The SURFers’ Diaries: Not Your Typical Summer Vacation

SURF 2017 Interns and Mentors
2017 SURF interns and their post-doc mentors, from the left: Cameron Cheng with mentor Kran Suknuntha (Igor Slukvin lab); Edwin Neumann with mentor Coral Wille (Rupa Sridharan lab); Jonathan Hernández with intern Derek Jacobs (J. Carter Ralphe lab); Maura McDonagh with mentor Brandon Kim (Eric Shusta lab). (Photo by Angie Xie)

Life may not have been a day at the beach for students in this year’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, but they would not have traded their experiences for anything… and at least one intern still found plenty of time to get outside and enjoy the water.

Angie Xie and Andrew Khalil, Ph.D. students in Bill Murphy’s Bioinspired Materials laboratory, facilitated the 2017 SURF program as co-presidents of the Wisconsin Stem Cell Roundtable (WiSCR). This campus organization of graduate students and post-doctoral trainees operates with guidance and support from the SCRMC and WiCellFima Zaltsman, a graduate student in the biochemistry lab of Laura Kiessling, Ph.D., led WiSCR previously and initiated the SURF program with his fellow graduate students.

“We changed a few things this year,” Angie said of SURF, which completed its fifth summer this year. “We aimed at students who were further along in their studies and who had more biology background. We had better advertising and drew a record 40 applicants.” Angie herself was a SURF mentor in 2014.

All four successful applicants are now juniors and continuing to work in their SURF labs for credit. They unanimously expressed that the three months they spent working in SCRMC faculty member labs were incredibly intense, but highly rewarding. They had nothing but praise for their mentors.

I caught up with all four at the SCRMC Fall Conference this September and asked them to share a little bit about their summers:

Maura McDonagh, Chicago, IL, was mentored by Brandon Kim, Ph.D., in the chemical and bioengineering lab of Eric Shusta, Ph.D., College of Engineering. She studied the effects of bacterial infection on a stem cell derived blood brain barrier model. Maura had spent her previous two summers in other programs, namely the CURE program at Northwestern University and the Research Start Program at the University of Illinois. In applying to SURF, she wanted to stay more connected with her own college campus over the summer.

“I had read enough stem cell articles on my own to want to get more involved at UW-Madison with the research. I was excited to be learning technology that is so powerful right now and to be learning a new skill set. I appreciated the weekly SURF seminars, where I got to learn more about stem cell applications and ethics. It was really interesting to see not just the wet lab side, but the broad spectrum of applications. After SURF, I officially decided that I want to pursue graduate school right after undergrad. I really enjoyed my summer.”

Guanyun (Cameron) Cheng, a transfer student from Nanjing University originally from Jinan, Shandong, China, completed his fellowship in the hematopoietic stem cell lab of Igor Slukvin, Ph.D., professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) based at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. Mentored by Kran Suknuntha, Ph.D., Cameron studied the optimization of modified RNA transfection in human pluripotent stem cells.

“I found out about this program while visiting the UW Writing Center. This was my first time in a biology lab; everything was new to me, but everything was just right. I enjoyed attending all the seminars, reading the articles and meeting all the professors through the program. I was especially intrigued to learn about chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell research. I was majoring in chemical engineering, but I’m now switching to biochemistry to conduct research more in the stem cell and regenerative medicine field.”

Edwin Neumann, Holmen, WI, was mentored by Coral Wille, Ph.D., in the SMPH cell and regenerative biology lab of Rupa Sridharan, Ph.D., at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. His project was the establishment of a human breast cancer reprogramming pipeline.

“I found out about the program in an email from WiSCR. I’m a biomedical engineering major, was already working in a lab at WIMR and had taken physiology, biochemistry, organic chemistry, and biomaterials engineering and design. I knew it would be intense and I had a lot less free time than I expected, but my mentor was great and I had still had enough flexibility that I was able to enjoy my summer in Madison, including sailing with Hoofers and playing Ultimate. I didn’t know all the basic lab techniques and I learned a lot about tissue culture. The ethics seminar was new to everybody. Before this experience, I always considered myself pre-med. Now I’m thinking about how much I enjoyed working in the lab and am more open to an M.D., Ph.D.”

Derek Jacobs, Pewaukee, WI, was mentored by Jonathan Hernández, Ph.D., in the SMPH pediatric cardiology lab of J. Carter Ralphe, M.D. He learned about SURF in an email from his advisor and knew that his courses in biology, chemistry honors and organic chemistry would make him a strong candidate. His summer project was exploring myosin binding protein C CRISPR/Cas9-modified hiPSCs as a model to study hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

“Jon was an excellent mentor. I underestimated how dense and eye-opening the experience would be and how much I would learn in a three-month time span. The medical history and bioethics seminar led by Linda Hogle was fantastic. We all just sat down informally to discuss the topic and then we all had the chance to voice our opinions. I’m still considering an MBA program or medical school, but now I’m also more open to pursuing a Ph.D. I can’t even put into words how valuable this experience was professionally, academically and personally.”

A mentor’s perspective: I also had the opportunity after the fall conference to sit down with one of the SURF mentors, Jonathan J. Hernández, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the lab of J. Carter Ralphe, M.D., associate professor and chief of pediatric cardiology in the School of Medicine and Public Health. Originally from the City of Panama, Panama, Jon pursued a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and a master’s in higher education in his home country. He came to UW-Madison for graduate school in 2010 and worked on an iPSC’s-to-cardiomyocytes project with Drs. Tim Kamp and Hector Valdivia, earning his Ph.D. in physiology in 2016.

Jon shared some insights about his experiences as a mentor this past summer: “We had so many great applicants this year, but we couldn’t take everyone. Many freshmen who applied and did not get accepted should definitely apply again. Don’t get discouraged, take more classes, build some volunteer experience and apply again.”

The qualities of a good intern? “I like to see students enjoying what they are doing, discussing everything, asking questions,” Jon said. “Derek was very sharp and highly motivated. He asked a lot of questions: he not only asked how to do something, but why, and what happens if you change this, or that… he already had the scientific thinking down.”

Jon emphasized that the mentors put in a great deal of time and effort as well and that successful mentors should be those individuals who are passionate about educating others while continuing to learn themselves. “I networked, I talked to people, I took the WiCell stem cell training course, a bioethics course, went to the SCRMC seminars.”

All mentors in the SURF program undergo training before they are matched with their interns. “You need to teach the intern not just how to do the research, but how to explain it to others, how to prepare for presentations. “Mentoring doesn’t come naturally to most people. You have to seek it out,” Jon reflected.

Where are they now?

All 22 of our Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows over the past five years are pursuing or plan to pursue professional careers. Their accomplishments include publishing in peer-reviewed journals, earning scholarships and honors, acceptance into graduate, medical and nursing programs, working at hospitals, in computer science, climate change science, law, global health and human services and more. Their talents range from painting to sewing to skydiving, and most have traveled well beyond their hometowns and countries. This group continues to learn, grow and seek out new experiences… several are educators and mentors themselves.

“To say one tutors is an understatement. One cannot teach others material, only teach them to educate themselves,” one of our 2015 SURF interns, Meng Lou, wrote in an email. Mentored by Jared Carlson-Stevermer in the biomedical engineering lab of Kris Saha, Ph.D., he is now a senior at UW-Madison and executive facilitator at the Peer Learning Association on campus.

See the complete list of our 44 interns and mentors who have SURFed their way through a summer of stem cell and regenerative medicine research at UW-Madison. The SCRMC is grateful to all interns, mentors and faculty who have given their time and energy to make the SURF program successful and improving every year. We welcome suggestions on how to improve the program at any time. Please write to Sue Gilbert.

– By Jordana Lenon

Two students next to poster

Kran Suknuntha (left) mentored SURF intern Cameron Cheng in Igor Slukvin’s hematopoietic stem cell lab. (Photo by J. Lenon)

Four students near posters in poster session

Edwin Neumann (white shirt) and Derek Jacobs (red tie) describe their research to attendees at the 2017 SCMRC Fall Conference Sept. 15 at the Discovery Building. (Photo by J. Lenon)

Student standing next to her poster

Maura McDonagh sets up her poster on the morning of the 8th annual SCRMC Fall Conference. (Photo by J. Lenon)

Three students working under a biosafety hood

Drew Richards, center, 2015 SURF intern, is pictured assisting high school students attending the Morgridge Institute for Research’s Rural Summer Science camp that year. SURF interns and their mentors partake in the camp every summer, working with the students and answering their questions in the lab. Drew is now a senior at UW-Madison majoring in kinesiology and pursuing a career in orthopedic and sports medicine. He interned this past summer at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, St. Paul, Minnesota, in the Department of Orthopedics. (Photo courtesy Morgridge Institute for Research)