SURF gives college students invaluable lab experience

SURF fellow Nicholas Murira, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, shows his findings to Dr. Benjamin Tu, Associate Professor of Biochemistry.

Marking its 33rd year, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program again offered college students the unique opportunity to learn and work in UT Southwestern’s research laboratories.

In addition to providing intensive, hands-on research experiences, the SURF program enabled students to hear firsthand from some of UT Southwestern’s most renowned researchers.

SURF student Mindy Kim, a junior at Johns Hopkins University, spent her summer working in the laboratory of Dr. Steven Vernino, Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics.

“Executing experiments without any background in the field of study proved to be tough,” said the natural sciences and sociology major, “particularly when I attempted to develop the immunoassay. I had difficulties determining the concentration of antibodies to use. But through persistence, seeking advice from my mentor, and searching through literature, I established a protocol with potential in differentiating between patients with and without postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).”

Besides gaining research experience, Ms. Kim benefited from the SURF lectures. She is considering pursuing both an M.D. and a Ph.D. after hearing Dr. Andrew Zinn, Dean of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, speak on the topic, “M.D./Ph.D.: Is it Right for Me?”

Dr. Zinn talked about evolution of the M.D./Ph.D. career path and the program’s importance in medical care and research. Dr. Zinn led UT Southwestern’s M.D./Ph.D. program at the time he was selected as Dean.

“The M.D./Ph.D. concept is an attempt to blend medicine and science,” Dr. Zinn said. “As a clinician, you’re not pushing the boundaries of research. You’re treating the problems of the patients without looking past the patient and asking, ‘what about that cancer that we don’t have any drugs for?’ ”

The dual-degree program seeks to advance the practice of medicine, he said, and on the science side, to understand the biology that is important in fighting disease. The program generally takes eight years – four years of medical school and four years of graduate school.

Dr. Zinn stressed that the M.D/Ph.D. program is not necessarily for everyone, although he added the dual training achieves “what we’re trying to do, which is to train physician-scientists.”

All weekly lectures were available to students in the various programs: SURF, Quantitative and Physical Sciences-SURF, QP-SURF-Chemistry, SURF-Cancer, SURF-Stem Cell, and SURISKD (Summer Undergraduate Research Institution for the Study of Kidney Disease).

Nearly 90 students were invited to participate in the 2017 SURF program out of an estimated 1,200 applicants.

This year’s SURF program offered a new option, SURF-Stem Cell, supported by Dr. Eric Olson, Chairman of Molecular Biology.

 “The SURF fellows bring great energy, ideas, and dedication to their fellowships, and they gain an incredible world-class research experience while contributing to the science at UT Southwestern,” said Dr. Nancy Street, Associate Dean of the Graduate School. “Many of these bright young students return to UT Southwestern and go on to make significant impact in their fields.”

Dr. Olson holds the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Science, the Pogue Distinguished Chair in Research on Cardiac Birth Defects, and the Annie and Willie Nelson Professorship in Stem Cell Research.

Dr, Vernino holds the Dr. Bob and Jean Smith Foundation Distinguished Chair in Neuromuscular Disease Research.

Dr. Zinn holds the Rolf Haberecht and Ute Schwarz Haberecht Deanship of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.