Summer Undergraduate Research Fest spotlights next generation of scientists

A crowd of more than 250 people gathered to learn from and celebrate emerging scientists at UMBC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fest (SURF) on August 10, 2016. The program has humble beginnings, but it’s come a long way in 19 years.

“In its first year, we had 10 posters in the engineering building,” says Lasse Lindahl, director of the MARC U*STAR Scholars Program and professor of biological sciences. This year, 131 students presented 84 posters about their work with individual faculty mentors and in 11 different summer research programs, ranging from the National Security Agency Scholars to the new SCIART program.

“SURF’s growth demonstrates the commitment of UMBC to undergraduate research and getting the next generation of researchers prepared,” Lindahl says.

Kayla Sims, a rising sophomore at the STEM magnet high school Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, had never taken chemistry when she dived into research at UMBC’s Molecular Characterization and Analysis Complex (MCAC) this summer as part of the Summer Biomedical Training Program sponsored by UMBC’s College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences (CNMS) and Graduate School. She was nervous, but, “The people at MCAC taught me a lot,” she says. Now she can explain myoglobin digestion optimization like a pro, and she is ready to tackle her first chemistry course this fall.

Anna Opoku-Agyeman ’18, biological sciences, is a MARC*USTAR Scholar and says her summer of research has been “life-changing.” She researched novel therapies for breast cancer to help prevent recurrence. She also developed a clearer sense of her interests in scientific research and policy, and she now hopes to pursue a Ph.D. related to infectious diseases that affect sub-Saharan Africa. A law degree might also be in her future, to enable policy work.

In addition to the two lively poster sessions, six student research teams gave oral presentations to the packed ballroom. Austin Gabel ‘19, biological sciences, conducted research in the lab of Rachel Brewster, associate professor of biological sciences. He discussed his work on developmental arrest in zebrafish embryos with poise, enthusiasm, and clarity. Joel Tyson ‘17, biochemical engineering, explained his pioneering work to develop a minimally-invasive probe that measures brain activity, conducted in the lab of Gymama Slaughter, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering. Additional projects dealt with topics ranging from climate modeling to nanoscale drug delivery.

Across these diverse areas, the SURF presenters shared a commitment to developing new scientific knowledge through research, both in their future careers and in high-level work during their student years. CNMS dean Bill LaCourse reflected, “To see the joy and the excitement in the students’ faces is a wonderful thing.”

Image: SURF participants from the Summer Biomedical Training Program, with mentor Michael Summers on far left and Kayla Sims on far right; photo Tim Ford.