In June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael Johnson, PhD, assistant professor of immunobiology at the College of Medicine – Tucson, wondered what he could do to lift up underrepresented minorities during such a difficult moment in the nation’s history.
The answer lay in a summer research program he and David Baltrus, PhD, associate professor in the School of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, built from the ground up. NSURP, or the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project, became the largest program of its kind to provide remote microbiology internships for underrepresented students.
“One of the indicators of successfully keeping people in science is to provide interaction with researchers, to dive in and learn how to do science,” Dr. Baltrus said. “When you look at the statistics, there are a variety of groups that are underrepresented in scientific research.”
Drs. Johnson and Baltrus realized that remote internships could continue to provide a stepping stone into graduate programs well into the post-COVID-19 era — and though NSURP was born in the pandemic, they both say it’s here to stay.
A Student Voice from the Inuagural Class
Justin Billy, a fourth-year microbiology undergraduate student in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences, took part in the inaugural class of 2020 and would recommend the program to other undergraduates looking for a remote internship. Billy sat down with CALS to discuss his experience in the program and his goals for the future:
Q: How did you find out about the NSURP program?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I noticed that a lot of academics were starting to do the transition from networking events at in-person conferences to utilizing social media platforms like Twitter. Twitter has been really helpful in mediating communications across different academic disciplines. And thankfully, at the beginning of the summer, I started following Dr. Baltrus on Twitter. That's when they announced they were launching this program aimed at trying to increase research experience in underrepresented racial minority groups. It coincided perfectly for me because I was originally supposed to work in a different research lab here at UA, but the pandemic overwhelmed the lab.
So, seeing that tweet was like all the planets aligned perfectly. That was literally my saving grace, my one ticket to make sure I got into grad school, because research experience is so very, very critical for graduate school applications.
Q: Where did you complete your internship and what was your research focus?
A: As part of the program, they paired me with a laboratory from Berkeley, California, and the lab aimed to identify how mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bug that's responsible for tuberculosis, modulates a key pathway in your immune system. Specifically, how it modulates this pathway to promote its survival within cells. As part of the research project, my mentor was a graduate student, Huntly Morrison, and he was evaluating how a specific DNA leakage affects a very specific pathway.
Since it was online, obviously I couldn't go to California during the pandemic during the summer to conduct in-person experiments, they performed the experiments and then sent the raw data from the equipment to me to process it. I wanted to do some cleanup on the data because the set that they sent me was like 3000-line entries if you were to import it into an Excel spreadsheet. So, I wrote a long coding script to clean up that data, and then I wrote a whole different script so I could visualize the data.
Q: Would you recommend the NSURP program to others?
A: I would recommend it, because even online you still get the critical information surrounding what research and industry may look like. The networking in the NSURP program was invaluable. It was important to see how the lab worked, as well, because every lab is different. There are different dynamics, different expectations. So, it's good that even in an online format, that I still got to see how a different lab functioned and how the team works together. I can go into grad school knowing what works for me and what I want to look for in a lab.
Another important aspect of the program was the soft skills – like project management, working under pressure, and having to conduct a large information synthesis in the form of literature review – and all the technical skills that I gained, as well. At the beginning of the program, I had no idea how to code in our studio.
So, the program, even though it's online, provided a multifaceted approach and helped me gain experience, soft skills, technical skills and even the hands-on bench work that you would typically associate with the research process.
NSURP also removes barriers for a lot of people. There are individuals out there with very limited access to opportunities to do research. The program can identify and help cultivate creativity and help students become comfortable with themselves in the context of research, anywhere they may be. It’s an invaluable process to put undergraduate students into and it's a huge opportunity.
Q: Had it not been for NSURP, do you think you would have had the opportunity to complete an undergraduate research project?
No, I don't think I would have even gotten into graduate school without NSURP because the pandemic threw that big curveball at everyone. After my internship, I applied and was offered admission to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. So, I'm really excited for that.
Q:What are your goals for the future?
A: It's inevitable that climate change is going to progress and, as a result, this will change the geographical distribution of mosquitoes and other small animals that may carry diseases. This changes their movements and what areas they can move into. So, with climate change being a pressing threat, we also need to consider the implications of changes and disease movement it may bring. That's one issue that continually worries me. I hoping to go into a field where I know I'm contributing some aspect of a solution to that problem.
Additionally, we're going to see an increase in antibiotic resistance, as well. So, we're going to run out of antibiotics, which means that we have to start looking for new avenues of treatment. We have to start looking for therapies that don't rely on that. There are so many different new avenues of treatments coming that I would like to pursue researching. Disease is always going to be a pressing issue for us. No matter at what point down the road, I know that my career is going to involve some form of global biosecurity, global health, global biosecurity, or how disease interacts with the human body.
The National Summer Undergraduate Research Project’s 2021 session will run from June 14 to August 6, and applications open today, April 12. Starting this summer, with funding from the University of Arizona and the National Science Foundation, NSURP will be a paid internship, with opportunities in microbiology and computational immunology.
Researchers interested in acting as mentors for the 2021 NSURP program can apply using the online application form.
Black, Indigenous or Hispanic students interested in participating in the 2021 NSURP program can apply using the online form. To learn more, visit the NSURP website.