This summer, students who received the Karen T. Romer Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards — a University program launched in 1986 — worked with faculty on research collaborations and teaching projects for 10 to 12 weeks, according to the UTRA website.
UTRAs fall under Summer and Semester Projects for Research, Internships and Teaching, a collection of University-funded research and teaching opportunities. It promotes mentoring relationships between faculty and students, career exploration and learning new skills while providing financial support for students, Oludurotimi Adetunji, UTRA director and associate dean for undergraduate research and inclusive science, wrote in an email to The Herald.
“The SPRINT program supported more than 670 undergraduate students (this summer), of whom about half were UTRA recipients,” Adetunji wrote.
Students told The Herald that their UTRA-funded research allowed them to develop new skills while also receiving mentorship. For some, the opportunity offered a chance to test out what they learned in the classroom; others found that the experience affirmed their passion for research and STEM.
Students could apply to pre-approved faculty-listed opportunities or develop their own project with a Brown faculty member. The stipend was $2,500 for domestic projects and $3,000 for international projects.
“Funding is possible through the generosity of many donors as well as institutional contributions through the University budget process,” Adetunji wrote. “Last year, the SPRINT program provided nearly $4 million in funding to support over 800 undergraduate students,” he added.
Learning, developing skills
Tolu Ogunfowora ’24, a biomedical engineering concentrator, worked with faculty mentor and Director of Biomedical Engineering Kareen Coulombe, as well as Stephanie Roser MS’22 GS, on her UTRA project.
Ogunfowora’s research focused on optimizing the protocol for differentiating human-induced pluripotent stem cells into cardiac fibroblasts, a type of cell which promotes connective tissue.
Ogunfowora said that she had some experience with the skills needed for this project, such as knowing how to maintain cell cultures, but said that this summer gave her the chance to “really hone in on my skills” and develop new ones, such as fixing, imaging and freezing cells.
“I was able to do the protocols without looking at the instructions and I knew why I was doing certain steps and had a better understanding of the science behind it,” Ogunfowora said.
“It's a little bit difficult going from theoretical in a classroom to knowing you actually like doing it day-to-day … so just being able to experience it and learn either that she really liked it and wants to continue it or … to rule it out, either way can be super valuable,” Roser said.
Anna Shlimak ’24, a chemistry concentrator on the chemical biology track, worked with assistant professor of neurosurgery Maria Guglielmo MD’92 to create her own UTRA project that was not originally on the listed opportunities page. Her project used urine toxicology screenings to study the effects of marijuana on pain outcomes and opioid management following elective spinal surgery over a nine month postoperative period.
Shlimak’s UTRA experience also included shadowing her faculty mentor Guglielmo’s surgical operations at Rhode Island Hospital and interacting with patients during clinics at her office in East Greenwich and at Newport Hospital.
Shlimak said that she was able to learn “how to communicate with patients about clinical research and what it takes to write a good abstract, how to analyze your data and the best statistics forms to use in order to get results that both are accurate … but also descriptive enough where it helps you answer your research question.”
Elizabeth Ding ’24, a biology concentrator, worked with Professor of Medical Science and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Wafik El-Deiry. Ding’s research specifically focused on testing cancer cell lines with a drug of interest known as ONC201 to determine the cell lines’ reactivity and sensitivity to the drug.
During her UTRA, Ding also developed new lab skills she had “only learned about through biochemistry (class),” she said. “So it was really cool to be able to incorporate things that we learned from class” into research.
Some projects were collaborations between students receiving UTRA and those with other funding. Biomedical engineering concentrator Angelina Schorr ’24 worked with Assistant Professor of Engineering Vikas Srivastava and Zahra Ahmed ’18 GS on a project studying pH regulation of the cancer tumor microenvironment using hydrogels.
While Schorr’s grant was through the Neal Mitchell ’58 Systems Thinking Project Award, her undergraduate lab partner had an UTRA grant.
She added that she was also able to develop more general skills outside of lab work such as “patience and perseverance, because obviously these (experiments) don't go right the first time, it takes a lot of repetition … but then I would always come back the next day with a really good attitude, and just try again.”
Ogunfowora said that part of what made the UTRA experience “really rewarding” was working with Roser, who would send her scientific journal articles and let her observe various experiments in the lab.
“Anytime I had a question, she took her time to explain the nuances of even something like scientific writing that you wouldn't think would be so specific,” she said. Roser “was really supportive … and I wasn't afraid to make mistakes,” Ogunfowora added.
Roser said that having Ogunfowora work with her was “super helpful.”
“We try to always make sure it's a balance of benefiting the undergrads so that they get a lot more research experience and … benefiting the graduate students so we get some help on a project,” she added.
Schorr also felt that her lab mentor was “very patient with me and would always be very uplifting, which was just very heartwarming. I really couldn't have asked for a better mentor.”
Shlimak said that working with a mentor “who's been in the field for a really long time, specifically a woman, has been a very good experience for me. To hear about everything that she went through in the process of determining what she wanted to do professionally and navigating the whole medical education process was important for me to see.”
Schorr also mentioned that a highlight of her research experience was “working with other women in STEM and female engineers, especially because engineering is such a male-dominated field.”
Presenting research findings
Students receiving UTRAs were invited to present their project findings in an optional research symposium, which Ding described as a “celebration of everyone's work.” Over 200 UTRA recipients presented at the symposium, according to Adetunji.
“People would come up to you and actually want to hear what you did and have some follow-up questions,” Ogunfowora said. “It was just a really nice feeling to be able to share with other people who are really curious and want to know more.”
Shlimak said that the symposium was a “good (way) to have a refresher on how to verbalize your findings and was also really interesting to see other students' projects and what other opportunities there may be for research at Brown.”
Schorr echoed Ding, Ogunfowora and Shlimak’s remarks, adding that she “felt seen and like I was doing something that mattered.”
Students were also able to “share their project summary and scholar products in the Brown Digital Repository, take part in elevator pitch events, write reflection essays and respond to a feedback survey at the end of the project cycle,” Adetunji wrote.
After the summer UTRA experience formally ends, many students will continue working on their respective research projects during the semester. Ogunfowora said she was “excited” to keep optimizing the protocol for her project during the fall.
“I've always been interested in research, so I guess this was pretty much my first time actually having my own project to work on and so it was nice to see what goes into that and to know that I'm genuinely interested in research and the types of research I might want to do later on,” Ogunfowora said.
Roser said that “research is a pretty translatable, valuable experience, whether it's for industry research, graduate school (or) medical school, it’s a generic skill.”
Similarly, Ding said that her “project is definitely far from over” and that the summer UTRA was a “really good foundation” for her future research and career goals in medicine.
“The research I did was mostly translational medicine so this project could actually be applied on patients,” Ding said. “That is kind of crazy to think about because … when I go into the lab, I'm not just pipetting and working with cells — this could really be used in the future in a very practical way.”
The application cycle for spring 2023 SPRINT/UTRA semester opportunities will open for students in UFunds from October 7 to 24.