Stem to STEM: Summer program promotes student research, career aspirations

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Mario Soliman wants to be a neurosurgeon. Although his summer experience in the Central Pennsylvania Research and Teaching Laboratory for Biofuels, located at Penn State Harrisburg, had him working with plants, not brains, it was incredibly useful anyway, he said.

Soliman learned to use cutting edge techniques and equipment often only available to doctoral students. He also learned that he is good with his hands – very important to a prospective surgeon.

“Reading about these techniques in books is one thing, but physically doing experiments with your hands is another,” he said. “The professors mentor us with their experience. We mess up, we fix it, we learn so much.”

Soliman, a junior life sciences student at Penn State Harrisburg, is originally from Egypt. He came to the United States when he was 9 years old, and graduated from Cumberland Valley High School.

He and the nine other college students from around the country participated in Penn State Harrisburg’s 10-week hands-on interdisciplinary undergraduate research program. Funded by a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) grant, the program aims to introduce and retain students in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math, and focuses on minority and female students, groups traditionally less likely to pursue STEM careers.

View photos from the summer program here.

Soliman and his fellow students said that they felt privileged to work in the college's state-of-the-art, 3,000 square foot biofuels laboratory and greenhouse. Sairam Rudrabhatla, associate professor of biology, is the laboratory director. Shobha Potlakayala, assistant professor of biology, led this summer’s program.

Potlakayala said programs like this are making a difference. National and international statistics show a trend toward more women and minorities represented in the STEM disciplines, she said.

Rudrabhatla said the students will be ready for the job market when they graduate with their bachelor's degrees, but more than half of this year's students say they want to pursue their doctorates.

Hands-on

The students this year studied three biofuel plant species: switchgrass, camelina and sweet sorghum; exposing them to environmental stresses such as cold, drought and salinity. It's a complex process, but they eventually extracted the DNA, RNA and proteins to see which plant genes responded to the stresses and eventually to understand their function. With this knowledge and through the process of genetic engineering, it is possible to generate plants that are more resistant to the vagaries of nature.

Haley Miller, a senior life sciences student at Penn State Harrisburg and Camp Hill High School graduate, said she was particularly inspired by Potlakayala as a high achieving woman in science.

Miller worked with switchgrass, growing the plants, then refraining from watering them for two weeks before extracting the genetic material. Understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms for providing resistance against certain stresses could lead to stress tolerance in agriculturally important plants. She hopes to continue working on the project in the fall and eventually pursue a doctoral degree in genetics.

She said she learned time management and teamwork as well as sophisticated laboratory techniques.

“We feel like we've known each other for years,” she said of her fellow students.

This is the third and final year for the NSF grant, but Rudrabhatla is applying again. He said the program improves each year. This year, for example, the professors made sure the students were more well-rounded, training them in all of the lab's techniques. Rudrabhatla advertises the program all over the U.S. and had students this year from as far as Puerto Rico.

Lauren Perez came from the University of Iowa. She was always more interested in animals than in plants, but she acquired a greater respect for plants through her summer experience. She hopes to pursue a master's degree and work in a lab.

Comfort Effi, a native Nigerian living in Harrisburg, just finished her freshman year at Cheyney University, making her one of the youngest members of the group. Her sister participated in the program three years ago.

Effi is majoring in molecular biology at Cheyney, but is excited about the hands-on techniques she is learning at Penn State.

“What I learned in biology class is what we're doing here,” she said. “They let us actually touch things and do things. It's not what I imagined. It's wonderful. I can't wait to take all this information back to my professors.”

Effi is working with camelina, stressing it with salinity. She would also like to pursue a doctorate in genetics or molecular biology.

“As African-American women, we might not get that many opportunities,” she said. “We women have to fight for our place in the world, but this shows there's hope for us. ... This program helps us build confidence.

“I don't mind working with genes for the rest of my life,” she added. “I'd like to be one of those people to change the world.”

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