SURF’s up 2015: Rhode Island undergrads in research

Sarah FalcoResearch fellow: Sarah Falco
Hometown: Middletown, MD
Major: Biology
School: Bryant University
Mentor: Christopher Reid
Project: Effect of legacy pollutants on microbial communities in Narragansett Bay watershed

Sarah Falco, a rising senior and biology major, had no research experience when she applied for the Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. Nor did she know exactly what she wanted to do after graduation next spring.

Eight weeks into the fellowship, with two weeks left to the 8th Annual RI SURF Conference, where she and more than 100 other undergraduates will present their summer research findings, Falco has a clear grasp on her future.

“I’m going to go to grad school for computer science and go into robotics,” she said. “It’s kind of a 180.”

Indeed, it is. But, that sort of self-discovery is a big part of the SURF program, which provides undergraduates with hands-on, intensive research opportunities they typically don’t get during the academic year.

As she worked one recent morning in the lab of Christopher Reid, assistant professor, biochemistry, Falco said she sought out the SURF experience because she wanted to learn what it was like to work in a lab and see if it might be a good fit for graduate school.

“It’s been a real learning process,” Falco said. “It’s really cool — I’ve definitely gained analytical skills and patience. It involves lots of long tests and lots of waiting.”

As she talked, Falco made a working solution to run a DNA assay, or test, to determine concentration of DNA in a sample from the Providence River. The tests are used to identify microbes found in the river.

Falco said she learned a lot this summer about DNA extraction, bacteria and microbiology: “It takes what I’ve learned in class and made it easier to understand. I’ve taken microbiology and other sciences, but it’s good to know how it works.”

Falco added that her favorite part of the experience was working with the data and utilizing computer programs to prepare pictures for her poster presentation.

She said: “I still want to work in a lab, just a completely different kind of lab.”

Story and photo by Amy Dunkle