Summer undergraduates learn the ropes of research

Aug. 22, 2016

Determined to get summer research experience, Bufan Zhang, a rising senior at Vassar College, cold emailed chemistry faculty outside of her institution asking about open positions. One of the few replies came from Brad Carrow, an assistant professor of chemistry at Princeton University.

He encouraged her to apply to the department’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program for Diversity in Chemistry (SURP-DC). The nine-week program lets students from underrepresented groups at other undergraduate institutions conduct research full-time in a Princeton chemistry lab over the summer.

“The goal is to give the students an opportunity they wouldn’t have elsewhere,” said Susan VanderKam, a lecturer in the chemistry department and manager of diversity initiatives, who helms SURP-DC. The summer program is excellent due to the strength of the undergraduate research program that already exists for Princeton students, she said.

2016 SURP-DC students from left to right: Dr. Susan VanderKam; Cecilia Vollbrecht ‘17, Centre College; Bufan Zhang ‘17, Vassar College; Orestes Riera ‘17, Florida International College; Liat Kugelmass ‘18, Vassar College; Alejandro Ramirez ’18, transferring to University of California Berkeley from Rio Hondo College; Miah Turke ‘17, Michigan State University; Rachel Ashmore ‘17, Millersville University of Pennsylvania; Emily Cliff ‘17, Rippon College


VanderKam was tapped to create the program four years ago after Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber took office and made increasing and retaining diversity of the student population a top priority for the University. As part of this campus wide effort, VanderKam also does targeted recruiting, which involves attending underrepresented groups’ conferences and emailing students from underrepresented groups who have scored well on the GRE to encourage them to apply to Princeton’s chemistry program.

To design the program, she looked to a similar, successful summer research program in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton. After an online application process, selected students were offered a summer stipend and on-campus lodging, which is funded by the Office of the Provost. VanderKam matched students with research groups based on the students’ research interests and laboratory availability. For many of the accepted students, it was their first experience conducting research at a doctorate granting institution.

“I learned that while research can be very disappointing at times, it can also be very promising,” said Sylvia Hanna in an email, a rising senior at Rowan University who participated in the 2015 summer research program. “I also learned how influential a graduate student's principal investigator and lab environment actually are on their time at graduate school,” she said.

Cecilia Vollbrecht conducting research in the laboratory of Professor Brad CarrowSummer students had their own research project and were paired with a graduate student who trained them in laboratory technique and answered questions. Cecilia Vollbrecht, a SURP-DC student this year from Centre College, said she enjoyed the intellectual independence and ability to direct the course of the project.

In addition to working full-time in the lab, students met with VanderKam individually and as a group on a weekly basis. At the various group meetings, students presented their research, reviewed for the subject GRE tests, or listened to a presenter discuss their career and pathway after chemistry graduate school. VanderKam has brought in speakers from in industry, academia and alternative pathways such as business consulting in global health and patent law.

Liat Kugelmass working in the glovebox under the direction of Burroughs-Wellcome Fellow Dr. Buz Barstow“She’s like our summer mom,” said Liat Kugelmass, a summer student in this year’s program from Vassar College who conducted research with Buz Barstow, a Burroughs-Wellcome Fellow in the chemistry department. Kugelmass recalled an inorganic chemistry GRE review session led by VanderKam that stretched well beyond business hours, ending around 11 p.m. “She gives us all of her time.”

The students also went on a couple of field trips along with undergraduates from other summer research programs. A highlight was the visit to local fragrance company Firmenich, where they had the opportunity to have lunch with Firmenich scientists and tour the facilities, allowing them to see the real-life applications of chemistry. For Marlon Simms, a past SURP-DC student, this visit led to an internship at Firmenich that completed a requirement for his bachelor’s-master’s degree at the Massachusetts College of Pharmaceutical and Health Science.

“The most rewarding part is having them see opportunities that they didn’t even realize existed,” VanderKam said. “I help them make life decisions as well as science decisions.”

Pancakes and Posters: Undergraduate summer research poster sessionThe summer culminated in a poster session for SURP-DC students, students in other summer programs as well as Princeton undergraduates conducting summer research in chemistry. At the session, undergraduate researchers shared their research and a pancake breakfast with graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty from around the chemistry department.

This past summer SURP-DC had eight students: Liat Kugelmass ‘18, Vassar College; Alejandro Ramirez ’18, transferring to University of California Berkeley from Rio Hondo College; Cecilia Vollbrecht ‘17, Centre College; Orestes Riera ‘17, Florida International College; Emily Cliff ‘17, Rippon College; Rachel Ashmore ‘17, Millersville University of Pennsylvania; Miah Turke ‘17, Michigan State University; and Bufan Zhang ‘17, Vassar College.

Zhang took Carrow’s advice and was accepted into the program this past summer. She conducted research in Carrow’s lab and synthesized an extraordinarily bulky phosphine ligand in hopes of accessing enhanced catalysis. The summer program gave her a glimpse into graduate life, she said, and it confirmed her excitement for research. When asked if she might apply to graduate school for chemistry, she replied, “Might apply? No, I will apply.”