To introduce undergraduate students to pharmacology research and to use authentic, mentored research experiences in pharmacology to heighten student interest in careers in research and related health care disciplines. That is the vision of the ASPET Summer Undergrad Research Fellowship (SURF) program and the same vision that the University of Cincinnati (UC) adopts when conducting its own ASPET SURF program each year. The program, currently under the direction of Dr. Jo El Schultz (Associate Professor of Pharmacology & Systems Physiology) with administrative assistance from Ms. Nancy Thyberg, Program Coordinator, is in its 12th year at UC.
“The biggest success of the UC ASPET SURF program is that approximately 90% of the undergraduate trainees continue to purse research-related positions, whether in post-baccalaureate degrees (MS or PhD) in the life and medical sciences or the job sector in the pharmacology/pharmaceutical sciences or other biomedical fields,” says Schultz— an amazing statistic that truly reflects the importance of this program. Not only do students receive an opportunity to conduct research, but it inspires them to continue that interest into their future careers.
Schultz says that the ASPET SURF program offers an intellectually and scientifically rigorous faculty‐mentored biomedical research training that incorporates contemporary laboratory approaches, technologies, and research problems that are relevant to scientific inquiry, discovery and applications in pharmacology, toxicology, and pharmaceutical sciences. The program supplies students with a variety of professional development opportunities and the chance to work on skills such as scientific writing, presentation skills, career opportunity discussions, seminar series, and professional networking. These events supply the student as well as the mentor with opportunities to learn new knowledge and make connections within the university and community. The goal of the SURF program seems to be a well-rounded experience for both the students and the mentors, rather than being purely driven by the student’s ability to learn and conduct research.
“The ASPET SURF program has allowed me to realize that I would like to apply to graduate school in the field of pharmaceutical sciences,” says Avery Benton, a student from Smith College who conducted research under the guidance of Dr. Matthew Robson (Assistant Professor, Division of Pharmaceutical Sciences). Benton spent the summer studying the effects of blast-induced traumatic brain injury (TBI) on serotonin signaling. Alterations in serotonin is associated with several mental health disorders including depression—a common complication following TBI. “If we can figure out what exactly is going wrong in serotonin signaling following TBI, better treatments can be made for the psychological deficits that follow,” he says.
Benton’s research was focused on the psychological deficits that commonly occur after TBIs. “What I liked best about Dr. Robson's mentorship was that he was a hands-on mentor that would frequently be in the lab participating in the research,” he says. “It seemed like he is very passionate about the research he is doing at UC which, in turn, got me excited for the research project I did this summer.”
Benton plans to apply for an ASPET travel award to attend the annual meeting at EB to present the hard work conducted over the summer.
UC’s ASPET SURF program is funded in part by a 3-year training grant written by Schultz. The proposal includes information on everything from strategic mentoring plans to the success of previous applicants. Through the grant, ASPET supplies a portion of the stipend that supports the 5 trainees over the course of the summer program. However, there is also support through the university that Dr. Schultz works to fundraise, including support from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and College of Pharmacy. While this program wouldn’t be possible without the contribution of ASPET, Dr. Schultz’s hard work is what truly makes this program stand out.
Goals for next summer’s program include: introduction to aspects and opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry by organized seminars or research tours/visits to local bio-tech and Pharma companies in the region. This would complement the career panel of former UC PhD graduates who hold pharmacology-based positions in government, industry, scientific and medical writing, clinical pharmacology, pharmacy, and in the academic sectors as a balanced approach to promoting the value of enrolling in a doctoral degree in pharmacology, toxicology or pharmaceutical sciences.
It's evident that Dr. Schultz has great plans for the future of the UC ASPET SURF program and I can’t wait to see how they turn out.