NSURP 2020 #NoLabNoProblem

An often overlooked aspect of this pandemic is the unfortunate loss of unique opportunities for young scientists to cultivate a deeper love for science, develop new skills, connect with (inter)national mentors, grow their professional networks, and open doors to new opportunities. University labs, companies and other institutions normally organize summer projects to enrich young researchers’ learning.

“NSURP is a community-driven initiative to create rewarding remote summer research opportunities for BIPOC undergraduate students in the microbial sciences.”

However, due to COVID-19, most summer programs were cancelled and the impact of these disruptions are especially profound on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students. The National Summer Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP) is a grassroots project started by a team of microbiologists (Dr. Michael D. L. Johnson, Dr. David A. Baltrus and Dr. Jennifer Gardy) who recognize the importance of summer research experiences and who want to support BIPOC students in finding their love of science in those projects. NSURP is designed to:

  1. Matchmake BIPOC undergraduate students on a (inter)national level to microbiology laboratory mentors who can provide a remote summer research project experience.
  2. Provide a BIPOC science and professional development seminar series for those students.
  3. Provide a platform for the matched students to present their research online in an official capacity.

Total matched NSURP students in the summer of 2020

I had the incredible opportunity to be matched with two amazing students (Vanessa and Gabriel). We first had an introductory meeting about the research done at the Lebeerlab, my PhD and their interests. The next step was to work out a feasible summer project in which they could flourish, learn about a different side of microbiology and be free to incorporate their own intake. A big thanks to our post-doc Irina Spacova is here at place for helping out with the framework of the projects and the co-supervision 😊.

Both students chose to work on a literature review about two entirely different subjects (cfr. testimonies of students below). We planned a Skype meeting every week to discuss the subject, their progress and generally just talk about our lives and the academic world. A funny anecdote is that we only had a few overlapping hours as our time zones were very different (Eastern Standard Time versus Central European Time) but we made it work. Next, we even organized a virtual “Welcome to our lab”-tour (inspired by MTV cribs) where I showed them around our lab with the occasional meet & greet with a lab member.

Granted, the remote guidance was challenging but over the course of a few months, I can fondly say that I am genuinely proud of the way they worked out their projects; the in-depth knowledge they generated; and the critical scientific attitude they built. At the end both, Vanessa and Gabriel, finished an excellent mini-review and presented their work gracefully for prof. Sarah Lebeer. I am wishing them a bright future and the very best for all their new ventures. Hope to see you both soon in real-life 😊.

A big thanks goes out to the organizing committee of NSURP. I truly appreciate all the effort and organization that went into making this possible.

Testimony NSURP students

Check out their presentations and abstracts

Name: Vanessa Ibrahim
Affiliation: Harvard College
Title project: Microbial fingerprinting of trace evidence in forensic research with a focus on sexual assault cases

“This summer I had the amazing opportunity to work under Sarah and learn more about her work with the Isala project. More specifically, my project was to conduct a literature review on the human microbiome and its potential in forensic casework, particularly in cases of sexual assault. Through the process of researching for and writing this literature review, I was able to take away a lot of key concepts including how prevalent cases of sexual assault are worldwide, how next-generation sequencing has paved the way for the field of microbial forensics, and how body-fluid identification using microbial fingerprinting could be a valuable tool in the prosecution of sexual assaults. Special thanks to prof. dr. Sarah Lebeer, dr. Irina Spacova, and Sarah Ahannach for all of their guidance over the last few months!”

Name: Gabriel Aborisade
Affiliation: University of Maryland
Title project: When a commensal becomes a pathogen: the role of microbe-microbe interactions with GBS as a model organism

“I participated in NSURP because I wanted to gain more experience writing literature reviews related to microbial research.  I also aimed to organize my research thoughts and transfer skills accrued for future use, such as graduate programs and fellowships/grants applications.

During the program, I completed a guided literature review titled “When a commensal becomes a pathogen: the role of microbe-microbe interactions with group B Streptococcus as a model organism.” I thoroughly enjoyed the experience; though it was daunting at times due to my workload outside the program, I persevered and pulled through due to my mentor, Sarah, incessantly following up and encouraging me. Constructive feedbacks I received were also quite helpful. I got to see where I stood in terms of writing a quality academic paper. I was also able to practice my time management skills and use my persistence and work ethic.

I was quite happy with my progression throughout the NSURP program. I got to see myself grow in knowledge and skill. For instance, at the beginning of the project, I found it difficult briskly going through a journal and deducing the main point and deciding if it would be useful for my project or not but over the weeks, I got better at that by day. I also got better at utilizing my primary resources: my mentor, Sarah, google scholar, and my university’s online library database.

Practically, the project provided me something different in terms of doing research. My undergraduate research experiences mostly focused on doing bench lab work and field sampling, but this was the first time I spent so much time on the internet digging for journals relevant to my research topic. Furthermore, I felt my participation also made me a more exciting candidate for my graduate school applications. Though not 100% in line with my graduate school focus, my review topic was intriguing, and faculty members I conversed with listened with interest, asked questions, and picked more interest in me. 

I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity. After further reflection, I realize that this experience has built on my molded interest in microbial research and asserts my desire to pursue an academic career. This experience may seem to be only valuable academically, but I find it incredibly valuable personally.”