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Tufts Summer Programs Provide Research Opportunities for Undergraduates

First-year Elana Chang, a Tufts University student assisting Professor Amy Pickering with her research, poses for a photo on the Academic Quad on April 5. Erik Britt / The Tufts Daily
First-year Elana Chang, a Tufts University student assisting Professor Amy Pickering with her research, poses for a photo on the Academic Quad on April 5. Erik Britt / The Tufts Daily

Tufts prides itself on being a distinguished research university, providing students with opportunities to apply what they have learned in the classroom to the real world. This year, in addition to the already established university-wide Summer Scholars program, a few new programs have been created to further this tradition. These programs are the Visiting and Early Research Scholar Experience (VERSE) Program, Global Research Assistant Program (GRAP) and the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Program.

According to the program brochure and the Office of the Provost, VERSE is a research program targeted toward low-income students of color, primarily in the fields of biology, mathematics, psychology, education and child study and human development.VERSE aims to connect students to faculty mentors with active research labs and provide students with hands-on research training.

GRAP, according to the program website, is an international research program sponsored by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Career Center, Summer Scholars Program, the Institute for Global Leadership and the Office of the Provost.

Senior International Officer and Associate Provost Diana Chigas spoke to why GRAP was created.

“There have always been great summer research opportunities at Tufts, but we wanted to look at where the gaps were,” Chigas said. “We noticed there was a lot of opportunity for independent undergraduate research, but there was not a whole of a chance for undergrads to work on faculty research.”

Enter GRAP, where students accepted will have the financial support to participate in international research led by Tufts faculty members. This summer, there are six international projects in a wide range of disciplines located in Costa Rica, Argentina and Chile, Morocco, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda and India.

“We don’t want to confine it to one discipline,” Chigas said. “We want to give students a wide range of experiences to choose from.”

Amy Pickering, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is leading the project in India. The project, which involves collaboration with Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, involves using a new gene sequencing technology calledMinION to monitor antimicrobial resistance. 

“We are using the [MinION] device to analyze DNA extracted from water samples and other types of samples to looks for genes that have been associated with antimicrobial resistance,” Pickering said.

Pickering reviewed four applications for the research assistant position and decided to choose first-year Elana Chan because of her prior experience. In addition to Chan, a postdoctoral researcher and a Ph.D. student from Christian Medical College will also be involved in the project.

“[Chan] had some coding experience and wet lab experience, as well as prior interest in antimicrobial resistance,” Pickering said.

Chan, an environmental engineering major, heard about the program through the Jumbo Digest weekly newsletter. She is very excited to start the research in the summer.

“As a first-year, I have been inspired by some of the work my professors are doing, and this project combines a lot of my interests in biology, public health, environmental engineering and data analysis,” Chan said.

According to Pickering, Chan will be traveling with the team to India for eight weeks over the summer. She will be helping with extracting DNA, collecting samples, as well as data processing and analysis.

Pickering, who is in her first year working at Tufts, is a big proponent of getting undergraduates involved in research.

“There is a lot of evidence showing that research experiences early on in STEM fields can contribute to students persisting in those fields because it allows them to understand how what they are learning can actually be applied in real life,” she said.

Chigas spoke to how she thought GRAP can become a successful program.

“I am hoping that GRAP is something that will be able to continue to grow,” Chigas said. “Hopefully it will be something for students thinking about getting an experience working on a team with faculty and getting in their respective fields.”

Also new this year is the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Program. Students come up with their own research ideas and can choose to apply to be part of the Laidlaw program as an individual or as a group. There are Laidlaw programs at 10 other universities across the world, including University of St Andrews, The University of Hong Kong, University of Oxford and Tufts.

“The program is designed to provide younger undergraduates with two years of summer support to do a research project with a faculty mentor,” Associate Provost Dawn Geronimo Terkla said.

According to Terkla, Tufts received funding this year for 75 students to take advantage of the program over the next few years. She added that of the 40 applications reviewed, 25 students were selected for this summer.

Terkla was very impressed by all of the applications.

“The scope of projects students are interested in is just enormous,” she said. “People are proposing really interesting things.”

In addition to the research, the Laidlaw program also emphasizes a leadership component, according to its website. The selected Laidlaw Scholars will participate in workshops, trainings and retreats to develop their leadership capabilities. There will also be opportunities for the Laidlaw Scholars to get together over the summer, as they pursue their independent research projects.

Terkla noted that there would be some improvisation with the structure of the program in its first year.

“We are building this airplane as we are flying along,” Terkla said. “I am very excited about this program and I hope it will be a resounding success.”

Terkla envisions that the research that Laidlaw Scholars conduct over the summer can form the basis of future research as well.

“If you are a sophomore, you can think about research for the summer and then refine it as a junior. Then as a senior, you would be poised to do a senior honors thesis,” she said. “I would be delighted if even one person took it all the way to be a senior honors thesis, but it is not a requirement.”

Although Terkla acknowledges the presence of these new programs, she underlined that research has always been an important part of the undergraduate experience at Tufts.

“I do not think that there has been any shift,” Terkla said. “Having undergraduates doing research has been a part of the culture for a very long time.”