Biology summer program gives undergrads a taste of the scientific life


Princeton's Julie Wu, a rising senior who is participating in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program for the third time, is learning more about how bacteria communicate with one another -- knowledge that could help in the fight against infectious diseases. She is working in the lab of Bonnie Bassler, professor of molecular biology. 

Below left: Veronica Sumner, a biology major from Dillard University in New Orleans, works with DNA samples under the supervision of Princeton graduate student Michael Ingerson-Mahar in the laboratory of Zemer Gitai, assistant professor of molecular biology.

Photos by John Jameson 

Choosing a career in laboratory research can be a big step for college students, especially those who have not experienced a scientist's daily life "at the bench." But the 85 undergraduates who are attending this year's Summer Undergraduate Research Program are gaining skills that will enable them to make that choice with confidence.

The program, which is organized by Princeton's Department of Molecular Biology, aims to provide talented science students with an opportunity to work in a modern laboratory, where they pursue original research projects under the guidance of University faculty. Students from Princeton and other schools participate in the nine-week program, which has been expanding steadily since its inception in the late 1960s.

"We are trying to reach out to students who would not otherwise have access to labs like ours," said Alison Gammie, a senior lecturer in molecular biology and director of the program. "We want to be sure the students explore their interests and aptitudes so they are able make an informed decision about their career paths."

Those careers often carry program alumni to graduate school, or medical school, Gammie said. A number choose to pursue a track that grants both an M.D. and a Ph.D. at graduation, and for talented students with such interests the summer experience is a valuable stepping stone.

"Some of these students are getting their first experience with research," she said. "We are trying very hard to reach out not only to students from smaller colleges that don't have major research facilities, but to groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences."

Four students this year have come to Princeton from Dillard University, a historically black college in New Orleans that suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina. One of the Dillard students, Veronica Sumner, said the program was teaching her new skills every day, such as how to track the movement of proteins inside bacteria.

"I'm really learning a lot as I go, like how to use these lab gels to separate DNA," she said while sitting over a batch of containers full of DNA samples. "I'm a biology major, and this is the first chance I've had in school so far to do this kind of work."

Veronica and Michael

For the entire session, the students live in Princeton dormitories and spend their days in laboratories exploring topics that attract them. Mike Coppola, a rising senior from the College of New Jersey, said the program is a great way to get to know what it means to work full time in molecular biology.

"We get paid a stipend while we're here, but this is such an amazing experience I think I'd pay to do it," said Coppola. "Molecular biology is a broad field, and there are so many things you can do. Being here helps you figure out fundamental things like which organism you want to work with."

While Sumner is down the hall examining a species of bacteria that attack plants, Coppola is spending his time working with E. coli, a different one-celled organism that is found in our digestive tracts. Coppola said, however, that the importance of the program went beyond each student's specific project.

"I've done research before on other subjects, but here it's different -- I'm exposed to labs and the techniques for how to use them. That's good for me, because right now I'm really thinking about grad school," he said. "I'm not just learning what to do; I'm figuring out the principles behind the scientific process. I'm learning how to learn how to do things."

Sumner and Coppola are still exploring their options. Other students have more well-defined career goals, and the program caters to their needs too. Julie Wu, a rising Princeton senior who is spending her third summer in the program, said the faculty provided many opportunities to explore different avenues of research.

"I'm a bit unusual among participants because I already know molecular biology is what I want to focus on in graduate school," said Wu, who plans to apply for M.D./Ph.D. programs. "But every week the program offers seminars on disciplines like crystallography that I've never encountered before. Knowing something about these other disciplines will help me as I get deeper into science, and that makes this program a great learning experience even if you've done it more than once."

At the end of the summer, the entire molecular biology department gathers to hear the results of the students' work, which they present in a conference setting. At these poster sessions, students discuss their findings with faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.

The major support for the summer program comes from a long-running grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Other important funding sources include the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research and donations from Princeton alumni. Gammie said the program probably attracts such wide support because of its authenticity.

"The students in the program are in cutting-edge research labs doing real projects; they are finding out things we didn't know before," Gammie said. "This is the real deal."