By Dan Bodene, contributing writer
Seven Oakland University undergraduates are learning this summer about what it’s really like in the world of “bench research,” working hand-in-hand with faculty and clinicians in OU’s Eye Research Institute (ERI).
And it’s not like television, where there’s an “a-ha moment” within each hour-long episode.
Kenneth Mitton, Ph.D., faculty coordinator of ERI’s Summer Undergraduate Program in Eye Research (SUPER), said students’ work entails real-world experience in the valuable but sometimes-tedious work of expanding knowledge about the human eye.
“They’re doing research and lab work driven by questions that haven’t been answered, doing things that haven’t been done before,” he said. “And it might be a couple of years before what they’re working on will get to the point of a paper or even a graph within a paper.”
SUPER students this summer include David Byrd, Dan Feldmann, Amaal Haimout, Charlotte Massoll, Joseph Vercellone, Adrianne Wallace and Alexandra Zetye. Each received a $3,500 fellowship to work on an independent project within ERI’s labs.
SUPER, as a formal program, was inaugurated in 2000, although summer research in the ERI has been done for more than 30 years, said Dr. Mitton, who became coordinator of SUPER in 2002. To date, more than 150 students have been through ERI’s summer programs. But it isn’t easy to get in.
“We average from five to seven students each summer,” Dr. Mitton said. “This spring, there were 25 applicants. Each one submitted a transcript, a faculty reference and a one-page personal statement, and we interviewed 12 applicants to determine who would become part of the program.”
In the 12-week program, each SUPER student is matched with a laboratory and a faculty mentor, based on their research interest. Students have regular one-on-one meetings with mentors, as well as with other ERI faculty, postdoctoral fellows, research associates and staff.
Students also attend lectures each Tuesday afternoon conducted by ERI researchers and clinical faculty from William Beaumont Hospital. This summer’s lectures included “Ocular Development, Tissues and Functions,” by Dr. Mitton; “Ganglion-cell Photo-receptors” by Dr. Dao-Qui Zhang; and “Clinical Treatment of Retinal Disease” by Dr. Kimberly Drenser.
Most SUPER students are in pre-med or pre-optometry programs, Dr. Mitton said, and the lab experience they get in OU’s program is invaluable when they apply to medical schools. “They not only find the research experience helpful, but they can also get reference letters from professors they’ve spent countless hours working with, and who are very familiar with them.”
Because of the program’s rigor, Dr. Mitton said SUPER graduates have a high rate of success in continuing their education. One recent grad, Wojciech Gryc, recently received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Michigan Medical School, while three years ago, graduate Danielle Doyle was awarded a similar scholarship to Wayne State University’s School of Medicine.
“Some students really know what they want to do, and those are the kind of students we tend to get here in the SUPER program,” said Dr. Mitton. “Our basic science students are also very successful in obtaining spots in graduate programs around the country, in neuroscience, human genetics and stem-cell research.”
For more information about SUPER, visit the website
. More information on OU’s Eye Research Institute is available on the ERI website