Priyamvada Rai, Ph.D., co-leader of the Tumor Biology Program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and professor of radiation oncology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine (UMMSOM), knows how beneficial attending a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program can be. The Caltech SURF program was a springboard to Dr. Rai’s research career in cancer biology. Now she’s paying it forward in her sixth year as the SURF program director and her second as principal investigator of the National Cancer Institute NCI R25 grant that has led to a significantly expanded program. “My SURF experiences sparked my interest in scientific research, and in turn, I have spent a significant portion of my own career fostering opportunities for undergraduate researchers, initially within my own lab and then more expansively through SURF,” Dr. Rai said.
The SURF program, which recently concluded a successful 2023 session, offers students of diverse backgrounds inspiration and training to become the next generation of biomedical researchers and physician-scientists. This year’s cohort included 30 scholars from colleges and universities nationwide, and they recently celebrated the completion of the 10-week SURF program. A five-year grant from the NCI and funds from University of Miami Office of Graduate Studies support the program, which graduates fellows who follow pathways toward medical and/or doctoral degrees at the Miller School and other universities nationwide.
“When they complete SURF, scholars from diverse backgrounds are armed with comprehensive research experiences, as well as knowledge about cutting-edge scientific concepts and technologies, to give them a unique, competitive edge as they pursue coveted higher education degrees,” said Dr. Rai.
SURF attracts students interested in exploring research careers in 12 medical specialties, spanning bioinformatics and computational biology to cancer biology, microbiology and immunology, neuroscience, pharmacology, and public health. During the program’s final week, SURFers showcase their research in poster and oral presentation formats. Sylvester researchers and Miller School faculty offer hands-on laboratory research experience and networking and mentoring opportunities, said Dr. Rai. This year’s program included mentors and presenters across the four main Sylvester programs as well as the major UMMSOM departments.
Clara Lopez-Ruiz (pictured at right), a 2023 SURF scholar and biochemistry student at Southwest College in Chula Vista, Calif., wants to go to pharmacy school and is weighing her options. “As a first-generation college student, it has been overwhelming trying to figure out where to go and how to go about going to graduate school,” Lopez-Ruiz said. She saw the SURF program and thought it would be a good opportunity. Lopez-Ruiz described her SURF experience as “mind-blowing.” She spent much of her 10 weeks working in a laboratory with Defne Bayik, Ph.D., Sylvester researcher and assistant professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology. “I’ve learned so much when it comes to lab procedures. I’m learning how to read [and discuss] the literature,” Lopez-Ruiz said.
SURF is having a long-term impact on Lopez-Ruiz’s career trajectory. She will have a two-year gap between graduating from college and applying to pharmacy school, so Dr. Bayik offered her a full-time position in the lab to fill the gap and continue research focused on stopping brain cancer tumor progression. “At SURF, you’ll network and make lifelong connections. It’s like a journey,” Lopez-Ruiz said. “You don’t know how it will affect you directly, but you know it will in a good way.”
Markis Hamilton (pictured at left), a senior in organismal biology at Fayetteville State University, said his home university doesn’t have the resources to conduct research at the level that the Miller School does. After focusing his 2023 SURF experience with Darlene Miller, D.H.Sc., M.P.H., C.I.C., scientific director of the Ocular Microbiology Laboratory in the Miller School’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, and her team, Hamilton said he has a clearer picture of his career path. His conversations with the lab’s molecular biology expert, Jorge Maestre-Mesa, M.D., Ph.D., educated him on the options available to those with medical degree and doctoral degrees.
“That sparked my interest to start to focus on pursuing not just the Ph.D., but also incorporate medicine into what I want to do in the future,” Hamilton said. “I come from a family where they are all in the medical field, but nobody is in research. So, I want to do something different.”
After his 2023 SURF experience in Bascom Palmer’s Ocular Microbiology Laboratory, Hamilton said he has a clearer picture of his career path. Based on his own experience, Hamilton encourages those thinking about applying to SURF 2024 to do so. “Follow your heart, because when doing stuff that you never thought you would be able to do, you always see different opportunities coming your way,” Hamilton said.
“This year we featured a four-day computational biology mini-boot camp led by Ravi Vadapalli, Ph.D., research associate professor and director of advanced computing at the Frost Institute for Data Science and Computing,” Dr. Rai said. “Along with one of our cancer biology graduate students, Alex Margetts, he developed a 12-hour module to familiarize students with bioinformatics, using datasets that model health disparities in different ethnic groups.”
In 2023, the SURF team also welcomed Claude-Henry Volmar, Ph.D., as assistant program director. Dr. Volmar, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Miller School, is a researcher focusing on drug discovery. He has been involved with SURF as a mentor and reviewer. “In addition to his cutting-edge scientific expertise, Dr. Volmar has an empathetic and insightful mentoring style which fits perfectly with SURF’s mission of providing our students with the guidance they need to successfully navigate the next stage of their careers,” Dr. Rai said.
SURF is evolving to meet diverse students’ needs and reflect medicine’s changing clinical and research landscape, according to Dr. Volmar. “I’m excited to bring my perspective and vision to helping SURF continue its innovative programming and its mission of helping train the next generation of accomplished physician-scientists,” he said.
SOURCE: INVENTUM story by Lisette Hilton | “The National Cancer Institute (NCI)-sponsored program immerses students from diverse backgrounds in hands-on, innovative biomedical lab research”