URI event showcases undergrad research

Governor cites loan forgiveness program, says state’s future lies in STEM

Raimondo poses with Amanda Rode
RI Gov. Gina M. Raimondo funded RI INBRE summer undergraduate research fellow (SURF) Amanda Rode (left) through the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC). Joining Gov. Raimondo in congratulating Rode are (from right) STAC Executive Director Christine Smith, URI Vice President for Research and Economic Development Gerald Sonnenfeld, and RI Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina M. Raimondo hailed the accomplishments of the 137 undergraduates who presented their scientific findings at the 8th Annual RI SURF Conference Friday, saying they were exactly what the state needed to build a new, innovative, and talent-based ecosystem.

If you graduate from a Rhode Island-based university, any one, public or private, and you get a job in Rhode Island, in a STEM field — and that’s broadly defined — we’ll pay back your college loans for a period of four years.

Emphasizing her conviction, she told the standing-room only crowd gathered on the University of Rhode Island campus that she had just signed into law a student loan forgiveness program aimed at the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields:

“If you graduate from a Rhode Island-based university, any one, public or private, and you get a job in Rhode Island, in a STEM field — and that’s broadly defined — we’ll pay back your college loans for a period of four years.”

Raimondo’s budget included a college loan forgiveness program, according to a press release on RI.gov, “for young workers starting as entrepreneurs and innovators in Rhode Island. The Wave Maker Fellowship program will offer up to four years of loan forgiveness for approximately 100 recent graduates pursuing careers and starting businesses in technology, engineering, design, and other key sectors.”

Gov. Raimondo said the jobs plan she signed also included scholarships for RI high school grads with good grades to make college more affordable and innovation grants that would provide “coupons” for companies wanting to tap into the research taking place at colleges and universities in the state.

Her comments were part of opening remarks at the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Conference, co-sponsored by Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and Rhode Island IDeA Network for Excellence in Biomedical Research (INBRE).

Both RI EPSCoR and RI INBRE, led respectively by Carol Thornber, College of the Environment and Life Sciences, and Zahir Shaikh, College of Pharmacy, are statewide programs that pool the talents of Rhode Island’s institutions of higher education.

Poster presentation for Gov. Raimondo
Samuel Spink, URI Department of Chemistry, details his research — Rate Accelerated Organocatalytic Ring-Opening Polymerization Via the Application of Bisthiourea H-Bond Donating Cocatalyst — for, from left, URI Provost Donald DeHayes, URI Vice President for Research and Economic Development Gerald Sonnenfeld, STAC Executive Director Christine Smith, Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor, and Gov. Gina M. Raimondo.

An investment in the Ocean State

Together, the two programs have brought more than $100 million dollars into the state of Rhode Island in the last 10 years, supporting research and innovation. URI serves as the administrative leads on both federal grants.

The annual SURF conference offers a showcase of summer undergraduate research funded through competitive fellowships from RI EPSCoR and RI INBRE, and is open to all Rhode Island undergraduate researchers.

URI Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald DeHayes introduced the governor, thanking her for her support of higher education, her focus on innovation, and for providing a fellowship through the RI Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) to Amanda Rode, a SURF student with RI INBRE.

DeHayes also paid tribute to the faculty members, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students across the state who opened their laboratories and welcomed the students into their research programs.

But mostly, he said, he wanted to thank the student researchers, whose posters in cell biology, chemistry, environmental science, genetics, marine science, microbiology, molecular biology, and neuroscience lined the hallways and open spaces of the Pharmacy building and the Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences building next door.

To put the event into context and how it has grown, DeHayes noted that the first conference about 10 years ago was held in one room and featured 12 students: “Here we are, now about a decade later, with 137 students — the best and brightest in the state of Rhode Island — doing a level of science that is just phenomenal.”

He encouraged the more than 400 attendees to check out the posters, talk with the students, and hear their presentations.

Addressing the students, he said, “You are an extraordinary group. … I know at some point, not in the too distant future, we’re all going to be working for you. It’s not going to be the other way around.”

Gov. Raymond talks to undergraduates about their research
Aidan Preston, Providence College Department of Psychology, listens to questions from Gov. Gina M. Raimondo. Preston presented a poster — Metamemory in Rats — at the Friday, July 13, 8th Annual RI SURF Conference hosted by the University of Rhode Island.

The future of Rhode Island

Taking the stage, Raimondo credited URI for being a core part of the state’s economic comeback: “Not only do I appreciate the role of science, technology, engineering, and design in our economy — I would actually say it has to be the fundamental component in our next wave of economic development in Rhode Island.”

EPSCoR PI Carol Thornber listens to a poster presentation
Salve Regina University student Daniel O’Brien talks about his research experience with URI Associate Professor Carol Thornber, lead principal investigator of RI NSF EPSCoR.

The root of the future economy lies in STEM talent, she said, noting that the students in the audience were in hotter demand than at any time in history, which was good for them and her. She cited thriving spots like Cambridge, Mass., Austin, Texas, and Silicon Valley, and said their performance was due to the common underpinning of innovation that fueled their economic vitality.

Traveling the state and talking to employers with RI Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor, she said they found a nearly limitless demand for employees in a broad range of fields that relied on technological talent — science, software development, design, data analytics, etc.

“It’s good for me if you stay in Rhode Island, start a company here, work here be part of this economy,” Raimondo said. “Actually, I need you to do that. The only way we’re going to get the Rhode Island economy sparked again is if young entrepreneurial, technical talent commits themselves to this economy.”

Raimondo said Rhode Island leaders were in the early innings of building a new economy, laying the groundwork with the STEM fields. As such, she noted, the future of the Ocean State rested on the young people who sat before her.

And, that was a prospect she said she found exciting: “It’s hard work. It’s summer. You could be at the beach, but you’re not. You’re here and I think that’s fabulous.”

Then, Raimondo headed out to the posters on display and visited with several of the undergraduates, including Rode, whose INBRE fellowship was sponsored by the governor’s office.

Walking through the room with neuroscience posters, she asked, “Who’s going to cure Alzheimer’s?”

“We are!” responded several students.

They shook the Governor’s hand and brought her up to speed on their summer research findings.

Tracey Yeboah and Elizabeth Kawa, Providence College
Providence College students Tracey Yeboah, left, and Elizabeth Kawa, right, present their summer research findings at the 8th Annual RI SURF Conference.
Roger Williams University student Molly Fehon explains her research findings from her work with Associate Professor David Taylor.

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle