Hidden Gem: NEC's Summer Undergraduate Research Program | New England College

Hidden Gem: NEC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program

Students and faculty at INBRE Conference 2021

For more than a decade, NEC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) has been quietly helping students embark on their science and healthcare careers. Each summer, students do real research and present their work at the NH-INBRE Conference. The 2021 conference was held at the historic Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

SURP is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), specifically the IDeA Network of Biological Research Excellence (INBRE) grant, which encourages students to pursue graduate programs in biomedical research. The program offers Biology and Health Science students the opportunity to do paid research alongside NEC faculty members during the eight-week program.

“We have enough funding to pay approximately 12 students each year,” explains Dr. James Newcomb, Professor of Biology and Health Science and Co-Director of the Center for Undergraduate Science Research, “And every year, we have more applicants than we have spots available.”

The spots go quickly for good reason. Students spend their days in the respective faculty members’ labs in the Science Building in Henniker, but they also get exposed to learning opportunities off campus. Newcomb’s research occasionally takes him to the University of New Hampshire or Dartmouth College to use a million-dollar microscope, and he often takes students with him for that experience. Dr. Lori Koziol sometimes takes her students to the annual Boston Bacterial Meeting in May.

“I talked to Dr. Koziol about what I could do to improve my résumé, and she said I should apply for the 2021 program.” comments Christine Gordon, Health Science ’24. “I know I want to be a pediatric cardio-thoracic surgeon, but what if I change my mind? I want to be open to all possibilities, and the program showed me I could also have a career in research.” Gordon knew that as a freshman, she might not make the cut, but she applied and was accepted.

That’s a good thing, Newcomb says. Participating faculty like getting students who are early in their NEC careers for a couple of reasons. One, it gets students doing research early and hopefully keeps them involved. As he explains, if they can come back into the lab as upperclassmen, they can then serve as peer mentors for the next round of young students. Two, SURP is a hook. “Retention is important at NEC, and we want to keep students here once we get them. If we can get students involved in research early on, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that helps with retention.”

For their part, SURP students see benefits beyond the inherent experience of working in a lab at NEC. As Newcomb explains, a number of other colleges host summer research programs, and NEC students who gain research experience through SURP become more competitive if they apply for other research opportunities. “These other programs are often open to students from other colleges, so we’ve had students who have done one or two summers of SURP and then a summer of research at Dartmouth.” Additionally, students can piggyback SURP with their research theses. All Biology and Health Science students do a required year-long research thesis in which they select a topic, publicly present the topic, perform their research, and then publicly present their research. Often, thesis work can be combined with SURP, which allows students to launch their summer research faster because their topics have already been developed and count SURP as finishing their research theses. “It’s a win-win,” Newcomb adds.

NEC’s participation in INBRE has proven to be a boon for the College’s Biology and Health Science programs. “Since joining INBRE 12 years ago,” Newcomb says, “NEC has brought in over $1.5 million in NIH funding.” In addition to funding SURP, that money has contributed to renovating rooms in the Science Building, building brand-new lab spaces, purchasing equipment, funding faculty salaries during the summers, and paying students who work in the lab year-round or during SURP.

Over the last 12 years, SURP has doubled in size. The program began with Newcomb, Koziol, and six students and now includes four faculty members and 12 students on average. Those students use SURP as a steppingstone to their careers: lab technician at Dartmouth, chiropractor, Doctor of Physical Therapy, medical doctor, veterinarian, nurses, and PhDs.

“This program doesn’t get much attention,” Newcomb says. “So many times when people learn about it, they walk away saying, ‘I had no idea NEC was doing this.’ And I’m always happy to spread the word.”

For more than a decade, the Summer Undergraduate Research Program has been a hidden NEC gem just waiting to be discovered.

NH-INBRE Annual Conference

NH-INBRE is a partnership of 10 colleges and universities from all corners of New Hampshire. Each summer, students who participate in the respective research programs present their work at an annual conference that brings together all student researchers and faculty from the 10 schools.

Students prepare posters giving an overview of their research from that summer. At the 2021 conference at the Mount Washington Resort, two of NEC’s students were selected to also give talks about their research.

Connor Dunn, Health Science ‘22

Connor Dunn presents his research at INBRE Conference 2021

Connor spent his summer researching endoplasmic reticulum/plasma membrane junctions and a specific protein associated with certain types of ALS and some other neurodegenerative disorders.

“It was a really cool experience to be able to speak in front of 250 people at the conference. It can be a little nerve-racking, but I think that’s a healthy experience to have. The conference makes a lasting impression, and it offers opportunities to inspire collaboration and networking in all different fields of science

The summer of 2021 was also Connor’s second summer to work with Dartmouth’s summer research group on a collaborative between Newcomb and Dr. Michael Hoppa, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth.

Connor hopes to become an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon.

Christine Gordon, Health Science ‘24

Christine Gordon presents her research at INBRE Conference 2021

NH-INBRE recently decided to bring a student representative from each of the 10 institutions onto its steering committee.

Although Christine did not give a talk about her research at the 2021 conference, she was tapped to be NEC’s student representative. She attended her first NH-INBRE meeting at the conference and will become more involved with NH-INBRE moving forward.

2021 SURP Participants

Bradley Akerly, Biology ‘22
Research Mentor: Geoff Cook
Research Topic: Viral genes that have integrated into the DNA of eukaryotic organisms and their role in innate immunity

Megan Gilpatric, Health Science ‘22
Research Mentor: Geoff Cook
Research Topic: Searching for novel therapeutic compounds created by marine organisms

Caitlyn McGhee, Health Science ‘21
Research Mentor: Geoff Cook
Research Topic: Tracking shifts in bacterial community composition in states of health and disease

Sean Posner, Health Science ‘22
Research Mentor: Geoff Cook
Research Topic: Investigating changes in the composition of microbial genes in healthy and diseased organisms

Serena Avery, Health Science/Kinesiology ‘22
Research Mentor: Sarah Gunnery
Research Topic: Facial masking and physical health in Parkinson’s disease

Felicia James, Psychology ‘23
Research Mentor: Sarah Gunnery
Research Topic: Report of thoughts and feelings during frustrating and enjoyable activites in Parkinson’s disease.

Maxwell Ross, Psychology: Human Services ‘24
Research Mentor: Sarah Gunnery
Research Topic: The relationship between empathic accuracy and Parkinson’s disease-related quality of life in caregivers

Kaylee Cross, Biology ‘22
Research Mentor: James Newcomb
Research Topic: Distribution of light-sensitive proteins in the skin and nervous system

Connor Dunn, Health Science ‘22
Research Mentor: James Newcomb
Research Topic: Internal cell junctions in neurons

Christine Gordon, Health Science ‘24
Research Mentor: James Newcomb
Research Topic: Distribution of circadian clock proteins in the skin and nervous system

Lourdes Ricks, Health Science ‘23
Research Mentor: James Newcomb
Research Topic: Role of cell division in regeneration

Leah-YaXi Stapp, Health Science/Kinesiology ‘22
Research Mentor: James Newcomb
Research Topic: 24-hour rhythms of locomotion

Emily Wightman, Health Science ‘21
Research Mentor: James Newcomb
Research Topic: Regeneration and the role of cell death

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