The Office of Undergraduate Research announces the recipients of UConn IDEA Grants in the inaugural competition conducted in Spring 2013. This is first round of the new award program, which provides funding of up to $4,000 for entrepreneurial ventures, community service, traditional research, or other creative endeavors. Proposals for the UConn IDEA Grants represented a variety of disciplines, ranging from fine arts to physics. Congratulations to the eleven undergraduates who have been offered UConn IDEA Grants!
Thank you to the faculty members who have agreed to supervise the UConn IDEA Grant students in their projects. Thank you as well to the faculty members and program directors who served as the initial UConn IDEA Grant Proposal Review Committee!
SURF is the biggest undergraduate research competition administered by the UConn Office of Undergraduate Research. I am delighted to announce that 70 UConn undergraduates have been offered SURF awards for this summer. Members of the faculty review committee commented on how strong the field of 91 applications was this year. SURF applications require research proposals of high quality.
Congratulations to the SURF awardees! Your academic achievements, creativity, and enterprise were ever so evident in your applications. Have fun with your research this summer!
Thank you to the faculty members who supported SURF applicants: mentors, letter writers, and faculty review committee members! SURF represents a collaborative effort between students and faculty. SURF would not exist without the support and participation of faculty members!
Thank you, too, to SURF supporters in the UConn community. Deans of UConn schools and colleges and the Provost’s Office helped to fund the SURF competition this year. Alumni, parents, and friends of UConn also helped fund SURF awards. Our community quilt of funding ensures that SURF supports a diverse array of UConn undergraduate research!
Once again, congratulations to those students offered 2013 SURF awards.
Margaret Lamb, Ph.D.
Director, Office of Undergraduate Research
Sarah Grout was only six years old when a terrible stomachache at gymnastics practice led to a rushed ride to the hospital, where her appendix was removed before doctors discovered the real problem – an E. coli infection. She spent two weeks in the hospital recovering. Sarah, now 20, spent this summer in a biology lab in Beach Hall, running RNA interference experiments for her research project on how enterohemorrhagic E. Coli, often associated with food-borne illness, sets up its potentially fatal infection in humans.
Robert “Bo” Powers, 27, started college in Georgia as a music major in classical guitar. A treble clef tattooed on his ankle hints at his love of music. But after a move to the New Haven area, a job at Yale-New Haven Hospital and an associates degree earned from Gateway Community College, he came to UConn last fall as an honors student in cognitive science. This summer he designed an artificial neural network that he will use in his research project on metonymy – what causes people to choose certain metaphor-like descriptions. For instance, he wonders, why does a waitress tell the cashier, “The ham sandwich at Table 3 wants his check.”
“Creative use of language has deep implications when considering how languages change within a culture, what is considered ‘cool’ or novel, and how ambiguity is resolved,” he wrote in his research proposal.
First in the lab
Sarah, Bo, and 63 other students at UConn had their first full-time research experiences this summer thanks to Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships that provided them with up to $4,000 in stipend and supply funding and the opportunity to spend ten weeks in the lab. Thirty-nine of the students were from CLAS, and the CLAS Dean’s Office provided $24,000 to the program.
While many of the students have worked on research projects during the regular school year, the nine hours a week they devote then, in between classes, is much less intense. A SURF award gives them the luxury of time to do a literature search, read books on their topic, and design their own experiments.
“It’s really a great opportunity to be able to focus fulltime. I wouldn’t be able to get this much done during the year,” says Grout.
The fellowships make the difference between a summer spent pursuing their passion and a summer spent job surfing.
If he hadn’t won a SURF award, says Devin O’Brien, a 21-year-old ecology and evolutionary biology major from Ballston Spa, N.Y., “I’d be at home, trying to get a normal job that wouldn’t further me in my career path.” Instead, he spent seven hours a day, five days a week, in the lab.
O’Brien, who is founder and president of the Entomology Club at UConn, studies insects from an evolutionary and development perspective. He’s examining the role that three descriptively named genes – fringe, frizzled, and dishevelled – have on the appendage development of a species of red flour beetle, T. castaneum. Appendages – legs, wings, mouths – are an area of diversity that might be responsible for an insect’s success in the world.
O’Brien came to UConn as a pre-veterinary major, but found that “the more I worked with cows the more I realized I didn’t like them.” After a brief stint as a pre-med major, he scaled down to insects, calling UConn “a great biology school.”
One of the eye-openers for students about lab life is how an experiment can go awry. Some have found that their carefully planned project had far from the anticipated outcome.
“It’s frustrating, but interesting, because you can come up with all new ideas to see what’s going on,” says Catherine O’Brien, a 20-year-old senior majoring in molecular and cell biology. She filled two large binders with lab reports this summer.
The protein she is studying is linked to various mitochondrial diseases. If biologists could find a way to study it outside of the cell in a reconstituted form, it could advance research into these medical conditions, which have many variations and can affect vision, major organs, muscles and nerves, among other things.
O’Brien, who is from Old Saybrook, started out as a nursing major at Endicott College in Massachusetts. Courses she took there in genetics and microbiology turned her interest to pre-med studies, and she transferred to Clemson. But she missed New England. Before transferring to UConn, she emailed Nathan Adler, assistant professor of MCB, to see if she could work in his lab.
She works independently in the lab, although under the supervision of a PhD student in Adler’s group, Ashley Long. Long encouraged her to stake out her own research territory, and O’Brien says that gave her the confidence to explore her topic. In her previous research experiences at other schools, she was not allowed so much responsibility, she says.
Her SURF summer has taught her that research “is really a thinking process – it’s about how you think and how you approach things. I couldn’t have guessed I would learn so much.”