Honors summer research program benefits students and faculty

Matthew Helton wants to talk to long-term HIV survivors nationwide. This summer, he collected stories in four cities beyond Richmond. 

Each summer, the Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program offers Honors students an opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty mentor. From investigating supportive social networks to exploring the role of planar cell polarity pathway in axon pathfinding, research projects give these select students hands-on experience together with a mentor’s guidance. Participants attend professional development seminars and workshops addressing topics such as strategies for increasing success in applying to graduate school, participating in undergraduate research conferences and publishing research. They also enjoy social events together.

The nine-week program includes research opportunities in a broad range of disciplines. This summer, some students used HSURP to continue research projects or mentor relationships that were already in progress. Thanks to the HSURP stipend, rather than live in university housing Matthew Helton traveled to four cities across the U.S. to conduct in-depth oral history interviews with long-term survivors of HIV. His oral history project under the supervision of VCU Globe’s Dr. Rachel Gable aims to add to the literature detailing the history of the emergence of the disease and its impact on LGBTQ+ communities.

Student with research poster

“Through this endeavor, Matthew is gaining invaluable research skills and learning more about the impact that oral historians can make in advocating for policy solutions to address inequities in our healthcare system,” Gable noted. Helton added that working on his research through HSURP gives him the freedom to fully explore his interest area with the support of university faculty.

“I will continue to work on the project I have started this summer for years to come,” Helton said, “and I will be forever thankful that HSURP gave me the platform to start this research that I feel so fiercely passionate about.” Current long-term HIV survivors can offer invaluable lessons for public health policymakers to shape future projects targeting the support and well-being of this growing population, he noted.

Allison Johnson, assistant director of VCU’s Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, is mentoring Nasita Islam in the discovery of bacteriophages from James River rock pools, which she noted is a perfect way for a student to expand up on the work of the research-based course she teaches freshmen during the academic year. “Nasita was able to quickly move from student to expert in the level of her work. She has done a phenomenal job finalizing our data for submission and publication, and in piloting a project for this coming year,” Johnson said.

Biomedical engineering professor Seth Weinberg sought an HSURP student after a successful first experience last summer: that student continued to work in Weinberg’s lab on research that led to the student’s first author publication. This summer, Michelle Nguyen is working on modeling the effects of heart rate variability on electromechanical coupling. Computational models are a valuable and widely used tool for understanding disease and predicting the efficacy of new potential therapies. The focus of Nguyen and Weinberg’s project is to model and understand how variability in heart rate drives changes in electrical activity, intracellular calcium, and their interactions in heart cells and tissue.

“The work builds off the skill set that she learned in an introductory computational methods course that I teach, so she was ready to begin her project from the first day,” Weinberg explained. “I will definitely invite her to continue working in the lab next year and, if the project is continuing, next summer as well.”  

Bernard Means, director of VCU’s Virtual Curation Laboratory, likes working with Honors summer researchers “as they are often either not in my discipline (anthropology) or have a different focus that allows them to bring a fresh perspective to the work that we do in the Virtual Curation Laboratory,” he explained. The lab works with archaeological, historical and paleontological material, so can accommodate a wide range of students in the arts, humanities and sciences. This summer, English major Lydia Gyurina “brings a writer's perspective to how we communicate,” Means added.

Student Michelle Veliz Vargas applied to participate in HSURP because she wanted to gain her first research experience. As a newcomer to the field, her project with mentor Tiffany Green, “Perceived Discrimination and Obesity/Overweight among Hispanic Immigrants,” completely changed her understanding of how a research study takes place. “Going into the program, my idea of research was more about wet lab experiments and simply collecting data,” she recalled. “Now I know more about the process behind getting a study approved by the IRB and the planning that goes into being able to go out into the field and collect data.”

Veliz Vargas also noted that HSURP allowed her to develop both research skills and skills that she can apply to academics and professional development, such as academic writing skills. In addition, she become invested in her project. “I want to know what the results show,” she said. Veliz Vargas plans to continue to work with Dr. Green, who has helped her gain an interest in the research done in the field of health disparities. “She has also given me a lot of valuable career and life advice, so I now consider her an important part of my mentor group,” Veliz Vargas added.

Chemistry professor Maryanne Collinson finds that Honors students “bring fresh ideas and thoughts to our projects and they have time to devote to research in the summer.” This year, Ravi Shankar researched nanoporous sensors for environmental and biomedical applications.

“Our projects involve a lot of wet chemistry and don't necessarily require expensive, time consuming instrumentation to accomplish a task or collect data,” Collinson explained. “I have been very fortunate to have worked with some great HSURP undergraduates over the past 12 years,” she added. “I look forward to continuing for another 12 years (or more).”