Summer Research

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger: Tanner Barnharst, Undergraduate in Microbiology

It’s a frigid February night as I slave over my personal essay checking and rechecking for errors. This scene has been repeated every night for the past few weeks as I hurry to make the deadline for summer research programs across the nation. Any college with a faculty member doing interesting research with a research program over the summer received my "slightly" edited personal essay, academic essay, and statement of diversity. (What diversity a middle class white male from the suburbs could bring is beyond me.)

I managed to get acceptance letters from a few schools. I ultimately decided upon the University of Michigan’s Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) -- a program spanning 8 weeks, consisting of 1 week of acclimation to the wild city that is Ann Arbor, 6 weeks of concentrated research with a faculty mentor, and a final week of presenting research to other program participants and faculty of the university. The SROP at Michigan is typical of many research programs that Universities host over the summer. There are also programs called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), which are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) while the SROP that I was a part of is funded by the university itself. What each program pays for and how much it pays varies with each university. The upper end of the stipends are around $5000 for the REUs for a 10 week program while some of programs on the lower end are about $3000 for a shorter 8 week program, but with more amenities included than the REU.

Michigan was the school I decided to perform research at over the summer based on a few reasons. It had a very strong biomedical sciences program, a generous stipend, and a fun location. (Something I struggle to keep in mind during school is that you are actively living your life and you should feel free to make some decisions that are partially just for fun. These decisions also serve to protect your sanity as you work tirelessly on your challenging but rewarding four year education and any schooling afterwards.) I worked with Dr. Marilia Cascalho M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of surgery as well as microbiology and immunology. We worked on research dealing with transplant patients and looking at their B-cell’s over time. I feel very fortunate that I was able to work with Dr. Cascalho as she is a wonderful mentor and researcher. She personally enabled my growth as a scientist while working in her lab and I know I wouldn’t have the analytical or problem solving skills I have now without her.

Research in the lab only accounts for ~35 hours or so a week. That leaves time for other personal development classes to be put on by the school. Every week we would attend a seminar
dealing with a specific aspect of getting into graduate school or ways to maintain sanity and excel whilst enrolled in a doctoral program. We also attended GRE practice sessions every week that were put on by the Princeton Review company. Normally these classes cost hundreds of dollars, but since we were a part of the SROP, the university funded the class and we were allowed
that amazing opportunity. Because the GRE is required for all students entering graduate school, the university was kind enough to pay for the GRE for all SROP participants. The test normally costs $185, which is a large amount of money for ramen-eating college students to try to deal with.

While students are not engaged in studious labors there is a relatively large amount of free time to explore the city and do whatever strikes your fancy. I made many great friends while at Ann Arbor, some of whom are in a closely related field and I can bounce academic ideas off of, and others who are just enjoyable to be around. My favorite memory is when a group of 12 of us rented a cabin over the long fourth of July weekend. We went swimming in Lake Michigan and in general had a great time and got in trouble.

I would highly encourage everyone to look into summer research programs at another institution. They are a great way to experience a new city and take part in experiences you would otherwise not have an opportunity to grow from. The programs allow you to make helpful professional connections with faculty as well as life enriching friendships and connections with other talented, intelligent individuals. I have no doubt in my mind that attending the SROP at Michigan was one of the best choices I have ever made, and I cannot encourage it enough for everyone to branch out and try something similar even if your future plans do not include graduate school.

This entry is part of the fall MICR 354 scientific writing students' blog series.