Upstate welcomes largest class to its Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program

When Upstate Medical University student Maria Presti talks about working in a research lab she gets excited. Her eyes get wide. She talks faster and with more enthusiasm. She uses hand gestures to explain her point.

Presti is a second-year biochemistry student, currently conducting research on kidney cells in Stewart Loh’s lab.

“I love kidneys!” Presti says with a big smile.

But it wasn’t always that way. When Presti attended Bard College at Simon’s Rock she thought she was going to go on to medical school. After some time in college though, she realized it wasn’t for her.

Presti, who is from the Boston area, heard about a program through Upstate where she could study in a lab for the summer. Research, she thought, sounded more like something she wanted to pursue. She applied and was accepted into Upstate’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) in 2015, the summer before her senior year. She and 18 other students were assigned to labs across the Upstate campus and that’s when Presti says she hit the jackpot. She was assigned to Dr. Mira Krendel’s lab and her future solidified.

“I largely attribute my coming here to her,” Presti says of Krendel. “It was a really positive experience. I wanted to be working with a strong woman in the STEM field and she took the time to explain things that summer.”

She used the research she conducted during her SURF summer for her senior thesis and then applied to Upstate for graduate school.

Presti’s experience is exactly the hope for Upstate’s SURF program.

The program “gives students the chance to get first-hand experience in biomedical research in a cutting-edge biomedical research lab,” said director of the program, Dr. Michael Cosgrove. “They either get turned on or they may realize it’s not for them so it really helps them figure out what they want to do.”

And if and when those students do get turned on by the science, the hope is they choose Upstate for their studies, Cosgrove said.

“If we’re lucky, we’ll recruit some of them back to Upstate,” he said.

The SURF program has grown significantly in 2018 with Upstate partnering with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry,  to recruit and place students in labs. Graduate Studies Dean Mark Schmitt, PhD, also successfully landed additional funding through the SUNY Performance Improvement Fund, Cosgrove said. While there are usually eight to 15 students in SURF, the program has 29 participants this year, he said. About 350 applied. The students are from eight countries, and represent many higher education institutions from across the country, including: Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Chatham University, Clarkson University, the College of St Scholastica, Columbus State University, Emory College, Fordham University, Green Mountain College, Ithaca College, Keystone College, Marist College, Marquette University, St. Joseph’s College (N.Y.), Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, University of Arkansas, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, University of Connecticut, University of Louisiana Monroe, University of South Carolina, SUNY College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill, SUNY Fredonia, SUNY Oswego, Union College and Williams College.

“We focus on (recruiting at) institutions where they might not have the opportunity to do cutting-edge biomedical research,” Cosgrove said. “Consistently we’ve had very good students.”

The students are placed in labs in many of the colleges within Upstate and at ESF. They are paired with a principle investigator (PI), who is usually a professor in the department. The PI and the student work together to develop a proposal for what the student will research during the 10-week program.

The students present their proposals to their fellow students, which Cosgrove said can be helpful to learn about many fields of study. The students often pair up with a graduate student who can help guide the research, Cosgrove said. Students share their work with a poster presentation at the end of the summer.

The SURF program provides a variety of learning opportunities throughout the summer including hearing presentations from graduate students, participating in a journal club and other career development activities, Cosgrove said. Access to resources – the labs and the people who work in them–is extremely beneficial for students, he said.

“It’s such a great experience and it removes those mysterious barriers they might have about working in a lab,” Cosgrove said. “Hopefully they see that scientists are just real, normal people.”

In addition to the work, the SURF program also encourages a little fun. The 2018 group took a hike at Clark Reservation State Park, got ice cream at Gannon’s Isle and they will go kayaking on the Moose River in Old Forge.

Presti said those were definitely some of her favorite memories from the program and encouraged current SURF students to get out and experience Syracuse. She also said it’s important to have an open mind; she did and it lead her to a career in research, which she loves.

“I think the program was a really good way to get a taste of what research is, especially if you don’t have any experience in that,” she said. “Whatever skills you learn are valuable, even if you don’t get the results you expected.”

Caption: Some of the participants in this year’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program taking a break from research at Clark Reservartion in Jamesville, N.Y.

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