Colorado State University, NSF Celebrate 20 Years of Unique Undergraduate Summer Research Experience This Summer

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Some of the brightest scientific young minds around the nation are finding summer employment in research laboratories at Colorado State University thanks to CSU Professor Paul Laybourn.

For 20 years, CSU has received funding from the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program to offer 10-12 underrepresented minority undergraduate students a unique research experience. CSU began receiving funding in 1992; Laybourn, a biochemistry professor who is director of the program at CSU, recently received $300,000 to continue it another three years.

The summer internships provide students with a stipend and room and board. Instead of working in a job outside their major, they conduct research at CSU in laboratories in the departments of Biochemistry and Biology in the College of Natural Sciences; Biomedical Sciences, Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology and Environmental Health and Radiological Health Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; and Animal Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Students also build a sense of community with team-building exercises at CSU’s ropes course, rafting trips on the Poudre River and hiking in Pingree Park, the university’s mountain campus.

“It’s to provide a means for them to make enough money over the summer without having to get a job flipping burgers,” Laybourn said. “This is their job for the summer and that’s particularly important for minority students, a key target group. An even greater issue in science than funding is the severe underrepresentation of minorities in science.

“The idea is to engage students in scientific research, get them excited about it and keep them in research as opposed to just practicing medicine. NSF offers this program because many of these students haven’t been exposed to basic scientific research and laboratory experiences as a career option.”

The program only enrolls 10 to 12 students each summer. Hundreds apply from all over the country, Laybourn said. One particularly popular aspect of the program is introducing the students to alumni who are now professors and Ph.D. scientists in their own right.

“While I was at CSU, I was working under a senior Ph.D. student. The laboratory was quite large; I had access to state-of-the-art equipment and I was contributing to a large and important scientific program,” said Aaron Stephan, who went on to get his doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins. He’s now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California-San Diego.

“Although I didn’t research the same topic in graduate school, the basic biochemical techniques I learned during my (research experience) were essential in my Ph.D. research,” Stephan said. “Even more importantly, my laboratory helped me to learn scientific literature and analyze data, they gave me feedback on my writing and they devoted an entire lab meeting so that I could present and we could discuss my work that summer.”

Undergraduate research is critical to keeping students such as Stephan in science, Laybourn said.

“It has been shown in the literature that research is a key part of retaining students in science, but it’s also a key aspect of education,” Laybourn said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that CSU offers over a four-year college career that may include 30 students in a general biology class – we can provide a research experience that’s at the cutting edge.”