On a morning in July, Sally Kyale ’19 is in a Ford Hall lab preparing samples for the day’s experiments, which may one day lead to cancer treatments with fewer side effects. That day may be a long way off, but for now Kyale is grateful for the chance to spend long summer days doing important scientific research. “I am able to get deeply involved in research and come to a better understanding of techniques used in the lab—things you can’t get into during normal class time,” she said. “It’s been eye opening, and has made me fall that much more in love with the sciences.”
Kyale, of Kenya, participated this summer in Smith’s longstanding and growing summer research fellowship program. Known as SURF, the program gives students the opportunity to work intensively with faculty, designing and running experiments and receiving one-on one mentorship. Patricia Marten DiBartolo ’89, faculty director at the Clark Science Center, describes it as intensive, authentic and transformative.
“We used to think a science education meant you had to jump through a lot of hurdles in the classroom to finally get to that point where you were ready to do research and to ask authentic questions that matter to you,” DiBartolo said. “We are trying to turn that model on its head by pulling students in very early in their academic careers to connect them to questions that they own, that matter to them and for which they see the broader societal reach.”
Since it began in 1967, the program has grown from a handful of students to about 150 participants each summer, across all the sciences. SURF students earn a $4,000 stipend for working 10 full-time weeks in labs or on research sites. “It gives students a sense of what it might be like to be a graduate student or a postdoc in a particular area or question,” DiBartolo said. In fact, SURF participants are twice as likely as other students to go on to graduate school.
SURF has supported a range of faculty and student research projects, on subjects like artificial intelligence, the health of Paradise Pond, astronomy and disease eradication.
“Faculty research isn’t separate from what’s happening with students; it’s integral to what’s happening with students,” said Margaret Lamb, administrative director at the Clark Science Center. “SURF helps faculty to create students as collaborators.”
Here, a few SURF students describe their summer research.
SALLY KYALE ’19
Biochemistry and anthropology major (intended)
PROJECT: Synthesis and Structural Analysis of Cisplatin-modified DNA 9-mer
FACULTY MENTOR: Elizabeth Jamieson ’94, associate professor of chemistry
CAREER ASPIRATION: “Pursue more research and go on to medical school.”
WHAT I AM LEARNING: “Platinum has long been used in anti-cancer treatment; we are taking strands of this, fixing them onto DNA and trying to observe the type of structures they form so we can improve upon this anti-cancer activity. One outcome would be the reduction of side effects in cancer treatment. I am from Kenya, a country where women are not very much appreciated in the sciences. This opportunity has shown me how women can be empowered given the right opportunities. You must believe in yourself, believe in your capabilities, believe in your own knowledge and never shy away from asking.”
KATIE BLACKFORD ’17
PROJECT: Organic Chemistry: Development of a Tandem Diels-Alder/Pauson-Khand Reaction for the Synthesis of Tetracycles
FACULTY MENTOR: Kevin Shea, professor of chemistry
CAREER ASPIRATION: “I want to get a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and work for a pharmaceutical company to make new drugs.”
WHAT I AM LEARNING: “I am trying to make steroids in a new, efficient way, which is so important for the pharmaceutical industry. I will have put almost three years into this project by graduation. I’m learning tenacity and not to get discouraged. I am learning to get comfortable making my own decisions, coming up with my own ideas and procedures and not just following rules. Meanwhile, there are so many beautiful mountains and rivers and so much natural beauty here that I didn’t experience growing up in the Maryland suburbs.”
Daniela Deny ’18
Biochemistry and Africana studies major
PROJECT: Protein Engineering for Therapeutic Uses
FACULTY MENTOR: Sarah Moore, assistant professor of engineering
CAREER ASPIRATION: “Before this summer I was premed and was only considering research. Now I am planning to work solely in medical research.”
WHAT I AM LEARNING: “I explore a lot of different techniques within the diverse work of bioengineering. I am interested in gynecology and am now working on cancers that target areas that pertain to that field. My mentor allows me to have freedom, which has allowed me to learn about how I work best—doing my own work instead of being in an environment where I am receiving orders. I have learned how to make my own protocols. It’s such an amazing experience for these professors to open their doors for you to do research in their labs—they’re filled with so much knowledge.”
Sarah Myerson ’17
Psychology and education and child study major
PROJECT: Through My Window, an online engineering education website
FACULTY MENTOR: Glenn Ellis, professor of engineering
CAREER ASPIRATION: “I am getting licensed to teach elementary school.”
WHAT I AM LEARNING: “I look at writing from children who have completed an artificial intelligence learning adventure. I get a firsthand look at how clearly their ideas are changing and their curiosity is emerging—it shows that our curriculum is getting them truly excited to learn. SURF gave me a lot more responsibility on my own and the opportunity to work as a member of a team with other disciplines I wouldn’t normally interact with. Smith in summer is wonderful. There is community and opportunities you can really focus your attention on.”