Why you should do a Summer Undergraduate Research Program in STEM

by Mindy Le

What is a STEM summer undergraduate research program?

A summer undergraduate research program is an 8-10 week science research experience designed to train undergraduate students in scientific research. Each program consists of research under a principal investigator, professional development workshops, and a research presentation at the end of the program. Before applying to a research program at a given educational or research institution, a project description is provided by each participating laboratory in order for students to determine which laboratory they would like to work in. These programs typically include a stipend for living, travel, and other expenses, and may include classes to teach students how to review current research discoveries, analyze scientific papers, and structure a professional scientific report and presentation.

My experience with summer undergraduate research programs

This past summer, I was fortunate to be part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Program at the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) in Claremont, CA. This 10-week research program consisted of about 20 undergraduate students, ranging from rising sophomores to those recently graduated, with the aim of training students in scientific research. I had applied to this program because I wanted to expand my research experience outside of the campus I had grown accustomed to, hoping to meet scientists and students with backgrounds and hometowns different from mine. In doing so, I wanted an experience that extended beyond the laboratory—one that would allow me to grow as both a scientist and a person.

Prior to this experience, I had participated in another summer research program on campus: the Yale Science, Technology, and Research Scholars (STARS) Program. This program had been my first undergraduate research experience, one where I learned how to conduct scientific research, give project presentations, and critically analyze research papers, among other valuable skills. From my interactions with the dedicated professors and teaching assistants in the STARS Program, my interest in science research solidified, strengthening my commitment to pursuing research throughout my undergraduate years and beyond. Because of my experience in this program and the new set of research skills I had acquired, I was able to begin my sophomore year by contacting a research professor at the Yale School of Medicine to start research in his laboratory. Although I still had much to learn, my experience in the STARS Program made me more confident in my abilities as an undergraduate student wanting to pursue research.

By the time I entered my sophomore year of college, I knew that I wanted to participate in another science research program because I still wanted to learn more about research, specifically by working on a new project in a different setting—something that I could not accomplish if I were simply spending another summer on campus. As mentioned earlier, this desire for novelty and excitement motivated me to apply to the KGI SURE Program in California, across the country in a place that I had never been to before. This excitement was mixed with some anxiety about the location and my lack of knowledge about the area, but I was soon relieved to find how accommodating and enriching the experience was. My research project focused on developing yeast strains expressing recombinant proteins for agricultural and environmental improvement of animal feed, and I was able to work directly with the principal investigator of the laboratory. As my research experience the previous year involved genetic engineering for environmental concerns, this project fit well with my background and interests while also allowing me to gain a new perspective on that field of science.

Why you should participate in a summer undergraduate research program

From my previous experiences participating in summer research programs, I can attest to the vast advantages gained from such programs. Particularly as an undergraduate student starting off in college, a research program can open the doors both to exploring the type of research you want to pursue, and to having a wonderful group of mentors and professors committed to ensuring that you are able to learn the techniques and skills necessary for a career in research. Additionally, you will meet students just like yourself who have a passion for scientific research. I stress these three points because they are aspects of research that are not always readily available to students, especially when just starting off. At times, it may seem like you do not know what type of research you want to commit your time to, or that you do not know who to reach out to for advice and guidance. Furthermore, it can be stressful to feel that you are struggling to find the “right” research experience without support from friends and colleagues going through the same challenges. Because of these issues that can arise—and may sometimes be overlooked—I believe that a research program is the perfect opportunity to tackle such problems without facing them alone.

While I plan to spend my next summer on campus in order to devote more time to my current research project, I can safely say that the previous summer research programs I participated in had prepared me to be successful in the laboratory I am working in now. By developing a good set of bench skills, I was able to start my research project without as much training and acclimation as I would have needed had I not possessed such skills. I also received extensive training on verbal presentation, allowing me to better explain my research to a wide variety of audiences. This training and research exposure enabled me to know what kind of research I was interested in so that I could contact a potential (now current) research group, expressing my interests and previous research experience to the principal investigator of the laboratory with greater confidence and clarity.

I will never forget the people I met during the summer research programs I had participated in during the past two summers—many of whom are still close friends with me—nor the knowledge and experiences gained both in and out of the laboratory. Participating in a summer research program is an opportunity I highly recommend to students who may be unsure of what type of research they want to pursue, who want a collaborative and supportive learning environment, or simply to students who wish to meet wonderful friends and mentors who can help and guide them years down the road.

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Mindy is a junior at Yale University studying Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. She is part of the Patrick Sung Research Group at the Yale School of Medicine where her current project focuses on investigating protein-protein interactions in DNA repair, under her mentor Dr. Youngho Kwon. In her spare time, Mindy enjoys writing poetry, taking walks around campus, and reading about the latest discoveries in genetic engineering. In the future, she hopes to pursue an M.D. degree with a focus on clinical research.

You can contact Mindy at mindy.le@yale.edu.