CALES summer program immerses community college students in science, research

Wednesday, September 1, 2021
Outside of the lab, the REU team went on field trips to explore the biological diversity of our region.

At the beginning of the summer, Montgomery Hodgin admits he knew almost nothing about soil erosion. Ten weeks later, after going through a new University of Arizona internship program, Hodgin was presenting high-level research on how microorganisms may help remedy desert soil problems.

“Looking into this was an eye-opening experience,” Hodgin said.

Hodgin was among 10 students chosen for the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) internship program, hosted by the University of Arizona College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences.

While REU internships, which get funding from the National Science Foundation, are not new, CALES put a twist on its 10-week program: It specifically recruited students from two-year community colleges, as well as focusing on microbiology.

“We needed to make it something unique,” said Patricia Stock, professor emeritus in the College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences. “So, we said we're going to have this focus more on the environment and the interactions and the microbes in the planet and make it for community college students, because there was no other REU based on that.”

Some of the students were local, such as Hodgin, who came to the program from Pima Community College. Others were from Texas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Hawaii. The federal grant gives each student a $5,400 stipend, on-campus housing, meals, and travel expenses.

The students had to have an interest in the sciences to apply, but there was no assumption they had done any significant research in community college.

That meant the first couple of weeks of the program were spent on laboratory basics, everything from using a pipette to conducting chemical extraction. Additionally, each student was paired with a collaborating principal investigator, or mentor, and placed in a faculty member’s lab.

The students searched literature and learned how to summarize data and develop a hypothesis. They received training on ethics, writing scientific papers, and giving oral presentations. And the CALES Career Center supported the students with presentations on career paths, resume writing, and interviewing.

By the end of the program, formally titled “Microbial Symbiosis and Diversity,” they had tackled and presented on such topics as bio-fertilizers for grape vines, how long salmonella survives in plant-based meat substitutes, small-molecule inhibitors that may reveal infections, and more.

Stock said hosting the program fulfilled a career goal. She first secured the National Science Foundation grant in 2019, but there wasn’t enough time to recruit students. Then the pandemic hit.

Even this summer, there were limitations – for instance, the grant generally supports 12 students, but CALES kept the program to10, based on university guidelines for group gatherings. Still, Stock was thrilled with the outcome.

“The program has major significance not only for CALES and UA, but for the field of microbiology,” Stock said.

Gayatri Vedantam, a professor in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences, was the co-principal investigator of the program this summer and will lead it in the coming years. She told the students, some of whom will transfer to UA, that the internship opens many possibilities.

“You are really our REU ambassadors,” Vedantam said before students presented their findings. “I suspect that all of you left with a different perspective on what research is and what it can be.”

Rosemary Brandt
Director, External Communications