The Charger Blog

Immersive Program Enables Undergraduate Students to Design and Conduct Research Projects

More than a dozen students took part in the University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, conducting impactful faculty-mentored research, gaining hands-on experience, and presenting their work to the University community.

October 13, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

A lab scene with microscopes.
SURF enables undergraduate students to design and conduct their own research projects.

Hayat Khan ’25 dreams of becoming a doctor. As a chemistry major at the University of New 51, he’s already conducting critical research that, he hopes, will make an impact on the lives of cancer patients.

As a member of the University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, Khan spent part of his summer in the laboratory conducting his own research using state-of-the-art equipment. The program enabled him to work under the guidance of his mentor, Hao Sun, Ph.D.

Khan’s research focused on developing nanoparticles that would only target cancerous cells in a patient’s body. His hope was that this would help to minimize the side effects, such as hair loss, of current treatments – including chemotherapy – that kill both cancerous cells and healthy cells.

In the laboratory, Khan endeavored to develop polydopamine-coated glycogen nanoparticles. Glycogen, he explained, is nontoxic and biodegradable – therefore, he proposed it would be a safer alternative. His results were encouraging: Khan found that the synthetic development of this nanoparticle was, indeed, promising.

“The hope is that this would kill the cancerous cells and they wouldn’t grow again,” he explained while presenting his work to members of the University community. “This was a great opportunity for me. Using a photothermic camera was cool. Finding the right temperature to kill cancer cells was very exciting.”

Hayat Khan ’25 presents his findings to the University community.
Hayat Khan ’25 presents his findings to the University community.
‘A great experience’

Khan was one of more than a dozen students who took part in the University’s 2023 SURF program. They recently presented their projects to the University community. The program included students of a variety of majors who chose topics ranging from a study of TikTok’s online book community to the forensic examination of soils.

The immersive program enables Chargers to develop as researchers and scholars, designing and conducing their own projects and exploring all levels and aspects of the research process.

Those learning opportunities, says Lily Walsh ’24, are invaluable. She’d worked as a research assistant with her mentor, Amory Carr, Ph.D., for a year before beginning her SURF project. She was able to draw on the skills she’d already developed as a researcher while working on her project. SURF, she says, gave her the chance to develop the skills and confidence to be more independent with her research.

Hayat Khan ’25 (far right) in Dr. Hao Sun’s laboratory.
Hayat Khan ’25 (far right) in Dr. Hao Sun’s laboratory.

“I had experience with bits and pieces of the research process, but doing the whole project was so important,” explains Walsh, a psychology major. “I learned to adapt and be flexible.”

Walsh’s research focused on the role of family violence in childhood on criminal-thinking styles in adulthood. As she prepares to complete her degree at the end of the semester, she’s exploring research positions as well as advanced degree programs. She believes her SURF experience will open doors for her.

“Presenting my research was a great experience,” she said. “I’m grateful for the entire SURF program. It’s rare for undergraduates to get to do a full research experience, and I’m so glad I had that opportunity.”

‘These presentations were all on a professional level’

As part of their presentations, students discussed their research process, as well as their goals and objectives. They also shared the challenges they faced, and how they addressed them. They also explained their findings and discussed what they learned from taking part in the program. Some also said they were planning to publish their findings in academic journals, present their work at conferences, and continue their research.

“It’s clear these researchers are resilient and excellent at handling challenges,” said Judy Randi, Ed.D., director of the SURF program. “I’m very proud of them. These presentations were all on a professional level.”

Bryan Cadavos ’24 (center) with his faculty mentors Chong Qiu, Ph.D., and Shue Wang, Ph.D.
Bryan Cadavos ’24 (center) with his faculty mentors Chong Qiu, Ph.D., and Shue Wang, Ph.D.
‘A big impact on me’

The opportunity to conduct this research under the mentorship of faculty enabled students to have support while they learned how to navigate challenges, as well as the research process itself. That, says Bryan Cadavos ’24, a genetics and biotechnology major, was a critical component of SURF.

Cadavos worked with mentors, Chong Qui, Ph.D., and Shue Wang, Ph.D., as he examined the toxicity of methylamine (a derivative of ammonia) salts on mammalian cells. He says his mentors brought different backgrounds and perspectives – chemistry and biomedical, respectively – to the laboratory, which he appreciated.

While monitoring the cells, Cadavos saw the effect of methylamine salts after the first day. He saw how some cells grew and changed, and he noticed cell degradation. In many ways, what he found surprised him.

“That got me to where I experienced the ‘wow’ factor,” recalls Cadavos with a smile. “Working with my mentors was different from working in a lab as part of a class where there are other people. This was one-on-one, and I value that a lot because I work better that way. I learned so much from my mentors that will be applicable to my future.”

Hayat, the chemistry major whose research focused on improving cancer treatment, says SURF was a great start to his career in research and in medicine. It brought many new and exciting experiences for him that he’s looking forward to continuing to draw on.

“Considering how treatments for the heart are more advanced than cancer treatment, which still ravages patients, this was a great first experiment,” he said. “This was amazing. It will have a big impact on me before I become a doctor treating patients of my own.”