For selected college students, summer on campus is great time to SURF

By Lin Lofley

Asked about the most daunting aspect of his summer as a member of the 2013 Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, Trevor Hinshaw focused on “priorities” – learning to balance his own with those of the people he worked with.

For many in the latest SURF class at UT Southwestern Medical Center, that appreciation of individual as well as group goals might be just as important a lesson as anything that was witnessed in a laboratory.

Emily Vonderhaar, SURF Participant
Emily Vonderhaar explains her research to QP-SURF participant Dorothy Owens, a student at UT Pan American.

“When you join a group of people who are all working on different projects, you have to learn empathy for priorities,” said Mr. Hinshaw, a senior at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., who spent the summer in the lab of Dr. Rajiv Chopra, Associate Professor of Radiology in the Advanced Imaging Research Center. “I learned that when I needed something from a colleague that might take an hour, it might not happen for two days because my priorities don’t match those of the person whose help I needed. I learned to try to give greater attention to the tasks that others needed me to do.”

Mr. Hinshaw was among 63 students from 47 schools who were part of the 2013 SURF program. Nine more students participated in the Quantitative and Physical Sciences program, called QP-SURF, and 15 students served on campus as SURF affiliates, research interns, and members of the Summer Undergraduate Medical Research Fellows (SUMR) program.

“We had another group of exceptionally bright and motivated young undergraduates,” said Dr. Nancy Street, Associate Dean of UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, who has been Director of SURF since 1999. “Their time at UT Southwestern helped them see exactly what is required to be successful as a research scientist, and this includes both science and life skills.

“Each summer I ask them individually, ‘What was your biggest challenge and what surprised you the most during SURF?’ A response I hear quite often is ‘I was surprised that the lab I was working in asked me for my ideas and my opinions; this was gratifying and terrifying at the same time.’ SURF aims to provide these undergraduates a small glimpse of what life as a research scientist involves and then inspire them to pursue that path.”

In addition to working in UT Southwestern labs, the students took part in the annual seminar series that features talks by top researchers at the medical center, including Nobel Laureates Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. Bruce Beutler.

“It was interesting to hear of their research firsthand, especially after having read about it in my college textbooks,” said Emily Vonderhaar, a senior at Iowa State University who has applied for admission to Medical Scientist Training Programs at a number of schools, including UT Southwestern.

Ms. Vonderhaar spent the summer in the lab of Dr. Benjamin Chen, Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology, and credited him with helping her learn the reasoning behind research processes: “So I can think critically during interpretation.

“This summer I learned that research takes time, and lots of it. It’s actually ‘re-search,’ because it takes multiple attempts before you can confidently explain a finding.”

The SURF students also participated in the traditional poster session at the end of the summer. For some, it was the first time they had ever created a poster to detail their research.

Many of the participants hoped the session marked the end of the beginning of their time at UT Southwestern.

“These summer undergraduate research programs create an excellent pipeline into our Ph.D., MSTP, and M.D. programs,” Dr. Street said. “We selected this summer’s group from more than 1,150 applicants representing some of the best talent in the nation. Their participation in summer research here gives them an in-depth understanding of the excellence and breadth of our research, as well as the top quality of our educational opportunities.”


Dr. Beutler is a Regental Professor and Director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense. He holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research, in Honor of Laverne and Raymond Willie Sr.

Dr. Brown is a Regental Professor and Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease. He holds the W.A. (Monty) Moncrief Distinguished Chair in Cholesterol and Arteriosclerosis Research, and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.