Past the lush lawns, blooming flower beds, and Hokie stone buildings are thousands of people conducting world-class research. Among them are undergraduate students who are learning to be the research scientists of tomorrow.

This summer, nine undergraduate students were paired with Fralin Life Sciences Institute-affiliated faculty mentors from May 20 through July 26, 2023, for the Fralin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.

This ten-week training program is designed to give motivated undergraduates full time research experience that mirrors real-world graduate work. For a stipend of $5350, selected students also attended weekly research and professional development seminars, periodic social events, and a final symposium in which they presented their research.

Although the program is particularly designed for the students, both the students and the faculty have much to gain. 

“I feel like we are providing a very important opportunity for undergraduate students to get into research to develop their interests and get a feel for what research is like," said Lijuan Yuan, professor of virology and immunology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology and mentor to Alice Leruth.

“This has definitely shown me how to teach in a different way," said Briana Trusiano, Ph.D. student with Coy Allen and mentor to Rebekah Smith. "I feel that it is very different from teaching veterinary students, but they are both fulfilling roles for me. That’s what I like about academia  – the ability to teach and collaborate and learn from my peers.”

“Building an undergraduate’s skills in the scientific process takes time and mentorship - so it is important for the student to be just as willing to put in the work,” said Kylie Allen, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry. “There has to be the commitment there for it to work both ways. Ideally, the student gains valuable experience and mentoring while making significant contributions to research in the lab.”

Below are a few of the students who participated in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute SURF program in the summer of 2023.

Elizabeth Gilbert mentored Reagan Vaughan. Photo by Felicia Spencer.

Reagan Vaughan

Year: Senior  Primary Major: Animal and Poultry Sciences
Mentor: Elizabeth Gilbert, professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences 
Project Title: Effects of Embryonic Heat Conditioning on Hypothalamic Responses to Stress, Appetite, and Thermoregulation in Broiler Chicks

"I approached Dr. Gilbert after class after I looked into her research a little bit and I was really interested," said Vaughan. "I love learning and research is an avenue for me to continuously learn; it kind of sparked a passion inside of me that I didn't know I had, which was very awesome."

Logan Peters

Year: Senior  Primary Major: Biochemistry
Mentor: Kylie Allen, assistant professor of biochemistry 
Project Title: Biochemical Characterization of Non-canonical Folate Biosynthesis Enzymes

"It’s a really good opportunity for people who are looking to do research stuff in the future," said Peters. "I’m planning on going to grad school so having a little bit of experience and an understanding of what goes into the research process is very helpful. And it definitely helped to learn time management and the steps of planning research."

Logan Peters and Kylie Allen in Allen's lab.
Lijuan Yuan and Alice Leruth in Yuan's lab.

Alice Leruth

Year: Senior  Primary Major: Biological Sciences
Mentor: Lijuan Yuan, professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology
Project Title: The Immunogenicity and protective efficacy of recombinant rotavirus vaccine in gnotobiotic pigs

"Being directly involved in all the parts of the research process is something new, and that's a valuable experience when you're working on projects independently and need to put it all together yourself," said Leruth. "The hands-on direct human contact of working in a lab environment is something I really enjoy."

Cleo Orlando

Year: Senior  Primary Major: Microbiology
Mentor: Erin Hotchkiss, associate professor of biological sciences
Project Title: Exploring nutrient cycling and microbial activity in retention ponds and surrounding waterways

"The amount of field work that we do in the Hotchkiss lab helped with a lot of skills that I didn't really have," Orlando said. "I was surprised with how much leeway I was given to make decisions. It was nice because if I had questions they would answer since I had never done anything like this before."

Erin Hotchkiss; Katherine Perez Rivera, a Ph.D. student; and Cleo Orlando in Hotchkiss's lab.
Zoe Hessian (left) and Felipe de Moraes Carvalho (right), a postdoc associate with Francesco Ferretti who helped to mentor Zoe. Photo by Felicia Spencer for Virginia Tech.

Zoe Hessian

Year: Junior  Primary Major: Geography
Mentor: Francesco Ferretti, assistant professor of fish and wildlife conservation
Project Title: Locating the Last of the Mediterranean White Sharks

"I did not expect to do any of this; it's like a childhood dream of mine I get to fulfill," said Hessian. "I never thought I would be able to work on a project with sharks, just because I've never been a really big math person, and I assumed I would have to be in a marine biology program. It feels good to help the sharks in any way."

Sarah Newman

Year: Senior  Primary Major: Animal and Poultry Sciences
Mentor: Michelle Rhoads, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences 
Project Title: Monitoring glucose levels in dairy cattle to predict summer heat stress

"The ten weeks have allowed me to see one view of how research works withing animal science and if this is a direction I want to go in the future," said Newman. "I love agriculture -- that's why I came into animal science -- being able to advocate for that industry and push it forward is really important to me."

Sarah Newman(left) and Michelle Rhoads in Rhoads's lab. Photo by Felicia Spencer for Virginia Tech.
Briana Trusiano (left) a Ph.D. candidate, mentored Rebekah Smith (right) with Coy Allen (not pictured). Photo by Jenise Jacques for Virginia Tech.

Rebekah Smith

Year: Junior  Primary Major: Biology
Mentor: Irving Coy Allen, professor and assistant department head for research support in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology
Project Title: The wonderful world of eosinophils: assessing the role of NIK on eosinophil maturation

"This is my first experience doing full time lab work; it's been really cool," said Smith. "I would definitely say that getting involved in research has been a major part of my growth as a student in college. I feel that I learned the most with hands-on interactive experience compared to any of the classes I've taken."

Idella Collett and Tony Samson

Idella: Year: Senior  Primary Major: Microbiology
Mentor: Birgit Scharf, professor of biological sciences
Project Title: Identification of ligand specificity of Bradyrhizobium diazoefficiens chemoreceptors

"I really wanted to start my own process, and SURF was a great opoortunity for that, especially because you have full access to research in the summer," said Collett. "I could start a project and, with full access to the lab, have ample time to do it."

Tony: Year: Senior  Primary Major: Biochemistry
Mentor: Birgit Scharf
Project Title: Characterization of the infection mechanism of bacteriophage chi via /salmonella/flagella

"I think I have a better understanding of what it means to do research at the very least," said Samson. "I think that I could do this in the future. It's something I could definitely handle, like the workload and the things we do -- I can see myself doing it."

Birgit Scharf (left), who mentored both Idella Collett (center) and Tony Samson (right) are in Scharf's lab. Photo by Felicia Spencer for Virginia Tech.

While the SURF program is competitive, selected undergraduate students considering graduate research are able to experience hands-on learning in a lab environment before committing to graduate school. In addition to the full time lab work, students also receive help with professional development, which includes creating a resume, writing a personal statement, and building communication skills. 

"This is a place to explore and try something you've never tried before," said Elizabeth Gilbert, professor of animal sciences in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences and mentor to Reagan Vaughan. "Maybe you're good at it and we have the resources, the expertise here to help you master it if it is something you are interested in." 

"There’s this growth in early career scientists where you can see that they’re thinking critically and asking questions and coming up with cool stuff on their own," said Erin Hotchkiss, associate professor of freshwater ecology in the Department of Biological Sciences and mentor to Cleo Orlando. "When you find that, and you are able to just hand over the keys and just advise, it’s really exciting."