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Sun, Science and SURF



Sun, Science and SURF

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

It’s a summer afternoon at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, CA. Beachgoers flock to the nearby shoreline. Seagulls squawk.

Hannah Christian, a college student from Nebraska, sits at a sterilized hood in the laboratory of TSRI Professor Jeanne Loring. She’s busy feeding a colony of stem cells and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Christian is one of 40 interns who elected to spend 10 weeks as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. The program, organized by the TSRI Office of Educational Outreach and Community Engagement on TSRI’s California and Florida campuses, provides a chance for students to learn new laboratory techniques, find mentors and explore careers in biomedical research.

Sticking with Science

Christian is the first person in her family to pursue a career in the sciences. Growing up in Omaha, Christian always liked the idea of studying the fundamental structures of the world around her, especially the unique ability of stem cells to turn into different tissues.

So Christian enrolled as a biological systems engineering major at the University of Nebraska and has been exploring biomedical careers ever since. This summer, Christian decided to look into the academic side of research, so she applied for the SURF program at TSRI. “It’s a fantastic institution with a lot of research opportunities,” said Christian.

Data from the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics shows why programs like SURF are vital. The center has reported that about half of bachelor’s degree candidates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs leave the field before completing their degrees.

Christian is bucking this trend, and TSRI is there to support her.

The 10-week SURF program provides participants the opportunity to perform cutting-edge research in one of 250 laboratories, side-by-side with TSRI’s world-renowned faculty. The goals of the program are to:

  • Make program participants feel comfortable in a lab setting and increase their research skills
  • Teach participants to think critically about the theory and application of biomedical research
  • Increase the participants' proficiency in communicating scientific concepts
  • Increase the number of underrepresented and first-generation to college students who consider careers in biomedical research.

In parallel with the SURF program, TSRI also offers several education and internship programs for high school students. These efforts include TSRI’s High School Student Research Education Program, which is part of the San Diego Workforce Partnership’s Life Sciences Summer Institute (LSSI). The 20 TSRI students in the LSSI program this year began their summer with a one-week unpaid boot camp followed by a seven-week paid research internship. In addition, in a program supported by the Kenan Charitable Trust, 10 high school students joined Scripps Florida labs as interns for the summer.

The Power of Mentorship

Christian’s day-to-day work during the summer involved raising stem cells and preparing them for analysis, as part of a project to create nerve cells that could replace cells damaged in multiple sclerosis.

The work can be tricky—the techniques take a while to master and bacteria pose a threat to the stem cell colonies. But throughout this process, Christian had a TSRI scientist at her side: a SURF program mentor.

Christian’s mentor, TSRI Research Associate Ron Coleman, was impressed with her progress over the summer. Coleman said she had mastered some difficult lab techniques and even learned to jump into lab meetings and ask interesting questions.

“Science can seem overly intimidating,” said Christian, “but it’s no more complicated than any other field of study.”

On the last day of their summer internships, the SURF and LSSI students gathered outside TSRI’s education offices to presents posters about their research.

Like many of her fellow interns, Christian was motivated to take her research experience further and plans to apply to graduate schools next year.

“You stop and realize that this is really innovative research that could someday help people,” Christian said. “It means a lot to contribute to that in even a small way.”

For more information about educational programs on the institute’s California and Florida campuses, see TSRI’s Education website.


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Students presented posters about their research on the last day of their summer internships at TSRI. (Photo by Madeline McCurry-Schmidt)