Tuesday, July 19, 2016

STU’s Summer Research Institute Sizzles with Undergrads in Lab Coats


This summer, 64 St. Thomas University and Miami Dade College students are swapping their beach towels for lab coats and diving into lab research projects.

STU’s Summer Research Institute (SRI), now in its fifth year, is an eight-week program that provides students with the opportunity to conduct scientific research with faculty members in STU’s science labs, as well as a $2,400 stipend. The program is made possible through a STEM-track grant with Miami Dade College with the purpose of motivating students to transfer to four-year universities.

“This program caters to students of all levels, and we’re really pleased in the interest of potential and new students getting involved in research at St. Thomas,” said Dr. David Quesada, associate professor of physics. “In addition to gaining lab experience, the program helps students build relationships with faculty working in fields they are interested in.”

The goal of the program is to foster collaborative learning between students and researchers, and expose the students to lab research. Students have several projects to choose from in the areas of life sciences, chemistry, mathematics, physics and engineering. Projects include spinal cord injury research, brain network analysis of epilepsy, molecular biology of autism, drought tolerance of plants, microbiome analysis of soils, studying the impact of weather conditions on human respiratory health and the response of plants and soils, photovoltaic cells optimizations, and robotics. 

“This experience has helped me get a feel for what research is actually like – among many things its taught me perseverance,” said biology major, Aidin Alejo, 21. “When you’re in science-related track being able to do research helps you better understand your field and it builds your resume, it also opens a lot of doors that otherwise would’ve been closed.”

In addition, students who have participated in STU’s SRI program said they felt more confident, enthusiastic and secure in their chosen field and in their future.

“There aren’t a lot of undergraduate research opportunities out there that give you the hands-on experience that the STU SRI program provides,” said STU chemistry major, Kasey Rivera, 19. “We learn so much in the classroom, then we have the ability to put that knowledge into practice in the lab.”

The program involves more than research, it also allows for networking opportunities with guest lecturers invited to campus via the STU Science Lecture Series “Moving into the Future.” Lecturers have included faculty from other universities, and well-known experts like Chief Meteorologist John Morales from NBC 6 South Florida. Students are also encouraged to participate in local charter scientific meetings – three previous SRI student’s won prizes from the Florida Academy of Science Annual meetings.

SRI graduates are experiencing many successes - working in full-time jobs at universities, while others are working or interning at highly competitive institutes like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and NASA.
At the end of the summer program, STU SRI students highlight their research experience at the university’s STEM Symposium in the fall, said Quesada.

Looking toward the future of the program, Quesada says, he’d like to expand the institute and integrate business, liberal arts and humanities. He calls this expansion, R.I.D.E (Research, Innovation, Development, and Entrepreneurship), something he hopes to implement at STU.

“We can learn a lot by partnering with other non-STEM schools,” he said. “We have more than just scientists on campus; we have creatives, economists, communicators, innovators, etc., and if we combine these minds the benefits will be threefold.”

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