UMBC STEM BUILD Students Conduct and Present Authentic Research in Reimagined Summer Program

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By Sarah Hansen

Originally posted in UMBC News

The fifth cohort of students participating in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s STEM BUILD program had been looking forward to a summer wet lab experience. That wasn’t to be this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that didn’t stop the the 19 students of Cohort 5 and their instructors from working together to convert the Bioanalytical Phage Module—originally an eight-week, in-person program—into a successful online experience.

“It was different,” said Maria Cambraia, Ph.D., a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the STEM BUILD program and one of the program instructors. “But we kept the main goal. We wanted to offer them an authentic research experience, and we did.”

Independent exploration

This year, the BUILD Trainees worked in groups to analyze the genomes of bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacterial cells. They also viewed and analyzed phages that previous UMBC students had isolated, including some that were unknown to science before the students discovered them. After some initial analysis, each group came up with its own research question to explore using bioinformatics tools.

Steven Caruso, Ph.D., principal lecturer of biological sciences.

“Students gain exposure to research techniques in the Bioanalytical Phage Module, but the larger benefit is their experience in self-directed research without predefined results,” said  principal lecturer of biological sciences Steven Caruso, Ph.D., “Because participants are engaging in real research, the experience is different every year.”

Caruso has been teaching the Phage Hunters lab to UMBC students since 2008 and adapted the full-length course for STEM BUILD five years ago. “This experience prepares them for their next step, working with an individual mentor in their own lab,” Caruso said. “It also allows them additional opportunity for productive collaboration with their peers, and for scientific communication during lab meetings and poster presentations.”   

Feedback for success

At the end of the eight weeks, the students presented their findings at UMBC’s virtual Summer Undergraduate Research Fest (SURF). The VoiceThread platform allowed students to give and receive feedback in written, audio, and video format. In particular, the incoming cohort of BUILD Trainees commented extensively on Cohort 5’s presentations, helping them form relationships with their peers and get a sense for the undergraduate research experience at UMBC.

“Leading up to SURF we practiced using VoiceThread and got tons of helpful feedback from our instructors,” shared Caroline Moore, a biological sciences major in STEM BUILD. Even though the online format made some things more difficult, she said that “having such a supportive cohort and instructors helped me push through and end up creating an amazing presentation.”

In addition to practicing with the VoiceThread platform, students presented updates on their work every week throughout the summer and got support with designing their posters. 

screenshot of student Angela Kim's presentation titled Correlation Between the Minor Trail Proteins of Bacteriophages and the Host
Angela Kim (offset) presents her research during UMBC's virtual Summer Undergraduate
Research Fest (SURF).

“Dr. Cambraia gave detailed feedback, which allowed us to develop skills for creating the abstracts and poster,” shared Angela Kim, a chemical engineering major.

“We needed to teach them not just how to present, but instead, ‘This is how you present, and this is how you make it effective online,’” Cambraia said.

The students also received helpful feedback at SURF itself. “The questions our group received made me think about what can be improved in our research and gave me some ideas for future research as well,” Kim said. Biological sciences major Sharath Velliyamattam added, “I learned from this experience to give visual cues, how to engage my audience, and I learned to interact with different types of audience members, from faculty to students.”

A new field and new confidence

The Bioanalytical Phage Module introduced many of the students to bioinformatics—and bioinformatics tools—for the first time. 

“The online bioinformatic work with our phage genomes was really interesting,” said biological sciences major Kevin Gibbons. “I never thought I’d be interested in computational or bioinformatic work, but I feel like I gained a lot of skills that will be helpful no matter what type of research I do in the future.”

For chemical engineering major Grace Tugado, the experience sparked a powerful interest in phages. “Whenever I went out with my family on hikes, I brought up phages and what we learned in lecture,” Tugado said.

In addition to collaborating with their groups, the fifth cohort had the opportunity to interact with students from previous cohorts. Cambraia, who led the Introduction to Research Badge portion of the summer course, left the online space for a meeting between cohorts, only to tune back in more than an hour later for her office hours and find the students still talking excitedly about their experiences.

Velliyamattam, a rising sophomore whose first exposure to hands-on research was through this program, said that through that exchange, “we really got a behind-the-scenes view of undergraduate research at UMBC.” 

Throughout the summer, the students also became part of it.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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