Advancing science, changing lives: professors provide an obesity undergraduate research program
Before her senior year of college, a summer research internship completely changed Deborah Good’s focus; she switched classes and began applying to Ph.D. programs.
Good, now an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise (HNFE), wanted to offer HNFE students the same opportunities when she joined the department in 2006. Undergraduate research is linked to improved outcomes for students, faculty, universities, and, ultimately, scientific fields.
“During my career, I have always wanted to give students the chance to discover if scientific research is for them,” said Good.
After realizing few undergraduate research opportunities existed, Good worked with HNFE’s then-Undergraduate Program Director Christina McIntyre to develop a provost-funded program. In the summer of 2007, five HNFE undergraduate students became Summer Scholars and were paired with faculty conducting health-related research.
Building on that positive experience, Good was awarded a three-year grant from the USDA Higher Education Challenge to continue her program. From 2008-10, students from within the department and university, including some who were off-campus, researched such diverse projects as community farmers markets as lifestyle interventions, skeletal muscle metabolism, cholesterol biosynthesis, and community gardens and nutrition.
After the one-time USDA grant ended, Good received internal funding from CALS, HNFE, the Fralin Life Science Institute, and Virginia Tech’s Translational Obesity Research Center to continue. The program was later renamed the Translational Obesity Undergraduate Research Scholars (TOUR Scholars), and in 2017, Samantha Harden, an assistant professor and Extension specialist in HNFE, became co-director.
“It was important to have a truly translational program, and to achieve this, we needed a behavioral scientist to offer breadth and depth of experience to enhance student learning,” said Good.
In August, Good and Harden were awarded a five-year, $505,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue the TOUR Scholars program. Next summer, 10 undergraduate research students will be paired with faculty mentors within Virginia Tech’s Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors.
Students will work in a research lab during the 10-week program; study specific curriculum, such as grantsmanship, diversity and inclusion, communication skills, and research ethics; visit research sites, including the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases campus; and present at the university’s Summer Research Symposium.
“We are excited to see how the strong institutional history of the program, paired with these innovative and significant components, can be achieved through grant funding,” said Harden. “We ultimately aim to increase the proportion and representation of students who pursue NIDDK-related jobs, improve scholars’ competencies with research skills, and explore factors that lead to mentor retention. The impact will be to produce 50 NIDDK-trained researchers and at least 20 NIDDK-oriented mentors in a learner-centered, experiential undergraduate research program.”
Throughout the years, this undergraduate research program has led to more than 80 students conducting research one-on-one with faculty mentors who help guide them to life-changing educational pursuits. The students also have the opportunity to attend national meetings, publish, and establish successful science-related careers.
Carmen Byker Shanks (B.S. ’08, Ph.D. ’12) was part of the first group of Summer Scholars in 2007.
“As an undergraduate, I worked hard because a dietetics degree fascinated me, but I didn’t know what kind of job it would lead to. That changed after I was accepted as a Summer Scholar and was paired with an influential community nutrition faculty mentor, an experience that proved formative for my career path,” said Shanks. “For the last seven years, I’ve been on the faculty at Montana State University facilitating research to solve complex food and nutrition issues and inspiring my students to become future leaders through informed and current research.”
Alexis Periera (B.S. ’10) worked with former HNFE faculty Paul Estabrooks in the summer of 2009 for a project on community-based physical activity in Extension.
“This opportunity was one of the most pivotal moments in my undergraduate career and led me to where I am today,” said Periera. “It set me apart when I was applying to DPT schools. Today, I am an acute therapy supervisor with Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, Texas.”
Current HNFE undergraduate Grace Davis had originally intended to go to pharmacy school until her 2017 summer research project studying heart mitochondria with HNFE Assistant Professor David Brown.
“When I became a TOUR Scholar, my educational goals changed when I discovered a passion for research,” said Davis. “In the spring, I’ll be joining HNFE as a master's student with Dr. Brown as my mentor. This program opened a world of opportunities to me, and my whole future has transformed because of it.”
The TOUR Scholars program is open to all Virginia Tech students and includes at least one student from a university or college outside of Virginia Tech. Applications will be accepted in the fall for the summer 2019 program.