Science lovers attend UO's Summer Program for Undergraduate Research

By Kaya Hardin, summer intern

David Roberts, a junior at Atlanta's Morehouse College, wanted to spend summer 2008 doing real biology research. Although accepted for programs at Harvard and Duke, he was drawn to the University of Oregon, where he, he says, he was told he'd do hands-on lab work in the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR).

SPUR attracts a diverse group of participants from across the United States in a program sponsored by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). They often have cited the UO's flexible format, which allows for eight to 14 weeks of actual lab research experience as one of SPUR's many luring attractions.

The summer's participants came from 22 colleges, universities and community colleges, including the UO. They focused on research primarily in the life sciences, including molecular biology, neuroscience, ecology, biochemistry, biophysics and human physiology.

"SPUR looks for undergraduates who have a strong motivation to learn by experience and an ability to think creatively," said director Peter O'Day. "The summer is very intensive."

To be considered, applicants must have had at least one year of undergraduate coursework that demonstrates good scholastic standing. Those accepted receive a nationally competitive 10-week stipend, round-trip travel and room and board, which is partially covered under the FASEB's Minority Access to Research Careers program.

Undergraduates benefit by close interactions with graduate- or postdoctoral level mentors and faculty through lab and/or field work, seminars and professional development workshops. Students attend weekly discussion groups with peers and receive training to help them write formal research papers and give scientific presentations in professional formats. They also go on field trips, including this summer's jaunts to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Charleston, Crater Lake and Pine Mountain Observatory.

More summer science: SAIL, the Summer Academy to Inspire Learning -- a program for pre-college kids!

Roberts noted that being around "many like-minded undergrads is a really rare thing," and that togetherness was a high point of his UO experience. Eventually, he said, he hopes to obtain a doctorate in molecular biology. "Science interests me," he said, "I'm a nerd that way, and this immersion into graduate-level work helped me to decide that this is the path I want to continue on."

Roberts spent summer 2008 in the genetics laboratory of George Sprague, head of the UO's molecular biology department, studying the genetic interactions of the UBA4 gene in the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae under the mentorship of advanced graduate student Claire Romelfanger. They wanted to know which genes UBA4 works in conjunction with, and what processes these interactions may govern.

"At all the schools I applied to I requested certain labs, and Peter O'Day was the only person who got back to me saying, OK, this is the lab, these are the hours and this is the subject matter," Roberts said. "That's why I chose UO."