More than a decade ago, Amalene Cooper-Morgan, PhD, had what proved to be a pivotal experience in the UMMS Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Program. “It was life-changing and determined my future path,” said Dr. Cooper-Morgan, then majoring in biology at Long Island University with her sights set on medical school. “I held my first pipette, read journal articles, attended scholarly meetings and felt I might have a talent for research.” Instead of heading to medical school, Cooper-Morgan went on to earn her PhD at Columbia University and is now conducting translational cancer research as a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Brian Lewis, PhD, associate professor of molecular medicine, at UMass Medical School’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Cooper-Morgan has also come full circle with SURF, volunteering as one of three group leaders for the annual 10-week program. “The program has evolved since then, but what hasn’t changed is the faculty’s commitment to students.” Co-founded and co-directed by Deborah Harmon Hines, PhD, professor of cell biology and vice provost for school services, and Janet Stein, PhD, professor of cell biology, SURF is designed to diversify the pool of biomedical researchers by providing structured, hands-on laboratory research experiences to undergraduate students, especially those from backgrounds under-represented in the field, or who are economically or educationally disadvantaged. Run by the Office of Outreach Programs and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the UMMS Office of Research, the program this summer welcomed 32 juniors and seniors from universities and colleges across the country, some of whom had never worked in a laboratory before.
“What I do is share the joy that I experience in the lab,” said Dr. Leonard, a founding faculty member who has been mentoring undergraduates since SURF’s inception. “It’s a steep learning curve, so I give students a manageable but real project.” This summer, in addition to SURF member Marcus Allen, Leonard hosted in his lab a high school intern, a medical student and a MD/PhD student, and also gave Summer Enrichment Program participant Kelly Carreiro the opportunity to continue her summer at UMMS as a volunteer.“Students learn that success in science requires persistence and vigilance. You have to be an optimist and find kernels of truth even in your mistakes.” Allen, a rising junior at the University of Dayton, spent his summer mastering and deploying state-of-the-art zinc finger nucleases, which are engineered proteins that allow recognition and manipulation of specific sequences of DNA. “Marcus has learned several sophisticated techniques in 10 weeks, so he’s been pedaling pretty fast,” said Leonard. “I’m pretty hands-off with students, so they assume a great responsibility.” Allen’s work related to possible tumor suppressors for prostate cancer is contributing to a major grant proposal. While Allen, a pre-med and psychology major, enjoyed a clinical internship last summer, this was his first time doing laboratory bench work. “I got to apply what I’ve seen in textbooks in the lab. I love the newness of the project, and getting results,” he said. “What I learned, like Jack said, is that there are a lot of failures. It’s a lot of hard work and I feel like people who do research don’t get recognized as much as they should.” Still keeping his post-graduate options open, Allen said, “I most enjoyed working with people who really like science. There’s a great, relatable atmosphere in the laboratory.” “It’s been very informative to see how science really works in a full-spectrum clinical health sciences center,” said Rossetti. Members of Cooper-Morgan’s group also received the second and third place awards for their poster presentations, which was a thrilling reward for the supportive but demanding teacher. “If even one of them thinks about a career in research, then we have done our job,” Cooper-Morgan said with satisfaction. In the video below, other members of the SURF Class of 2011 talk about their projects, experiences and future plans after serving as junior but vital research team members in UMMS laboratories.
Related links: Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program closes on a high note Summer Undergraduate Research Program