Published 8/16/17 in UMB News

When the rest of her college friends were hitting the beach this summer, Mary Robichaux was busy in a lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), researching the protein RhoA, and how it relates to hypertension.

“Everybody in my lab was terrific,” said Robichaux, one of 17 UM Scholars who participated in the Summer Research Program’s Student Research Forum on July 28 at UMB’s Southern Management Corporation Campus Center. “I learned a lot about adaptability, that you can still get something useful out of a result even if it wasn’t what you were looking for.” She is a rising senior at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), majoring in neurobiology and physiology.

(View photo gallery.)

Learning opportunities in a lab are just part of the UM Scholars Program, which provides UMCP math, science, and engineering students with exposure to graduate-level research while they spend the summer at UMB with University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) physicians on mentored research projects that advance disease and diagnosis treatment. Building on the strengths of two great universities, the program also is designed to expand students’ knowledge and enlighten them about career choices, and introduces UMCP undergraduates to the MD degree program and the vast array of graduate degree programs at UMB.

UMSOM and the Office of Student Research administer the program, which is overseen by Gregory B. Carey, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Medicine and director of student summer research and community outreach. The program, which is conducted in 10-week terms, is supported through the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State.

“These young people are enthusiastic, talented, very bright, and impressionable and it’s an honor to be a part of their journey for whatever profession they are training for in their careers,” said Carey. “The UM Scholars Program is special to me because it is a chance to get talented undergraduate students who are thinking about coming to the University of Maryland, Baltimore to do graduate studies or medicine.

“We give them a taste of our campus and we also expose them to all of the various training tracks and many programs that they can actually engage in once they come to campus,” Carey continued. “Invariably what we have found is that because of those experiences and encounters with our faculty and students here, those UM Scholars usually cite the University of Maryland, Baltimore as their first choice [for pursuing advanced degrees]. That is something that we are very proud of.”

At the Student Research Forum, where University of Maryland Graduate School  students served as volunteers, Carey thanked UMSOM mentors, faculty, and staff. “It takes many, many people to support one student” in the program, he said.

Bret Hassel, PhD, a UMSOM associate professor, played a slideshow of photos from the previous 10 weeks.

“We’ve had a wonderful summer,” he said.  “You guys are all in a long career path, a long professional path, so hopefully one of our strong goals of the summer is to expose you to what you have upcoming. And if that’s not the right thing, you can make adjustments now. If it affirms that, all the better.”

Exposing students to “real-life experiences” comes undoubtedly with some degree of stress, Hassel added, such as experiencing experimental failures for the first time. “Dealing with these surprises is an important part of professional development,” he said.

UM Scholars spent the day summarizing their research findings in oral and poster presentations. Among them was UM Scholar Alok Shetty, a pre-med student at UMCP, who presented his summer research project, “Characterizing the Changes in Immune-Related Gene Expression in The Inner Ear Following Noise Exposure.”

“It was great getting exposure to research at a big institution,” he said of his UM Scholar experience. “I learned a lot of different research techniques and enjoyed the many opportunities for collaboration between students in various fields of study.”

On some days, the real-world lab experience was truly an eye-opener, he added.

“Some days it was all hands on deck, all day. It taught me the rigors of research on a daily basis,” Shetty said. “Some days were one step forward and three steps back.”

For Matthew Sherman, a rising junior studying biochemistry at UMCP, the UM Scholar experience was mostly a lesson of that old adage “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

“You come in and you think you know a lot, and you realize you are only scratching the surface,” said Sherman, whose program topic was “Molecular Characterization of Myeloid Differentiation Factor 88 (MYD88) In Relation to Binding Capabilities with Small Molecule Inhibitors.”

“I think it’s been a great experience,” he continued, noting the 10 weeks flew by. “It’s exposed me to what real research is like just beyond what they tell you to do in the chemistry lab. You can follow a protocol, but it’s something else to have to develop your own procedures.”

Another UM Scholar, Muftiat Ogunsanya, said she appreciated the lecture portion of the UM Scholars Program, the Summer Seminar Series. Twice a week, UMSOM faculty members presented hourlong seminars on topics related to biomedical research.

“Hearing from all the different doctors and PhDs was very beneficial. I enjoyed being involved in research and attending the lecture series. I thought it was a nice mix,” she said.

Her mentor, David A. Rasko, PhD, a UMSOM professor, said he enjoys participating in the UM Scholars Program because the students are “highly intelligent and motivated, which is ideal in the short time frames they are in the laboratories.”

Ogunsanya, said Rasko, was always eager to learn new things. “Her enthusiasm and intelligence made her integration into the lab and teaching very easy,” he said.

UM Scholar Nabid Ahmed kept busy this summer researching the impact of shear and surface coatings on urethral catheter biofilms using a microfluidic model.

“I wish I could have taken a week off sometime, but this was more important to me,” said Ahmed, a UMSOM medical student in the bioengineering program at UMCP. “It was all worth it.”