Grace Ortgiesen dissects a housefly under a microscope in a microbiology lab

Lee SIP scholars find training — and community — in labs across campus 

Even as they investigate disparate scientific questions in labs all over campus, an expanding group of CNS undergraduates are making the same discovery about themselves: They are scientists. 

Jiun Tseng in lab

Jiun Tseng, a rising junior and biology major, points out the lighter and darker shades of blue on a strip of gel that she’s stained in Larry Schwartz’s lab. “The whole gel is covered with protein,” she explains, “except where the specific enzymes we’re studying have chewed it all up and you get this clear spot. That’s a band that shows not just that your protein is there, but your protein is active.” She’s working with Schwartz to study programmed cell death in Manduca sexta caterpillars as part of the metamorphic process.  

“Jiun has been in my lab just a couple of weeks,” explains Schwartz. “She watched me run these particular kinds of gels that we’re doing and took careful notes. And then yesterday she just did the whole thing, soup to nuts. This isn’t busywork. You want the data that she’s going to get from those gels.”  

Tseng beams when she talks about winning a coveted spot as a scholar in the William Lee Science Impact Program (Lee SIP). Now in its second year, the program provides students the opportunity to work on fun, novel, and interesting scientific questions by matching them with faculty members with similar research interests. For many it’s their first research experience, and for all of them it means concentrated time to dive deep into lab work, being part of a research team that’s moving scientific inquiry forward day by day.  

The program provides housing and a stipend so scholars can remain on campus for the summer. “I’m from Vietnam,” Tseng says, “but I lived in Arkansas for two years. If this program was not an option, I would be going home and getting a job as a cashier. Compared to this,” she says, gesturing to the lab, “this is just so much more rewarding and I can’t believe I get to learn so much for a job. This is amazing, you know?” 

The Lee SIP program creates opportunities for undergraduate students to engage directly in the cutting-edge research occurring on campus, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups in science disciplines, such as first-generation college students. 

The scholars, mostly rising juniors and seniors, participate in a structured program for the entire summer that includes science communication and professional development sessions. Their research then extends into the following academic year.  

Waverly Lau and sediment core sample in lab

“Let me just wash up,” says Waverly Lau, a rising junior and environmental science major, as she heads for the lab sink with hands thoroughly covered in clay and silt.  “We’re studying dams and sediment in the Hudson River,” explains Brian Yellen, the geosciences professor whose lab Waverly is working in. “One of our primary focuses is on tidal marsh, a really rich habitat source, one that provides a lot of ecosystem services,” he says. “For example, they serve as nursery habitat for small fish, and they’re one of the first lines of defense against coastal flooding. One of the big questions is, will they survive in the face of rapidly rising sea levels?” 

“After we’ve gotten those sediment cores, like the one on that table over there,” says Lau, “we bring them in, open them and describe them. One of the first things we want to do is scan them. We use X-ray fluorescence to detect different concentrations of heavy metals throughout the sediment core. At different depths you can see what concentration there is.” She moves confidently through the lab, explaining the uses of various equipment and the processes they use to obtain data from the sediment core samples.  

“Having this research opportunity really let me understand what we do in this lab and learn all the different procedures. It showed me a little bit of what I’m interested in and what I’m not. And I’m still learning every single day,” she says. “I have to say,” she smiles, “I think I wasn’t expecting the community in this lab. I’m able to talk to any graduate student or any professor for help or just, you know, talking about grad school or even how my day went.”  

“Summer research can be a bit isolating,” says Yellen, “especially if you don’t have many friends sticking around over the summer. Being part of a larger community and being housed together, that helps.”  As a faculty advisor, he says, “one feels like there’s never enough time to provide materials like how to make scientific posters, how to add things to your CV, how to think about grad school. To have a centralized program where that’s being provided, it’s great for the students.”  

Grace Ortgiesen in lab with flies and dissecting equipment

When senior microbiology major Grace Ortgiesen got the call that one additional spot had opened up in the Lee SIP program, and it was hers, she went into high gear rearranging her summer plans. Already well established in the microbiology lab of John Burand, she had been planning to spend as much time working in the lab as she could manage. But the support of the Lee SIP program meant she was able to continue her lab work full-time this summer instead of reducing her hours to accommodate another summer job. “I would have had a lot less lab timeI can just be here and have this be my only focus,” she says. “I don’t have to think about working another job or paying rent. It’s a huge help.”  

Ortgiesen demonstrates how she infects houseflies with MDSGHB (Musca domestica salivary gland hypertrophy virusand then dissects out their brains and salivary glands for analysis. As she leans over the microscope and talks observers through the process, Burand points out the remarkable skill she has developed. “You have to appreciate that she’s dissecting out the brain of the fly – that’s why she has to use that microscope. She’s doing microsurgery,” he says.  

“Grace was interested in working with viruses,” says Burand. “These viruses are pathogenic to insects, not to humans. So she gets to work with viruses and learn virus pathology, cell culture work, all kinds of training you need if you’re going to work in the field of virology. We take precautions here as if these were infectious agents for us, and that’s part of the training. When she goes to work with human pathogens, she’ll have the proper techniques.”   

“I emailed John when I was a freshman to ask if I could work in his lab, so I’ve been working here almost the whole time I’ve been at UMass,” Ortgiesen says. Her laboratory experience also helped her direct and focus her energies. “When I got here, all I knew is I loved bees. Now I’m applying to PhD programs, and I know that I want to use viruses as a new approach to pest management, an alternative to pesticides. It’s an intersection between sustainability, entomology, and viruses — everything I want to do,” she says.  

Charlie Goodwin and Caelan Dammer discussing research

For astronomy and physics majors Charlie Goodwin and Caelan Dammer, the lab environment looks like a laptop — or rather a circle of them, with lots of questions flying in the air between.  

“This is my first research experience,” says Goodwin. “I just finished my freshman year, and I’m working on classification of morphologies of galaxies that are in a higher redshift. I’m currently learning about different parameters and how to code them to have different values for different types of galaxy structures.”  

Goodwin leans forward with enthusiasm as he describes the project’s complexity. How does he feel about dipping into the life of a researcher? “I was just surprised how much I actually liked it. I’ve always done minimum wage jobs that were extremely stressful, so being in this situation where I can do my own research and get paid for it, it’s wonderful. This is stuff I want to do,” he says. “Without this program I would be at home and not doing research.”  

Zhijuan Ji, a research assistant and PhD candidate in astronomy, serves as guide and mentor for the department’s group of student researchers. “Charlie is analyzing data from the Hubble space telescope,” he explains. “It’s very precise work. It takes time to get familiar with the terminology, different techniques, the mathematics, the physics behind it,” he says. “They need to write their own codes to really measure all of this quantity by themselves. We’re in between the experiment and the results — we’re analyzing the data,” Ji explains. 

Rising junior Caelan Dammer relates that he is working with Pete Schloerb, director of the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) office. “I’m helping him with producing a data pipeline for the LMT,” he says. “Professor Schloerb has got the reduction of the raw spectrometer data already up and going, and I’m working with those to create visual maps, splice them in different ways to get different information.” Dammer explains that the end goal is “to have the tools available so if the scientist takes their own observations they can use the tools and have the data be easy to work with.”    

We really want the students to ask questions,” says Ji, and so we give them a space to make them feel comfortable and we try to create a sense of community.   

Amber Walsh and Anita Milman in the lab

“I thought it’d be cool to see if I like research, since I envisioned that I might,” says rising sophomore environmental science and biology major Amber Walsh. Anita Milmanenvironmental conservation,  recalls that “Amber was a student in my class I taught on intro to environmental policy.  I told her about the Lee SIP program and she applied.”  

For her first research experience, Walsh is helping Milman to examine groundwater sustainability planning as new management plans are developed for groundwater basins in California. “The project is a great mix of politics, rules and regulations, and science all coming together,” Milman says. “We’re looking at all the constituencies and all the mechanisms by which they’re coordinating. And we’re documenting that process as it’s taking place.  

Walsh showed visitors the relationships she was mapping between various constituencies. “The Lee SIP program has a big outreach and communication element to it, so it’s a great fit for this kind of work,” she says. Milman agrees. “If you get a degree in environmental science and you get out there in the world and you’re making decisions related to groundwater or surface water, even ecology, this is a great way of helping prepare them for that work.” 

Nick Santos and Meg Stratton in the Stratton lab

“I got a small taste of it when I was in classes, but it really was nothing compared to being in a research lab like this,” says senior biochemistry major Nick Santos. “I think it’s important to be in the lab.” Santos explains that they’re working with an enzyme called CaMKII, investigating the role it plays in long-term memory. “One of the things we’re trying to understand,” says Meg Strattonbiochemistry and molecular biology, the primary investigator in the lab, “is how CaMKII interacts with different binding partners.” 

Nick’s role in the lab this summer has been to grow the enzyme, purify it, and set up crystallization trays with the binding partner present. “Once it crystallizes,” says Stratton, “we can solve the atomic resolution structure.”  

“It’s a human enzyme, but we can make it in E. coli, so I’ve been doing a lot of E. coli growths,” says Nick. “Once we get all the way to the crystals, then we can get an electron density map. It’s pretty cool.”  

“I love having undergrads in the lab,” says Stratton. “I think they keep the lab really excitable, especially undergrads. Seeing their enthusiasm keeps you from taking for granted the things we do here, because it’s brand new to them.”  

Lee SIP and LSAMP students summer 2019

What’s next for these researchers? Students presented the results of the summer’s work to the UMass community at a poster symposium on August 2, and a selected group also traveled to the MIT campus in Boston to compete in a “Science Slam” competition. At MIT the students were charged with clearly and concisely discussing their summer research efforts in a five-minute presentation geared for a non-specialized audience. In the end, Lee-SIP scholars took the day, bringing home first place and second place honors, and tying an MIT student for third place.  

Research experience programs like Lee SIP have been shown to increase retention and graduation rates for students in the sciences. Newly forged and pre-existing research relationships nurtured by this summer’s program will continue to expand for these students, as they take on growing responsibilities in the communities of their specific labs.  

Tracie Gibson, who directs the Lee SIP program says, “This is an inspiring program that will allow CNS to keep developing the next generation of scientist.” Chemistry alumnus William “Bill” A. Lee ’77, executive vice president of research at Gilead Sciences, whose generosity launched the program, understands the impact research can have on both students and society. “When Dr. Marvin Rausch asked me if I was interested in working in his lab over the summer, I had no idea of what to expect or how it would change my course in life. I thrived on the comradery with grad students and postdocs in the lab and for the first time, science left the textbook and became alive,” he says.  

Source: Environmental Conservation News