The research advantage

Bryant undergraduate students gain competitive edge with lab experience


Bryant University Associate Professor Dan McNally, Ph.D., wasn’t looking for any examples of the impact of Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR on his campus.

The alternative is clear, said McNally, chair of the Department of Science and Technology: “We wouldn’t have an undergraduate research program if we didn’t have EPSCoR.”

“Getting the hands-on experience was what the pharmacy schools really liked. It’s not just paper and pen. Doing the research, you become so much more aware of what the results mean.”

Still, when Megi Feraizi, 22, returned to campus from her visits to pharmacy doctoral programs she delivered a stunning endorsement. After being granted interviews at every school where she applied, she received across-the-board acceptances — in some instances, within an hour after her interview.

“She about busted down my door, she was so excited,” McNally said. “And, the reason why she got accepted was because of her undergraduate research experience — she flat out contributes it to undergrad research.”

From McNally’s perspective, Feraizi’s story, along with those of several other students, underscores the collaborative effort by Bryant and Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR to get undergraduates conducting research in the lab, above and beyond the classroom experience.

At Bryant, undergraduate research in the biological and environmental science curriculum is a graduation requirement. And, all business majors have to fulfill science requirements to graduate, including an upper level class with a lab.

With EPSCoR funding, McNally’s department has been able to hire students to conduct research in faculty labs during the academic year and purchase materials and equipment to support the research.

Students also are encouraged to apply for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, which provides a 10-week, intensive research experience in the labs of faculty mentors through a Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR and Rhode Island IDeA Network for Excellence in Biomedical Research (INBRE) collaborative program.

Hands-on from Day 1

Feraizi, from Waterbury, Conn., arrived at Bryant her freshman year as a biology major. She quickly dove into research, first with McNally, Bryant partner liaison for RI NSF EPSCoR, and then as a student research assistant on the RI NSF EPSCoR grant in the labs of Assistant Professor Chris Reid, Ph.D., and Lecturer Julie Crowley-Parmentier, Ph.D.

Feraizi said she gained solid skills with HPLC, high performance liquid chromatography, a technique used to separate, identify and quantify components in a mixture. In Reid’s lab, she analyzed toxicity levels of water in the Blackstone River.

Her experience with both professors led her to look for small pharmacy programs where she would gain similar access to mentors. In her search, the graduating senior applied to 10 schools, hedging her bets because she was worried about her chances coming from an institution known for its business curriculum. After gaining admittance to the entire field, Feraizi settled on Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., where she will be pursuing a doctorate in pharmacy.


“Getting the hands-on experience was what the pharmacy schools really liked,” she said. “It’s not just paper and pen. Doing the research, you become so much more aware of what the results mean. We had malfunctions and had to maneuver to figure out solutions.”

But, Feraizi said it wasn’t until she started touring the pharmacy schools that she realized the uniqueness of the Bryant experience. On one campus, a group of 22 prospective students toured a lab, where a professor asked if anyone had research experience.

Working in the lab, I figured out I really wanted to do research. I really loved it.

“I was the only one raising my hand,” Feraizi said. “And, I thought, the fact that I had this experience beginning as a freshman is such an advantage.”

Graduating senior Ryan Miller, 23, of Smithfield, RI, found his Bryant research experience equally foundational in pursuing his post-undergraduate plans. Although he arrived as an undeclared freshman, he will graduate with dual degrees in biology and psychology.

“I was interested biochemistry, and I met Chris (Reid),” Miller said. “He said I could come work for him in the lab. Working in the lab, I figured out I really wanted to do research. I really loved it.”

Although interested in science from an early age, Miller said it took the Reid lab experience to give him direction. Under Reid’s guidance, Miller said he has worked on trying to characterize the family of proteins that manage the cell wall of the bacteria Clostridium difficle, which causes recurring infection, and understand those proteins that act as a catalyst or enzyme. If researchers can understand how to inhibit the enzyme, it might serve as a potential target for an antibiotic.

He also spent two summers with the SURF program, working on INBRE projects. At the December 2014 8th Annual Biology New England South (BioNES) conference hosted by Roger Williams University, Miller won the top award in the undergraduate oral presentation competition for his talk entitled, “Understanding enzymes from GH73 studying CD1034 as a model.”

“There is only so much you can get from a textbook or even a classroom,” Miller noted. “Trying your hand at these techniques in the lab is such an amazing opportunity. And, it’s one of the greatest competitive advantages — it really sets you apart.”

Miller will pursue his Ph.D. in biology at Northeastern University, working in the Lewis Lab. He said his long-term goal was to get his graduate degree and then teach and conduct research.


The next big idea

Biology major Drew Phelan, 20, a Bryant sophomore with junior standing, knew at an early age she wanted to be a neurologist. She also nursed an entrepreneurial tendency, starting a dog walking business and working on charitable events.

Drawn to Bryant from her hometown, Foxborough, Mass., she said she liked the idea of pairing her science with a minor in business. But, she quickly found the business networking events left the science side of her feeling left out.

“I loved the feeling when something actually went right! I had to let everyone know — I called my mom eight times.”

Seizing the opportunity, Phelan presented McNally with the concept of Catalyzing Connections, a professional networking event for science majors. Businesses, non-governmental organizations and graduate schools attended along with Bryant faculty and students.

“A lot of times, if you major in biology, it seems like the only thing you can do is be a doctor or teach,” Phelan said. “The opportunity to talk to professionals in different fields is definitely beneficial. There’s also the social aspect of a networking event. It’s nice to get together and collaborate.”

Sponsored by the university and Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR, Catalyzing Connections was a rousing success and now will be an annual event, according to McNally: “We’re still kind of floating on cloud nine. We had so many nice outcomes on so many levels. It was kind of a job fair disguised as a networking event. We really wanted the outside community to know about our students and their successes in undergraduate research.”

Phelan, a chemistry tutor and biology program mentor, also has taken advantage of the research opportunities at Bryant even though she wasn’t sure at first that she liked the idea of working in a lab: “But I did it. I loved the feeling when something actually went right! I had to let everyone know — I called my mom eight times.”

Phelan conducted research as a SURF fellow last summer on an RI INBRE project. This summer, she will be a fellow for an RI NSF EPSCoR project.

She also has continued to find time for her charitable commitments, involved with the organization Enactus, an international entrepreneurial community service organization that creates sustainable solutions to global issues.

Together, McNally said, the trio of Feraizi, Miller and Phelan represent what happens when undergraduates gain opportunities and guidance in undergraduate research. They discover their passion and make contributions; they deliver the best kind of outcomes.

“What’s happened to them has gotten us all really excited,” McNally said. “They’ve really validated our efforts.”

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle