James Cole

James Cole worked in a neuroscience laboratory at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute as a part of the pilot neuroSURF program. The program, which places undergraduate students in working labs with scientific mentors, was recently awarded federal funding for the next five summers.

VTCRI summer undergraduate neuroscience research federally funded for five more years

A summer pilot program for undergraduate neuroscience research at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute proved so successful that National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, of the National Institutes of Health, has provided $500,000 of funding for another five years.

“We brought in 13 undergraduate students to spend two months working in the laboratories at the VTCRI and learn about the brain in health and in disease,” said Michael Fox, who directs the VTCRI Developmental and Translational Neurobiology Center. Fox started and directed the Neuroscience Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships, which he dubbed neuroSURF. “The students’ work culminated in a presentation on an independent research project and significantly more research experience than their counterparts.”

The program provides a stipend and housing for students who haven’t had the opportunity to conduct research before. The charter neuroSURF class had undergraduates from Virginia Tech, as well as Bridgewater University, Christopher Newport University, the College of William & Mary, Harvard University, Hollins University, the University of Virginia, and Virginia State University.

“Working in a laboratory and learning about neurobiological research has really motivated me to continue my scientific career in graduate school,” said James Cole, who worked in Fox’s laboratory during the summer. He’s originally from Roanoke, and is completing his undergraduate degree in neuroscience at the College of William & Mary. After graduation, he plans to earn a doctoral degree in neurobiology. “I highly recommend the neuroSURF program to anyone interested in pursuing research in neuroscience.”

The pilot program allowed Fox and his colleagues to see what the students appreciated and what could use improvement.

“VTCRI is uniquely suited to provide hands-on, independent research experience in an environment of transdisciplinary collaboration,” said Fox, who is also an associate professor of biological sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science. “With the pilot program under our belt, we are now tweaking our program to better provide students with unique professional development courses, seminars that highlight the world-class science at VT and Carilion, and mentoring from both faculty and graduate students.”

The grant provides $4,000 stipends to undergraduate fellows and additional funding for research supplies for up to 15 undergraduate students to participate in neuroSURF every summer through 2022. The VTCRI invested $67,000 to fund the initial pilot program, and will continue to support neuroSURF by providing housing to any undergraduate fellows that need it.

As part of the NIH funded program, a new addition to the neuroSURF program will be the inclusion of two local high school students from the Roanoke Valley Governors School. These students will receive a stipend and will participate in all aspects of the program.

“Nervous system research is one of the most promising endeavors of all science,” said Michael Friedlander, VTCRI’s founding executive director and Virginia Tech’s vice president for Health Sciences and Technology. “It is simply too important to be left solely to career neuroscientists or even postdoctoral fellows or graduate students who have been working on a particular problem for many years. Fresh new ideas and perspectives from undergraduates or even high school students are important and welcomed.”

Friedlander continued, calling the neuroSURF program a two-way street.

“The students receive mentoring while working at the frontiers of contemporary brain research and the faculty get to hear their ideas and perspectives. In neuroscience, you never know from where the next great idea may come—art, biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, engineering, math, or psychology,” Friedlander said. “This program is a wonderful opportunity for students from varied backgrounds who want to work right alongside innovative neuroscientists such as Dr. Fox and the many other VTCRI brain research faculty to advance our of understanding brain and mind.”

This initial introduction to the field is beneficial to both the students and the field as a whole, according to Friedlander and Fox.

“Our goal is to capture the attention of students early on in their academic careers, to help define their future path in science,” Fox said.

Applications for the program are due by February 1, 2018.