UMBC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fest 2018 spotlights talents of emerging scientists

UMBC’s University Center ballroom was standing-room only earlier this week as visitors gathered to learn about new student research on topics from HIV replication to enhancing art conservation through wireless temperature monitoring.

The Summer Undergraduate Research Fest (SURF) presenters were high school students and undergraduates from UMBC and other colleges who chose to spend their summers conducting research at UMBC. In all, 126 students participated in the event, which included two poster sessions and an awards ceremony following the presentations. More than 30 faculty members across five departments and two colleges at UMBC guided the students in their research.

“The experience helped us to think like scientists,” says Olufolake Majekodunmi ’21, biological sciences and psychology. She and her research partner, Avantika Krishna ’21, biochemistry, conducted research for a new project on e-cigarette flavorings with neurobiologist Weihong Lin. As participants in the UMBC STEM BUILD Training Program, they have also received training in writing personal statements, analyzing academic journal articles, constructing their résumés, and more.

“The internship prepared us for giving oral presentations and applying to the workforce or grad school,” says Krishna. Both Krishna and Majekodunmi plan to continue their work with Lin this fall.

For some students, the summer offered a chance to step outside their comfort zones. Sarah Carpe ‘20, environmental science, who transferred to UMBC from Baltimore City Community College, worked with biologist Steve Miller through an NSF Research Experience and Mentoring (REM) award. Her project seeks to enhance algal biofuels by manipulating algae genetics. This stretched her beyond her typical focus areas, but she sees it as very relevant to her passion for the environment because of its potential to help the planet, she says.

Ewnet Sisay ‘20, mechanical engineering, studied zebrafish embryos with developmental biologist Rachel Brewster. “I hope to go for a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, so I wanted to try biology before committing to a Ph.D,” Sisay says. The result? “I really love it.”

On the other hand, Rakan El-Mayta ‘18, chemical engineering and biological sciences, has been conducting research with biochemical engineer Erin Lavik for two years. This summer, El-Mayta continued work on a project to generate a 3D model of the human colon that will make testing new therapies more efficient. The work has confirmed his enthusiasm for engineering. “Everything is so applicable,” El-Mayta says, “and I get to work with my hands and really think like an engineer.”

Sahle Gebremichael, a student at Baltimore City Community College, spent time in Steve Miller’s lab this summer through the NSF REM program. He intends to transfer to UMBC next year. “I think getting research experience here will help me make the transition to UMBC,” he says.

In addition to sharing the benefits of their experiences, the student also spoke to how research can sometimes be an emotional rollercoaster, peppered with challenges and failures. But by working through those issues, they came to see failures as growth opportunities, rather than setbacks.

“I’ve hit a couple roadblocks along the way,” says Carpe, “which has helped me understand the project better because I have to really think to solve the problem.”

Brett Lucht, a student at Marist College and recipient of an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates award, also found a way to see the positive in the challenges he faced while working with physical chemist Lisa Kelly. “Failures are a part of research,” he says, “and we’ve learned from them, so they were good failures.”

Bill LaCourse, dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, which organized the event, took a moment at the research festival to tell the students that although they are still early in their scientific careers, working to answer questions no one has ever answered before is a noble and exciting challenge. He shared his hope that their time as UMBC researchers “lights a flame of passion that will drive you to greater undertakings…with joy and wonderment.”

“It has been our privilege to host you here at UMBC,” said LaCourse. “Your spirit is an inspiration to us all.”

Image: Students explain their research to attendees at SURF 2017. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.