NSF Grant Puts Talented Undergraduates into Research Laboratories

November 26, 2008

Thirty undergraduate college students from around the nation will have the chance to spend a summer getting paid to explore the world of biological research, thanks to the efforts of scientists at the University of Rochester’s Medical Center and River Campus.

A team of scientists led by David Pearce, Ph.D., a researcher in the Center for Neural Development and Disease at the Medical Center, has received $285,000 from the National Science Foundation as part of a program to encourage students to pursue a career in science. The funds will pay the stipends and other costs for 30 undergraduates – 10 each summer for the next three summers – to do biological research in the University’s laboratories.

Each of the 10 students will work closely with a faculty mentor in the broad area of biological sciences, which includes several departments at the Medical Center and River Campus. Elaine Sia, Ph.D., associate professor of Biology, is helping Pearce run the program.

The funds come through NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates, which currently supports two similar summer research programs at the University. In the Department of Physics and Astronomy, students look at problems in areas such as astrophysics, laser physics and quantum optics, while in the Department of Chemistry, areas such as spectroscopy and polymer chemistry are the subject of research.

The new program will focus on cellular and molecular biology across the University. While there are many REU programs nationwide, the new one granted to Rochester is one of only a handful that are based at major medical centers.

“This is an important program that will benefit nearly every center and department at the Medical Center, in addition to the young scientists who actually go through the program,” said Harris Gelbard, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Neural Development and Disease. “This represents a strong inroad into recruiting future talented students into the graduate education programs here at the University. This program is just the latest outcome of Dr. Pearce’s longstanding commitment to undergraduate and graduate education.”

The new program complements another summer research program at the Medical Center through which approximately 20 undergraduates from around the country do research at the University. The program, which typically attracts more than 400 applicants for just 20 slots, is funded largely by faculty members using their own research dollars to help young students experience life as a researcher. That commitment helped attract the support of NSF, said Pearce, an associate professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics as well as Neurology.

Many of the students who take part in the NSF program are from liberal arts colleges and small universities where they do not have such easy access to world-class research facilities. The program taps the raw scientific talent at such institutions and allows their students to get a taste of what graduate study in biological sciences would be like. Pearce says the majority of students that have gone through Rochester’s summer program in the past have gone on to graduate school.

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