URI to host major undergraduate research conference at Ryan Center

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More than 80 students from the state’s public, private universities to participate

KINGSTON, R.I. — July 31, 2008 – Students from seven of Rhode Island’s universities and colleges will present findings from their biomedical and environmental science research at the 7th annual Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Conference on Monday, Aug. 4.

For the first time, programs being run by URI’s College of Pharmacy and College of the Environment and Life Sciences, with the support of major federal grants, are collaborating to showcase undergraduate research work at the University’s Ryan Center.

Student and faculty mentor teams from the following institutions will participate: University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, Community College of Rhode Island, Brown University, Providence College, Salve Regina University and Roger Williams University.

The posters will graphically depict the students’ research findings, and will be set up on the Ryan Center’s concourse. Free and open to the public, the first session runs from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and the second session runs from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Opening remarks begin at 9 a.m.

The undergraduate research program is a collaboration of two separate, but complementary, federal programs aimed at stimulating research capacity in Rhode Island. One federal program, IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), which focuses on biomedical research, is funded by $25 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, and is directed by Professor Zahir Shaikh at URI’s College Pharmacy.

The partnering program is the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). EPSCoR is a joint effort of the state’s 11 institutions of higher education, and is funded through a four-year, $6.75 million National Science Foundation grant. Jeff Seemann, dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences and Clyde Bryant of Brown University direct the program.

“This is the first year that the INBRE and EPSCoR programs at the pharmacy and life science colleges at URI have combined their capstone summer research conferences for undergraduates into one event,” Shaikh said. “Combining the program with EPSCoR has made it an even bigger event that now showcases multidisciplinary research training that students are receiving throughout the state.”

There is one more year of funding left for both of these programs. Shaikh and Seemann are working to renew the grants and extend their programs for five more years.

In addition to providing stipends to the undergraduate students for their summer work, the two grants have established core laboratories for work in pharmacology, molecular toxicology, genomics, proteomics and marine life sciences. The grants have also allowed the participating schools to enhance their scientific research capacity by hiring faculty and graduate students, purchasing equipment and running lecture programs.

David Rowley, associate professor of pharmacy and co-coordinator of the event, said each of the students is paid $3,500 for 10 weeks of research at each of the participating schools. “This gives undergraduate students at our colleges solid research experience that they can apply to a career or to graduate school,” he said. “The great thing about this program is each student is paired with a faculty member who directs him or her in their field of interest.”

This year, the students also toured the Pfizer pharmaceutical facility in Groton, Conn., Newport Biodiesel and the URI Plant Biotechnology Laboratory run by URI Professor Albert Kausch. Using videoconference technology purchased with funds from the pharmacy grants, research fellows at all of the participating schools were able to take part in a discussion on medical ethics, for example, without having to leave their campuses. Yet, they still get to participate real-time in a direct way.

“Through these grants we are able to conduct so much research and enhance our undergraduates,” Rowley said. “The goal is to prepare them for graduate school and to build our scientific workforce.”

Rowley said there is a secondary but also very important aspect of the grants. “They help us build faculty connections among all of the participating colleges and universities. In summary, the collaborative enterprise involving faculty and students is having a statewide impact.”

Dean Seemann agreed, “Engaging undergraduates in research is critical to enhancing their educational experience and for building the science, technology, engineering and math pipeline and long-term scientific and technological workforce development in the State of Rhode Island. Through programs like these, we are training the life scientists of tomorrow. The collaboration of INBRE and EPSCoR on this event is an important first step, and an indication of the great work that is to come.”