Hooked on research
Summer program lures promising undergrads to biomedical sciences
Examining SPUR under the microscope
The Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) began in 1983 at The Medical College of Wisconsin to encourage talented science majors to pursue their interest in biomedical research. It is a 10-week hands-on laboratory experience for approximately 35-50 undergraduate students (depending on available funding) during the summer. Each student is paired with an established faculty member who has secured competitive federal research support. The student and faculty member select a research project and complete it over the 10-week period.
SPUR is administered by the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and has three goals:
1) To increase the number of PhD graduates in biomedical sciences and bioengineering available to meet the research and development needs of industry, government and academia;
2) To offer talented undergraduate science majors an opportunity to experience the excitement of biomedical research;
3) To encourage participating students to consider The Medical College of Wisconsin and its Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences when applying to PhD programs in science.
The recruitment process for SPUR is very competitive. College sophomores and juniors with a background in science and an interest in graduate school are eligible to apply. Between 225 and 275 students with a grade point average of 3.2 or higher apply each year.
Applications are reviewed based on academic records, personal statements, letters of recommendation and official school transcripts.
Applicants choose, in order of preference, three Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences programs in which they are interested in working for the summer. Individual faculty members review the preferences and credentials of the applicants and then select the applicant best suited for their laboratory. These faculty members in the following areas volunteer their time to mentor and teach the students: Biochemistry; Bioinformatics; Biophysics; Biostatistics; Cell Biology, Neurobiology & Anatomy; Microbiology & Molecular Genetics; Neurosciences; Pharmacology & Toxicology; Physiology; clinical departments, especially pediatrics.
SPUR is believed to be the only program of its kind in southeastern Wisconsin that provides hands-on research opportunities to college students over summer break.
Convincing talented, scientific-minded students to choose biomedical science as a career is a challenge that impacts the success of business and industry as well as the future of university research. The Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) is one way The Medical College of Wisconsin is addressing this challenge. SPUR stimulates interest in science and helps students experience first-hand the excitement and intellectual lure of scientific research. The program is an incubator for tomorrow’s biomedical research and development talent.
“The 10-week intensive exposure to research while enrolled in SPUR provides students an excellent opportunity to evaluate whether their interests and talents are compatible with a career in biomedical research,” said Bert Forster, PhD, Professor of Physiology and longtime director of SPUR.
For a past SPUR participant to name their undergraduate summer of research at the Medical College as a pivotal moment in their career path is not unusual. Many SPUR students will say their experience with the program is how they got hooked on a life of biomedical research. SPUR also helps some discover that The Medical College of Wisconsin is the perfect fit for their career aspirations.
“Moreover, SPUR provides our faculty an opportunity to evaluate first hand the research capability of a pool of students and, therefore, render wise choices for recruitment into our PhD programs,” Dr. Forster said.
Student research idea hatched
Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, PhD ’04, (SPUR student in 1996)
Take Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, PhD ’04. In 1996, she was working on her undergraduate degree at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., where she attended a presentation on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) given by a Medical College of Wisconsin faculty member. The presentation sparked an idea in her about using fMRI to see the brain processes associated with odor and human pheromone perception. Not long after, while on a group tour of the Medical College campus, she approached several professors about her research idea. As a result, she met Edgar (Ted) DeYoe, PhD, Professor of Radiology, who recommended she apply for SPUR.
“In the short 10 weeks of the program, we built a pheromone and odorant delivery device for the scanner and were able to see regions of olfactory cortex that were sensitive to odorants,” said Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis.
After her SPUR experience, Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis applied to the College’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences “specifically to continue working in Ted DeYoe’s lab and continue in the exciting field of neuroimaging research, studying visual attention in the human brain,” she said.
Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis went on to a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she was an investigator in a study that included scientific dialogs with the Dalai Lama about how meditation affects the brain. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow continuing her research on emotion regulation, social cognition, attention and meditation in the Center for Advanced Imaging at West Virginia University.
Not all SPUR students come to the program with their research ideas mapped out. Nevertheless, they thrive. Once Julie Wenninger, PhD ’03, realized physiology was her passion, one of her professors at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse referred her to the Medical College and Dr. Forster. As a SPUR participant in Dr. Forster’s lab in 1996, she studied the effect of carotid body denervation on breathing in awake piglets.
“SPUR was my first experience in biomedical research and was the primary reason I chose to pursue a career in research,” Dr. Wenninger said. “I enjoyed the experience in the Forster lab so much that MCW’s physiology program was the only one I seriously considered when applying to graduate schools.”
She is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and plans to continue her biomedical research career in human physiology.
At the forefront of pharma
Some SPUR participants, like Annette Dahly-Vernon, PhD ’05, are following the pharmaceutical and biotechnology career path. In the summer of 1998, she worked in the lab of Ikuko Masuda, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Rheumatology), studying an enzyme that plays a critical role in the development of many forms of rheumatism.
As a SPUR student, Dr. Dahly-Vernon was impressed by how well-equipped the labs were and that the students had access to that equipment. The Medical College researchers who were willing to devote their time to helping young scientists learn new techniques also impressed her. It is a quality that she appreciated even more when she became a graduate student at the College and once again experienced the time commitment required by everyone in the lab.
Dr. Dahly-Vernon was awarded the prestigious Goldblatt Award from the American Heart Association in 2005 for her research on high blood pressure. Today, she is Senior Study Director at PhysioGenix, a Wauwatosa-based company founded by Medical College faculty members. She works with clients in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to provide preclinical research services for diabetes, behavioral and cardiovascular diseases.
“With the evolution of many large companies licensing compounds instead of developing them in-house, I believe the future will be filled with many start-up companies looking for in-vivo scientists and directors to help guide them to the more defined clinical studies,” said Dr. Dahly-Vernon. She credits her training in SPUR and at the College with preparing her for the future of pharma and biotech.
Testing the waters
Michael Wendt, PhD, ’08, (SPUR student in 1998)
For some students, like Michael Wendt, PhD, ’08, SPUR can help tip the scale when considering going to medical school.
Before attending SPUR (and before he was Dr. Wendt), he volunteered at an emergency room near his hometown. His hospital experience combined with his experience as a SPUR student helped validate his decision to become a biomedical scientist instead of a physician.
In the summer of 1998, he worked in the lab of Michael Dwinell, PhD, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, where he studied proteins in blood vessels of patients with inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
“I interviewed with other medical colleges, and my experience as a SPUR student made it easier to compare schools, none of which were as good a fit for me as The Medical College of Wisconsin,” Dr. Wendt said.
As a graduate student, he continued working in the lab of Dr. Dwinell where he was credited with discovering a link between the expression of the protein CXCL12 and the progression of cells from normal to cancerous. He received an Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in 2008.
Currently, Dr. Wendt is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Denver, Anschutz Medical Campus.
Two at a time
Melissa Agoudemos, MD ’04, PhD ’02, (SPUR student 1995)
As her undergraduate studies were nearing an end, Melissa Agoudemos, MD ’04, PhD ’02, could not decide whether she wanted to apply to graduate schools or medical schools. To help her decide, she attended SPUR in 1995 where she studied cardiovascular physiology, specifically the effects of shear stress on the lining of blood vessels.
“SPUR gave me the opportunity to find out that I enjoyed research, and it also allowed me to meet students in the MCW Medical Scientist Training Program,” she said. “Those experiences were the basis of my decision to seek acceptance into a combined MD/PhD program.”
Dr. Agoudemos earned her PhD in the same laboratory in which she studied during SPUR – the lab of Andrew Greene, PhD, Professor and Director of the Biotechnology and Bioengineering Center – and her MD two years later as part of the College’s Medical Scientist Training Program.
She is now a fellow in pediatric cardiology at the University of Iowa studying the long-term changes of the cardiovascular system in infants of diabetic mothers. After her fellowship, she plans to find a position as an academic pediatric cardiologist.
Adding to the toolbox
For some students, SPUR isn’t strictly a research endeavor. It is an opportunity to enhance their clinical careers. Katie Krause, PhD ’08, is now working toward her MD at The Medical College of Wisconsin. As an undergrad and as a SPUR participant, she decided to pursue a career in medicine, and her experience at the Medical College underscored the importance of translational research.
Katie Krause, PhD ’08, (SPUR student in 2002)
She spent her 2002 SPUR weeks in the lab of Dr. Forster. There she studied the development of CO2 sensitivity in different strains of neonatal rats and how the differences may be a genetic influence on the expression of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
“My biomedical training solidified the importance of having the ability to translate bench research into bedside practice,” Dr. Krause said.
Her fascination with the human brain and the challenge of surgery has led her to pursue a residency in neurosurgery.
Jason Kurian, MD ’01
, saw SPUR as an opportunity to make his medical school application stand out. He attended SPUR in 1996 and studied the molecular pathways involved in the process of coronary artery disease under the guidance of William Campbell, PhD, Professor and Chairman of Pharmacology and Toxicology.
“I would recommend to anyone interested in med school or grad school, to get started as early as possible,” Dr. Kurian said. “My early lab experience helped me develop an understanding of how the basic science, that is the foundation for medical knowledge, comes to be understood and described. It gave me an appreciation for what goes into publishing scientific research.”
Kurian is practicing orthopaedic surgery in Portland, Ore., a specialty he regards as “a natural fit given my outside interest in endurance sports.”
“Having the basic tools I learned in SPUR gave me a base from which to build in doing my own projects,” he said, recalling his days during residency and fellowship when publishing research was expected.
Dr. Kurian is currently conducting clinical research tracking outcomes of both anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstructions and rotator cuff repairs.