Summer research experiences are great opportunities for undergraduates to learn about pharmacology research and gain interest in careers in pharmacology. Educational studies show that students who have engaged in research experiences report improvements in their technical and personal skills as well as increased confidence in their ability to do research. Students say that research experiences help them learn how to think like scientists, which can include dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty, formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, communicating their findings, and collaborating effectively with both peers and mentors. Further, students from underrepresented groups are much more likely to pursue graduate studies if they have participated in research as undergraduates.
ASPET’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, or SURF, program began in 1992, and since then over 2,000 students have participated. The goal of the program is to use authentic mentored research experiences in pharmacology to heighten student interest in careers in research and related health care disciplines. There are two award types: institutional awards, which are given to groups of at least five faculty engaged in pharmacology research on a particular campus, and individual awards, which are provided for students who may not have access to institutional programs. The SURF program runs like many other summer research experiences, in which students are paid a stipend to do research over a 10-week period.
Last year, ASPET required that institutions with SURF programs perform assessment of participants using the Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE) to measure students’ perceived gains in areas such as self-confidence, clarification of career paths, and understanding of the research process. Data collected from SURF participants can also be compared to other summer research programs across the country that use the survey. The first year of SURE implementation indicated that students perceive gains in many categories, including oral presentation skills, understanding how scientists think, and the ability to analyze scientific literature.
The outcomes of SURF alumni after they graduate from their baccalaureate programs have also been recorded. The top three outcomes observed were matriculation into Ph.D. or MD programs, or direct entrance into the biomedical workforce. Nearly 90% of students who participated in the program are staying in biomedical careers.
Initiating a SURF Program
Dr. Lauren Aleksunes, PharmD, PhD, DABT at Rutgers University provided helpful advice for those beginning an ASPET-funded institutional SURF program. To recruit faculty to the program, offering to pay for one year of ASPET membership can be helpful. She also recommended partnering with current programs at your institution that support undergraduates in STEM, your university’s career center, alumni, and industry connections to provide additional opportunities and resources to students. It is also important to measure positive outcomes such as student-authored papers and presentations and graduate school enrollment, as this information may be leveraged to garner additional support for your program.
Dr. Stella Tsirka from Stony Brook University also shared tips for implementing a summer undergraduate research fellowship program at your institution. Identify the needs of your university or department that the SURF program could address, such as student retention in STEM or recruitment of graduate students, in order to find support from within. She also suggested communication and potential collaboration with previously established summer programs on campus to access institutional history and practical advice. Dr. Tsirka also recruited faculty to the program by paying for their first year of ASPET membership, and worked to minimize any regulatory or administrative tasks to make participation more enjoyable for faculty.
Dr. Kevin Murnane had a unique case at Mercer University, which is split among four campuses throughout Georgia. The College of Pharmacy located in Atlanta does not have ready access to undergraduate students, though the College has excellent research capabilities. In order to include undergraduates in his research, Dr. Murnane partnered with Oglethorpe University, a private liberal arts university within Atlanta. By providing opportunities for students at Oglethorpe University, which has limited research facilities, Dr. Murnane was able to recruit a SURF student to his lab through the individual fellowship program.
Strategies for Success
While many summer undergraduate research fellowships contain similar characteristics such as visiting speakers and panels throughout the program, there were a few practices of note that were discussed during the ASPET session that were particularly helpful.
The undergraduates in her program desired more interconnected activities among SURF fellows, so Dr. Aleksunes implemented “Science in the News,” an activity in which students worked with each other to report about current research relevant in their field. Activities that bring students together, either social or scientific, encourage a sense of community that is important for promoting self-confidence in science and opportunities for students to learn how to communicate their research and begin to network.
Many SURF program directors advocated the use of LinkedIn as a method for tracking students once they have left the program. One session during the summer program is devoted to the importance of a professional online presence and the development of a LinkedIn account. This mutually beneficial activity for students and educators is now being widely implemented.
SURF participants provided helpful suggestions to students interested in undergraduate research. Natalie Arabian, a junior at California State University, Los Angeles, suggested that students contact faculty who have taught their science courses and ask about research opportunities. She also found graduate student mixers and socials a great way to mingle and learn about research openings. She stressed the importance of speaking to faculty directly rather than through email. It allows the professor to place a face with your name and shows that you are really interested in the research. If a professor says there is not a position available, pay close attention for future opportunities. Perhaps he or she may have more openings in the future. If you are interested in going to graduate school after your bachelor’s degree, look at the professor’s publication record and the number of undergraduates who have been involved. Once you have joined a lab, never miss an opportunity to learn a new skill. By making yourself as useful as possible, you have a greater chance to perform advanced research techniques and gain a long-term position in the lab.
Chelesa Fearce is an undergraduate student from Spelman College who completed a SURF fellowship at the University of Cincinnati. When choosing a lab in which to perform research, she recommended that undergraduates find an area that is related to their interest. She also said to look at the funding status of the lab in order to know if there are opportunities for continued research. She also commented on how she benefitted from doing research at an institution that was very different from her home campus.
Michael Little, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, participated in the SURF program when an undergraduate at Montclair State University. His summer experience at Rutgers University helped him decide upon a career path, in which he was split between pursuing a PharmD or Ph.D. The opportunity to see the daily life of a Ph.D. or PharmD student helped him finalize his decision, and he said that the SURF program helped him get into graduate school. The additional research experience and personal contacts he gained during the program strengthened his application, and he now is a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Matthew Redinbo, performing pharmacology research. Click here to read more stories from undergraduates in the SURF program.
I had the opportunity for a summer research experience as an undergraduate, and I can concur with the students’ opinions about its benefits. The experience gave me the time to gain expertise in lab techniques and helped to guide my career plans at an early stage. I can still remember when I learned that graduate students do not have to pay for school! Now, I have the chance to mentor undergraduates and pass on the gift that I received. With the support of professional societies like ASPET, we can all contribute to a new generation of biomedical scientists.
To learn more about SURF, visit the website at https://www.aspet.org/awards/surf/.
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Eagan, M. K., S. Hurtado, M. J. Chang, G. A. Garcia, F. A. Herrera, and J. C. Garibay. (2013). Making a Difference in Science Education: The Impact of Undergraduate Research Programs. American Educational Research Journal 50(4): 683-713.
Hunter, A., Laursen, S. L., & Seymour, E. (2007). Becoming a scientist : The role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal, and professional development. Science Education 91(1): 36-74.