This summer, eleven Bryant students made discoveries across a variety of fields— including biology, chemistry, psychology, and neuropsychology—over the course of 10 weeks of intensive research. Led by Professor of Biomedical and Biological Sciences Christopher Reid, Ph.D.; Assistant Professor of Psychology, Kristin Scaplen, Ph.D.; and Assistant Professor of Biological and Biomedical Sciences Steven Weicksel, Ph.D., the undergraduates gained knowledge with applications to areas ranging from addiction to cancer research and helped the scientific community understand the world around us a little better.
But for the Bryant students, there were rewards far beyond the data collected. Their research, made possible by the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, organized jointly by RI NSF EPSCoR/RI C-AIM and RI-INBRE, and a National Science Foundation award, allowed them to familiarize themselves with complex lab and field equipment, gain important hands-on experience with the research process, develop professional relationships with faculty mentors and their fellow researchers, and obtain invaluable insights that will help them build rewarding futures.
“My senior year in high school, I could never have seen myself doing this,” says Alex Spitznagle ’25, who spent the summer studying the effects of microplastics on living organisms. “But Bryant was the perfect environment. I was able to work one-on-one with my professor and build my lab skills, my confidence, and my presenting skills. I’ve learned so much about what I was working on and now I want to share that with everyone.”
Through their experimentation, the lab’s student investigators saw their coursework come to life. “My time in the lab has definitely helped me to appreciate what I'm learning in the classroom even more,” says Jett Duvall ’24, who has worked in Professor Reid’s lab for the past two summers. “With the research we’re conducting, you get to see the real-world application of your lessons and you want to learn even more.”
Spitznagle was excited to use professional equipment such as a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and familiarize himself with procedures like high-performance liquid chromatography. "You have the chance to actually work with the tools you might be using in the future and you're developing the critical thinking skills to interpret the data they give you and turn it into something meaningful," he states.
“One of the things I try to drive home for the students is that we might be the only people in the world that know about a particular piece of data we’ve found.”
Engaging in actual research also gives the students a better understanding of their field and what it actually means to be a scientist. "This is definitely a different sort of learning than you do in class, or even in a teaching lab where everything is laid out for you,” says Joey Leszczynski ’23, who is planning to pursue a career in public health. “This research help you understand, from the ground up, how science actually happens—the hard work that goes into it, the trial and error, and the discipline it takes."
Professor Reid, whose student researchers are funded primarily through a National Science Foundation grant, notes that the practical experience they gain through SURF prepares them for both graduate school and a wide range of careers in a variety of fields, pointing to successful alumni in medicine, academia, and research. “This is high level work,” he states. “The research these students are doing would largely be done by grad students at other schools.” Over the years, 12 of his own student researchers have been credited as co-authors in articles published in scientific journals. Two are listed as inventors on patents that have resulted from their research.
The thrill of discovery
“Sometimes, there’s a sense that everything has been done in science, and that’s not true at all,” Reid points out. “One of the things I try to drive home for the students is that we might be the only people in the world that know about a particular piece of data we’ve found.”
“In our labs, it's not like, ‘if we follow this procedure exactly, we already know that we’re going to get ‘x’ as an answer,’” says Reid. “For some of these projects, I emphasize to the students ‘we're going to do this, and I have no idea what the outcome is going to be. But we’ll figure it out and then we'll go from there.’”
“This is a chance to study life and all of the amazing, unexpected things that are part of it. It almost feels like I’m studying magic."
That first time they experience that moment of discovery is a lightbulb moment for students, says Professor Scaplen, who recently secured a grant from the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (RI-INBRE) to continue her research into how how the brain, or circuits within the brain, encode rewarding memories and direct motivated behaviors. “It's a great opportunity to recognize that there is a lot of unknowns in science and that people are actively working on these very difficult but very relevant questions,” she says. “And the students also discover that contributing to that body of knowledge can be really exciting."
“We might not discover all of the answers, but everything we do contributes to the field and helps to advance it, even if it’s just a little bit,” notes Taryn Rauff ’22, who worked on better understanding the neural mechanisms underlying maladaptive reward memories related to alcohol abuse.
Acadia Joniec ’24 used her fellowship to examine the mechanics of genetic expression. “This is a chance to study life and all of the amazing, unexpected things that are part of it,” she states. “It almost feels like I’m studying magic.”
The SURF fellowships can be a formative experience for the students. "An opportunity like this helps you to build the skills and experience you need for your career, but it also helps you understand what you like and what you don't like, and what you want to do going forward so you can build a more direct path for yourself,” Rauff says.
"It's really exciting to see what our mentors are doing and to have this opportunity to work so closely with them in the field. When I talk to my fellow students at other schools, they're not getting that same opportunity."
The students researchers develop a range of professional skills that will help them in whatever career they choose. Chief among them is collaboration. “Research involves a lot of collaborative work, whether you’re a scientist, a doctor or in any other field,” reflects Ramsa Gul ’25, who found that working with her fellow researchers was one of the most rewarding parts of her fellowship. “So an opportunity like this is a great time to start early and to learn how to become a better team member.”
In addition to the professional development workshops made available through the SURF program, Bryant’s professors also work with the students on finding post-grad opportunities and developing their path forward. "Beyond the research they do, their time in the lab is important because it helps inform their next step,” says Professor Weicksel. “Hopefully, 15 years down the road, they can look back on this experience and see it as an important part of their process on wherever path to success they’ve found."
Learning from the best
One of the best parts of the program, the students say, is the relationships they build with their professors. "It's really exciting to see what our mentors are doing and to have this opportunity to work so closely with them in the field,” says Gul. “When I talk to my fellow students at other schools, they're not getting that same opportunity."
"Professor Scaplen is a great mentor,” she adds. “She encourages us, but she also pushes us to do our best work. And instead of always giving us the answers, she lets us figure it out ourselves."
"A conference like SURS shows you that you can be a part of the big, wide world of science."
For Joniec, who conducted research with Professor Weicksel, SURF was a great way to reinforce, one-on-one, the science concepts she’s learning. "When Dr. Weicksel would be explaining process to us, all of a sudden something would click and I'd understand something we'd talked about in a completely different way," she notes.
The collaborative environment can help inspire confidence in the student researchers and prepare them to take initiative. "I'm learning so much from Professor Reid but we're also very much collaborating,” states Duvall. “He respects my opinions, and we talk about the future steps we might take. We're discovering these things together."
Sharing what you’ve learned
The SURF Fellowship experience culminates with the annual Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium (SURS), which allows undergraduate students from around the state to present their summer research findings to the larger scientific community. More than 140 projects were presented at the event, and the symposium drew an estimated 400 faculty members, students, and administrators from Rhode Island colleges and universities.
When Joniec was invited to last year's conference by Jillian Syliva ’24, another of Weickel’s researchers, she found an opportunity she could not pass up. "A conference like SURS shows you that you can be a part of the big, wide world of science," Joniec notes. "When I was walking around and talking with the other students about their research I realized, ‘I want to be part this.’” That exposure led her to join Professor Weicksel’s lab and now she’s able to share her own results and be part of the conversation.
"For many of the students, they don't even realize how much they've learned until they begin to put their presentations together,” Weicksel notes. “The SURS conference gives them an opportunity to share the expertise they've gained and the sense of pride and accomplishment they feel is really rewarding."
“While this is a formal culmination of your summer program, it is the beginning of much more. You now have new interests, questions, and hypotheses to explore.”
The conference also helps spark new ideas. “This is an amazing chance for the students to explore,” says Scaplen. “A conference like SURS is an opportunity to see the breadth of options in science. By having conversations with their peers and professionals beyond their usual network, they can discover new areas they’re interested in.”
This year, Bryant Provost and Chief Academic Officer Rupendra Paliwal, Ph.D., delivered opening remarks at the symposium and praised the students for the work they had done. “Undergraduate research is one of the highest forms of learning—in developing curiosity, the love of learning and the ability to think critically, to analyze what you encounter and come to a logical, fact-based conclusion,” he stated.
But Paliwal also noted that the students’ research experience would be a steppingstone for even bigger things as well. “While this is a formal culmination of your summer program, it is the beginning of much more,” he observed. “You now have new interests, questions, and hypotheses to explore.”