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Upstate SURF Program opens doors for aspiring scientists

As summer unfolds, ambitious undergraduate students across Upstate New York are seizing the chance to delve into the captivating realm of scientific research through the 10-week Upstate Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program (SURF) program, which ends Aug. 11

This year, 20 participants, selected from about 120 applicants, are spending the summer in Upstate’s laboratories, taking part in research projects with real-world implications. Their experiences have not only provided them with invaluable exposure to advanced lab techniques but have also sparked a newfound passion for research, leading them to consider pursuing a combined MD/PhD or a Ph.D. degree. With a focus on demystifying the journey to graduate school, students gain a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted nature of a research career.

Dabar Zarzuela will start his senior year at Syracuse University this fall, where he’s studying biology. This summer, Zarzuela can be found in Upstate labs studying the RNA polymerase I subunit POLR1D and its isoforms, and its biological relevance in fruit flies. This experience has opened him up to the possibility of pursuing an MD/PhD degree. “At first, I was strictly MD, but now I’m leveraging my options because I do like the research aspect of this work,” he said.

Daniela Santacruz, heading into her senior year at Le Moyne is working in Patricia Kane, PhD’s lab studying aging and V-ATPase enzyme activity. Santacruz has gone from observing her mentor, a PhD candidate, to performing lab work herself. With plans already to apply to Syracuse University for a master's degree in biomedical forensic science, she’s gaining insight into what life in research would be like. 

“Everyone in the lab is working on their separate projects; it’s so cool to hear them talk about their work. It’s just like, ‘oh my gosh there’s so much that goes into it,’ but that’s the beauty of science."

Not only do they gain hands-on lab experience, but they learn about all aspects of a career in research. Between mentorships, journal clubs, and panels where they can ask people who have been through the PhD process, it can help demystify the process. 

“That’s the whole goal of this program,” explains Bruce Knutson, PhD, and the SURF program director. “There’s a lot of small liberal arts colleges that don’t have a lot of tier 1 research going on, so this allows aspiring PhD’s to experience it first-hand versus just jumping right into it and then being shocked their first year of grad school.”

It’s an experience Knutson can relate to. “I went to a small state college where I only had access to small research experiences,” he said. “I would have valued this type of experience; it would have made the decision to jump right into grad school less worrisome.”

What would current SURF students say to those considering applying to the program? “Definitely keep your mind open because you never know what you really want to do until you experience it,” Zarzuela said. “Learn as much as you can, and ask a lot of questions, even if you think they are silly,” adds Daniela.

The Upstate SURF program is available to undergraduate students in good academic standing, who will be between their junior and senior years and are majors in chemistry, biology, or a related field. Applicants must have a strong interest in pursuing a Ph.D. degree in biomedical research. To learn more, visit https://www.upstate.edu/grad/programs/summer.php

Caption: The 2023 SURF program participants, and the program's director, Bruce Knutson, PhD.