Undergrads sample life as researchers

By Deborah Wormser / September 2011

The end of another summer established another high-tide mark for SURF.

This year, 84 college students participated in the 10-week Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program at UT Southwestern. Applications have tripled over the years for this intense research experience, which culminates in a poster presentation.

“SURF meets the needs of two groups of undergraduate students: those who have done research before, know that they love it and want to get a world-class research experience; and those who lack research opportunities at their home institutions and want to get their feet wet and see if the life of a researcher is one that would appeal to them,” said Dr. Nancy Street, SURF Director and Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

More than 1,000 undergraduates from as far away as Greece, Puerto Rico and Hawaii applied this year for consideration, which required submitting answers to three essay questions in addition to providing transcripts and recommendations. Among the 84 SURF participants were 10 in the Quantitative and Physical Sciences section (QP-SURF) that is geared toward undergraduates majoring in mathematics, computer science, physics or chemistry.

The essays are used to match SURF students to campus mentors such as Dr. Philip Thomas, Professor of Physiology who is an 18-year veteran of SURF summers. Dr. Thomas had high praise for QP-SURF student Margaret Fuller, a junior at The College of New Jersey who worked to classify different genetic mutations in cystic fibrosis that would enable individualized therapies to treat specific patients’ symptoms.

“She was really engaged in what we were doing and eager to learn,” Dr. Thomas said of the Fort Worth native. “She had a good fundamental background. Dr. Street does an excellent job selecting the students.”

Ms. Fuller, a biomedical physics major, said her first research experience helped convince her that she really wants a research career.

“You can’t really know until you’ve been part of a serious research project. Now, I am thinking of applying to Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. programs,” she said, adding that she hopes to return to UT Southwestern for another summer of SURF or for graduate school. “It would certainly be hard to walk away from this project if I am offered the job again.”

Dr. Street, who has led the program since 1999, said, “These students talk at the level of first- or second-year graduate students about projects they’ve only worked on 10 weeks. I am just so impressed with the depth, the knowledge and the questions they ask.”

As an undergraduate at San Antonio’s St. Mary’s University in 2001, Denise Ramirez was a SURF student in the lab of Dr. David Corey, Professor of Pharmacology and of Biochemistry. She returned as a Ph.D. candidate under Dr. David Russell, Dean of Basic Research, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Ege Kavalali, Chair of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience.

“I had an extremely positive experience as a SURF student, and a clear idea of the life of a UT Southwestern graduate student,” she said adding that her SURF experience and the high quality of the research at the medical center made UT Southwestern her top choice for graduate school.

Dr. Thomas holds the Ruth S. Harrell Professorship in Medical Research.