UAMS Hosts Summer Undergraduate Research Program

By Nathan Tidwell

SURP Group Photo

Kya Carroll, Youssef Bahgat, Le Nguyen, Emili Elkins, and Gabriela Ramirez.Image by Bryan Clifton

SURP is a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)-funded effort in the UAMS Graduate School. The program, which ran from May 22-July 21, is aimed at increasing diversity in research and expanding research opportunities for underrepresented and disadvantaged undergraduate students.

“This program is designed to provide a great research experience,” said Billy Thomas, M.D., one of the program co-directors along with Robert E. McGehee Jr., Ph.D. “It’s to introduce them to someone who we hope can be a lifelong mentor and part of their professional experience.”

Latrina Prince, Ed.D., Graduate School associate dean for academic affairs and SURP coordinator, managed the application process. Requirements to apply include being a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, having two faculty letters of recommendation, and completion of at least one year of undergraduate study. Students also received a salary of $4,320 for the duration of the program.

Accepted students and their mentors were:

  • Salah Abdelnaem, University of Central Arkansas (mentor Lin-Xi Li, Ph.D.).
  • Youssef Bahgat, University of South Carolina (mentor Jia Liu, Ph.D.).
  • Kya Carroll, Hendrix College (mentor Angela Odle, Ph.D.).
    Muzala Kawatu

    Muzala Kawatu gives her final presentation.Image by Nathan Tidwell

  • Emili Elkins, Columbia University (mentor Giulia Baldini, M.D., Ph.D.).
  • Muzala Kawatu, Brown University (mentors Marius Nagalo, Ph.D., Mulu Tesfay, Ph.D.).
  • Le Nguyen, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (mentor Hiuliang Zhang, Ph.D.).
  • Paige Poindexter, University of Arkansas at Little Rock (mentor Craig Forrest, Ph.D.).
  • Gabriela Ramirez, Henderson State University (mentor Hiuliang Zhang, Ph.D.).
  • Ahmed Tolba, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (mentor Ryan Allen, Ph.D.).
  • Muhammad Zia, University of Central Arkansas (mentor Grover P. Miller, Ph.D.).

During the nine-week program, students spent between three and five days a week in labs with their mentors. Students also participated in seminars on subjects such as career progression, research ethics, networking and scientific writing conducted by UAMS faculty.

The students’ main focus was conducting a research project with guidance from their mentor and lab assistants. Students initially discussed the progress of their research during Mid-Summer Presentations on June 22 at the Rayford Auditorium in Biomedical Research Center II. Each student had 10 minutes to talk about their preliminary findings.

Ahmed Tolba

Ahmed Tolba discusses his research at the Mid-Summer Presentations.Image by Nathan Tidwell

“The students work with their mentors on the presentations,” Prince said.

“SURP exposes undergraduate students to cutting-edge biomedical research programs that are not typically available on their home campus,” said Lin-Xi Li, Ph.D., mentor for Abdelnaem. “The hands-on experiences help them to understand what everyday life is like in a research laboratory.”

“SURP provides mentoring opportunities for my graduate students and adds another dynamic to the lab,” added Li.

Thomas, who is a professor and neonatologist in the College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, talked about getting students into SURP and establishing a relationship with UAMS.

“We want to get out-of-state students, because it helps with the mix,” said Thomas. “We advertise through NHLBI, and students can see our summer program. We have a good retention rate — students feel supported and sense that people care about them personally and professionally.  It goes a long way.”

Three SURP students — Bahgat, Elkins, and Kawatu — attend school outside of Arkansas but have roots in the state.

“I am actually originally from Egypt, but my family moved to Arkansas when I was about 9 years old,” said Bahgat, who attended Little Rock Central High School. “I applied for SURP because I have always wanted to be a doctor, and I know that much research experience is required. Last summer I volunteered in a lab at UAMS, so I knew that if I applied and got in I would already be comfortable.”

Paige Poindexter

Paige Poindexter presents her research at Mid-Summer Presentations.Image by Nathan Tidwell

Elkins, from Mountain Home, has a direct connection to UAMS.

“I spent my high school years volunteering in the UAMS NICU,” Elkins said. “My father is an alumnus of the medical school and encouraged me to look into the program. I am highly interested in the study of Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis, so when I read about the research in Dr. Baldini’s lab I felt it was a great match.”

Kawatu, an Episcopal Collegiate graduate, had a plan in mind.

“I knew I wanted to do a summer research program in Little Rock,” she said.

For the students, SURP served its intended purpose.

“I thank UAMS for letting me be here to learn,” said Nguyen. “I appreciate Dr. Zhang and his instruction during these nine weeks.”

“I know I picked up a couple of different skills from this program that I didn’t have before,” Poindexter said. “I’m going into my junior year, and with some things this is my first time doing them.”

Zia, Abdelnaem

Muhammad Zia (left) and Salah Abdelnaem are University of Central Arkansas undergraduates.Image by Nathan Tidwell

“Dr. Allen and my lab mates have been outstanding,” said Tolba. “They have been amazing and I could not have done this research without them.”

“Dr. Miller has taught me so much over this summer,” Zia said.

Final Presentations were held at the Rayford Auditorium July 20, where students revealed the results of their project. All students are encouraged to continue their research by applying to the program for an additional summer. A total of 120 undergraduate students have participated in the program to date.