Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, Yale will once again host eight to 10 undergraduates from across this country this summer to conduct independent science research.
Started in 2009, the fellowship program — titled “Research Experiences for Undergraduates Site: Convergence of Research at the Interface of the Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences” — promotes research across multiple scientific disciplines for undergraduates who attend colleges that do not have many research opportunities but are interested in careers in the sciences. Spanning 10 weeks, the program provides a $5,000 stipend, as well as free room and board and money for travel expenses. In the past, two to three Yale students have also received the fellowship every year. The program first received a three-year award from the NSF for $238,004 in 2012.
“All of the students rated the program as excellent and I’ve kept in touch with a lot of them. It’s wonderful to hear about how much of an impact this program has had in their careers,” said Dorottya Noble, assistant director of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences, a Yale institute which helps to fund the program.
The undergraduate fellows are paired up with Sackler-affiliated faculty advisors based on mutual research interests, and the students partake in a series of workshops covering laboratory procedures, discussing scientific ethics and applying to graduate school. At the end of the program, students showcase their research at the undergraduate research symposium held in conjunction with other summer Yale research programs.
Although the NSF has yet to announce the grant publicly, Director of Undergraduate Programs at the Sackler Institute and Mechanical Engineering professor Corey O’Hern said he found out three weeks ago that the program will receive funding for the next three years. Only around 30 percent of programs reapplying for funding receive awards from the NSF, which O’Hern said shows how successful the program has been. The merits of success for a program are measured by how many students each year publish their work and how many go on to attend graduate schools, he added. The average publication rate in the program was roughly one paper per student, O’Hern said, and 72 percent of the fellows are currently pursuing or plan to pursue an M.D., Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. joint program, Noble said.
Even for the students who realize they do not want to pursue a career in research, the program is still helpful.
“There are always a couple who decide ‘Well, maybe research isn’t for me,’ and we are happy about that, too,” Noble said. “I think the earlier you realize research isn’t for you, the better it is in terms of figuring out what is for you.”
The program is currently working to increase representation of minorities underrepresented in the sciences. Thirty-seven percent of the 59 students who have participated in the program since its inception are from groups largely underrepresented in the sciences. In addition, 31 percent of the students who went on to Ph.D. or M.D. programs came from underrepresented groups, Noble said.
Daniel Chawla, a senior at The College of New Jersey who participated in the program this past summer working on simulating chemotaxis in E. coli, said this was his first experience conducting research, and the experience was crucial to envisioning a career for himself in the sciences. He added that he has already applied to graduate schools and hopes to continue his focus in computational biology.
Christine Parsons, a senior at Bowdoin College, participated in REU two summers ago, but came back the following year to continue research in the lab in which she had been working. With plans to head to medical school in the future, she is taking some time off after college and has been applying for research positions.
Parsons said she found that the opportunity to publicly present her research at the end of the program taught her how to better communicate complex scientific concepts.
Students interviewed who had participated in the program said it gave them an experience significantly different than what they would have gotten at their smaller schools.
Larisa Gearheart, a junior at Mills College who participated in the program last summer said she still communicates with her mentor from the summer and was happy to hear that the NSF grant is to be renewed.
“It’s so amazing, especially in the political climate where so many things are being cut, to see that we are focusing on areas like this where we can develop scientists — we can develop the next generation,” Gearheart said. “Even with everything that has been happening with politics lately, it is nice to see we have something great like this that will persist.”
Now that they have successfully received the NSF grant, O’Hern said the Sackler Institute’s next goal is to receive from the NIH funding for graduate training that has proved more difficult to obtain in the application process.
The program for 2015 will run from May 31 to Aug. 7.