UMBC undergrads conduct pharmaceutical research at UMB through new partnership

Arissa Falat ‘18, biochemistry and molecular biology, knew last spring how she wanted to spend her summer vacation: making new discoveries in a lab. She did just that, working with Steven Fletcher, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) to create mimics of tiny protein structures that could fight cancer by disrupting the mechanism that allows tumors to grow unchecked. Each day she painstakingly carried out complex synthesis reactions, purification processes, and verification techniques to move the project forward.

Arissa Falat ’18 explains her research at a UMB poster session.

Falat is one of eight UMBC undergraduates who worked full time in UMB pharmaceutical sciences labs this summer as part of a new internship program sponsored jointly by UMB and the UMBC Office of the Provost, and managed at UMBC by the Office of Academic and Pre-professional Advising. The students presented their work at both a UMB poster session and UMBC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fest, held in August.

Ken Baron, assistant vice provost for academic advising and student success, coordinates the program at UMBC. He is committed to helping students “get grounded in their career areas early,” and focuses on connecting students at all levels—not just juniors and seniors—with research opportunities.

Alexandra Morris ’19 discusses her work with Ken Baron.

Zachary Clifford ’20, chemistry, has enjoyed the opportunity to do impactful hands-on research early in his undergraduate career. Clifford’s work for Maureen Kane, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences, involves analyzing data sets to identify small molecules that may be biomarkers for damage caused by radiation exposure. It was a big shift from the inorganic chemistry research he did in high school, but Clifford says it helped him recognize that “data analysis is a very important part of the scientific process.” He intends to pursue a research career and already plans to work with Zeev Rosenzweig, professor and chair of chemistry and biochemistry at UMBC, this fall.

Zachary Clifford ’20 talks about his research experience at the UMB poster session.

Alexandra Morris ’19, biochemistry and molecular biology, says the internship taught her “so much beyond what I learned in class”—knowledge that can really only be gained through lab experience. She worked to modify the structure of a common cancer drug to reduce its toxicity to healthy cells in the lab of Fengtian Xue, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences. “It was really rewarding because I had a clear goal,” she shares. Morris hopes to pursue a clinical internship next summer, and to continue her education after UMBC with a Pharm.D.

Additional participants this summer were Kellie-Ann Kelly ’19, biological sciences; Cierra McKoy ’20, biological sciences; Temiloluwa Okusolubo ’19, biological sciences; Racheal Spruill ’19, biological sciences; and Anh Tran ’18, biochemistry and molecular biology.

Temiloluwa Okusolubo ’19 explains her summer research at a UMB poster session.

Previous participant Joanna Lum ’19, biological sciences, is now a year out from an influential internship with Peter Swaan, professor of pharmaceutical sciences. She believes strongly in the lasting impact of summer lab internships. “Before this experience, I had no idea what working in a lab was like, let alone considering it as a career,” she shares, but “after spending eight consecutive weeks learning and asking questions in the lab, I began loving what I was doing, and I started seeing myself doing this in the future.” Now she does research in the lab of Erin Green, assistant professor of biological sciences, and intends to pursue graduate school in the biomedical sciences.

Baron is excited to continue to formalize and expand the internship program as part of the growing connections between UMBC and UMB. Developing a new program to provide diverse, faculty-guided research opportunities for undergraduates involves a lot of moving parts, but, Baron says, it also represents “the best of what a university can do for its students.”

Banner image: Kellie-Ann Kelly ’19 discusses her research at a UMB poster session. All photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.