For many college students, summer means heading back home to Mom and Dad’s house, hanging around and wishing you were back at school with your friends. Maybe you take a class or two, or work some menial job to make spending money for the fall (I spent the summer after my freshman year washing cars and picking up trash at a Dodge dealer). But for some undergraduates participating in a program here at the University of Chicago, summer means much more than a few months of boredom. It’s an opportunity to participate directly in cutting-edge research and build critical investigative skills for a career in science.
The Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology (IGSB) at the University of Chicago focuses on research in genome analysis and biological computation to develop tools that will help scientists model disease outcomes and develop better therapeutic strategies. A critical focus of its work is training the next generation of scientists, including a number of undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty.
This summer, 11 undergraduate students had a chance to hone their research skills through two programs with the IGSB called Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). The first, in partnership with the Chicago Center for Systems Biology (CCSB), focused on research into how networks of genes interact to enable cells and organisms to respond to environmental and genetic changes. The second program, held in conjunction with the Conte Center, focused on computational systems genomics in neuropsychiatry.
Barry Aprison, PhD, education and outreach director for the IGSB, said both of these programs are designed to introduce promising undergraduate students to research opportunities and get them involved with hands-on inquiry and analysis. Both are funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health; the CCSB program is in its fourth year, and this is the first year for the Conte summer program. They are part of a larger educational outreach program that also brings biological science research into Chicago Public Schools and mentors high school students in the Collegiate Scholars program.
Aprison said the REU programs were advertised at more than 100 universities throughout the country. Five applicants were chosen from a pool of almost 60 for the CCSB program, and six were selected from nearly 30 applicants for the Conte Center. Those selected received a $4,000 stipend and spent the summer on the Hyde Park campus, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University, working on their research projects and learning about the educational process to prepare for graduate school.
Earlier this week REU students presented results of their summer projects at two separate sessions in the Gordon Center for Integrative Science. The projects ran the gamut of scientific topics, from a genetic analysis of Lonesome George, the last of a subspecies of giant Galapagos tortoises who died this summer, to studying variations in genes linked to autism spectrum disorders. Each student will write up a summary report and return to school this fall with the kind of experience that can only be learned from hands-on work in a world-class research lab.
It’s a far cry from washing cars for the summer.