First-year research is hands-on from the start

With the Penn Freshmen Exposure to Research in Biological Science program, students from communities that are underrepresented in STEM can jump-start their scientific careers with mentoring and opportunities to pursue original research.

Freshman Daniel Ruiz de Castilla had never done research prior to coming to Penn this past fall. Now he’s assisting with a project that involves the careful synthesis of complex molecules called porphyrin dendrimers, entailing a detailed, stepwise process that can take months. The compounds could eventually find application in detecting pH changes in human tissue.

Student Amy Fernandez in a lab
Amy Fernandez, a first-year student from Woodbridge, New Jersey, is one of 26 students to participate in the first year of the Freshman Exposure to Research in Biological Sciences program. She has been studying evolution in Paul Sniegowski’s biology lab at Penn. (Image: Courtesy of PennFERBS)

“One of the reasons I wanted to go to Penn was because everyone is doing something interesting and exciting,” says Ruiz de Castilla, who is from Baltimore and has been working in Sergei Vinogradov’s laboratory in the Perelman School of Medicine. “For a lot of science kids, that something is research.”

Thanks to the Penn Freshmen Exposure to Research in Biological Science (PennFERBS) program, Ruiz de Castilla got an early start on his own “something.” He is part of an inaugural cohort of 26 students who got involved in research labs within a few short months of beginning their undergraduate careers.

With the ultimate goal of relieving racial and ethnic inequities in the scientific, medical, and technological communities, PennFERBS was launched last summer in a collaborative effort between program director Mechthild Pohlschröder of the School of Arts & Sciences, Kristen Lynch of the Perelman School of Medicine, Keisha Johnson of the Pre-Freshmen Program (PFP), Pamela Edwards of the Penn College Achievement Program (PennCAP), and Bruce Lenthall from the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The program focuses on promoting students from groups underrepresented in STEM, enhancing peer social support, and training students to take on leadership roles.

“Penn has been actively working to get students into labs really early on; that’s the motivation behind the PURM program,” says Pohlschröder, referring to the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program. “That’s a fantastic opportunity after your first year to provide students with an exciting authentic research experience; however, it also potentially is too late to retain some students, who may decide during that year that they want to leave STEM.”

Even the most exceptional students from underserved communities have often not received adequate exposure, if any, to scientific research during high school. PennFERBS focuses on connecting these students with jobs in research labs and appropriate mentors to instill them with the skills and confidence needed to succeed in STEM fields.

Linking resources

PFP, a component of Penn First Plus, offers students from communities that are underrepresented in STEM or academia or who may be the first in their family to attend college a special introduction to college: a four-week on-campus program the summer before their freshman year. The program allows students to choose academic tracks, including one in biology, but previously there was no formal structure in place to facilitate faculty members to recruit participating students into their labs.

Recognizing this need, last summer, Lynch, a faculty member in Penn Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, reached out to Pohlschröder for help doing just that. Lynch’s inquiry jumpstarted Pohlschröder to begin brainstorming with the current collaborators an initiative that would more strategically create this pipeline. She was also inspired by the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It is an initiative with a track record of success that provides students with comprehensive support, including mentoring and research opportunities, with a goal of increasing the number of traditionally underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.

“We realized that the core elements that make the Meyerhoff Program so successful, already existed on our campus.” Pohlschröder says. “We just needed to bring them together.”

As PennFERBS took shape, it worked with labs in the Department of Biology and the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics that agreed to welcome students into their research groups. The initiative also leaned on programs that were already in place, including PFP, Penn First Plus, and PennCAP, all aimed at supporting students through the transition to college, as well as the CTL, to provide mentorship training. The efforts of administrative staffers Anne Pugh from the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and Joshua Darfler from the Department of Biology were also key in helping the program launch successfully.

“I think of these programs like an ecosystem, a complex interconnected network,” says Johnson, director of PFP. “The beautiful thing is that we had many of these relationships in place already, so we were able to be very intentional about how FERBS could serve students, teaching them the analytical skills they’ll need for research but also some of the soft skills as well.”

Building a network

Biology graduate student Wil Prall had already been helping students in the PFP program build these skills as a mentor during the summer PFP session, continuing supporting them informally throughout the school year. When he heard about the plans for the PennFERBS program, he knew he wanted to be involved.

“One of the most difficult things for some students is to get into a lab, especially if you don’t have any kind of network or connection to build on,” Prall says. “I thought this opportunity was incredible, to be able to give students the activation energy and encouragement they need to get involved in research early on, which I think is super important.”

In addition to his graduate work in the lab of biology professor Brian Gregory, Prall now serves as PennFERBS Mentorship Fellow, holding bimonthly meetings with participants as a larger group, as well as additional one-on-one check-ins.

Student Arsam Shaikh in a greenhouse
Spending time in the Penn greenhouse for his plant research, first-year Arsam Shaikh has been working in biology professor Corlett Wood’s lab as part of his FERBS experience. (Image: Courtesy of PennFERBS)

“We have had sessions focused on accessing primary literature, applying for scholarships, and presenting scientific material,” Prall says. PennFERBS has also hosted panel discussions with established scientists from populations underrepresented in STEM.

As part of their application for FERBS, students indicated which areas of science they were most interested in and, where possible, were placed in labs with a focus that aligned with those inclinations. In addition to having the resource of the faculty member in charge of the lab, they were also assigned a mentor, a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow in the lab who would be their regular point of contact and teach them the ins and outs of how the lab’s work is done. Since the mentors are such a key component of PennFERBS, they are asked to attend special workshops and seminars lead by the CTL, where they receive training in effective mentorship.

Prall encouraged first-year student Sekia Phillips to apply to FERBS, after he got to know her when she participated in the biology track of the PFP. Phillips, from Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, was interested in neuroscience and earned a position in James Shorter’s lab in the Perelman School of Medicine, with postdoc April Darling as her mentor. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Phillips hasn’t yet spent time in the lab itself, but she meets each Monday with the entire lab and each Friday with Darling.

“This experience is one of my big motivations for pushing through coursework,” Phillips says. “Even today in lab, we were talking about RNA primers and mutations, and I was like, ‘I know that because we’re talking about that in 101!’ Neuroscience is something I’m passionate about so getting to talk about all the details and learning how things work intrigues me.”

Amy Fernandez, another first-year student who was selected to participate in FERBS, has likewise found herself drawing connections between her coursework and her work in the lab of biology professor Paul Sniegowski, who is also the Stephen A. Levin Family Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Though she started her lab work in a virtual mode, she’s now spending five to seven hours a week there in person, contributing to research on the microevolution of yeast.

“At first it was intimidating but Dr. Ben Sprung, the postdoc I work with, is so great. He’s very patient,” says Fernandez, who’s from Woodbridge, New Jersey. “I’ve learned so many techniques. I’ve extracted yeast DNA, I’ve started strains, I’ve run PCRs and gel electrophoresis assays.

“I feel like lab for me is a safe haven,” she says. “If I’m having a bad week, I can go in there and submerge myself in the science, and it brings me out of it.”

A sustainable start

With expanded summer support for students through Student Registration and Financial Services, Fernandez will continue working in the Sniegowski lab through the summer and into the fall, gaining solid experience that she hopes will continue to launch her to eventually earning a M.D./Ph.D. dual degree.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve said that when I grow up I want to be a doctor,” she says. “Now I’m a step closer to actually being able to achieve that.”

Already, Johnson has seen a difference in the participants. “It may be too early to say it’s causation, but what I am seeing is more students applying for internships, for research opportunities, using Career Services; there is a confidence being built,” she says. “These programs—Penn FERBS, PennCAP, Penn First Plus—they are helping students, especially first-generation students, to foster a positive-growth mindset.”

As the PennFERBS team wraps up the pilot year, they are looking to establish their position as a permanent fixture at Penn and continue to build upon what they accomplished during their first year, perhaps also extending aspects of the program into the students’ sophomore year. “In addition to connecting students with research labs, by having the students take on mentorship responsibilities in their second years serves as a step toward assuming future leadership roles,” Pohlschröder says.

For her part, Phillips is already envisioning how to pass along the lessons she’s learned from FERBS as a peer mentor in this upcoming summer’s PFP. “High school and college are two-way different things,” she says. “I want to be a person who the incoming freshmen can talk to about that transition.”

And as the program continues, Pohlschröder is certain that the whole research community can benefit, at Penn and beyond. “In lieu of the current crisis in public health, the importance of programs such as this takes on even greater urgency,” she says. “By increasing representation in the biomedical workforce, we can take a crucial step toward eliminating the racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare made so readily apparent by our flawed response to COVID-19.”