South Africa to Colorado: Summer Research helps UMBC STEM BUILD Students Chart Their Course

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Contact Info: hansen.sarah@umbc.edu

By Sarah Hansen

For an undergraduate getting their start in science, traveling far from home for an immersive research experience can be transformational. Living and working in a completely new environment, with new colleagues, can be intimidating, but it also offers powerful opportunities for growth. Five STEM BUILD students from University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) took that plunge this summer, and all made lasting memories that will inform their paths forward.

Chad Brown, a senior biological sciences major, traveled to South Africa with a research team based at the University of Virginia (UVA). Before departing, he spent time on UVA’s campus getting to know his team, practicing key lab techniques, and learning about South African culture.

“Not only are you going to be working in a research lab, but you’re doing it in a setting you’ve never experienced before,” Brown said. “You have to be in the mindset for that—and that’s what they were helping us do.”

Once in Thohoyandou, South Africa, Brown measured the concentration of bacteria in water samples from homes in the region. His efforts contributed to a long-term study designed to detect whether water treatment interventions are reducing bacteria in the water and affecting children’s growth.

 

Brown entered UMBC planning to pursue medical school, “but I think South Africa kind of flipped the script,” he said. Now he’s more seriously considering a research career. Many factors led to the shift, “but South Africa has been the big one that made the difference.”

Victoria Baskerville, a senior biological sciences major, and Kendra Kontchou, a senior biological sciences and psychology double major, both participated in the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy Internship. Kontchou’s project focused on understanding a molecular pathway in pseudomonas bacteria, which is resistant to some antibiotics and commonly found in hospitals. The ultimate goal is to find a way to shut down the pathway and kill the bacteria.

A BUILD summer program at UMBC last summer helped prepare Kontchou by exposing her to techniques like gel electrophoresis, which she carried out many times during her internship. Baskerville felt similarly prepared for her research experience, where she analyzed data from clinical trials comparing a brand name and generic drug for people suffering from anemia.

“I felt comfortable going into it because a lot of the things that I did…I actually was exposed to in the summer BUILD program,” Baskerville said. She loves the scientific process, because “you get to figure out new things all the time.”

Baskerville has been planning to pursue research since her freshman year at UMBC. As she’s gained more lab experience and confidence through the BUILD program, research has become more central to her career plans.

“I feel as if I have a leg-up,” Kontchou said. “BUILD has laid a path for us and guided us. They help us with our academics, and they motivate us to look for research and other opportunities.”

Amber Thompson, a junior double major in biochemistry and math, spent the summer at Colorado State University. She studied a gene that controls whether yeast cells clump together or not, which has important applications in the biofuels industry.

Her research project ran into roadblocks that required repeating a lengthy set of experiments, but there was a silver lining. “Research is like a big jigsaw puzzle,” Thompson said. “At first, I could only focus on one piece at a time. The second time, I could follow the intricacies and piece it together. Rather than just following a procedure, it was more of an intellectual challenge. You can start to see that trail, that next jigsaw piece that needs to be put together.”

Gabe Duran, a senior environmental science and biological sciences double major, knows that he wants to first be a scientist, and then use his political science minor to advocate for environmental policies that benefit Indigenous and other marginalized communities.

Duran spent this summer at the Marine Biological Laboratories (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. There, he analyzed the nitrogen content of water samples from Little Pond, a reservoir in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The town is transitioning from septic to sewer systems to help reduce nitrogen pollution in local waterways, which causes harmful algal blooms.

“It gave me a lot of experience with different lab techniques, analyzing data, scientific communication skills, and overall it was just a great experience,” he shared. “I was surrounded by people who are as passionate as I am about environmental science.”

Before this summer, Duran had never been on a boat, and one of his favorite parts of his time at Woods Hole was embarking on a research vessel to conduct experiments at sea. Away from the light pollution of the cities on land, he saw his first shooting star.

Duran’s summer experience went so well that another researcher at MBL has invited him to spend next summer working on her project—in the Arctic. He was delighted, and he looks forward to another season of scientific discovery.

 

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.