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MicroSURP: training the next generation of microbiologists

GSBS_Microbiology-Summer-Research-Students from 7.25.19 McGovern Med story

For nearly 15 years, the Microbiology Summer Undergraduate Research Program (MicroSURP) has played a role in training the next generation of microbiology and related biomedical scientists.

Directed by Heidi Kaplan, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics (MMG), along with Steven Norris, PhD, Greer Professor & Vice Chair for Research in Biomedical Science; and Theresa M. Koehler, PhD, Herbert L. and Margaret W. DuPont Distinguished Professor in Biomedical Science, the MicroSURP Program is a 10-week summer research experience open to undergraduate students, particularly those with an interest in a PhD career in microbiology.

The MicroSURP Program includes eight to 12 students each year from local universities, such as the University of Houston, Rice University, and University of Houston-Downtown, as well as schools from across the country. The program prides itself on having a third to half of its students from minority groups that are underrepresented in the sciences.

The undergrads work 40 hours per week alongside graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, staff, and faculty, learning what it is like to be a member of an active research community. The students receive a $4,500 stipend to cover food, room, and board throughout the summer. Kaplan gratefully acknowledged the Gillson Longenbaugh Foundation’s support of eight MicroSURP students each summer over the last three years.

Three times per week, the undergraduate students leave the lab for special events around the Texas Medical Center. On Tuesdays, they join the MMG department for the summer seminar series, where graduate students present their research, and on Thursdays, they meet for lunch presentations by McGovern Medical School research faculty, organized by the Office of Educational Programs.

On Wednesdays, the undergraduates are treated to special tours around the area, including the electron microscope facilities at McGovern Medical School, the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research at Baylor College of Medicine, and the Memorial Hermann Hospital Clinical Microbiology Laboratory.

Each of the undergraduate students also has the chance to conduct their own research project and to gain experience in presenting their findings to a crowd. Each student presents three times throughout the 10-week period. First, the students give a brief presentation on their research plans. At the middle of the summer they give a brief research update to describe what is working and what isn’t. Finally, they give a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation on what they accomplished over the summer.

“The idea is to help them feel comfortable talking about their project and sharing it with others,” Kaplan said. “We know it’s really important for them to be able to talk about their research. They will be asked what they did over the summer by their families, friends and certainly any interview they have in the future. We want them to be very comfortable talking about their project and to improve their scientific fluency in general.”

The undergraduate students have extensive one-on-one interactions with MMG faculty members, as well as graduate students and postdocs. They receive valuable advice on how to apply to graduate school, including how to write a great application, and what to expect during the interview process.

Kaplan said they are continually working to improve the MicroSURP Program, and that the number of applications grows each year. With the growing number of applicants, Kaplan said they have also noticed an increase in the number of MicroSURP students they are able to recruit to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences following graduation.

“Every year we have one or two students join our GSBS Graduate Program,” Kaplan said. “In this year’s incoming class we have one from the 2018 Program and one from the 2017 Program enrolling.”

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