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Undergrads shine at Summer Science Academy

Aug. 9, 2012, 10:26 AM

David Turner, an undergraduate student at California State University Dominguez Hills, discusses his research with Rachel Horness, left, of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and Bianca Ramirez, of Texas A&M, at last week’s Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy poster symposium. (photo by Steve Green)

Amazing. Fantastic. Inspiring. That’s how college undergraduates from all over the country described their experiences at the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy last week.

Since the Academy was established in 2002, more than 650 undergraduates have participated in the summer research program. About 10 percent have pursued graduate and/or medical studies at Vanderbilt.

“We got hooked,” explained Jessica Sweatt, a fourth-year graduate student in the lab of Christopher Wright, D.Phil.

“I had a great mentor, David Charles, M.D., who convinced me this was the place I want to be a part of,” added first-year medical student Brittany Tielbur, who attended the program last year.

This summer more than 60 undergraduates participated in the nine-and-a-half week program. They — and about 30 Vanderbilt chemistry and engineering majors — presented their research findings during a poster symposium last week. Awards for best posters were given out during a luncheon.

Academy director Michelle Grundy, Ph.D., said the program is unique because it encompasses 11 basic science research programs as well as undergraduate clinical research internships.
“Our size is exceptional … roughly the size of the incoming Ph.D. class,” said Grundy, also assistant director for Graduate Programs in the Biomedical Sciences in the Office of Biomedical Research, Education and Training (BRET).

The program has helped increase the diversity of Vanderbilt’s graduate program, added Roger Chalkley, D.Phil., senior associate dean for BRET. Underrepresented minorities accounted for 15 — nearly a quarter — of the doctorates in biomedical sciences awarded last year, he said.

Chalkley credited Cathleen Williams, program coordinator for the Academy and the Interdisciplinary Graduate Programs, for making “everything run.”

In addition to conducting research in their mentors’ labs, participants also attend courses on the responsible conduct of research and how to apply to graduate school, and they are exposed to a wide range of research through weekly seminars.

“Our goal is to make them as competitive as possible,” Grundy said.

Judging from the participants’ responses, the program was a rousing success.

“It’s been an amazing experience … to be able to do research at this level,” said Devon Brunson, a University of Maryland student who plans to apply to Vanderbilt’s graduate program in Hearing and Speech Sciences.

Victoria Godwin, who attends Roanoke College in Salem, Va., decided to apply to medical school after seeing Vanderbilt physicians and scientists working together.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “Vanderbilt’s my top choice.”

Funding for the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy is provided by the University, national professional associations and by the National Institutes of Health.

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