Students take a break from research at North Carolina Central University.


Summer Leadership and Research Program continues to deliver

Back in 2008, NCSSM held its first-ever Summer Leadership and Research Program on the NCSSM-Durham campus. The program was created to help NCSSM’s incoming underrepresented minority students – a demographic which historically had pursued fewer research opportunities and leadership positions at NCSSM than their peers – become acclimated to NCSSM’s academic and social environment, sharpen their leadership skills, and explore the many research pathways available to them at NCSSM.

Fourteen years later, the program is still going strong. Nearly 60 students chose to participate in the one-week Summer 2022 residential program. Almost two-thirds of those young people are incoming Durham students, a dozen are part of Morganton’s inaugural class, and eight hail from NCSSM’s Online program. Hosting these students during the day for research experiences were mentors from North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, Duke University, and RTI International, an independent, nonprofit institute in the Research Triangle Park that provides research, development, and technical services for clients around the world. 

“Exposure to the sciences of botany, toxicology, and marine biology opened my eyes to how, in some way or another, everything relies on everything else to survive,” says incoming NCSSM junior Maria Foust of her work at Duke. “Before the Summer Leadership and Research Program, I focused on a humanities-related career, but after a week of working with professionals in STEM fields, I decided to act upon my passion for ocean clean-up. I have never been in a more productive or task-driven group environment. I loved every second of it!”

It’s designed as a tremendous introduction to the research and leadership opportunities that await these students through NCSSM, says Dr. Jamie Lathan, NCSSM’s Vice Chancellor for Extended Learning.

“These students are brilliant,” he says. “All the students who come here are brilliant, but this program, specifically, says, ‘Hey, here are some opportunities in STEM research that you may or may not be attracted to; you may find your niche here, you may not, but we want to at least give you that exposure.’ And so they are in a lab, they’re working with professors, they’re working with grad students in the lab, and they get a chance to see. Having participated in the SLRP program, they can say ‘Oh, I know what that’s like, so I will apply for the research mentorship program here at the school.’”

Productive and task-driven

Under the supervision of undergraduate researchers, this year’s SLRP students working at Duke got to participate in hands-on team research projects that explored the connections among human, animal, and environmental health. Students also engaged in career readiness activities such as a group tour of a Duke research laboratory, a panel discussion with Duke undergraduates, and an expert scientist lecture.

“The NCSSM students in the SLRP program who came to Duke are incredible,” said Dr. Jason Somarelli, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at Duke University, and one of several local mentors hosting incoming NCSSM students during the day. “The training they underwent in our program was no small task. They worked extremely hard to create solutions to complex problems, thinking through the pitfalls and limitations of their approaches, considering alternatives, and creating plans for scalability and accounting for equity and social justice issues. We can’t wait to see what these outstanding future leaders go on to accomplish in their lives and careers.”

SLRP students work hard at Duke University.

Wider global implications

Jayden Spruill ’24 was part of a team of SLRP students that conducted microbiology research on different types of bean sprouts through North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). “It really made me look forward to research at NCSSM,” he said, “all because of the science and environment that I did research in.”

Such research is an important part of helping students understand that the work carried out in CALS has far wider global implications than just on farming alone, said LaTosha Bradley, the Departmental Programs Administration Manager for CALS’ Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“We need to make sure that student communities unfamiliar with CALS are made aware that medical doctors are not the only scientists that affect human health. Food security and safety, plant and animal well being and production, and biotechnology and engineering – are also key elements of how our world prospers.” 

SLRP researchers at NCSU look the part.

Dream come true

Students working at North Carolina Central University engaged in research in the fields of organic, polymer, and analytical chemistry. At the end they presented the results of their work to each other and to the faculty members who were participating through a mini-symposium.

Cindy Rubio Malo ’24 spent her time at NCCU researching a more cost-effective and accurate way for diabetics to monitor their glucose levels and administer insulin.

“My experience at NCCU was like a dream come true,” said Malo. “Where I come from, I would have never had the opportunity to do what I did during this week. I came in unsure of how my future would be planned and what my path would be. It sounds cliche, but that all changed when I first measured out some water with a pipette. I loved it immediately, and at that moment I told myself, ‘I want a future in chemistry and I want to become a researcher.’”

Dr. Omar Christian, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at NCCU, helped lead the university’s partnership with NCSSM. 

“The students were thrown into a very niche kind of experience … and they jumped right in, no problems,” he said. “They adjusted well, they performed well, and they worked hard. Their presentations were excellent. Not many students can answer questions after a [whole] semester of working on a project; these guys had two or three days of working on a project and they were able to answer questions from the floor.”

Extensive opportunities 

At RTI International, students got to learn about conducting contract research through a combination of activities such as half-day workshops; panel presentations to hear about the research process and recent scientific findings; meeting researchers at various stages in their career as part of roundtable discussions to understand how to develop a career in research; a funding pitch activity to learn how to secure financial support for research; and resumé building and mock interview sessions.

“RTI staff thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the students as part of the Summer Leadership and Research Program,” said Dr. Lauren McCormack, Vice President of RTI’s Translational Health Sciences Division. “We tried to mix up the program each day, ranging from scientific presentations to skill-building workshops to games. The students were interested, enthusiastic, and asked excellent questions every day.”

Program participants at RTI learn more about how the organization operates.

“This program helped me understand all of the work that goes into conducting research, gain insight into possible careers or academic pathways that I may pursue in the future, practice leadership skills, networking, and how to be successful in job interviews,” said incoming junior Steaven Ramirez Serrano. “SLRP allowed me to create friendships with amazing people and, before I even moved in to start my two years at NCSSM, helped me become more familiar with the extensive opportunities offered to students regarding mentorship and research.”

Owning it

At its inception, SLRP had only one partner; this past summer saw four. Lathan envisions the program continuing to grow, not only by adding even more partners, but by adding sustained programming during the academic school year and by extending the program to include seniors looking for a longer research experience. 

“To maintain the diverse and inclusive, welcoming environment here, I think it’s crucial that we give every student – regardless of where they’re coming from and what they look like – the opportunity to feel a sense of ownership of the school,” Lathan adds. “That sense of ownership, that sense of empowerment, is really critical for them going forward. We are saying to them, ‘This is your school; own it and go for it and shape it into what is going to be best for you and for the students that come after you.”