A Summer Well Invested
The Summer Undergraduate Research Program provides faculty-mentored, paid, hands-on learning for students in many disciplines, including Biology.
Guadalupe Telles spent much of her summer watching baby birds grow.
“Watching them go from tiny, pink newborns to almost full-size birds with wings and colors was really special,” she said.
These were no casual observations. Telles, a junior transfer student majoring in environmental science and ecology, was researching the preferences and activity of the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) in two different styles of bird nest boxes, set up at 20 sites around SUNY Brockport campus. Working with Instructional Support Technician Andie Graham, she learned how to identify types of nests and eggs and monitored when the baby birds would be ready to fledge.
Telles’s work was part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), which allows students to work closely with faculty mentors on research and creative projects, providing in-depth, hands-on experience at an early stage of the students’ careers.
Participants receive on-campus housing and a stipend for up to eight weeks through funding from the Brockport Foundation. The program has existed in its current form since 2010. And it’s competitive: about 25 students receive SURP funding each year, out of an average of 45 to 60 applicants.
Adam Rich, associate professor of biology, who has coordinated the program since 2015, says dedicating such a block of time to a single project allows for better development of techniques and processes.
“All students will tell you that being able to work for eight hours, and being able to do experiments one day after the other, is the very best way to learn,” Rich said. “There are no distractions — or at least many fewer — for students and for mentors, so much more can be accomplished. Most important is the process; just doing the work and having time to think about things is a very big deal.”
This proved true for senior Christopher Carlson, a biology major, who worked with Assistant Professor Bernardo Ortega to research the effect of magnesium on bacteria in the intestines of mice who have an inflammatory bowel disease. Previous research has shown that increasing dietary magnesium lessens symptoms of these diseases, and Ortega’s lab aims to find a supplement to help treat ulcerative colitis.
“We are required to take labs for classes, but there is no real question to try to answer. A research lab is completely different, as we actually have to use the scientific method to discover something that no one else has ever known,” said Carlson. “It is really satisfying to work for weeks on end and to get preliminary results that fit.”
Senior Brigette Meskell’s work began months before the SURP and is continuing this semester. As an editorial and research assistant for an ethnomusicology textbook in progress by Associate Professor Natalie Sarrazin, Meskell transcribes traditionally aural music using the music notation software program Sibelius and designs charts for Sarrazin to include as illustrations in her book. Meskell also has researched and written some sections herself, primarily on LGBTQI identity in Indian music.
Some of their work together has already been published. As a prerequisite for her SURP project, Meskell created the index for Sarrazin’s Problem-Based Learning in the College Music Classroom, released this August.
“The task was extremely intimidating at first,” said Meskell, “as it entailed skimming the entire book for comprehension, noting words of importance and words that have the potential to be cross-listed, and keeping categories of words in mind. With this large task at hand, I had no choice but to dig in.”
She felt excited as she developed a routine and saw the finished work take shape.
“This process helped me realize that with abstract tasks that seem unfathomably impossible at first, you just need to persist,” she said. “I plan on applying this way of thinking to this semester!”
The projects have inspired Meskell, who is majoring in theatre and English literature and minoring in music studies, to apply to graduate programs in English literature and ethnomusicology.
Telles, too, gained confidence over the several months she spent monitoring the birds.
“I had to learn how to identify the birds and age them correctly — if I didn’t, I would miss them fledging, which was the most important part of the study,” she said. “By the end of the study, I was practically a pro.”
Though she is still analyzing the data, Telles observed that the birds seemed to favor the smaller, better insulated boxes. She hypothesizes that the increased warmth is important to the birds as they typically lay their eggs in cold, rainy spring weather.
For Carlson, the excitement for his work came from the far-reaching ramifications it could have.
“It is crazy to think that something I am doing could have an impact not only on the scientific community, but also for people who are suffering from disease,” he said.
Rich says this type of engaged learning is a traditional piece of preparation for those who wish to teach the next generation, especially in the sciences.
“I can’t think of any [science] faculty members who did not do this sort of thing when they were undergraduate students,” he said.
He wishes more students would make use of this valuable opportunity. For instance, he estimates that, on average, six of Brockport’s approximately 240 biology majors take advantage of summer research each year.
“It is competitive,” he said, “but it’s something to aim for.”
Other funding sources available for student research include grants from organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
Telles feels the career preparation from her summer research has been invaluable.
“I’m very thankful to have gotten this experience to do hands-on work in my major,” she said. “I feel I’ve gotten a taste of what my future could look like. It definitely opened my eyes to the kinds of careers I could pursue.”