friedlander, who is also Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, further explained the significance of creating more research opportunities for undergraduate students.

“The launch of the SURF programs at VTCRI are a formalized expansion of these programs where undergraduates have the opportunity to work closely under the guidance of some of the most well-known medical research scientists in the world,” said Friedlander. “It is a mutually beneficial opportunity for the students, as well as for the VTCRI faculty and their lab teams to share the excitement, passion intellectual curiosity of these early career scientists – and physicians – in training.”   

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