Students gain research experience and career skills through summer program.
By John C. Stevenson, '90
Car shoppers are known to “kick the tires” before buying a car. But imagine if you could test drive a career path before making a critical career decision. Twelve USC Upstate science students received such a chance over the summer through the Er(UP)t program.
Coleman Walker, a senior majoring in chemistry, is one of the students. Walker learned about the Er(UP)t program – a part of the S.C. IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (SC INBRE) – through his USC Upstate advisor, Alaina Gunn.
“She knew (graduate school) was one of my career options that I was heavily leaning toward, so she thought it would be a good experience, not only to have on my resume, but also give me lab experience that would show me a little bit of what graduate school would entail,” Walker says.
Walker says it was especially helpful that Er(UP)t provides participating students with a stipend during the eight-week summer program.
“Working in the lab was a great experience; being able to be financially compensated while also doing the research was one of the big perks of the program,” he says. “In terms of day-to-day operations and what we did in the lab – the assignments and working with Dr. (Joshua) Ruppel and the other professors – it was just an overall great experience.”
Walker says that, because of the stipend, he was able to be involved in full-time research at the university rather than work the two summer jobs he had lined up. Without the promised stipend, “it would have been a much harder decision to make,” he adds.
All participants in the program were eligible to receive a stipend, according to Ruppel, a professor of chemistry at USC Upstate and the Er(UP)t program director.
“It was set up in an hourly system, and every student who completed the program would be paid,” Ruppel explains.
The 12 participants were chosen from among 42 applicants. “We felt like it was a pretty good competition,” Ruppel says of the application process. “Of course, we’d love to be able to fund all 42, but there’s just not enough money there.”
At least partially because of his involvement in Er(UP)t, Walker says he is currently applying to several graduate school programs. “It was a pretty heavily defining moment,” Walker says of his summer experience.
Another student who took part in the program is Gaerielle Nagorite, a junior who worked with Anselm Omoike, associate professor of chemistry, on a project to remove allergens from two varieties of peanuts.
“I wasn’t expecting to be chosen by Dr. Omoike, considering I’m a biology major, and he mostly does things with environmental chemistry,” Nagorite recounts. “But I was really happy to be part of his group.”
Nagorite says, “Going into the program, I didn’t really know much. Because of COVID-19, we hadn’t been to the labs. My classes had been virtual, and the labs as well. So I was very new to the environment. But I started getting comfortable. At first, it was Dr. Omoike guiding us in the program, but afterward, it was mostly me and my research partner being independent.”
Because of her experiences, Nagorite says she has decided to change her major, from biology to chemistry, and is now leaning toward a career in conservation biology.
The students weren’t the only ones who benefited from Er(UP)t. Ruppel said the program helped foster a sense of community among all the participants. Besides the research, faculty would meet with students once a week, sometimes more, “to work with the students on some of the career-readiness things, doing activities not just one-on-one, but in a group setting as well, to help build the community aspect of it,” he notes.
“So students could see their peers also doing the same thing. They could work together and learn together, and also the faculty could start communicating and collaborating and building their own networks as well.” Ruppel said research can be an isolating experience, and “we wanted to break down those silos.”
Another benefit, according to Ruppel, is to “build that research capacity in that pipeline that is going from (primarily) undergraduate institutions like USC Upstate into graduate programs, into industry, into professional schools, and just increase the capacity for the whole state to do biomedical research and biomedical science.”
SC INBRE is an $18.2 million renewable grant funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Grant funds are administered through the University of South Carolina and support biomedical research throughout South Carolina at SC INBRE’s network institutions and outreach institutions, including USC Upstate.