• Article
  • Jul 21 2021

Summer Research Experience at UK Inspires Undergraduates

UK undergraduate Hollie Clifton is gaining hands-on research experience in the lab in UK's STEPS summer research program.

Each summer, the University of Kentucky College of Medicine hosts an intensive, graduate-level research program that sets undergraduates aspiring to become health care providers and scientists on a path to success. 

The Summer Training in Environmental Health and Pharmacological Sciences (STEPS) program was launched five years ago by UK faculty trustee and pharmacology and nutritional sciences Professor Hollie Swanson, Ph.D., as a way to further incorporate her passion for mentorship into her role at UK.

“After nearly 20 years as a researcher, I came to a career crossroads and thought about going down a different path,” Swanson said. “But then I considered what I was most proud of over the past two decades and it’s the students I have mentored along the way. Helping them start their careers and watching them go on to do incredible things.”

Now every summer, in addition to her research and teaching roles at UK, Swanson gives back by directing STEPS, which gives undergraduate students hands-on research experience, career coaching and mentorship. 

Swanson secured federal funding for two groups of students within STEPS: the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), supported by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics and catered toward students interested in a career in basic research and related health care disciplines, and the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience In Environmental Health Sciences (SURES), supported by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and geared toward students interested in careers in that field. Both programs are 10 weeks long and offer a stipend.

Together, STEPS comprises nearly 20 students from diverse backgrounds across the U.S. and Kentucky. This year, more than half of the participants come from UK or other universities in Kentucky.

While it is a nationally recognized program that welcomes students from universities across the country, STEPS is also focused on serving Kentuckians, particularly students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, Swanson says.

“Undergraduate research has been shown to play a role in encouraging students to pursue careers in science and health care, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Swanson said. “I really want to help those students in Kentucky who might not otherwise get this type of opportunity. It can open doors for them.” 

At the beginning of the summer, each student is matched with a UK faculty mentor based on their interests and career goals. Then, they work full time in their assigned mentor’s lab for the duration of the program.

Due to the multidisciplinary nature of environmental health sciences and pharmacology, this includes faculty from a wide variety of departments and colleges at UK. Many mentors are also part of UK’s NIEHS-funded Superfund Research Center and the Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES).

UK neuroscience major Hollie Clifton was paired with Analia Loria, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences. Clifton says contributing to Loria’s research program, which focuses on how early life stress impacts brain and cardiovascular health, is helping to prepare her to apply to medical school next summer. 

“If you plan to go to medical school, it is progressively becoming more and more important to get research experience in the lab as an undergraduate,” said Clifton. “This summer I’m getting an immersive experience that I’d never be able to have in a fall or spring semester and it has helped me grow so much as a student researcher.” 

While students spend a majority of their time in the lab, they continue to meet in peer groups throughout the summer where they learn about lab safety, responsible research, career planning and oral communication. 

This summer, UK biology major Obadah Tolaymat is working in the lab of Kevin Pearson, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences and leader of the UK-CARES Career Development Program. Tolaymat, who is also preparing to go on to medical school, says what he has learned from guest speakers and mentors in the program is helping him pave his own professional path.

“Hearing from current M.D.s and Ph.D.s about their own unique career journeys has been really eye-opening,” Tolaymat said. “As undergraduates, it’s helpful to see that there are many, many paths to take through research and even if you intend to go into clinical practice, you can still participate in research in a lot of ways.”

At the end of the program, Clifton, Tolaymat and the rest of the STEPS cohort will prepare a poster that describes their research projects and present them to faculty and staff in the involved departments.  

Through participating, students gain confidence and a greater understanding of the nature of scientific research and learn how to work independently and discuss scientific concepts — skills that will benefit them no matter what career path they take, Swanson says.  

After five years, Swanson says she’s now beginning to see previous STEPS students in medical and graduate school or beginning careers in scientific research. 

“It’s so rewarding to see what they go on to do,” Swanson said. “And it’s also kind of fun. If I’m giving a lecture to a hundred medical students and look among the sea of faces, I always get some waves.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R25ES027684. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.