Rhode Island’s ‘best and brightest’
Undergrads present research at annual summer conference
For 10 weeks this summer, more than 100 university and college students across the Ocean State, unconstrained by academic year burdens, trained their focus solely on research. They set out hypotheses, designed and redesigned experiments, wrestled with data, worked with colleagues, and learned from mentors and a series of workshops.
Then, on July 29, they gathered at the University of Rhode Island to present their summer research findings at the 9th Annual Rhode Island Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF) Conference — the largest presentation of undergraduate research in the state. The event marked not just the culmination of the 2016 SURF program, but also the introduction of yet another impressive class of young, talented scientists being groomed in the state.
Tacked to boards and balanced on easels, the 140 student posters displayed an array of scientific research taking place in Rhode Island, from the synthesis of new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and the development of nanoparticles for the treatment of lung cancer to investigations into the impacts of climate change and human-generated pollutants on sea life in Narragansett Bay.
“What you are going to see today is nothing short of amazing, honestly,” URI Associate Professor Brenton DeBoef told a standing-room only audience as he opened the conference. “I’m going to overhype it right now.”
The conference was co-sponsored by Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (RI NSF EPSCoR) and Rhode Island Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (RI-INBRE), two federally funded programs based and managed at URI that provide unparalleled undergraduate research and professional development opportunities.
DeBoef, who serves as the RI-INBRE SURF coordinator, said: “The real stars of today are the students — talk to as many students as you can. I guarantee you will be impressed. They are the best and brightest our state has to offer.”
And, as the posters demonstrated, the conference also put into context the significant role the students’ research plays not only in their individual journeys, but also in many larger, open-ended projects that extend far beyond the summer experience.
URI President David M. Dooley emphasized that greater good in his welcoming remarks at the University’s new Richard E. Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Sciences. He told the undergraduates, “The steps that you’re taking, over time, to make this world a better place — that’s what ultimately research is all about.”
Dooley shared a couple of personal reflections, first tracing his roots to research, which began, he said, as a sophomore at the University of California-San Diego, in the Salk Institute as part of an initiative to further the work of Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine.
“Polio no longer exists in the world because of what happened in research laboratories led by Jonas Salk, where they discovered and developed the vaccine that made the disease obsolete,” Dooley said. “That’s the power of research. … You can devote your life to a lot of very worthwhile things, but I think it’s fair to say that there are very few things that you can spend your life doing that will have a bigger impact than the kind of research that some of you are beginning now. Research is an edifice that is built small piece by small piece.”
Although Salk was the person who more than any other led to the vaccine’s development, Dooley noted, the scientist’s work would have been impossible without literally thousands of others whose efforts allowed Salk to accomplish what he did.
“This event reminds me of the power and importance of the EPSCoR and INBRE programs in fostering collaboration and collegiality. And, it is this network that will ultimately help push scientific discoveries forward.”
Dooley also spoke about his brother, a gay man living in the Los Angeles area: “For years when I visited in him in L.A., not one visit would go by without another one of his friends dying from AIDS. Every year, he had friends who died of AIDS.
“That was a disease, when it first emerged, we didn’t even understand. We didn’t know or have a clue, really, what caused it. That was a disease that turned out to be far more difficult to eradicate than polio, because AIDS attacks our immune system.”
Whereas the polio vaccine stimulated the immune system to kill the virus that caused polio, explained Dooley, there was no such approach readily available to combat a retrovirus that attacked the immune system itself. But today, because of research, in developed countries like the United States, where pharmaceuticals are readily available, no one needs to die of AIDS, Dooley said.
He paid tribute to the thousands of health care professionals who tirelessly worked to ease the suffering of individuals, but said the defeat of AIDS, like polio, would come about in a research lab, where people have discovered first what the virus was, second how it attacked, third how it propagated, and fourth how to combat it. These steps and the eventual outcome of eradicating disease illustrate the importance of the students’ summer work, contributing to the research enterprise and seeking solutions to global problems.
“The work you begin today, you may not see where it will ever go,” said Dooley. “It may be 10 or 20 years from now that some findings you began today or in the next few years … may become important in solving some other global crisis.
“So, thank you for joining that enterprise. Thank you for becoming part of the most important thing that, in my mind, humans do on this planet, which is to study, to learn, and to do research, and to learn how nature works, how we work, how organisms thrive and survive and compete, and put that together to make life better not just for us, but also for every other entity that lives on this planet.”
Scott Jensen, director of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, delivered congratulations and a pitch from Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, whose office provided support for the fellowship of RI EPSCoR SURF student Gordon Rix in the lab of URI Assistant Professor Mindy Levine. Jensen said both he and the governor wanted the students to stay in the state and contribute their talents to making the community better.
Interim Associate Dean of Research Carol Thornber, URI College of the Environment of Life Sciences, also outgoing principal investigator of RI EPSCoR, told the students that she, like Dooley, first became involved in research as an undergraduate. She said she always had been fascinated by oceans and marine biology, and participated in a program similar to SURF at a marine research station in central California.
“It was the one thing that opened my eyes to research, working in teams and learning how to put everyone’s collective brain power together, and come out with something meaningful to contribute to science,” said Thornber, a marine community ecologist with a research focus on marine macroalgae, their importance in near shore and coastal food webs, and the impacts of climate change on these systems.
URI Professor Geoffrey Bothun, chemical engineering, and new RI EPSCoR principal investigator, noted that faculty, too, benefit greatly from the SURF program. Speaking from the perspective of both an EPSCoR and INBRE researcher, he, said: “Mentoring undergraduate students is one of the most enjoyable things that faculty do. Those experiences also are often how we got into research and how we began our careers. Being able to share those experiences and help mentor and guide undergraduate students — it’s really exceptional. It’s my favorite part of the job.”
After the event, Jim Lemire, RI EPSCoR coordinator of undergraduate research, reflected that the summer fellowship provided a small window of time to conduct meaningful research, yet the conference showcased the exceptional nature of the collective body of student work and the intensity of the undergraduate engagement.
“Even though the conference marks the end of the SURF program, it is my favorite event of the summer, as it is truly about the students and all the time and effort they dedicated to their research,” Lemire said. “The conference is proof that we are doing right by the students, and I am very proud of that.”
Lemire said he also took pride in the fact that the annual conference has emerged as a large gathering of the Rhode Island scientific community, where colleagues from across the state and from disparate disciplines network and visit with students: “This event reminds me of the power and importance of the EPSCoR and INBRE programs in fostering collaboration and collegiality. And, it is this network that will ultimately help push scientific discoveries forward.”
Acceptance to the annual SURF program is based on a competitive application process run individually by RI NSF EPSCoR and RI-INBRE. With this summer’s class, RI-INBRE has engaged 775 Rhode Island undergraduates in scientific research since 2004; RI NSF EPSCoR has supported nearly 300 since 2007.
The conference provides undergraduate students from the University of Rhode Island, Brown University, Bryant University, Providence College, Rhode Island College, Roger Williams University, Salve Regina University, and Community College of Rhode Island with the unique opportunity to present their summer research findings to their peers and to the larger Rhode Island community. All Rhode Island students who are actively participating in scientific research are welcome to present their work at the conference, even if they are not formally a part of the SURF program.
Story by Amy Dunkle | Photos by Michael Salerno