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Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center and Hollins University partner to increase student careers in life science research

July 24, 2017

Group of Hollins and VT administrators
From left: Keri Swaby, coordinator in the Office of Undergraduate Research; Janet Webster, an associate director at the Fralin Life Science Institute; Nancy Gray, recently retired president of Hollins University; Bill Hopkins, professor and director of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech; Trish Hammer, vice president of academic affairs at Hollins University; and John McDowell, professor and associate scientific director at the Fralin Life Science Institute.

Pursuing graduate school in the sciences requires more than just passion – it also requires knowledge of the nuts and bolts of research, which usually comes through robust mentorship.

Developing strong mentor-mentee relationships is one of the main goals of a new partnership between the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech and Hollins University. The two universities recently signed a memorandum of understanding to offer Hollins undergraduate students summer research experience in Virginia Tech labs, which allows students to develop relationships with faculty who anticipate recruiting graduate students within the next couple of years.

Both schools recognize the need for undergraduates interested in graduate school to gain effective research training and for faculty to identify potential candidates for their teams.

“The partnership is unique because it has the dual goals of providing undergraduate research opportunities while simultaneously recruiting these same undergraduates to Virginia Tech for graduate school,” said William Hopkins, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and director of the Global Change Center. “One of the most important factors leading to a student’s success in graduate school is an effective mentor-mentee relationship. This partnership allows both the mentee and mentor to assess whether they are a good match before fully committing to a longer-term professional endeavor.”

As part of the partnership, the universities will work together to identify potential pairings between Virginia Tech mentors and Hollins undergraduates based on the students’ research interests, monitor these relationships and research projects, and provide follow-up logistical support for graduate school recruitment as promising relationships are identified. Hollins University provides qualified students with a summer stipend and housing, and Virginia Tech provides research resources and infrastructure, including lab space, equipment, and supplies.

The program takes place over the summer, during which Hollins students will participate in a research project as part of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Program, a 10-week training program designed to give motivated Virginia Tech undergraduates the opportunity to engage in full-time research. As part of the fellowship, students also participate in university-wide professional development activities organized by Virginia Tech’s Office of Undergraduate Research.

This new model is being piloted this summer, with the goal of scaling-up to include more students and faculty in future years.

“Working with Virginia Tech in this way allows for extraordinary research and mentoring opportunities for our students in a broad range of interdisciplinary fields,” said Trish Hammer, vice president of academic affairs at Hollins University. “We expect the partnership will grow in the coming years and certainly strengthen both the undergraduate program at Hollins and the graduate programs at Virginia Tech.”

Shannen Kelly, of Tolland, Connecticut, and Elaine Metz, of Staunton, Virginia, both rising juniors at Hollins University, are the first two students participating in the program this summer.

Elaine Metz and Shannen Kelly.
Elaine Metz and Shannen Kelly are rising juniors at Hollins University.

Kelly, an environmental science and Spanish major, is currently working in the Invasive Plant Ecology Lab with Jacob Barney, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and graduate student mentor, Becky Fletcher, of Kansas City, Missouri, a doctoral student in the same department and an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow. Together the team is investigating the diversity and adaptability of Johnson grass, an invasive species, by measuring photosynthetic differences between populations.

“This partnership is a very meaningful opportunity for young scientists to be engaged with research early on,” said Kelly. “The chance to do graduate-level research, be surrounded by graduate students also doing research, and having the mentorship of a graduate professor is one of the most immersive and representative experiences of what graduate school is actually like. It has allowed me to test the waters, gain independence and confidence in my research abilities, and demonstrate that graduate school is the correct path for me.”

In 2018, Kelly will spend a semester in Spain, as she aspires to attend graduate school and work internationally.

Metz, a biology major, is spending her summer in the Forest Entomology Lab with Scott Salom, a professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and mentor Rachel Brooks, of Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, a doctoral student in plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the same college and an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow. As a team, they are testing species of native fungi as possible biological control agents for the invasive tree-of-heaven species, Ailanthus altissima.

“There is only so much I can learn in a classroom when professors emphasize experiential learning,” said Metz. “Being able to participate in this project has helped me to understand the process and the day-to-day of research. I have always had a vague idea that I wanted to pursue a career in research but was unsure what it might entail. Now I have a better grasp on how my post-undergraduate life could be.”

In 2016, Metz took a year off from school and walked the entire Appalachian Trail, which confirmed her interest in the natural sciences.

Learn more about the program and partnership by visiting globalchange.vt.edu/hollins-partnership/.

Written by Cassandra Hockman

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