SURE student Maggie Stanford performs research involving the effect of the drug Prozac on the brain. Jay Ferchaud/ UMMC Communications
SURE student Maggie Stanford performs research involving the effect of the drug Prozac on the brain.
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Students find out if they’re SURE about research careers

Published on Monday, July 18, 2022

By: Ruth Cummins

Maggie Stanford is putting in 40-hour weeks in a University of Mississippi Medical Center laboratory, in part to answer a question: Do I want to be a career researcher?

So is Oscar Dunaway. And Micaiah McDonald. And 44 more undergraduate students from across the country taking part in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, or SURE.

A 10-week program sponsored by the UMMC School of Graduate Studies in the Health Sciences, SURE trains undergrads in biomedical science research, pairing them with a faculty or doctoral student mentor that prepares them to fly on their own as they tackle hands-on projects and protocols. They present their research during a symposium at summer’s end.

“I’ve done research under one of my chemistry professors, but definitely nothing like this,” said Stanford, a Leonville, La., resident and rising senior at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La.

Her SURE project involves scrutinizing DNA in the brain to determine how it changes if the person is taking the drug Prozac. She’s putting DNA into a gel, then looking at the gel under a blacklight. In this case, Stanford said, “if you see the DNA, that means that section of the research isn’t working. If it doesn’t show up, you can move forward.”

SURE began in 2008 with 27 students. Participants must be current college students, including high school graduates about to enter their freshman year, and are selected based on their desire to do research and the number of mentors available.

The work of Stanford and other SURE students gives them a good introduction to basic molecular biology techniques that they can take anywhere a research career leads them, said Dr. Eric Vallender, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Stanford’s mentor.

Eric Vallender

“This is to give them experience and to see what life in the lab really is,” Vallender said. “We hope it ignites a passion for science and helps them gain confidence as a scientist. And, we hope to get them back here as a PhD student or as a scientist.”

SURE “has been a great pipeline, not just for the graduate school, but for others” including the Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, said Jessie Bowman, SURE’s director and a project manager in SGSHS.

It gives students a snapshot of what graduate education looks like, said Dr. Hanna Broome, SGSHS associate dean for student affairs and recruitment and assistant professor of Cell and Molecular Biology.

Portrait of Dr. Hanna Broome

“We tell the students that they will each have a different experience, working in a different lab environment,” she said. “They’ll come in as a novice, but their mentor and the lab personnel training them will empower them in first learning two or three protocols.

“They will start to master them in the first four or five weeks, and then they’ll be given more autonomy with their own mini-project. They’ll have the autonomy to set up an entire experiment and collect data.”

Dunaway, a Clinton resident who graduates in August from Mississippi State University with a degree in biomedical engineering, has gained confidence in his abilities as a researcher as he eyes applying for medical school in the near future.

“I heard about SURE through a friend. He said it would be a wonderful program that allows me to get research experience in a way that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else,” said Dunaway. “He said you’d feel like you’ve been a researcher for years. I’m getting a lot out of this program, and I’m having a really good time.”

As mentor Dr. Scott Williamson watches, SURE student Oscar Dunaway performs research at the UMMC School of Dentistry. Jay Ferchaud/ UMMC Communications
As mentor Dr. Scott Williamson watches, SURE student Oscar Dunaway performs research at the UMMC School of Dentistry.

His research? “I’m working on a very special biomaterial that needs to have its surface altered so that it can better mesh with bone cells to be used in bone implants,” Dunaway said. “It’s a work in progress, but good progress. We’re inching closer to our goal.”

His mentors are Dr. Scott Williamson, associate professor in the School of Dentistry’s Department of Biomedical Materials Science, and Dr. Kadie Nobles, a postdoctoral research fellow in Biomedical Materials Science. “They have taught me everything I know now in this program,” Dunaway said. “I owe many thanks to the people who have taken time out of their schedule to teach me about the lab.”

McDonald, a Jackson resident and rising senior at Alcorn State University, is getting what she wants from the summer: A new experience.

SURE student Micaiah McDonald performs research involving kidney function as part of a 10-week summer program at UMMC. Jay Ferchaud/ UMMC Communications
SURE student Micaiah McDonald performs research involving kidney function as part of a 10-week summer program at UMMC.

“I’m learning about telemetry and sequencing. I’ve learned how to use a pipette,” she said. Her mentor is Dr. Licy Yanes, associate professor of Cell and Molecular Biology.

McDonald is putting test subjects on a “western” diet high in sugar and calories to see if their blood kidney injury molecule levels, or KIM-1, used to gauge kidney injury, become higher or lower. “I enjoy being in the lab and being able to do projects on my own,” she said.

Students’ training in data analysis will help them to make conclusions on their research by the end of the summer, Broome said. “You hear every year that the students are very proud of their accomplishments and the skills they’ve gained with little supervision,” she said. “We have lots of students who come back for a second year, maybe a third year, and they will often work with the same mentor.”

Research is a life skill, not just for scientists, but for everyone, Yanes said.

Portrait of Licy Yanes Cardozo

“I think all the students share one thing– the need to learn something, and to be good at it,” she said. “It’s refreshing every summer when they come to the lab. They ask questions. They have a different perspective. I’m excited about this new generation of scientists. They really want to make an impact.”

Students taking part receive a bimonthly stipend to help cover living expenses. They have the opportunity to live in a Millsaps College dormitory for an affordable fee, thanks to an agreement between the school and UMMC.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve the program,” Broome said. “This summer for the first time, we’re bringing in a local professional speaker, Mandi Stanley, to do a seminar that addresses best practices for networking. That’s adding professional development to address a weak area that students feel like they have.”’

The relationships built through SURE pay off for both students and the SGSHS.

“It’s great for my resume,” McDonald said. “I want to apply to graduate school at UMMC and do research, anesthesia or both.”

“She works hard. She has very good questions,” Yanes said of her mentee. “She seems to be passionate about research. I’d love to see what her story will be in research and in the medical field. She will do great.”