​​​​​Not Your Average Summer Job

Purdue students develop research skills under guidance of renowned scientists

A decade ago, Purdue University launched the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to give undergraduates hands-on laboratory experience.

Students in agriculture, engineering, science and technology are paired with faculty and graduate student mentors and work on real-world problems. During the 11-week hands-on program, they become familiar with the tools used in scientific discovery, attend professional development seminars and prepare a presentation for a symposium attended by all SURF students.

Participating faculty say the experience helps prepare students who plan to enter graduate or professional programs and helps others decide if research is the field for them.

Meet a few of the College of Agriculture’s SURF participants, and hear about their research experiences.

Jessica Gabbard
Photo by Tom Campbell
Biochemistry major Jessica Gabbard researches the role of DNA replication in the maintenance of chromatin, the combination of DNA and proteins that make up the contents of the nucleus of a cell.

Jessica Gabbard - Biochemistry

By Amanda Gee

Jessica Gabbard, a junior studying biochemistry, knows the importance of asking good questions. By asking questions and showing interest in associate professor of biochemistry Ann Kirchmaier’s research project, this Fort Wayne, Ind., native was able to gain a position in her lab.

The lab’s research focuses on epigenetic processes, which cause changes in how genes are expressed, and how regulation of epigenetic modifications can influence cellular processes. The lab also examines the role of DNA replication in the maintenance of chromatin, the combination of DNA and proteins that form the contents of the nucleus of a cell.

Gabbard’s research, a continuation of her work during the past two semesters, looks at mutations in histone protein modifications, which combine with other assembly factors to make chromatin during DNA replication and repair.

“This summer is a continuation—we’ve been trying to identify mutations in yeast that lead to chromosome missegregation,” Gabbard says.

She enjoys the hands-on experience in the lab, and came across information about SURF when making her summer plans. Since Gabbard and Kirchmaier already had a working relationship, the transition to the summer program went smoothly.

“She’s got the right elements to become a successful and productive scientist in that she’s bright and driven, and inherently likes what she’s doing,” Kirchmaier says of Gabbard. “She has a natural knack for this and needs the opportunity to develop; SURF gives her more time at the bench.”

Gabbard says the SURF program provides much more time in the lab, because she’s not also handling a full class load and a part-time job.

“I like the fact that I’m learning a lot of new things this summer,” Gabbard says. “I worked on one thing for a whole semester, but now I’m already adding new areas to focus on in my research.”

Colleen Hartel
Photo by Tom Campbell
Colleen Hartel studies people’s attitudes toward wildlife conservation. She is holding a model of the eastern hellbender, an endangered giant salamander found in southern Indiana.

Colleen Hartel - Wildlife

By Hannah Harper

Growing up watching Animal Planet and visiting the Brookfield Zoo, senior Colleen Hartel was set to study animal science at Purdue University, with dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Her dreams changed, however, when she realized she couldn’t handle the sight of blood. Still wanting to pursue a career that involved animals, the Darien, Ill., native switched her major to wildlife and never looked back.

This spring, Linda Prokopy, associate professor of natural resource social science, guest-lectured about the human dimension of wildlife protection in one of Hartel’s classes. Hartel approached Prokopy about doing research in her lab and learned that she could do her own research project through SURF, with Prokopy as mentor.

“I’ve done research before, but I did genetics research where I sat in a lab, and I did a lot of technician work. So I think this is a really great way for me to do a test run of graduate school,” Hartel says.

Through the SURF program, Hartel is responsible for the entire research process, from inception to analysis. She meets with Prokopy periodically to discuss her research on conservation-related attitudes of people living in the Blue River Watershed toward the box turtle and the perception of fear they associate with this reptile. The mentor and mentee have a successful professional relationship, and both enjoy working together.

“I see her as a role model,” Hartel says of Prokopy. “I think she’s accomplished a lot; I only hope to accomplish as much as she has in my professional career.”

For motivated students like Hartel, Prokopy says undergraduate research is a great testing ground for potential graduate school candidates. The SURF program provides a precise format for undergraduate research, which gives Hartel a valuable experience.

“The nice thing about doing research for the SURF program is it looks really good on her resume that she’s a SURF fellow; it’s not just a lab assistant doing research in a lab,” says Prokopy. “There’s a poster and oral presentation session at the end of program, which is a really nice thing that ends the summer, whereas if she was just doing research for us, there wouldn’t be that culminating experience.”

Arvind Raghothama
Photo by Tom Campbell
Arvind Raghothama, a food science major, investigates a dietary fiber found in various legumes to determine its potential nutritional value. He hopes to help solve nutritional problems in developing countries.

Arvind Raghothama - Food Science

By Hannah Harper

A summer job working in Bruce Hamaker’s food science lab at Purdue University led then high school sophomore Arvind Raghothama to develop an interest in food chemistry and research. When looking for a summer research opportunity, Raghothama once again turned to Bruce Hamaker, director of the Whistler Center for Carbohydrate Research, and asked if he could work in his lab, this time as a SURF participant.

Raghothama’s research involves determining the abundance of the polysaccharide arabanogalactan, a dietary fiber that helps break down food in the colon, in various legumes to determine its potential nutritional value. He works daily with a lab technician and frequently with a graduate student. Raghothama meets with Hamaker weekly to discuss the science behind the research.

“One thing I really liked is when I first came into lab, they just sat me down, and they ran me through the entire project,” says Raghothama. “That gave me a clear picture of where I fit into the project.”

Hamaker says his mentee already has a firm grasp on working in a research environment, but hopes he can continue to build of the skills he already has.

“I’d like to see him think about research in a different way,” he says. Hamaker hopes Raghothama can learn how the data he collects fits into the “big picture” of the larger research project to provide meaningful results.

An aspiring entrepreneur, Raghothama hopes to one day start a non-profit organization to combat global hunger. He says his food science major and research experience will give him background knowledge of sustainable foods, which could solve nutritional problems in developing countries. The research opportunity will also help him decide if he will continue on to graduate school.

“This is a great opportunity for me to really experience what graduate students would do, because I am independently working in a research lab,” Raghothama says. “I really like the fact that I’m pretty much working on an ongoing project, something that might have a really great impact on the research that we’re doing.”

To Hamaker, research opportunities like the SURF program allow students to learn how to deal with problems, a skill Raghothama will need to achieve his future career goals.

“The scientific research method is a way of trying to answer a problem with a systematic sort of approach,” Hamaker says. “I think it has value beyond the findings you get in a laboratory.”

Cole Wunderlich
Photo by Tom Campbell
Cole Wunderlich, a dual major in biochemistry and biological engineering, searches for ways to genetically modify plants to produce biofuels. Wunderlich thought he would have to wait until graduate school to have this type of research experience.

Cole Wunderlich - Biochemistry and Biological Engineering

By Amanda Gee

A self-professed biochemist at heart, Cole Wunderlich of Portage, Mich., enjoys solving problems. One of the problems he’s most interested in is consumer dependency on oil.

“I’m interested in biofuels,” Wunderlich says. “We’re too dependent on fossil fuels, and we need a viable alternative.”

Wunderlich, a dual biochemistry and biological engineering major, thought he’d have to earn a Ph.D. before exploring that problem—but now he’s working on it just two years into his undergraduate studies at Purdue University.

“It’s surreal,” he says.

This summer, Wunderlich worked under Clint Chapple, distinguished professor of biochemistry, on a way to genetically modify plants to produce fuel, He was developing a technique to detect all of the specialized metabolites derived from phenylalanine—an amino acid—in plants.

“For me, it’s ‘work’ that’s not really work,” he says. “Mapping out the pathway will be a key tool used to modify plants.”

Earlier this year, Wunderlich was looking for a lab to work in when he read about Chapple’s grant from the Department of Energy to develop a new biofuel process.

He remembers thinking, “I’ve dreamed of one day working on this research. But they’re doing it now, and they’re doing it at Purdue.”

Wunderlich approached Chapple to learn more about the research. The two had an informal meeting, at the end of which Chapple offered Wunderlich a research position through SURF.

“It’s been a humbling experience. I don’t know why he brought me on, but I’m glad he did,” Wunderlich says.

Chapple says Wunderlich showed a very genuine interest in the research.

“Research experience is important so that students can apply their classroom learning in a realistic laboratory context,” Chapple says. “Without question, it helps them solidify that knowledge and extend it beyond what can be covered in the classroom.”

“It’s been a really incredible opportunity to work in his lab,” Wunderlich says. “I’m doing useful research that will help solve the world’s fuel problem.”