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Top college students nationwide find the SURF’s up at Upstate for the summer

More than 30 college students have been hard at work this summer inside labs at Upstate Medical University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry as part of Upstate’s annual Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program, better known as SURF.

Students in the 2019 summer cohort hail from eight countries and attend colleges and universities in New York, Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, among others. For 11 weeks from early June until mid-August, the students work full-time in Upstate and ESF labs, conducting research that culminates in a final paper and poster presentation.

SURF students are matched to labs based on their interests and assigned a mentor—usually the principal investigator in the lab. In addition to the research, students also participate in a weekly journal club run by Upstate graduate students, educational seminars and social activities, which this year included a hike and a kayaking trip on the Moose River in Old Forge.

For many students Upstate’s SURF program is their first time working in a lab outside of the classroom. The experience often helps guide a student’s education plans and career goals, said Bruce Knutson, PhD, co-director of the program and assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Upstate.

“Usually in your undergraduate courses you get these small little experiences in a lab,” Knutson said. “But here, you actually have a project and your experiments are set up and you get to work through it. They realize if they like it and if they don’t like it, too. That’s a good time to learn.”

Upstate’s SURF program annually attracts some of the brightest students from across the country, said co-director Michael Cosgrove, PhD. More than 200 students applied for just 32 slots and this year’s group has an average GPA of 3.8, said Cosgrove, who has directed the program for the last six years and is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Upstate.

“There’s something about being in a lab doing cutting-edge research that’s every exciting—even when parts of it can be very tedious,” Cosgrove said. “They are working with professionally trained scientists and if you’re interested in science, it can be exhilarating.”

That’s exactly what happened to 2015 SURF student Gianno Pannafino. Pannafino had just completed his sophomore year at Le Moyne College when he worked as a SURF student in Knutson’s lab. The work he did that summer studying a mutation related to Treacher Collins syndrome—a rare genetic disorder—solidified his plans to attend graduate school.

Pannafino will begin his third graduate year studying biochemistry and molecular biology at Cornell University this August.

The SURF program “is just like being thrust into a real lab environment and I couldn’t have asked for a better lab than Dr. Knutson’s,” he said. “It was a really great experience and it really shaped my career path in a lot of ways.”

Caption: Students participating in 2019 SURF program took time out from research to enjoy several outdoor excursions this summer.

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