Summer programs offer research experience to undergraduates

The Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine is welcoming 150 undergraduate students this summer to participate in the college’s many research programs. These summer programs offer participants an early taste of hands-on work in a laboratory as well as valuable time with faculty members in their area of interest.

David Weiss, PhD, co-director of the Summer Microbiology Undergraduate Research Program and associate professor of microbiology, hopes that students realize their own ability in their time spent in the program.

“My primary goal when working with undergraduates is to impart an appreciation for the process of discovery. The trick is to design a meaningful research project that is within their reach intellectually and doable in the time available. I want undergraduates to leave my lab saying, “I can be a scientist! I belong!” he said.

University of Scranton student Samantha Freedman, participating in the microbiology program in the laboratory of Jon Houtman, PhD, associate professor of microbiology, initially chose UI because of its prominence.

“When I was searching for summer programs, the University of Iowa’s program was by far one of the best. It had the most to offer, both in terms of research facilities and [financial support]. This school has a great reputation for research, so it was really a no-brainier to apply here,” she said.

Throughout the summer, students are also provided with supplemental learning opportunities to further prepare them for all aspects of a future research career. Coordinated by the college’s Office of Graduate Programs and Postdoctoral Studies, opportunities include:

  • A Weekly Seminar Series tailored for young researchers that present topics with the appropriate scope and depth to expand their new knowledge.
  • A “Survival Skills” Workshop for Young Researchers that offers experts who provide clear and concise instructions on topics vital to success. These tips range from documenting research to giving scientific oral and poster presentations, to admissions procedures.
  • Both a Welcome Reception and a Farewell Reception that allow participants to network and socialize with both their peers and faculty in an informal setting outside the laboratory.

Current UI graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who were once in the same position as program participants not too long ago, are also valuable resources for summer program participants.

“There is no substitute for engaging students one-on-one. This is possible because undergraduates in my lab typically work shoulder-to-shoulder with a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow who serves as co-mentor. These people are critical to the success of the summer program because they are engaged in actual bench work on a daily basis. They are also closer to the undergraduates in terms of age and educational attainment. I think the undergraduates relate to these people better than to professors,” said Weiss.

The Carver College of Medicine’s national reputation helps make its summer programs a destination for motivated undergraduates, but the variety of unique learning opportunities organized by both faculty leaders and the Office of Graduate Programs and Postdoctoral Studies ensures the experience matches the prestige.

“I had high expectations coming into this program. It’s very competitive to land a spot in these programs, so when I was accepted I was thrilled and excited to learn about research. I expected to learn a lot, and I have thus far. Coming into this program, I hoped that taking part in research everyday would strengthen my choice to go to graduate school and become a researcher,” said Freedman.

And, according to Weiss, it’s not just the summer students who find the unique experience rewarding.

“Undergraduates in a summer program bring a lot energy to the lab. They are also a very diverse group…my summer students are usually from small colleges, from other parts of the country and have a variety of majors (but usually not microbiology, which is too specialized to be offered at most smaller schools). The different perspectives these students bring are very stimulating. And seeing all the great resources we have at UI, the students in our summer program are like ‘a kid in a candy shop.’ It’s so fun to feel their excitement,” he said.

The Carver College of Medicine offers a diverse collection of summer programs to accommodate participants regardless of their field of study.

The Formal Summer Programs include:

Ensuring all students have an opportunity to participate as well as maximizing the experience for those who do is a priority for the ever-improving programs. Weiss has discovered unexpected rewards through his efforts to reach out and build-upon the already-impressive experience he offers students through the Summer Microbiology Undergraduate Research Program.

“The summer program that I co-direct is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. As such, I interact on a regular basis with scientists from around the country who direct analogous summer programs. Invariably our conversations turn to how we manage our programs, so I get exposed to a lot of ideas for ‘best practices’ in mentoring undergraduates in research settings. I also have the chance to engage with faculty from around the country who are interested in how to bring more underrepresented minorities and non-traditional students into science and mathematics. This is an aspect of my career as an educator that I did not foresee, but which I greatly enjoy. And it would not have happened without the summer program,” Weiss said.