The undergraduate research experience

Emma Lederer
Biology major Emma Lederer, a Providence College junior, is conducting research in Professor Jack Costello’s lab for her second SURF experience with RI NSF EPSCoR. This summer, she is blogging about her research experience.

As we head into the final weeks of the RI EPSCoR SURF program, I picked up an organic chemistry course at night on top of my research job during the day. And, if things weren’t busy enough, I recently moved into an apartment at Providence College with some other summer research students.

RIwritesThrough this and other opportunities, I find myself exposed to a lot of different ways undergraduate students can experience summer research projects. Most of my peers are a part of academic research teams like I am, but they are funded through different institutions or are studying vastly different subjects from mine.

This week, I spoke with one of my good friends, Gabriela Chiaramida, and I asked her a few questions about the research team she is working with this summer. The way our summers compare illustrates a lot about how different programs can shape a student’s involvement in academic research.

Personally, our conversation made me realize the opportunities the SURF program offers me that other students don’t always get to experience.

Gabriela is a rising junior at Providence College, majoring in biology. She plans on going to dental school after getting her undergraduate degree. Here are some snippets from our conversation:

Friends and scientists: Gabriela Chiaramida, left, and Emma Lederer

Emma Lederer: What lab are you working in this summer? Tell me a little about the lab itself and the project you’re working on.

Gabriela Chiaramida: I work in a molecular biology lab with Dr. Marla Tipping, where I have been working in since my freshman year. We study the protein isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH), which is vital for cell respiration, one of the processes that create energy for your cells. Mutated or altered IDH is typically found in brain cancer tumors, known as gliomas, so we study the role of this mutated protein in brain cancer. We’re currently trying to create a cancer model using fruit flies to be able to study the effects mutated IDH. By gaining a better understanding of the role of IDH in the creation of brain tumors, we may be able to help come up with a more targeted cure for the development of tumors where IDH is the culprit.

Emma: Wow, that sounds a lot different from what I’ve been working on. I think a lot of people would be interested in your research because cancer affects so many people, directly and indirectly. On a slightly different topic, can explain your funding to me, and how that has affected your research experience. For example, what does your typical day look like? Is it all work, or do you ever go on any trips or attend any informational sessions? I’m funded by the SURF program through Rhode Island EPSCoR, so we have the option to attend weekly field trips and activities, and there is a poster session at the end of the summer where we present our work.

Gabi: I’m funded by RI-INBRE. My day-to-day work consists of a nine-to-five job in the lab. I went to a picnic and a grad school admissions session last week through my program, which was pretty interesting and informative even though I plan to apply to dental school instead of a graduate biology program. I’m not sure if I have any trips set up for me through the program I am funded by, but we have been visiting other labs this summer to learn about different techniques that will help us in our work. Also, I will be attending the same poster session as you at the end of the summer.

My main takeaways from our conversation are that Gabi and I come from labs with very different focuses – marine biology and molecular biology – and we also have very different experiences in the lab itself.

Still, we both go to a lab every day and work with a professor, and we have had the chance to explore beyond our individual experiences. For me, that means while I am learning how to work in a marine biology lab, I am also given resources to help me plan my future in science.