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Ready, Set, Research: Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships Give Students a Head Start on Graduate School

by Peter Scamardo (’19)

A biology student looking to stop the spread of cancer cells. A playwright gaining professional experience with an acting company. A psychology student testing whether drawing strengthens memory; and a chemical engineer developing new ways to attack evolving bacterial strains. These four students and nearly 100 others of different backgrounds and disciplines were able to dive deeply into their research this summer, supported by $4,000 scholarships from the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program (SURF). 

The annual SURF program, administered through the Office of Undergraduate Research, allows sophomores, juniors, and seniors of all majors to conduct mentored research under the direction of University of Houston faculty. For 10 weeks this summer, students attended weekly plenary events featuring visiting speakers in a variety of research disciplines. They were also advised by Dr. Karen Weber, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) and assistant dean for co-curricular programs in the Honors College.

“You’re going to come out a better student, a better researcher, and a better professional,” said Paulomi Modi, an Honors College biology junior who has been studying ways to target pathways in the body that are prone to developing cancer cells. “The critical thinking, the capacity you develop by wanting to solve a problem, is going to help you in whatever field you choose. Every single day, you’re identifying a problem and solving it.” 

Leandro Ledesma, a psychology senior, used a between-subject design experiment to see if drawing the image of a word is more impactful to one’s memory than the actual writing of the word. After his biology professor told him that drawing complex cellular systems would help him master the material, he decided to test the theory. 

“Through SURF you have room for creativity,” Ledesma said. “You can explore different things.” 

This means that UH students of all majors, from STEM fields to the humanities, can be a part of meaningful research. This type of funding offers a rare chance for students to commit to extensive projects and immerse themselves in their chosen discipline. Students use their scholarships as financial support in lieu of the summer work they are forgoing to complete their research. 

“The greatest benefit of the SURF program is the confidence you gain from applying theoretical knowledge gained in class to real-world situations and accomplishing something,” said Rachel Altman, an Honors College chemical engineering senior. “Through research you could uncover something new. Even if it’s just a small piece, you are adding something to our collective body of knowledge.” 

Beyond academia, undergraduate research can give students a leg up in the professional world. Logan Butcher, a senior playwriting and dramaturgy student, used his research funding to work as a dramaturg for the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production of “As You Like It.” After conducting historical, literary, and philosophical research into the background of the play, he had the opportunity to share his work with the cast, with the added thrill of seeing his work come to life on stage. But to get there, he had to work past a few obstacles.

“I wrestled with having to be my own boss,” Butcher said. “I had to push myself to do as much as I could. The more research you do, the better your stuff will be.” 

Students will exhibit their completed research projects at Undergraduate Research Day on April 2, 2020. They may even use this work as a springboard for continued research and graduate studies. 

In addition to the annual Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships, Provost Undergraduate Research Scholarships (PURS) are available for the fall or spring semesters. Undergraduates interested in applying for research funding may contact Brittni MacLeod, associate director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, at bsmacleo@Central.UH.ED

Fellowships are made possible by the Office of the Provost, the Division of Research, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Cullen College of Engineering, the Honors College, and a variety of other campus sponsors.