SURF program prepares students to ride the waves of research

By Bekah McBride

The Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center labs welcomed new members this summer, as five talented undergraduate students joined mentors for more than 10-weeks of collaborative research. This unique experience is a part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), which supports motivated University of Wisconsin–Madison undergraduate students as they pursue research in the stem cell sciences.

The program, which is sponsored by WiCell, the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center (SCRMC), and the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies (CMaT), awards up to five undergraduate students a $6,000 stipend and the opportunity to collaborate on a stem cell research project while being mentored by a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow. The program is administered by the Wisconsin Stem Cell Roundtable (WiSCR), an organization of UW–Madison graduate student and postdoctoral researchers that aims to foster interaction, collaboration, dialogue, and support among UW stem cell researchers. Members of WiSCR help to select the SURF applicants, assign them mentors, and support the participants throughout the 10-week program.

“Being able to provide a positive first experience in stem cell research for UW undergraduate students and accompanying professional development opportunities has been very rewarding,” says Aaron Simmons, a WiSCR officer and PhD student in the Palecek Lab. “I initially became involved in the SURF program in a board member role through my participation in WiSCR. I saw the opportunity as a great way to get more involved in WiSCR, help to select and uplift UW undergraduates interested in getting involved in stem cell research on campus, and learn more about the “other side” of Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) programs – having been on the participant’s side of the table before.”

Simmons and the other WiSCR officers including Keerthana Shakar and Madeline Smerchansky, aim to create a rewarding experience for the mentors and mentees, but Simmons says the officers gain just as much from the experience.

“Having served as a SURF Board member for a few years, I have learned quite a lot about the “behind the scenes” operation of such a program – the many tasks and people involved in successfully orchestrating an REU, or other event or program at the university,” Simmons says. “I have definitely gained a greater appreciation of the broader preparation and project management support provided by administrative staff to make everything come together smoothly for the participants of the program.”

The officers’ hard work and planning has resulted in a successful program that has historically seen over 90 percent of participants continue to work with their assigned lab beyond the 10-week program.

“The extremely high SURF fellow post-summer retention rates, i.e. remaining with their assigned SURF labs and mentors and continuing on in research after the summer program has ended, speaks to the quality and impact of SURF,” Simmons says.

He added that while a majority end up joining the research labs to which they were assigned, others learn valuable lessons about their area of interest. “Others, through the program, have found they do not enjoy research, or no longer see it as a potential career goal, and elect to depart from their SURF labs, which I also see as a positive outcome for the program in helping young students to winnow down their multitude of potential opportunities/career directions through their time in school and find a career path that will be meaningful to them.”

Amaya Yanira Stanley, a 2022 SURF participant and biomedical engineering major, says the program confirmed her interest in research, while providing valuable lessons about the benefits and challenges of working in a lab.

“This program was my first research experience, so honestly, everything was beneficial for me and exceeded my expectations,” says Stanley. “With that being said, I would say I benefited the most from simply being around my mentor during my time in the program. She explained all the parts of her project to me and was very transparent about what was occurring throughout my time in the lab. I really appreciated that.”

Stanley was paired with mentor Hope Holt, a member of Professor Eric Shusta’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering lab. Together they conducted research on the project, Effect of Reelin on iPSC-derived Endothelial-like Cells.

“The main technical things I learned from my time in this program were how to care for cells in ways such as feeding, splitting, and transfecting. Also, I was able to learn a lot about western blotting,” Stanley says. “Other things I got familiar with were how to manage different parts of an experiment and better understanding the pace of scientific research.”

In addition to the lab experience, SURF mentees will also have the opportunity to present their research at the SCRMC Fall Conference on September 30, 2022. This will help mentees to learn how to prepare a poster and give an oral presentation.

“I think SURF is important because it gives direct exposure to scientific research and the environment of it all,” Stanley says. “It’s an experience where you are really learning and growing everyday with the support of a mentor.”

Simmons agreed, noting that SURF goes beyond offering the typical benefits of an REU program.

“The summation of numerous aspects of SURF – the small cohort size, local nature of the program, the targeting of underclassmen with no prior stem cell research experience, dual selection process, for both mentors and fellows, and it’s being organized and run by graduate students and post-docs – have, in my opinion, led to its continued success and longevity; an opinion obviously shared by SCRMC leadership and several sponsors as evinced through their continued support”

Applications for the next round of SURF will open in 2023. To learn more visit

2022 SURF participants:

Pluripotent stem cell derived niche for T cell differentiation

Mentor: Madeline Smerchansky

Lab: Melissa Kinney

Fellow: Karthik Madhusudhanan


Genome Engineering and Characterization of CAR Modified Stem Cells

Mentor: Keerthana Shankar

Lab: Krishanu Saha

Fellow: Isabelle  Zingler-Hoslet



Identifying Molecular Mechanisms of Stem Cell Maintenance

Mentor: Khagani Eynullazada

Lab: Rupa Sridharan

Fellow: Christopher Bou-Saab




Effect of Reelin on iPSC-derived endothelial-like cells  

Mentor: Hope Holt

Lab: Eric Shusta

Fellow: Amaya Stanley



Characterizing the migration and differentiation of Gli1+ neural stem cells in aged mice

Mentor: Elizabeth Clawson

Lab: Jayshree Samanta

Fellow: Cora Williams